She Swears an Oath - Full Story
Content Warning: Bondage, grisly images, intimidation, child traumatization, violence, oppression, child endangerment
The ropes gouged at the flesh of her arms and thighs as she fell to the floor of the small ship. She twisted around and glared up into the face of the soldier who had pushed her down. He sneered his contempt for her outrage and took his place at one of the oars as his comrades-in-arms did the same. Last of all, the Vogt himself boarded the craft, and he stood over her for several long seconds, smiling at the fire of hatred he had kindled in her eyes. Then, giving the command to set sail, he turned away from her without any further apparent interest.
She raised her eyes to the massing clouds, gray and heavy despite the speed with which they raced across the sky. The same wind that sped them onward eddied down into the ship and soothed the hot fury from her face. A storm was gathering, and as she waited for the first splashes of rain, she cursed herself for her self-indulgence. Had she only controlled her rage and that treacherous hatred for injustice, she might even now be sitting by her own hearth.
On the other hand, had she fallen in with the revolutionaries and their ambitious scheme to banish the overlords, they might together have set the whole countryside ablaze.
“This tyranny has continued long enough, gone far enough,” one of the three revolutionaries had said, speaking with her at her doorstep three days earlier.
“Aye, too far,” said another, through gritted teeth. “Murder, rape, blinding innocent men for imagined slights, imprisonment of more and more of our kin and countryfolk—it must end. We shall end it together. You must join us.”
She gazed up into the treetops, watching the sun play among the leaves of the forest where she had taken up her solitary ward. “Tyranny is self-defeating,” she said. “One need only outlast it.”
She let her eyes drop from the trees above and looked the first speaker in the eye. “I want no part in this revolution.”
“Without your valor, we will be crippled,” he said, a pleading edge in his voice. “Your strength and cunning are legendary in this land.”
“Legends are often exaggerated.”
“Then so is the renown that follows them,” he responded, growing bolder. “Many would rally to us if you would but lend your support—let it only be known that you have taken the oath with us. We meet three nights from now; meet with us!”
She shook her head. “I have my home, and food, and peace for me and mine.”
“This isn’t peace!” said the second man. “It’s fear. How can we have peace when we must constantly be appeasing?”
“Take thought for that yourself,” she said. “We are too small here. No one troubles us.”
“But think of your child,” said the third man, who had said nothing until now. He leaned forward a little, his bushy gray eyebrows rising as his eyes widened in earnest admonition. “You cannot wish him to grow up a slave.”
She looked over his shoulder, out toward the edge of the small clearing in which her cottage stood. Close to the edge of the trees, her 10-year-old son was kneeling, drawing back the string of his tiny crossbow. As he stood and loosed a bolt at the nearest tree, laughing in triumph when he struck it, she remembered the first time she had heard his voice.
Winter had come early that year, and the thick-falling snow had deadened the sound of his wailing until she was almost close enough to see him through the trees—a small boy of only two years, crouching by the body of a woman. Running forward, she had prepared herself to confront any attacker who might remain, but apart from the child’s cries nothing disturbed the gruesome serenity of the scene.
The woman lay face-down in a pool of rapidly-freezing blood, a hole torn through her torso. Nearby, just outside a small wooden cottage, the body of her husband had crumpled as he fell with his throat cut. The boy, still tugging at his mother’s sleeve in desperate persistence, was screaming in terror. She knelt first beside him and picked him up, hugging him to her chest and wrapping her cloak about him, for he was shivering with the cold.
When she had soothed the child into a shell-shocked silence, she took him inside and laid him on the bed, then re-kindled the small fire. By the time she had removed the most telling signs of violence from the house, he had fallen asleep, and she took advantage of his oblivion to dig graves for his parents within the clearing. Not long after she had laid them in the ground and spoken a few words over them in solitude, the boy woke again, and she fed him a small meal of bread and salted goat’s meat, after which he fell once more into a troubled sleep.
She had waited all night, watching over his slumber and thinking by the fire, and in the morning she had carried him into the nearest village and inquired after his family. His parents, it seemed, had been immigrants, fleeing a famine in their own country to settle here among the hills of Uri. None knew of any other family the boy might have, and as the couple had lived in solitude, they had had no close friends who might have taken the boy to raise as their own.
