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1346Fife Ness, Scotland
Isobel Dalceann saw the shapes from the beach, beyond the waves, turning in the current, dark against silver. Eight or more of them, lost in the grey swell of stormtide as mist swallowed outline.
'There,' she shouted to the two men beside her. 'Two hundred yards out.'
The Heads yielded an odd wreck of a boat sometimes or the carcase of a sea creature long since dead but this? Dusk spread from the west, burnishing lead with a blushed quiet pink and changing something that was not known into something that was.
'People!' Ian voiced the knowledge first. Not wood or fish or the trunk of a tree that had slipped into the brine somewhere near Dundee before travelling south in the cold currents, but people. People who would drown unless she helped them; she had always been a strong swimmer.
Stripping off brogans and tunic, she removed the dirk held by straps against her ankle and ran.
The water took her breath before she had crossed the first waves, long beaching swells with the chill of the northern climes on their edge; when her hair knotted around her arms, forcing her to tread water, she rebound it tight.
Ten yards away Ian shouted and Angus responded, the next breaker lifting them all and aiding direction. She could hear the beat of blood in her ears as the wash took her under. Counting the seconds to surface, she kicked her feet hard and broke through just short of one of the survivors.
An open cut from elbow to shoulder bone wept red into the sea, swirling in the foam before being lost to the great vastness of the German Ocean. He barely registered her presence as she paddled across, noticing for the first time that another lay beside him.
'I will take him while you swim in,' she shouted above the wind as rain started, each drop forming bowls on the surface, tiny pits in a boiling sea.
'No.' He held on with the tenacity of one who would not let go, green eyes steeled into resolve; as Isobel looked closer, she saw the man between them was long dead.
'He's gone. The sea has taken him.'
Shaking his head, he turned from her, shoulders hunching into grief. The curl of his fingers tightened even as she watched, dimpled white and marred with bruises as he breathed in once and then twice, garnering strength and regrouping will. How often had she done the same herself, the loneliness of everything unbearable?
'Let me help,' she called, 'for the shore is far away.' Her touch against his shoulder roused him from his own private hell as he gazed at her with all the arrogance of one unused to direction.
Isobel pushed down a stir of unease. Even the few paltry moments that she had been in the ocean had chilled her and she wondered how these people could have survived for so long.
'H-help the others behind me f-first.' When he shifted his hand to cradle the head of the man he supported, a thick band of wrought-plaited gold lay at his wrist.
No simple sailor, then, plying the straits between England and Scotland to gain a living. His accent held the softer beat of another more foreign land.
A shout behind made her turn. Isobel saw that Angus panted with cold, his legs treading water with exaggerated hurry as he tried to keep warm. Fear struck deep. Two hundred yards from safety, with the rolling edge of a sea storm coming in from the east. Behind him two men were trying to rise on his bulk in their fight to gain breath.
Lord. The sea claimed its victims without recourse to any fair play or just reserve. Swimming over, she clouted the oldest man hard across the head, breaking his grip and pressing against his throat, pleased as his eyes rolled into white. Then she did the same to the youngest.
'Que Dieu nous en garde!' Marc muttered. The woman with the scar from one side of her face to the other was killing those with him one by one and the chill that held him stiff with cold meant he could do nothing about it.
Guy was dead. He had known it all of an hour ago and still his fingers could not open to simply let go.
The water beneath him called, an easy rest and an ending, and the strength that had held him to the task of rescue was suddenly gone. He could not care. It was finished. As his fingers opened and his eyelids rested he felt the warmth that had long since been leached from his body return in a quick and bright light.
Scotland. His father's land. He had not quite made it.
'Hold him from behind,' Isobel instructed Angus. 'Do not let him turn for he will pull you down in his panic.'
'I cannae handle the both of them, mind.' Angus's words were thrown through the gathering wind. 'Then choose the youngest.' Such a choice out here in a sea that was rising held no guilt for Isobel. The fittest would survive and be done with it.
But the green-eyed stranger was gone, too, pulled beneath the sea by lethargy, his red sleeveless surcoat with the bright gold braiding disappeared. She should leave him, of course, should take the advice she had just offered Angus, but a stronger force willed her to action. Diving down through the murky water, she saw him turn towards her, as if he had known she might be there, glances catching through the brine, the white of his skin the colour of death.
One last kick and she reached out to snag cloth before hauling him up into the dusk and air. They surfaced like a log might in a swollen mountain stream, a curtain of foam and salt lashed around them, rain stinging skin.
Thumping his back hard with the heel of her hand, she felt him take a breath, the rise and fall of his chest strong as he coughed, a hacking endless bark that dislodged the water he had swallowed. His hair lay around his face in tousled dark-blond tails, wiped back as he found breath in a hard movement, his lips blue.
Around her the cries of the survivors told another story. One stranger perished here and another there. They floated away with their faces down in the water, swirling as leaves in the current.
She could not save everyone with a changing stormtide on the turn for out. All the will in the world could not alter what happened to those too long in the hands of the sea as the heat of skin cooled and relaxed into death.
But the green-eyed stranger hung on through the breakers, his mouth tilted towards the air, the cold chattering of his teeth like a drum beat as they came closer to landfall. He was using his strength to help her, too; she could feel his legs move against her own until his feet found purchase on the ocean floor.
He was tall, then. Much taller than her husband had been before
But she did not think of that as she brushed away anger and watched him stand, the sea to his waist now, every second showing more of a man who looked nothing like anyone from around Fife. Menace and danger lingered in the long bones of his body, the fancy surcoat with its plaited braiding belying the man beneath.
'I can m-manage,' he said abruptly and turned to watch her two men find the shore, each bringing with them a survivor from the stricken boat.
Three people out of eight, was her anguished thought. Lord God, that it could have been more.
The fierce desolation in his eyes told her that he also counted, though he was swaying with cold, tiredness and injury, the open gash on his arm pulled apart by the sea into a lengthy, grim, dark line on his upper arm. It no longer bled. Isobel wondered whether that was a good sign or a bad one.
'We are camped in the trees and there is warmth there.' She did not like the anxiety she could hear in her words, as though it might be important to her that he did live, but he was barely listening as he walked across to his friend and spoke softly in a language she recognised as French. Both turned to the line of bush behind them as if weighing their chances of safety.
'How is it you are called?' His voice was stronger now as he switched back to English.
'Isobel Dalceann. My home lies two days' walk west along the coast from here.'
She saw how his glance took in her sodden hose, tight about her legs, her ankles full on show. It had been so long since she had worn the garb of a woman that she'd forgotten that those who did not know her might find it odd. Without meaning to she smiled and saw the sting of it in his eyes. Her scar, probably. It always puckered badly over one cheek when she showed emotion.
With the night coming on, however, she had had enough. She had risked her own life and any criticism of what she looked like or dressed like would have to wait till later. There were rabbits skinned and trussed near the fire and a half-a-dozen fish wrapped in leaves beside them. Once they had eaten their fill and found blankets to shelter beneath she could determine just what it was these newcomers sought and how quickly she could be rid of them.