Ever inquisitive, Lady Alyson MacGillivray embarks on a sea voyage and makes a shocking discovery: The young future king of Scotland is secretly traveling on board. Yet her surprise soon turns to terror when pirates attack the ship, take the boy prince hostage, and leave Lady Alyson to drown.
Known to the world as the The Wolf, Captain Jake Maxwell had been commissioned by the King to follow the prince's secret transport. When he spies Alyson struggling against a violent sea, he moves swiftly to save her. Soon desire sparks between them, bringing them pleasure-powerful and deep. But the young beauty's connection to the prince's abduction puts her in danger. And if their love is to survive, Alyson and Jake must play a game of intrigue with royal-and lethal-consequences.
"One of the best Scottish historical romance authors writing today."-Midwest Book Review
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By Scott, Amanda
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Scott, Amanda
All right reserved.
Falkland Castle, Scotland, 27 March 1402
The man she saw lying awkwardly on the dirt floor was unnaturally thin, little more than skin and bones. Even so, she could sense his pain. She sensed, too, that his parched, dry skin felt too tight for his body. His once silky, fair, shoulder-length hair was straw stiff and dull from grime and lack of nutrients.
He lay curled on one side, as if he had sought to return to his mother’s womb or felt pain in his stomach. One thin arm stretched outward, palm open, to catch cornmeal drifting down on pale beams of light that slipped through narrow spaces between planks of the mill floor high above him. The meal looked like ordinary dust motes dancing in ordinary moonbeams.
Since her view of the scene seemed to emerge from a surrounding black cloud, she was unsure of how she knew about the mill. But she was certain of its presence and certain that the drifting motes were cornmeal, not dust.
Even as that thought passed through her mind, she recognized a stronger perception that could not be hers and must be the man’s own vague awareness of meal in his open palm that he lacked strength to bring to his mouth.
His frustration seemed to add force to his thoughts, making them easier for her to discern. He was as good as telling her that he lacked even strength or will enough to lick his lips, which also bore a coating of meal. It had kept him alive for what he reckoned must be more than a fortnight now. His guards had given him water only twice. But he had known better than to trust those who had imprisoned him, and made each drop last as long as he could.
Almost wryly, he told himself that if he survived this ordeal—if a friend learned of his peril and summoned aid to him before it was too late—right after he hanged his fiendish uncle and the Douglas, he would order the royal dungeons altered. To see sunlight and moonlight only when filtered through corn dust and wood planking was more torturous than never to see light at all.
She knew that it was already too late. He lacked even the strength to acknowledge the pain in his shrunken gut anymore.
As that thought drifted through his mind… or hers… or both together… blackness followed. The last of his pain disappeared, and she felt tears streaming down her cheeks.
Sitting bolt upright to find herself alone and shaking in the familiar darkness of her bedchamber in St. John’s Town of Perth, her tears still streaming, she knew that what she had seen was no nightmare but a truth that she dared speak to no one.
Davy Stewart, the heir to Scotland’s throne, had just died.
Stirling Castle, late February 1403
The English ambassador disapproved of his mission and had from the instant he’d understood its goal. However, it was no business of his to express his opinions to heads of state, not to his own and certainly not to Scotland’s Duke of Albany, who eyed him now across the large table Albany used as a desk in his audience chamber.
Clad elegantly in black, the sixty-two-year-old duke stood second in line for Scotland’s throne. He had, in fact, due to one cause or another, ruled Scotland as regent—or Governor, as the Scots called it—for many years, occasionally even when, as now, he lacked any titular right to do so.
Although his still-dark hair contained increasingly more silver, Albany was as politically astute as ever, and as ruthless.
Having long negotiated secretly with him for Henry IV of England, the ambassador knew that the duke possessed a quick, intelligent mind and was cold-blooded, unpredictable, and skilled in wielding his authority. His usual tone was chilly, but he could be affable if it served his purpose. Above all, he was a man with a deep understanding of power who did all he could to increase his own.
“You will need a royal safe-conduct for your return,” Albany said abruptly.
Reflecting on the fact that the duke had already kept him kicking his heels for a fortnight, the ambassador wondered if his safe-conduct had become an issue.