“I am thinking of my child,” she hissed to the men now standing outside her door, keeping her voice low so the boy would not hear. “He has seen enough of death. Just because your own children have grown and left your care doesn’t mean everyone can be so idealistic.”
The three at her door scowled, momentarily silenced, and she called out to the boy, “Son, come here! Come inside with me.”
The child looked up from reloading his toy, and his face brightened as he saw her holding out her hand toward him. He turned and ran toward her, and she ushered him back inside as the would-be revolutionaries turned to leave.
The soldiers had arrived only two days later. Forcing their way in the moment she opened the door, they began to upend her small dwelling—turning over the bed to look beneath, opening every cabinet, and peering inside every pot and bowl in her meager kitchen. Her heart had begun to pound in rage, then rage had turned to fear as she saw how the boy had frozen in terror at the sight of the soldiers. Shrinking into the farthest corner of the room, eyes wide and mouth open as he began to hyperventilate, he watched the soldiers tear apart his home with ever-rising panic. She took a step toward him, but one of the intruders barred her way.
“Whose land is this?” he demanded.
“Walter Fürst’s,” she said, trying to step around him, without success.
“Have you paid him his due?” he said, thrusting out his hand into her chest to keep her back.
She knew he could not feel her breasts, tightly as she had bound them only that morning, but she felt a flicker of panic in any case, and she used it to fight down the even greater fury she always felt when manhandled in such a way.
“Yes, of course,” she answered.
“Well, now it will be more,” he said, a smug smile creasing his lips as he observed her evident discomfort. “Fürst’s taxes have been raised.”
He took a step toward her, so that his face loomed over hers. “I ought to cuff you for that,” he growled. “Holding out on us, talking back—”
A moaning sob erupted from the corner where the boy cowered, and she hastened to appease the brute towering over her, ignoring her mutinous wish that he would do just what he threatened and ignite the oil-soaked fuel of her rage.
Instead, she lowered her eyes and adopted a placating tone. “No, no, my lord, forgive me. I was only curious. Here,” she continued, going to the stack of animal pelts she had trapped and dried to exchange at the nearest market town. She seized the whole bundle of them and thrust it at him. “Here, take this in payment of the additional tax.”
He took them in his hands, then at once threw them back into her face. “Coin only, fool,” he said with a sneer. “Think I want to waste time handling dirty animal fur?”
The other two soldiers, who had apparently satisfied themselves that she was hiding nothing else of value, turned toward the door, and he followed them out of the cabin, warning her, “Have your payment ready tomorrow when we return.”
They left the door open, but she ignored it and flew at once to gather up the child into her arms, soothing him in a low voice and stroking his hair as he sobbed out his shock and fear into her shoulder.
“Ssh, my son, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, no one will harm you. Ssh, now, don’t be afraid. I love you, I love you. Don’t be afraid.”
Gradually his crying subsided, and she carried him to the bed, then sat stroking his head as he fell asleep, and fighting the nausea that flooded her as she remembered the last time she had soothed his terror thus.
When he woke again, she kissed him and, in her most cheerful voice, said, “Come, we are going to the market!”
His face brightened at once, and he leaped from the bed. “What, now?” he asked, as if she might take it back.
“Yes, now,” she said, standing up. “Pick up one of the pelts, and I’ll take the rest. We are going to trade.”
She laughed for joy, forgetting her fear, as he seized two of the pelts, nearly twice his size, and marched out the door with them. Throwing the rest over her shoulder, she followed him outside, pausing to pick up her weapon before she closed the cottage door.
The sun was shimmering on the leaves again as they walked through the woods, keeping up a fast pace, as the boy was nearly running in his eagerness. Gradually, his energy wore away, and he contented himself with walking at her side, although he seemed determined still to bear both pelts in his own arms. She did not try to dissuade him, even though he was clearly struggling, but watched whether he would persevere or eventually give up. After nearly an hour’s walking, she glimpsed a gap in the trees far ahead, with a few small houses showing through it.
Almost at once, the boy called out, “There is the town, Mama!”
