Evy often wishes that she had been born a decade early, back when the MacCowan name was one to be respected, and Balfron a quiet town where legends never died; when her father was a young man, healthy and in his prime, and her mother miles away in the bustle of Edinburgh.
It’s a silly wish, a desperate wish, but those are all that she has anymore.
She grinds a dried centaury root with a rounded, stone pestle. The smell is faintly bitter, but with all the other herb jars lining the shelves, it is lost in the mix. Those jars are full, and they have been for a while, since Dr. Argyle arrived with the allure of modern medicine and Balfron annulled its sacred pact with the land.
“Evelyn,” calls her mother from the store-front counter. “Grab me a fresh bundle of the milk thistle, will you?”
Evy wants to ignore her. The thistle is not for sale.
Her mother comes back to where Evy is standing, mortar and pestle held in useless defense. “Did you hear what I said? We can’t lose this business.”
Jocelyn MacCowan was once said to be pretty, when she first moved to Balfron with her eccentric young husband. In the photographs upstairs, Jocelyn was tall with long, braided hair, cheeks twin dams for her overflowing smile. Now, those cheeks sag with everything else.
“Evelyn,” says Jocelyn. “The milk thistle. Now.”
Evy stalks out the back door of the building to a cast-iron pot over a bed of steaming coals. She arranges the waterstones that surround the pot’s legs, the ones her father gathered from the shores of Loch Lomond. Purple-headed milk thistle peeks from the pot. She takes a slotted spoon and scoops one out, transferring the bundle to a small, woven satchel, which she holds over the pot like a power-drenched offering.
A voice interrupts her. “Keep your poison to yourself,” yells the boy across the yard, the chandler’s apprentice who always reeks of rancid wax.
“Leave me alone, Ainsley.” She hides the dripping thistle-bag inside of her dress pocket.
“We know what your mother’s up to. She’s killing old Cecil so she can take over his shop. Then when he’s dead, she’ll come after us.”
Evy turns away, trying not to cry. She would never hurt her father. Jocelyn, on the other hand, is an enigma to Evy. Her mother doesn’t believe in the power of Scotland.
She runs inside, but instead of to the shopfront where her mother is waiting, she bolts upstairs to the section where they live, the home that the MacCowans have owned for generations.
The room by the staircase envelops her in a rush, and before she can stop herself, a bed catches her fall. Her breath comes heavy, eyes raw with tears, and she clings to the only person that could ever share her pain.
Her father, Cecil MacCowan, stirs awake at the intrusion. He wraps her in his sheet-covered, sweat-soaked arms, and even though they’re weak, they comfort her in a way that her mother has never been able to do.
“What’s wrong, little princess?” he breathes more than says, as if the air is just a pair of wings to carry his weightless thoughts.
Evy doesn’t answer. This is all she wants, all she needs, for protection, the waterstones a distant and unnecessary shield. Her father is the strongest source of magic in her life.
“Papa,” says Evy, “I need to hear a story. The one with Rob Roy, where he hides in the Oak.”
Her father’s arms tighten in gentle assent. And even though she’s heard this one many times before, she needs to feed his energy, to stoke his dying embers.
She listens as he breathes his life back into the land.
The next day comes with rain from the coast. Walking feels like passing through an ethereal shroud, and by the time the sun peeks over the arms of the Clachan Oak, Evy is out of Balfron on her way towards the Loch.
She carries a woven satchel lined with wax-treated paper, and a small, sharpened knife. The herbs seem to call out and beg to be picked, and after a few hours time, her satchel is heavy. Her mother wants everything from heather to skullcap, rowan to mistletoe, and while those have their place in the art of natural medicine, which her father and his forebears worked tirelessly to master, she seeks one thing: the all-powerful thistle.
The purple flower and its stem are easy enough to spot. She bends down to slice one, careful to avoid its burrs.
The afternoon unravels like a long spool of yarn. Evy wipes a lock of chestnut hair from her forehead, arranging the bushels of herbs in her basket, and ignores a lonely burr only a few paces away. She doesn’t need cotton thistle or Scotch thistle or sow. Milk is the only variety that will help her father recover.
She finds a copse of heather only a few steps away, but pauses and listens to a crunch in the grass, a stray gust of wind that lingers too long.
Someone is there, behind her in the field.
“Hello, thistle princess.” The man that appears is a living apparition; his red-striped tartan and fiery beard are translucent.