Warily, he said, “Although our countries enjoy a rare truce, my lord, one does feel safer passing through your Borders with a safe-conduct than without one. However… Pray forgive me, sir. But as his grace, the King, is away…”
When Albany frowned, the ambassador paused again, hoping he’d made his point. After Davy Stewart’s death, many having suspected Albany’s hand in it, the Scottish King and Parliament had refused to name him Governor again.
Albany had waited barely two months before demanding that the King summon his lords again and order them to do so. His grace had submitted, as usual, to Albany’s stronger will and ordered Parliament to meet directly after Easter. But would its ever-unpredictable lords submit as easily to the duke’s demands?
“No one will dare doubt the validity of a safe-conduct bearing my signature,” Albany said flatly. “Now, I’m sure you’ve arranged the details of that matter we discussed before and have everything in train.”
“Yes, my lord,” the ambassador said. “As I said when last we met, we require only the name of the—”
“I received that information yestereve,” Albany interjected curtly, reminding him that the duke also had a passion for secrecy. “Recall that you must not act as intermediary.”
“Indeed, my lord. I shall employ the courier who acted for his… um… for us before. One assumes that the promises we made about the cargo…”
Again, diplomatically, he paused.
“I care only about matters on which your master and I have agreed and not a whit about promises to his minions or about the cargo,” Albany said. “So, unless you have more we must discuss, our business is done. Collect your safe-conduct from my steward as you leave.”
“With respect, my lord, you still have not given me the name I require.”
The Firth of Forth, Friday, March 16
Nineteen-year-old Lady Alyson MacGillivray grasped the urgent fingers clutching her arm and tried to pry them loose, saying, “Prithee, calm yourself, Ciara. If this ship sinks, clinging to me will avail you naught.”
“Mayhap it will not, m’lady,” her middle-aged attire woman said, still gripping her hard enough to leave bruises. “But if this horrid ship drops off another o’ these giant waves as it did afore, mayhap neither o’ us will fly into yon wall again.”
Alyson did not reply at once, having noted that, although the huge vessel still rocked on the heaving waters of the firth, the noises it made had changed. The wind still howled. However, the awful creaks and screeches that had made Ciara fear aloud—and Alyson silently—that the ship would shake itself apart had eased.
“We’re slowing,” Alyson said.
The cabin door opened without warning, and Niall Clyne, Alyson’s husband of two and a half months, filled the opening. He was a handsome, fair-haired, blue-eyed man of mild temperament, whom she’d known for most of her life. He ducked as he entered, to avoid banging his head against the low lintel.
Alyson saw at once that he looked wary.
“Put out that lantern, Allie,” he said. “We must show no light aboard now.”
“Who would see it?” Alyson asked reasonably. “That tiny window—”
“Porthole,” Niall said.
“—is shuttered,” she continued. “Little light would show through it in any event. Surely, on such a dark night—”
“Just put it out,” he said. “It isn’t safe to keep a flame here in such weather.”
Ciara protested, “Sir, please, it be scarifying enough in this place with light! Forbye, in such weather, we ought never tae ha’ left Leith Harbor! Men did say—”
“An overturned lantern would quickly start a fire,” Niall interjected. “And, with no way to escape, a fire at sea would be even more terrifying than one on land.”
“Hush, Ciara,” Alyson said, watching Niall. Although the order he’d given was sensible, she was as sure as she could be that he was relaying it from someone else. Without moving to put out the lantern, and glad that Ciara had released her arm when the door opened, she said to Niall, “We have stopped, have we not?”
“Aye, or nearly, for we’ve dropped two of our anchors,” he said. “But you must put out that light, lass. Even the storm lights on deck are dark now.”
“So we don’t want to be seen,” Alyson said. “But who would see us?”
“That is not for you to know.”
“Do you know?” she asked. “Or is your friend Sir Mungo keeping secrets from you as well as from us?”
With audible strain in his voice, Niall said, “You must call him ‘Sir Kentigern,’ Alyson. His friends call him Mungo, because that’s what friends often do call a man named Kentigern. But he is not Sir Mungo to anyone.”
“I keep forgetting,” she said calmly. “Sir Kentigern is such a lot to say. But you do not answer my question. Do you know why we have stopped?”
“I do not,” he said. “I ken only that they’ve sent a coble ashore with six oarsmen to row it. Now, will you put out that light, or must I?”
“I’ll do it. Good night, Niall.”