“Yes, there it is,” she said, smiling. “But remember, Walter, now that we are going where other people are, you must not call me Mama, but Papa. You remember?”
“Yes, sorry, M—Papa,” said Walter. “I forgot.”
They walked a few more steps in silence, then Walter asked, “Why must I call you Papa when we go into town?”
“Because I am not like other women,” she said, keeping her explanation as minimal as possible. One day his inquiries would grow more persistent, but so far she had always kept his curiosity at bay. “I want to do what men do.”
“Oh,” said Walter. Then, after another short silence, “Papa, why do you not use a windlass? Other men use them. I’ve seen them, last time we were here.”
“I don’t need a windlass,” she said. “I’m too strong.”
“One day, will I be too strong?”
“No,” she said. “You will be like your father. You will be like other men.”
The ship pitched starboard, throwing her across the deck, and the pain and surprise forced her back into the present. The wind had risen, stirring up the waves to toss the small craft to and fro. Rain was falling from the blackened sky, drenching her hair and clothes, and as she rolled back toward the port side, a huge wave crashed over the gunwale, soaking her completely. The ship rocked back toward starboard, and she heard the crew cry out in alarm. They yawed to the left again, and she heard a horrible scraping sound, accompanied by a twist back toward the right, and she knew that they had struck one of the many outcroppings of rock that made the lake so hazardous in a storm.
Someone flung himself down beside her, and she felt a hand on her shoulder, holding it down. Looking up, she saw one of the Vogt’s soldiers with a knife in his hand. She froze, readying herself to resist, but he cried out to her above the roaring of the wind.
“Save us!” he shouted. “Your strength. Steer the ship, or we’ll all die!”
He cut away the ropes binding her arms to her sides and hips, and she rose, shaking life back into her limbs. As she did, she saw the Vogt glaring up at her from his seat at the rear, but he nodded as she looked at him. She turned toward the prow, stumbling as the craft pitched her forward onto the wheel, and she gripped it with both hands. As she prepared to find some point of safety toward which to steer, she saw her crossbow lying at the feet of the nearest oarsmen.
Looking up as though she had not noticed it, she turned the wheel to drive the ship back toward the middle of the lake. It groaned under her strength, until she felt as though she was fighting the leviathan itself, but the wall of rock to her right began to recede, and within a few moments she had taken them out of immediate danger. Nonetheless, the waves continued to increase in height, washing over the deck again and again until she feared they would founder and sink. She kept to her course, every sinew taut as a bowstring, fighting the shifting tide of the waves, but with every breaker that crashed over them she felt the water rise around her legs. Casting about for some harbor in which they might shelter until the worst had passed, she saw an outcropping of rock ahead, low enough for her to reach with her outstretched arm.
“There!” she called to the oarsmen, pointing at the spot. “We can shelter there until it passes!”
They followed her direction and rowed as she steered them toward the outcropping that at once both threatened and welcomed them. As they neared it, she spun the ship to align with the face of the rock, so that they glided in without striking the deadly surface and casting themselves into the deep amid the wreckage of their craft. When she could reach up to grip the overhanging cliff, she pulled the ship under its rudimentary protection. Looking back at the crew, she saw their shoulders relax and a momentary relief pass over their faces, and she seized this brief lapse in their attention to release the wheel of the ship and dive for her weapon. Then she leaped onto the gunwale and kicked away as she swung herself up onto the top of the rock.
The crew cried out again in terror as the ship yawed to the left, back out into the open lake, and she grinned as she saw the Vogt cast a startled and furious glance up at her. Rolling to her knees, she watched for a brief moment of triumph as the waves took the tiny craft once more, then she darted away from the edge, toward the welcoming darkness of the forest beyond.
When she reached the eaves of the trees she turned again and looked down at the lake. The ship was still plowing forward, and the waves seemed to be growing smaller. She looked up at the clouded night sky. The storm had nearly run its course, and the crew stood a good chance of winning through to their destination. She must hurry. She plunged into the forest and began to run as fast as her feet would carry her, a shadow under the moonlight.