A woman stands beside him, her hair in austere braids. Covered in chain link, brown leather armor, she is as see-through and mysterious as her tartan-garbed companion.
Evy raises her chin and faces them, unafraid. “Tell me what you want.”
The man salutes his chest. “Only to help you, little princess. Your struggle was our own.”
The woman says the same. “Trust us, young Evelyn, we were part of the same fight.”
She doesn’t know what fight the two of them are talking about. “Why should I trust you?”
“Well, because we told you to,” says the man with a laugh. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Nemo, be quiet.” The woman steps forward. “I am Lady Elspeth, sister to William Wallace, of whom you likely know.”
Evy drops her satchel. Of course she knows of Wallace. Even if her father hadn’t instilled in her his triumphs, her schoolmistress had taught her of the leader of the Scottish Rebellion.
“And I,” says the man, “am Sir Nemo MacGregor, brother to the ill-fated Alisdair MacGregor, whom you also likely know.”
Evy doesn’t recognize the names that he mentions.
Nemo seems to notice. “Well, do you?” he asks. He grips the hilt of his axe as if he might duel her to remember.
“Don’t scare her,” says Elspeth, pushing him aside. She raises her hands as if she’s about to say something important. “We come to you from the Semi-Ancient and Lesser Order of the Thistle.”
Evy has never heard of the Lesser Order of the Thistle. She knows of the Most Noble Order, the most honored association in the whole realm of Scotland. The Lesser Order sounds a bit less… prestigious.
But she knows that thistle is what’s keeping her father alive.
“What fight can you and your Order help me win?”
Nemo looks surprised. “The only one that matters. The fight for your father and his place in this land.”
Elspeth continues. “With his death will pass the conviction that the land can heal its people. The art of natural medicine should not be thrown aside, not when Cecil has worked so hard to make it a part of his legacy.”
Evy agrees entirely. It’s the first time someone besides her father has shared that sentiment.
“Believe me,” says Nemo, “I sympathize with your troubles. My brother slayed the Colquhouns that raided our clan’s land, and in turn, the MacGregor name was stricken from the record. I was there when we fought them, and I died in the battle. Now, more than two-hundred painful years later, our name has been restored and our righteous act pardoned. So I appreciate when a man stays true to his beliefs, even when the outcome may not be so grand.”
Evy dives headfirst into the waters of his past, relishing in the comparison of her father with past heroes. To her, he is the greatest and most fearless hero of all, no matter what her mother or Balfron puts in his way.
Insatiable curiosity strangles her tongue. “What kind of help can the Lesser Order provide?”
“Well,” says Nemo, “you’ll first have to join us. Then we can give you the key to save your father. But members are required to perform certain tasks, to demonstrate their worth and their commitment to our cause. So here, my thistle princess, is what I will need you to do.”
Evy, enraptured, listens to Nemo. She is confident that she can do exactly what he wants.
The Clachan Oak towers before Jocelyn MacCowan: its sharp, twisted branches that tear at the clouds, the thick iron bands that encircle its trunk. The Oak is an embodiment of the town from which it grows, fed by a chronic obsession with the past, trapping her in Balfron in a wooden-claw cage.
Well, not anymore.
She passes under the Oak where William Wallace is said to have rested, where Rob Roy MacGregor hid from his enemies, and she wonders, yet again, how she ended up in Balfron. How she could abandon what she had worked for, the only female student at St. Mungo’s College Medical School, to end up as an apothecary’s wife in a backwater town. The papers may be calling Glasgow the Second City of the Empire, behind London in renown, but the city, even by train, was still fourteen miles away. She hasn’t been there once since her daughter was born.
Her plan has to work. She has to get them out. Cecil, Lord help him, won’t last much longer, not by refusing the medical treatment that he could receive in Glasgow. Her husband, for all his brilliance, is fatally stubborn, and by relying on his weeds and his roots and his powders, the ones on which the reputation of the MacCowan name is engraved, he is sealing his fate.
The Oak falls behind as she turns onto Agney Street. If she keeps a straight line, she will reach Dr. Argyle and his modernly built office. Argyle is wealthy from a long career in Glasgow, where he employed the latest techniques of internal medicine.
And he, once Cecil passes, will be the owner of MacCowan’s Apothecary.
Agney Street barely deserves the title in its name, with uneven cobblestones and gas-lit lamp posts that don’t even pretend to rival the wonder of electricity. Argyle is rare in that he doesn’t run on flames; he prefers to work by lightbulb rather than an archaic candle.