“Good night, my lady.” Evidently, he trusted her, because he left then and shut the door.
Ciara waited only until he had done so to say with panic in her voice, “Ye’ll no put that light out, m’lady, I prithee! ’Twould be dark as a tomb in here!”
“Do you want Sir Kentigern to come down here?” Alyson asked.
“Nay, I do not,” Ciara said. “For all that he may be the master’s friend, I dinna like him.”
“Nor do I,” Alyson said, careful not to reveal the understatement of those three words in her tone. “Lie down on yon shelf bed now and try to sleep when I put out the light. I shan’t need you to undress me.”
“I ken fine that I shouldna sleep in your bed,” Ciara said. “But I’ll take it and thank ye, because get in that hammock and let this storm-tossed ship fling me about with every motion, I will not!”
“Hush now, Ciara. Take advantage of this respite and try to sleep.”
Why, though, Alyson wondered, were they stopping?
They had left Edinburgh’s Leith Harbor at dusk, Sir Kentigern “Mungo” Lyle having insisted they could wait no longer. Mungo was secretary to the Earl of Orkney, whom Niall also served. It was on business of Orkney’s that the men were sailing to France, and since they could be away for months, Niall had agreed to take Alyson with him. Mungo had not concealed his disapproval when they’d met him at the harbor. But Niall’s insistence that he could not send Alyson all the way home to Perth, alone, had been enough. Whether it would satisfy Orkney when he learned that she was with them remained to be seen.
Alyson had met the earl, who was a few years her senior, several times. As the wealthiest nobleman in Scotland, and one of the most powerful, Orkney knew his worth. But he was not nearly as puffed up in his own esteem as Mungo was in his.
But Mungo had doubtless meant only to please the earl by hastening their departure. Storms had delayed and battered their ship, the Maryenknyght, on her voyage from France with her cargo of French wines. Then men had to load the return cargo, and the ship’s captain took two more days to make hasty repairs.
But now, whatever was occurring on deck…
“I am going up to see what’s happening,” Alyson told Ciara. “Prithee, do not argue or fling yourself into a fret, because you won’t dissuade me. We are where we are, but I want to know where that is and what they’re doing on deck.”
“We can judge our danger better if we have information, Ciara. So just be patient and try to sleep. I’ll hold this lantern until you are safe on that bed but no longer, lest Mungo come down and dare to look in on us.”
If he did come down, he would likely run into her on her way up. But Alyson doubted that Ciara would think of that. Ciara was concerned with her own safety, which was reasonable but irrelevant when one could do naught to ensure it.
Ciara eyed her mistress measuringly. Although she had served Alyson only since her wedding, she evidently knew her well enough to see that further debate was useless, because she quickly unlaced and doffed her kirtle. Then, lying on the narrow bed in her flannel shift, she pulled the quilt over her, gritted her teeth, shut her eyes, and nodded for Alyson to put out the light.
Alyson donned her fur-lined, hooded cloak and snugly fitting gloves, then blew out the lantern and found its hook on the wall. Hanging the lantern carefully, she felt for the door latch and raised it, hoping she would not be so unfortunate as to meet anyone before seeing what there was to see.
The cabin door opened onto a narrow, damp passageway ending at a ladder that stretched to the deck. The ship’s hold lay below, no longer containing wine casks but roped piles of untanned hides and bales of sheared wool going to France. That cargo was noisome enough already to fill the passageway with pungent odors.
Wrinkling her nose but relieved to see faint light coming through the open hatchway, Alyson raised her skirts with her left hand, touched one wall with her right for balance, and moved toward the ladder.
Its rungs were flat on top and the ladder just seven feet or so to the hatchway, but ascending it in skirts was awkward. A wooden rail aided her when she climbed high enough to reach it, and she emerged in an area between the shipmaster’s forecastle cabin and a second, smaller one.
The wind was thunderous. But the hatchway, recessed between the two cabins, sheltered Alyson from the worst of it. The hatch cover was up, strapped against the cabin on her left as she faced the stern.
She wondered if it had been so all along or if Niall had opened the hatch and left it so. Surely, it should stay shut to keep the angry sea from spilling into the passageway, the two tiny lower cabins, and the vast hold below.
Above her, black clouds scudded across the night sky. Gaps between them briefly revealed twinkling stars overhead and a crescent moon rising above the open sea to her right amidst flying clouds. Those clouds seemed to whip above, across, and below the moon in a wild, erratic dance.