As the trees flickered past her, vague shapes in the darkness, the image of Walter’s face drifted before her consciousness—his face, weeping in bewilderment and fear as they dragged her away from him and bound her before his eyes. Thrusting back the memory, she allowed herself only the hope that he had heard her last instructions, shouted to him over the tumult of the angry crowd and the cries of the soldiers. For now, that hope must suffice. She urged her legs forward to even greater speed, and flew on into the night.
The storm had cleared, and the moon had long since risen over Küssnacht, but within the cleft of the rock leading up from Immensee, few enough of the pale rays illumined the path to the prison itself. The tall faces of stone on either side of the gorge sloped up into the light, but on the ground below, only dead, empty darkness waited. In the stillness, though, the tramp of heavy boots, marching in step with one another, began to rise up from the ground. It echoed off the close-looming walls to either side, and the occasional muttered command bounced from rock to rock. At the mouth of the gorge, the resounding footsteps heralded the approach of a small party of men, but until now not even a formless shifting in the shadows had shown itself.
All at once they appeared, striding two abreast through the narrow passageway and out into the flats beyond, where the stony ground reflected the waxing moon into a chill mockery of daylight. As the foremost of them showed his face in the moonlight, his eyes fell upon a mark scratched in chalk-white upon the rocky ground at the mouth of the gorge. It stretched from wall to wall, a short, stunted arrow pointing to the right, with a few malformed shapes inside the head.
Before he could decipher this strange token, a real arrow pierced his eye, ending his life before he could even cry out. He fell to the ground, and the man next to him stumbled backward in astonishment. Then, as astonishment turned to fear in the second man’s eyes, from beyond the end of the gorge came a soft snick and a harsh twang. The second man also fell dead with a bolt in his head.
Those behind, six soldiers remaining, huddled into defensive positions, clustering around a seventh man with shields upraised. Creeping forward at a cautious pace, they offered little exposed flesh for a target, staying back within the protective shade of the rock. Still, as they cast about for some sign of their attacker, another snick and a twang felled a third man to the ground, the shaft of the missile that killed him protruding from the iron collar of his mail.
At this, the man in the center, calling out, “Enough!” threw off his defenders and drew his sword. As he did so, yet another dart pierced the man in front of him, penetrating his open mouth and tearing through the back of his skull. The leader, thrusting the dying man to the ground in front of him, rushed forward with his sword upraised in the direction of the lone tree that stood beyond the mouth of the cleft. At the sound of another snick from behind this tree, he darted toward the left and ducked his head to avoid the subsequent fire, but he succeeded only in taking the arrow at the base of his neck where it joined the shoulder, rather than in his chest. He collapsed with a shriek, flailing on the ground in agony as two of his companions flung themselves to the ground beside him.
The other two, having also discerned the origin of the attack, raced toward the lone tree, behind which she was now kneeling to slot another bolt into her crossbow. Running out of time for an upright attack, she rolled to the ground as she drew back the string by hand and latched it, then spun on one knee as her enemies rounded the tree, and put the arrow into the brain of the nearest. The other swung his sword toward her neck, but she ducked, and he stumbled with the missed stroke. Pulling a long knife from a sheath on her leg, she blocked his second swing with it, then pulled him toward her by his arm and planted the knife deep in his forehead.
His sword fell from his hand as he died, and she picked it up, then strode toward the remaining two soldiers bending over their leader. They looked up as she approached, then began backing away with terror etched across their faces. Taking advantage of their paralysis, she picked up her crossbow once more. At this, they turned and began to run, and she put a bolt through the back of nearest before he had taken five steps. By the time she had loaded a second dart, the other had nearly reached the invisible dark of the gorge. Sighting along the stock, she watched for the last glimmer of moonlight on his helm, then sent the arrow flying toward him. She heard his scream, and the subsequent thump of his body on the rock, as she turned back toward the Vogt, who still lay writhing on the ground. She slotted another bolt into her weapon, then flipped him onto his back with her foot. He howled in torment as the bolt twisted in his shoulder; his armor held the shaft in place, but the point shifted with his body underneath when she moved him.
Looking down into his eyes, still haughty and filled with hate even in his death throes, she pointed the crossbow into his face.