She comes to a halt. A steadily growing crowd is surrounding Argyle’s office, not angry or mob-like, just brimming with curiosity. She quickly sees the issue: a frayed, severed wire that once led into the roof, the one through which electricity flows into Dr. Argyle’s office.
Jocelyn curses. What if Dr. Argyle doesn’t have the funds to fix it? What if this disrupts the purchase of the Apothecary? The life that she has pined for starts to drift away, just as someone else enters her field of vision.
Evelyn, disheveled, sneaks out of the alley next to Argyle’s office, a faint gleam of mischief in her pale, emerald eyes.
Jocelyn approaches her from behind. She grabs her daughter’s hand and leads her home in silent fury.
“What were you thinking? Vandalizing property in the middle of the day.”
Evelyn feigns innocence. “It wasn’t me,” she pleads. “Why would you think that?”
“Don’t fool me,” says Jocelyn, trying a warmer tone. “I know that you’re under a great deal of strain, but your father’s a good man. He wouldn’t want you to do this.”
Evelyn inspects her hands, picks at the dirt under her fingernails. “Ainsley, the chandler boy, he dared me to do it. Otherwise, Dr. Argyle would erase the MacCowan name.”
She pulls away from Jocelyn and bolts upstairs, and Jocelyn, more from reflex than desire, lets her go.
She considers, worriedly, why Evelyn would lie to her face.
“Well done,” says Nemo.
It’s been two days since Evy last saw him, and she’s still feeling somewhat, inexplicably, guilty.
“My mother, the way she looked at me— it felt like I betrayed her. Like I was someone she didn’t recognize.”
“That’s part of the test,” says Elspeth, stepping forward. “To prove your love of country is stronger than your fears. Sometimes we have to do things that we wouldn’t otherwise choose, that don’t reflect our character, but are required nonetheless.”
Evy knows that already, but hearing the words and living them are two very different things.
“Princess,” says Nemo, “we are heralds of our heritage, guardians of our ancestry. If we can’t protect the magic that gives your herbs their power, then there is nothing in this world that is worth a fight.”
Elspeth grips the handle of her spectral, sheathed sword. “When I helped my brother, William, kill the High Sheriff of Lanark, it was the first time the blood of another had ever stained my hands. But I knew that by doing so, I would help protect my people, and eventually I was right. Our act set the Scots on the path to independence. If I hadn’t committed one tragic, yet necessary, crime, your life, your mother’s life, your father’s life, would be different.”
Elspeth drops her words into Evy’s fertile soil, inspiring her to action just like stories from her father. His gravestone won’t be etched if she has energy to spare.
When she tells this to Elspeth, she receives her next task.
The pot boils over before Jocelyn notices. She is re-reading the letter that she received that morning, the one from her sister that lives with their aunt in Edinburgh. They are delighted to hear that she and Evelyn will soon be there and are very much looking forward to showing Evelyn a true city.
She scoops out a thistle root, uses a paring knife to peel back the leaves, then carefully, methodically removes the acrid skin.
Only a few more days.
Even if Cecil agreed, if Dr. Argyle had the necessary equipment, at this point the cirrhosis was too entrenched to cure. Yet Cecil still believed that the thistle would cure him.
She brings the prepared root to their rooms above the shop, but Cecil doesn’t notice. His skin is so yellow that the sheets look bleached, his eyes so swollen that they can’t barely open.
She pushes open his lips to place the root on his tongue, watching him chew as if the plant held any power. She sees a slight smile, a glimmer of awareness, so she decides to ask the same question one more time.
“Cecil, will you come with us?”
Her husband keeps chewing.
“We can go to Edinburgh— the hospital there will help you— and the three of us can start over. I can’t lose you like this, not when there’s another way.”
He labors to breathe, but no answer comes. As always, it’s the thistle that consumes his attention. There’s no room for her or the life that she wants, and she tries not to wonder whether there ever could have been.
She gives him a sip of water from the ladle at her side, and he puckers his lips like two shriveled worms.
Curious, she takes her own sip from the ladle. The water is bitter, with an aftertaste of chalk. If the bell in the shop downstairs hadn’t rung, if a firm knock hadn’t come at the very same moment, she might have thought it happenstance, a sour batch from the well. But when she goes downstairs and looks at who is there, the chandler from next door holding Evelyn at his side, her suspicions are confirmed.
“Your daughter was by the well,” says the burn-covered man. “Saw her put something in it, some flower or other.”
