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Tempest in the Highlands
By May McGoldrick
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Nikoo K. and James A. McGoldrick
All rights reserved.
Kintyre, Western Scotland
Four months later
Though the fires in the tower were nearly out, the acrid smell of smoke hung thick in the air, burning the English ship captain's lungs. Rob Hawkins glanced down the hill at the village and the harbor. Tarbert Castle would survive, he thought, but too many of its inhabitants had not.
Frowning, he turned his attention back to the cleric.
"Aye, his name was Evers." The old priest was upset and growing more agitated with each question.
Something wasn't right, Rob thought. Why would Evers leave his army in the Highlands only to sail down the western coast of Scotland? Compared with all the bulging abbey vaults and coffers that he'd already emptied, this castle seemed to offer nothing. So why come here? Why kill the laird?
But nothing made sense about this mission.
When the messenger arrived from France, where Henry Tudor was fighting at Boulogne, the king's orders had been explicit. Rob was to find Sir Ralph Evers — Governor of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Commander in the North, Warden of the East March, High Sheriff of Durham. And then he was to kill the man. Not reprimand him. Not charge him with some crime. Not bring him back to face justice.
Find him and kill him.
And in return, Rob would be rewarded with the ultimate prize for a privateer: a letter of marque, issued by the king, giving him free rein to attack and plunder the ships of enemy nations. And right now, King Henry was at war with almost everyone. And that meant the potential for tremendous wealth.
Sense or nonsense, Rob had immediately weighed anchor and sailed north.
"You're absolutely certain it was Sir Ralph Evers," he stressed.
"It was him, I tell you. The devil himself. The Scourge of the Borders."
Rob turned to look at the wisps of smoke still rising from the tower. His men were working side by side with the locals to put out the last of the fires and tend to the wounded. Bodies of the dead had been lined up along the castle wall. He glanced out at his ship, the Peregrine, anchored in the harbor.
He'd expected to be sailing farther north in search of his quarry. When he put in at Whitehaven for supplies, the commander there told him that Evers and his mongrel army had last been seen tearing through the Highlands in search of "the bloody Holy Grail, or some such thing." But when they intercepted a small merchant vessel soon after leaving port, he learned that an Englishman had put Tarbert Castle to the torch not a day earlier. The brutality of the attack matched Evers's style, and the MacDonnell stronghold was on his way. Rob had decided to stop. His decision had paid off.
"And this," he said to the priest, gesturing toward the tower and the corpses, "the killing, the looting, the fire. You say all this happened after he discovered the laird's wife was dead?"
"Aye. No one here will be mourning long for Angus MacDonnell. The man was a hard one, and as tough and tight as an old oyster. But his wife Muirne ... that's a woman who'll be missed. Died not a fortnight ago." The wiry cleric wrung his hands. "Och, nothing but anguish for us now. When the MacDonnell came as laird, we thought our lives would be better. They never were. But here, it's come to this. It'll be worse, for sure. Almost too much for my heart to bear."
Rob shook his head. "Did Evers know the laird's wife? Was there some arrangement that went astray? None of this makes any sense to me."
"Nor to me," the priest agreed, clutching the wooden cross at his belt. "But I know what I know."
And Rob only believed what he could see with his own eyes. Sir Ralph Evers had been a valuable commander in the king's service, but something had gone wrong with the man. He seemed to have defected, but not to fight with Scotland or France or Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire. As far as Rob could tell, Evers was fighting on his own side. But he didn't believe a man as seasoned and honored as this one would give up everything to go off on some mythical quest. So why hade he done it?
To find and kill the man, Rob needed more answers.
"Tell me what happened."
"Why should I tell you anything?" the priest grumbled. "You say you're a Scot, and your crew looks to have Scots and Portuguese sailors, but I know you're an Englishman and don't try to deny it. You're the pirate they call Black Hawk."
"Pirate? Nay." Rob glared at the old man. "My father is English. I'll not deny that. But my mother was a Kennedy, born and bred in Moray. So I have Scots blood running in my veins that is as good as yours or anyone's. And you be damned if you say I've done your folk any harm."
The cleric looked away from him, staring at the men working together across the courtyard. He nodded.
"For your Kennedy blood, then, I'll tell you. The Englishman came to Tarbert, invited by the laird. He was led into the Great Hall like a guest."
Rob tried to imagine what kind of deal Angus MacDonnell would have made with a renegade commander like Evers.
The man pointed at the tower. "The laird was no fool. And that makes all this even harder to understand."
Rob waited, seeing there was more the cleric wanted to say.
"When his men hauled me up from the village, I thought it was for a hanging. Mine." He frowned at the memory. "The Great Hall was bloody with bodies. The laird himself was still sitting in his chair, dead as that stone. They dragged me straight to Evers, and I saw it for the first time. The face of Satan."