“I told you the second was for you,” she said, and shot him between the eyes.
Running through the trees again, now far from Küssnacht, she could feel the gray dawn rising in the east, even though no light had yet appeared in the sky. The chill dead of night had given way to a chill quickening, as the world about her stirred and wakened, and she could feel her heart within her warming. It beat faster and harder, in hope and in dread, as she scaled the gentle slope of the forest that led upward to the open meadow of Rütli, gray-green even in the fading moonlight. As she neared the edge of the woods, she could see the meadow before her, and her heart seemed to wither inside her as she saw the silhouettes standing in plain view: two silhouettes of two men tall and strong in the time between the times.
Bursting forth from the woods, she ran to meet them, and at the sound of her advent they started and turned, drawing their weapons. Then, recognizing her face and the crossbow at her back, they re-sheathed their swords and came to meet her.
“We heard that you were bound for the prison, captive to the Vogt,” said von Melchtal. “How did you escape?”
“The word has spread that you defied him at Altdorf,” said Stauffacher. “If only you had told us about this change of heart, we might have moved sooner!”
“Is Fürst not yet come?” she asked, her jaw rigid with the effort of keeping the desperation from her voice.
“We expect him at any time,” said von Melchtal. “But tell us—what made you decide to throw in your lot with us?”
She turned away from their faces to hide the tears flooding her eyes, but her voice was clear as she admitted, “I decided nothing.”
She had not decided—only stared up into the righteous indignation on the face of the soldier who had confronted her at the center of the village square.
“You cannot expect such a thing,” she said, her own indignation still dormant behind her impassive eyes. “Are we to worship not only these Habsburg Vögte but the very clothes that have touched their flesh? I have better things to do.”
“Your life is forfeit unless you bow,” he growled. “Show respect, or the Vogt will deal with you himself.”
She glared, biting back the defiant words that sprang all too easily to her lips, and she took a deep breath to quell the hot rage within. Rearranging her features into the now-familiar expression of servility, she prepared to make her apology and her bow to the cap mounted on the pole in the middle of the square, but the breathing of her son arrested her.
Looking down, she saw the same fear on Walter’s face that she had already witnessed earlier that day: a paralyzing, traumatized memory of violence and horror made present and real by his own body. He shrank against her, clutching her arm and looking up at the soldier with wide, distant eyes, as though seeing once again the faces of those who had first orphaned him so long ago.
She looked back up into the soldier’s demanding face, and her mouth tightened into a firm line. Taking another deep breath, she let the calm of her hottest fury wash over her, comforting and familiar, like a weapon tested throughout many battles.
“First taxes, then terrorizing my family in my own home, and now forcing me to worship the hat of a tyrant? He’ll get no reverence from me.”
The soldier’s face hardened, and he reached out to seize her by the arm, but she grabbed his wrist with invisible speed and twisted him around by it until he fell to the ground in agony. Ripping his drawn sword from his other hand, she swung it around to rest at the base of his throat, but before she could kill or even threaten death, a warning cry echoed across the market square.
“Stay, or your death will follow!”
Looking up, she saw more soldiers issuing forth from the small guardhouse at the edge of the square. Their commander, who had issued the warning, ran toward her at their head, and she recognized at once that they outnumbered her too greatly for victory—at least with a child to defend. Pushing the kneeling soldier away from her, she dropped his sword on the ground and thrust Walter behind her. He buried his face in her back, and she uttered a short prayer that he would see and hear as little as possible of what followed.
The soldiers surrounded her, swords pointing inward to within inches of her chest, and she stood straight and proud to await their condemnation. Then, from within the guardhouse, the Vogt himself emerged, striding across the grass toward his captive.
“How I grow weary of the insolence and arrogance of you Swiss,” he said, a cold severity in his tone and features. “I ask only that you bow once as you proceed through the square, to show reverence to your overlords, and instead you spurn my laws and assault my servants.”
Having reached the circle of soldiers keeping her at bay, he caught sight of her face, and the crossbow at her back, and his expression changed. The outrage and assumed sternness melted away, and fascination bordering on delight replaced it.