Since Edinburgh was behind her, she knew she must be facing east. The ship’s prow therefore pointed southward, so they were at the mouth of the Firth of Forth.
Looking aft but still to her right, she saw moonlight playing on glossy black mountains of ocean. To her left, she discerned the firth’s south coast where dots of light twinkled in the distance—perhaps the lights of North Berwick.
When she stepped forward to look due south past the master’s cabin, she had to hold her hood against the whipping wind. But the view astonished her.
At no great distance beyond the ship’s rail, sporadic moonlight revealed a precipitous rock formation looming above tumultuous waves that broke around it in frothy, silver-laced skirts wherever the moonlight touched them.
She could hear that crashing surf despite the howling wind.
Surely, she thought, no boat could land there. But why stop if not to send one ashore or wait for one coming to them? Stepping back into the deep shadows of the alcove between the two cabins, she continued to watch.
Shadowy figures moved on deck, but no one challenged her.
Not long afterward, through the darkness, she saw a boat, a coble, plunging toward them through the waves. In a patch of moonlight, she saw that it was full of people. At least two were small enough to be children.
Not far away, unbeknownst to anyone aboard the Maryenknyght, a smaller ship more nearly akin to a Highland galley than to the merchantman rode the heaving seas. Sir Jacob Maxwell, the Sea Wolf’s captain, kept his gaze fixed on the much larger ship. When its sail had come down as it passed North Berwick, he’d suspected the ship was the one he sought. When it dropped anchors off the massive, nearly unapproachable formation known as the Bass Rock, he was sure of it.
The wind blew from the northeast quarter. The merchantman had anchored well away from the rock and with its prow facing southeastward. Thus its leeward length sheltered its steerboard side when it lowered a boat.
“Be that our quarry, sir?” his helmsman, Coll, asked in Gaelic.
“It must be, aye,” Jake replied in that language.
Although born in Nithsdale, near the Borders, Jake had spent two-thirds of his life on ships. Much of it he’d spent in the Isles, so he believed he was nearly as much a Highlander as his helmsman was. Moreover, most of his men spoke only Gaelic, so most conversation aboard was in that language.
“I cannot make out her flag in this darkness,” Coll said.
“She is the Maryenknyght out of Danzig,” Jake said. “She was flying a French flag when she entered Leith Harbor, and I’d wager she flew that flag when she departed. However, it could be some other flag now.”
He did not add that the Maryenknyght belonged to young Henry Sinclair, second Earl of Orkney. Nor did he mention that Henry had ordered the ship to Edinburgh for this particular, hopefully secret, purpose.
Orkney owned more ships than anyone else in Scotland. But he had not wanted to use one that others would easily recognize as his. Thus had the Maryenknyght made what Jake knew was her first voyage to Scotland.
For a fortnight, he’d kept a man posted at Leith to watch for the ship, harboring his Sea Wolf at a smaller, less frequented site on the firth’s north coast. However, he had learned the Maryenknyght’s name and intended time of departure only that afternoon. Glancing at his helmsman, he knew that Coll was bursting with curiosity, although his expression revealed none.
Looking back at the Maryenknyght, Jake said, “The coble’s returning.”
“I don’t envy them climbing up that hulk in these seas,” Coll muttered.
Jake realized he was holding his breath as he watched the first of the coble’s occupants, clearly its steersman, prepare to climb a rope ladder to the ship’s deck.
Exhaling, Jake forced himself to breathe normally.
One of the six oarsmen caught the ladder’s end while his two comrades on that side did their best to keep the coble from banging against the ship. Meanwhile, fierce winds and incoming waves tried to push ship and coble back to Edinburgh.
“By my soul,” Coll muttered when the steersman had reached the deck and a second, much smaller passenger gripped the ladder. “That be a bairn, Cap’n Jake! What madness goes on here?”
Jake did not answer. His attention riveted to the lad, he felt his pulse hammering in his neck, as if his heart had leaped into his throat.
“Sakes, look at him,” Coll breathed. “He’s going up that ladder as deftly as ye might yourself, sir.”
“I suspect that after being lowered in a basket to a plunging boat from halfway up the sheerest face of Bass Rock, as I heard they would be, climbing a rope ladder must seem easy,” Jake said.