"What did he want from you?"
The old man swayed slightly. "He wanted me to take him into the family crypt."
Rob's gaze swept across the wreckage left behind by Evers. "The crypt?"
The priest shrugged, shaking his head. "He wanted me to show him where the laird's wife had been interred."
"I don't know." The cleric grew pale. "I told him she wasn't there. I told him how she died and that there was no body. But he didn't believe me. When I swore it was the truth, I never saw such fury in a man's eyes. I thought I was about to die. He kept after me. Asked so many questions. I don't know what I answered ... but then I happened to mention the daughter. I believe that saved my neck."
"No body? Wait." The puzzle was getting more complicated. "What daughter?"
"Miranda." He hesitated. "There was never a more devoted daughter than that lass. And now she's gone, too."
Trying to understand the cleric was like untying a knot of wet rope. "What happened to the daughter?"
"Muirne MacDonnell had been sick for some time. Dying. Everyone knew it. Miranda always cared for her. Even took her on pilgrimages. Then, three weeks ago, the lass went off. Just disappeared."
"And no one knows where this daughter went?"
"Not a soul, as far as I know," the priest replied. "And we've all be missing that one, I tell you."
"That lass has a way about her. Whenever there was a fire in a cottage, she was there. If a dog went mad, she was there. If the children were playing too close to the well, she was there. One day, she came running down to the village saying that schools of mullet were coming into the loch. Before you could say 'Ave Maria,' the harbor was alive with jumping fish. The folk ate well that whole winter because of her."
Rob shook his head. He didn't want to be distracted. "But the daughter just disappeared, and then the laird's wife died?"
The priest clutched the cross again. "One evening — a few days after Miranda left — Muirne took a fisherman's boat and rowed out into the firth. The next morning, they found the boat, but Muirne was not to be found."
"Maybe the daughter fetched her — or someone else did. How do you know she was dead?"
"I cannot answer that. But the laird claimed that she fell in. Her illness had been growing harder for her to bear. Everyone knew she was growing weaker. If she fell out of the boat, by accident, she would have drowned for sure."
The old priest swayed unsteadily. Fearing he might collapse, Rob helped the man over to a bench along the kitchen wall.
"And you told Evers this. You told him Muirne MacDonnell wasn't buried there."
"But he still went into the crypt?"
"Aye." The priest frowned. "And something happened in there."
"What do you mean?" Rob fought the frustration rising in him, but he needed to find out where Evers had gone from here.
"All I know is, the last thing he asked before he went in was where Miranda might have gone. She was the one he wanted next. No one had the answer. But when he came out, he called his commanders together. I heard him myself. They were setting sail for Mull. They were going to Duart Castle. You'd think he got his answer from the dead."CHAPTER 2
The great black bird swept down, skimming the blue-green waters. The hawk banked and rose, riding the invisible breezes. As it circled upward, Miranda realized her feet were shackled to a high pedestal of rock, surrounded by glistening sea. She struggled against the trap, but there was no relief.
The winds began to buffet her, whipping her cloak. Suddenly, the black hawk dove, pulling up at the last instant and landing gracefully on the smooth stone surface. Its wings disappeared and it transformed before her eye into a man. She stared at the tangle of black hair hanging to his shoulders. The tall powerful frame towered on the rock. His hazel eyes focused on her.
She felt no fear. He had come and she'd expected him. This had to be Rob Hawkins, as her mother had foretold. Muirne had said that their destinies were entwined. He was the only one who could free her of these bonds.
As he stepped toward her, the sea swelled, dashing them both with salt spray. He reached out to her.
Before their fingers touched, the color of the sky behind him changed to a stormy gray. In the distance, the air crackled with flashes of lightning.
Suddenly, the sea surged up the sides of their rocky perch, and a wave as tall as Ben Nevis rose above, hung a moment, and then crashed down, carrying him off into the roiling waters.
She screamed in despair, her eyes searching for him. But he was gone.
He's going to drown.
Miranda MacDonnell sat up in panic, staring through the dim light at blackened timbers. The wood seemed to be weeping. She was wet, lying in a net hammock. The vision was slow to recede. She couldn't move her feet.
Taking deep breaths, she fought the rigid spasms she'd seen grip her mother's body a thousand times in the past. They were slow to release her.
A tremendous boom assaulted her ears, and a shudder traveled through her. The rolling motion reminded Miranda that she was aboard a ship.
Rob Hawkins. The Black Hawk. His ship. She'd boarded at Tarbert. Cutting her hair and donning boy's clothing, she'd pretended to be kitchen help.
Now she stiffened. The vision hovered, reminding her of the gift that was now hers. Grief over her mother's death lingered on. But she had to pay attention. He was going to drown. She needed to get to him.