“Come,” says Jocelyn, extending her hand. To the chandler she nods and thanks him for his vigilance.
“What have you done?” she says to Evelyn once he leaves. “Why put burdock root in the well where you’d be seen?” Jocelyn had recognized the herb’s distinct taste.
Evelyn glares at her. “I wanted to show Balfron that our medicine is as strong as Dr. Argyle’s.”
“And you thought that you would achieve that with a minor arthritis suppressant?”
“Yes,” says Evelyn. “I had to at least try. I know you don’t believe in it; you never have and never will.” She breaks away and runs upstairs.
Jocelyn doesn’t follow. She knows where Evelyn has gone. Tucked away in Cecil’s bed, pretending to hear stories that he can no longer tell, until Jocelyn inevitably has to force her to go to sleep.
“It’s time,” says Nemo, “for your third and final task.”
They stand beneath the bough of the great Clachan Oak. The sun lay hidden, and while Balfron still sleeps for another couple of hours, Evy and her ghosts have the tree to themselves.
“You may be the princess of thistle,” says Elspeth, “but there is one kind you haven’t yet been able to find. Its properties will fuse your father’s legacy with the land.”
Evy hopes she’s right. Her father’s condition has worsened, and she’s running out of time. “Where is this thistle? I know of every kind that grows in greater Stirlingshire.”
Elspeth just points, and Evy follows her finger, all the way up to where it reaches the velvet sky.
“In the stars?” she says.
“No,” laughs Elspeth, shaking her braids. “The thistle you require is at the top of the Clachan Oak, on the tip of the oldest branch. When you see it, you will know, as it is special to the Order.”
Evy bites her lip. She knows that she has to do this, but the thought of climbing that high above the ground makes her cringe.
Then she reconsiders. This is probably how Wallace and MacGregor once felt before they memorialized themselves in the history books of Scotland. That helps a bit, gets her muscles to unclench.
“Don’t worry,” says Nemo. “We’ll be here to catch you.”
Small reassurance, coming from a ghost. But she has to at least try.
She places a bare foot on the lip of the trunk, grabs hold of the lowest iron ring around its base, and lifts herself up. She floats, suspended, to the third-most ring, the one right below where the Oak’s branches split.
Nemo smiles coyly. “That’s it, thistle princess. You’re on your own from here.”
Evy doesn’t move. She clings like a leech to the branch in her arms, balances her heels on the highest iron ring. The spirits of the criminals that were chained there seem to whisper, mocking her from the grave. But she doesn’t give in. She doesn’t let them claim her.
She shifts up the branch, the Oak’s bark scratching and dragging at her skin. The ground disappears as she crawls into the sky.
The branch that she’s on bends in on itself, intersected by others with scraggly twigs; they rip at her skirt and trail blood down her legs. She wedges her body between her branch and the next, searching the canopy.
Then something pulses, shimmers in the dark, and in the pre-dawn stillness, she sees what she needs. A radiant purple flower, and the calm to the chaos that suffocates her family.
The thistle burr calls.
“That’s it,” says Nemo, hefting his axe. “Don’t let it get away.”
“Keep courage,” says Elspeth.
And they aren’t the only ones that cheer Evy along. Rob Roy MacGregor swings out from his hiding place, grinning and waving and mouthing words of encouragement.
She spots William Wallace, where legend says he napped under the Clachan Oak’s protection, and where Evy and her father used to read on summer evenings.
The ghosts of Scotland are there to guide her along.
And then, at last, she is at the edge of the canopy. The purple flower glows, familiar and warm, and she feels the thistle pulse as it brushes her fingers, reaching through a world of branches and sky. But before she can appreciate what she has accomplished, what she can now do, someone screams below, from the distant base of the Oak.
Evy’s foot slips. She loses her balance.
And then she is falling.
This will be the first day of Jocelyn’s new life. When freedom will replace the man that she loves, when she will shed the rotten cowl of the town she once adopted. Now it’s finally time to commit to what she wants, rather than what the world expects her to do, and she hopes that she will find that for her and Evelyn in Edinburgh.
Dr. Argyle arrives at the Apothecary’s door, his gaunt face skeletal in comparison to her own. He reminds her of Cecil, without the yellow skin, who lies immobile and unresponsive upstairs. Jocelyn invites Dr. Argyle inside. He has brought the signed documents that are mandated by the bank, the ones that will officiate the transfer of the deed, and which will take effect once Cecil has passed.
“My condolences,” he says. “Cecil was a fine man.”