“On a night like this?” Coll exclaimed. “Who the devil would be crazy enough to order such a thing?”
“His grace, the King,” Jake replied.
Aware of Coll’s stunned silence, Jake watched the second lad climb the ladder as lithely as the first. Returning his gaze to the coble to see a tall, slender man grab the ladder next, he felt his jaw tighten again.
Having counted the men in the boat, he knew that this one had to be Henry of Orkney. Jake had known him almost from Henry’s birth and liked him. He did not want the wicked weather to plunge the earl into the ice-cold sea, where he might drown before others could reach him.
However, Henry could swim. And Henry was not Jake’s first priority.
“Am I to know who those lads be, sir?” Coll asked.
Jake hesitated. But he had known Coll for over a decade and trusted him. Moreover, they’d be following the Maryenknyght to her destination. And accidents happened, even to men who had lived their lives aboard ships. If aught happened to him, Coll should understand the exact nature of their mission.
Knowing that the wind would blow his words away before they reached ears other than Coll’s, and that the men were heeding their oars, Jake leaned nearer and said, “Wardlaw said nowt to me in St. Andrews about any second lad, Coll. But one of those two lads will inherit the Scottish Crown.”
In the uncertain moonlight, he saw Coll’s eyes widen. “Jamie Stewart?”
“Aye, sure, for since Davy Stewart’s death—”
“Sakes, sir, that were a year ago!”
“It was, aye. But whilst Davy’s death was still new, James was safe at St. Andrews Castle under Bishop Wardlaw’s guardianship. Forbye, after Parliament proclaimed Davy’s death an accident instead of the murder we all know it was, his grace began to fear for Jamie’s life, too.”
“That explains why the lad has been missing these two months and more,” Coll said. “But how could they have survived so long atop that rock?”
“There is an ancient castle built into it about halfway up.”
“Ye be jesting, sir. Nae one could build a castle there.”
“Believe it,” Jake said. “Sithee, Coll, when his grace recognized the threat to Jamie, he decided to send him to our ally, the King of France, for safety.”
“Aye, well, ye need not tell me who his grace fears might harm the lad,” Coll said with a grunt. “Only one man can be sure to benefit from such, and that be his murderous uncle, the Duke of Albany. But if aught happened to the laddie, would not the country rise in fury against Albany afore he could seize the throne?”
“Likely they would have, had Jamie died last year soon after Davy,” Jake agreed. “But he did not. Recall, too, that folks expected Parliament to declare Albany responsible for Davy’s death. Instead, the early winter prevented many of the Highland lords from reaching Perth, allowing Albany’s allies in Parliament to declare Davy’s death an accident. They could not, however, vote to make Albany Governor again, because the King was too distraught to agree.”
Coll nodded. “But Parliament will meet again afore Easter, and Albany has had time to persuade his grace. What be our place in this business, sir?”
“We are merely to report back to Wardlaw when Jamie gets safely to France,” Jake said. “And perhaps to do what we can to aid that ship if aught goes amiss.”
After watching men rush to help the first child aboard and wrap him in blankets, Alyson went back down to her tiny cabin. Since the country had been speculating for months about the fate of their eight-year-old prince, she immediately suspected who one of the two children might be.
The business that Mungo and her husband, and doubtless the Earl of Orkney himself, had in France was likewise more understandable. Was Henry not head of the wealthy and powerful Sinclair family, which had long supported kings of Scots even when many Sinclairs had disagreed with them?
Indeed, from the outset, she had wondered why, when they were on Henry’s business, they were sailing on a storm-battered merchantman. Henry owned dozens if not hundreds of finer ships. She also knew that if she was right and James Stewart was their primary passenger, she dared not linger to see who else was with him.
She would be wiser to proceed with caution until she learned more.
When they raised anchor and headed south with the wind behind them, it was less thunderous, and she slept well on Ciara’s swaying hammock until morning.
Alyson wasted no time after waking before going on deck, where with overcast skies and rain threatening, one of the first things she saw was Henry’s tall figure emerging from the master’s cabin. He showed neither surprise nor delight at seeing her but greeted her cordially.
“Good morrow, my lord,” Alyson replied.
“In troth, ’tis a dismal day,” he said with a wry smile. “Forbye, I must tell you how sorry I was to miss your wedding to Niall.”