As she rolled from the hammock, the ship pitched forward and shuddered again as if it had struck a stone wall. The smell of bilge water, stirred up by the churning seas, rose from below, turning her stomach. Miranda landed on all fours on rough wood decking and touched the stone in the pouch she wore at her belt. As she stood, clutching the hammocks on either side, the bow of the ship angled upward, and seawater washed over her through gaps in the planking above.
In the distance, a bell began to clang, and curses pierced the darkness from other hammocks.
Since boarding the Peregrine little more than two days ago, Miranda had stayed out of sight as much as she could. All that was forgotten now.
The bulkhead door swung open, and the mate's head appeared. A howling squall of rain and wind swept in.
"Up, dogs," he shouted. "All are needed."
Miranda was already at the door, pushing past him. Relieved to be out of the tight enclosure where the crew slept, she burst into the open air, only to be slapped with stinging salt spray.
Out on deck, chaos reigned. From everywhere came shouts, half lost in the roar of the waves and the screaming winds. Men struggled, holding on to lines and looking up at the masts and rigging where others hung on for their lives.
In front of her, a cask broke loose from the base of the mainmast and tipped over, banging and bouncing with lethal power across the deck. When it reached the gunwale, smashing into it, two sailors dove across the deck to secure it. But they couldn't hold it as the ship rolled, and the barrel careened back across, bouncing overboard, but not before taking out a portion of the ratlines that held the mast.
Miranda couldn't see him. She lurched to the gunwale, fighting down the panic gripping her. Her mother had sent her from the castle with stern orders to remain in hiding near the village and wait for him. Black Hawk was the key to finding her twin, the brother Miranda now hoped to find shelter with once this ship reached Duart Castle. The brother who had been separated from her at birth because of the vile man she called father. But now, in her own vision, she'd seen Black Hawk dashed overboard.
Wind-driven spray stung her face. A wave rose up and crashed over the deck. Wondering if the sea would swallow up the ship entirely, she fought back fear that was colder than the ocean itself.
She'd been onboard ships many times, but never in seas as wild as this. And always as a passenger, as the laird's daughter.
Jumping up and clinging to the ratlines as another wave washed over them, she peered through the driving rain. Where was Black Hawk?
Miranda fought her way aft. With each roll of the ship, water poured over the side, forcing her to hold on until it receded enough for her to go farther.
Suddenly she saw him, towering over the sailors on the stern deck, shouting orders to a crew scrambling to save their ship and themselves. He exuded raw power and the sure-footedness of a man bred aboard ships. For a brief second, Miranda's gaze moved down to the leather jerkin, dark with rain, the white shirt plastered to the sinewy muscles of his arms. With his black hair streaming about his face, Rob Hawkins punctuated his commands with explosive curses.
All but one of the canvas sails on the forward masts had been gathered and secured. Only the topmost sail on the mainmast remained to be furled. He was pointing at it and shouting. A line had snagged and two sailors were hanging on and trying to free it.
The mate screamed at Miranda from behind. "Up, lad. Cut the sheets if need be, but get that canvas in."
She looked up, the salt water burning her eyes. The mast was tall and the tip of it disappeared in a shroud of mist. She'd never climbed anything that high. But her life had never been in danger before, either. Another of her mother's visions. If Miranda had stayed at Tarbert, she'd die.
So many firsts.
"Good Saint Brendan," she prayed, climbing onto the side rail. "Save me from a watery grave. More important, save him from ..."
The crack of the mast above her froze the prayer in her throat. The ratlines went slack in her grasp, and she nearly went overboard as the top third of the mast snapped and crashed downward. Splintered wood from the yards, and lines that held it aloft, all came smashing to the deck.
A wave struck the ship at that moment and swept two sailors past her. To her horror, one went overboard on a foaming swell. The leg of the other caught in the lines, leaving the screaming man dangling head downward over the side.
Miranda grabbed his other leg, but she knew she couldn't hold him for long.
She didn't know where he came from, but Black Hawk landed on the billowing canvas, and was beside her in an instant.
With nothing to stop himself from going over, the captain hauled the man back aboard as if he weighed no more than a feather.
Depositing him on deck, he patted the sailor on the chest, shouting, "You're safe now, man."
"Aye, Hawk," the sailor panted, trying to catch his breath. "Safe."
Rob Hawkins cut him free of the lines that had saved him and grabbed Miranda's tunic by the shoulder. He pointed upward.
"Climb now, lad. Cut the sheets. This whole mast will go if we don't cut the sail free, and God help us when that happens."
His hand brushed against hers and she saw in her mind's eye that her vision was the truth. He was going down into this stormy sea. Hawk was gone before she could say a word.
Excerpted from Tempest in the Highlands by May McGoldrick. Copyright © 2016 Nikoo K. and James A. McGoldrick. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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