“He is,” says Jocelyn. She holds back tears. She knows that Dr. Argyle suspects her of Cecil’s condition, like everyone else in Balfron, but the truth is much worse. Cecil is ushering in his death all by himself.
“Well,” says Dr. Argyle, “let’s get down to business. Here is the stamped affidavit, along with the first deposit.”
Jocelyn takes the paper, heavy as lead in her hand. Her signature on this document will finally set her free. In Edinburgh, she can open her own practice of internal medicine.
A voice interrupts them.
“Mrs. MacCowan!” yells Ainsley, the chandler’s apprentice. He’s a ragged, frayed mess of burn marks and soot. “It’s Evelyn, she’s hurt. By the trunk of the Clachan Oak.”
Jocelyn drops the document and pushes past Ainsley. None of this will be worth the trouble if she loses Evelyn. She won’t let Balfron steal both her husband and her daughter.
She runs into town and sees the Clachan Oak, its fingers tearing rents in the unsuspecting clouds, like an angry, pagan god who can’t accept its own demise. Those fingers have a vice-grip around her fluttering heart.
When she reaches the crowd that has gathered at its base, that grip tightens. The body of a girl lay motionless in the dirt, a purple flower peeking through her blood-smeared hand. The body of her daughter.
The crowd lets her through. Even though she’s bruised and bears a welt on her forehead, Evelyn is breathing. Jocelyn can see that there’s a wide stretch of skin around her daughter’s frail shoulders that remains unblemished, as if something had surrounded her to mitigate the impact.
Dr. Argyle follows with his steel box of instruments. And in that eternity when her world seems broken, Jocelyn isn’t thinking about Edinburgh or her career. All she wants is one thing: for Evelyn to be alright.
Evy opens her eyes to find herself in her own bed. Everything hurts. Her memories are like the slippery magic waterstones of Loch Lomond, passing undetected until she catches one in her toes. The last thing she remembers is the glowing purple flower. Then falling, and falling, under the Oak’s high branches.
She accepts the throbbing pain, reaches into her pocket. The thistle pokes her finger.
“Congratulations,” says Nemo from the foot of her bed. He and Elspeth smile with unreserved delight. “You succeeded in your task.”
Elspeth nods along. “You have honored your past and achieved something greater than any single person. There is no higher honor in the Lesser Order of the Thistle.”
Evy forgets her bruises. “What do I do next?”
The ghosts just point at the flower in her hand. “You know, thistle princess. You know what to do.” Nemo and Elspeth fade into their words, leaving the room less vibrant in their absence.
But that doesn’t matter; she has the magic thistle! The power of the herb will be enough to save her father.
She makes her way into the hallway. Her feet carry her forward, step by step, and with the thistle held aloft like a bright purple talisman, she proceeds with confidence. No longer a princess, no longer a child, but a queen in all her hegemonic, thistle burr glory. There is nothing that could possibly stand in her way.
The door creaks open, and she peeks inside. Her father lies propped up against a mountain of pillows.
She crawls up next to him, parting his lips. And gently, reverently, she puts the thistle in his mouth, and asks him to chew.
As they lie there together, she tells him a story, like he always did when she was just a princess, and instead of in a bed with sweat-drenched sheets, they are under the Oak on a perfect, warm day.
Evy begins with a proud woman’s smile. “You’ll never believe how I found that thistle.”
Cecil MacCowan, the father she adores, the most loyal man that Balfron has ever seen, dies the next morning. Evy, in her grief, cannot believe what has happened.
He ate the magic thistle. She is part of the Lesser Order. But somehow, inexplicably, she was already too late.
Her mother tries to bury him at St. Anthony’s Church, but Evy refuses. A man with his connection to the land of his birth deserves someplace special, that will honor his resolve.
So they dig a lone grave under the bough of the Clachan Oak, its branches filled with magic and stories and adventure.
Evy stays behind after the funeral ends, watching as her mother and Dr. Argyle walk away. She rests against the trunk just like William Wallace did, and she pretends that her father is once again by her side.
And then suddenly, he is, and he isn’t alone. Nemo and Elspeth hover close-by, smiling in satisfaction.
“I guess I can’t call you a little princess anymore,” says the spirit of the now immortal Cecil MacCowan. “But my little thistle queen sounds just as good to me.”
Evy can see the trunk of the Oak through his body, and now that she knows that he is part of the land, she feels less worried about leaving Balfron behind.
She suspects that he’ll be around for as long as she needs him, wherever that may be.