“The famous bowman,” he exclaimed. “I have heard of your deeds throughout the land. What a shame you have no loyalty toward your lieges.”
“No man owns me,” she growled through her teeth, still gripping Walter’s shoulders and holding him at her back. “I’ll not be terrorized on my own land, then made to offer thanks for it.”
“And for this, you will sacrifice your life?” said the Vogt, in a credible imitation of astonishment. “What will become of your son when your head adorns just such a pole?”
“He has survived until now. Better another dead parent than a slave for a father.”
“And then I have another rebel in my midst when the boy comes of age? Perhaps I should put both your heads on display.”
“I can take a fair number of you with me into hell,” she said. “If you try to harm my son, I promise you will have more than two heads to dispose of.”
The Vogt considered her for a moment, the smile fading from his face. He looked around and saw, as she now did, that the occupants of the town had begun to fill the square, keeping their distance from the soldiers at the center but thronging at the edges to see what might transpire.
Having taken in the size of his audience, the Vogt looked into her eyes, and his smile crept back again—a sickening grin that turned her stomach.
“It would be a shame to execute such a hero as yourself,” he said. “If you can demonstrate your legendary skill as a marksman, I will let you and your son go free.”
Laying his hands on the shoulders of the two soldiers nearest him, he pulled them apart and reached out to take Walter’s hand where it still clutched her shirt. The boy looked up when he felt the stranger’s touch, and the Vogt smiled at him, beckoning him out of the circle of soldiers.
“Come, son, help your father,” he said. “You can save a life and gain him honor all at once, if you just be a good lad.”
Walter’s terror cleared a little at this, and he allowed himself to be led away to the corner of the square, where stood an apple tree. She watched his progress, helplessness and fear once more welling up inside her, while she calculated the odds of their survival if she began the unbridled slaughter of the Austrians for which her fingertips so desperately itched.
The Vogt picked an apple from the tree and held it out before Walter’s eyes. “Pretty, isn’t it, son?” he said. “Let’s see if you can hold this on the top of your head. Stand nice and still, there’s a good boy.”
Positioning Walter with his back against the tree, he balanced the apple on the crown of the boy’s head and turned to look at her.
“Give him back his crossbow,” he said to the commander of his men. Then, still smiling, he made his offer. “Shoot this apple from your son’s head, and you will win both your lives.”
Her heart twisted within her, but she could read in his face that she and Walter would certainly both die if she refused. Slowly, deliberately, she drew a bolt from her quiver and slid it into the groove, then pulled back the bowstring with her hand to latch it in place. Gasps and murmurs drifted around the gathering crowd at this, but she paid no attention. As she raised the crossbow to shoot, another thought occurred to her, and she reached back for another bolt. Tucking it into her belt, she raised the bow again and aimed it at her son’s head.
“Papa!” called a voice from the edge of the trees, and she turned to see Walter racing out from the woods to meet her. She ran to meet him and lifted him off the ground into her arms, hugging him tight and close, tears running down her face.
“He arrived at my house not an hour ago, out of breath and unable to speak but terrified,” said the man with him, the old man who had visited her two days before. “It was a long time before he could tell me about you and the Vogt.”
“You did well, son,” she murmured in Walter’s ear. “You will be stronger than other men.”
“Thank you, Herr Fürst,” she said then, looking up at him over Walter’s shoulder. “We are once more in your debt.” She buried her face in Walter’s hair again and closed her eyes, breathing out a prayer of thanks for his safety and swearing to herself that she would never again let either anger or fear determine his fate.
“I’ll swear your oath,” she said at last, setting her son’s feet back on the ground. “I’ll lend you my strength, and we’ll drive these intruders from the land, but you must never reveal my allegiance.”
“But your name is worth many men,” protested von Melchtal. “With it we could rally the whole of the Swiss people to our cause.”
“You will have to make do with me alone,” she said, shaking her head. “No one must know I am part of this plot, and I do not want to hear any songs about my deeds that mention my name.”
“Then whose name should they mention?” asked von Melchtal.
She looked down at Walter again. “Let them use his father’s name, for he was brave and fought to defend his land and his family, as I would not. I care for his son now, so I will also care for his name. They may call me William Tell.”