“And are even sorrier to see me here now,” she said. “ ’Tis true, is it not?”
With a rueful look, he said, “It is, aye, though in courtesy I should not say it.”
“With respect, sir, you may always speak the truth to me. I admire candor. What others call tact or cosseting often results in misunderstanding of one sort or another. Do you not agree?”
His blue eyes twinkled. “I might, but others would disagree, madam. Most people, in my experience, don’t appreciate honesty as they should.”
She smiled but said, “That was young Jamie Stewart I saw come aboard from the coble last night, was it not?”
“You saw that, did you?”
“I did, aye,” she said. “In troth, Niall ought not to have let me come.”
“Niall didn’t know,” Orkney said. “Very few people do. I sent my secretary to Danzig to arrange quietly for this ship simply because it had not sailed in Scottish waters before and was unlikely to be known as one of mine.”
“I see. Am I right to deduce that we are taking James to France? Or have you another destination in mind?”
He glanced around before replying in a lower tone than before, “We do sail to France, Lady Alyson. But this ship’s captain and crew are Prussian. So, although we’ll address both boys by their given names, we’ll say little about them to others.”
“Doubtless that is an excellent notion, sir. However, I trust that you won’t keep two such lively lads cooped up below, in that wee cabin opposite mine.”
“They slept on pallets in the master’s cabin last night, with me, and are still asleep,” he said. “Likely, I’ll turn Mungo and your husband out of the cabin next to mine and order them into that smaller cabin below. I did not do so last night for fear of waking you and your woman.”
“I see,” she said. “But if you want no undue attention drawn to the boys…”
Henry frowned, saying, “I thought that as Jamie has been living rough these past months, I could at least give him the more comfortable cabin. But I should not. Still, one dislikes…” He paused thoughtfully.
“In troth, I have been trying to imagine how Ciara and I might earn our place on this ship, sir. Since you are unhappy to have us…”
“Not unhappy, my lady, nor is it of use to repine now if I were.”
“I was thinking that whilst we travel, we might help look after the boys.”
His relief was visible. “I’ll accept that offer,” he said. “After more than three months on that rock, my ability to devise new entertainments has abandoned me.”
Satisfied that she had eased his concerns, Alyson went to tell Ciara that their voyage would no longer be as tedious as it had so quickly begun to seem. What Niall or Mungo might say to it all, she did not trouble herself to consider.
When a seaman brought food to her cabin so she and Ciara could break their fast, he told them that Orkney had also ordered food for the boys and had ordered their belongings moved to the cabin across the way. Alyson assumed that the earl would soon shoo the boys out of his cabin and summon his secretaries to see to what business they could as they sailed.
When the seaman returned to collect the remains of their meal, he affirmed that assumption. “Them two lads be on deck now, m’lady,” he added. “It be still blowing a gale, but they dinna seem tae mind.”
Alyson gave the boys time to acquaint themselves with the ship before she donned her cloak and went up to find them at the railing, peering down at the sea.
Addressing James, whose current title was Earl of Carrick, she said, “I am Alyson MacGillivray, my lord Carrick. Orkney has suggested that, if you do not object, we might devise ways of entertaining ourselves together whilst we sail. My husband, Niall Clyne, serves as one of Orkney’s secretaries. My woman, Ciara, is with me, and our cabin is across from the one that you and your friend will occupy.”
“We decided that people should call me James whilst we are all on this ship,” he replied, looking her up and down as if he were assessing her but without any sign of impertinence. Then, he added matter-of-factly, “Orkney said ye were beautiful, my lady. I believe he understated that fact considerably.”
His seriousness invested his words with charm that surpassed that of most adult males she had met and drew a smile from her as she thanked him.
He was a sturdy-looking lad with a mop of dark auburn curls, doubtless inherited from his Drummond mother, since most Stewarts were fair and blue-eyed. His were dark brown, with long, thick eyelashes. He would be nine at the end of July, but he had spoken with solemn dignity far beyond his years. When she smiled at his compliment, he smiled back rather wistfully.
Then, as if recalling his duty, he gestured toward his companion and said, “This be my friend, Will Fletcher. He isna used tae the Fletcher bit yet, though. We began calling him so on Bass Rock, ’cause they had three other Wills there. Sithee, Will’s da was a fletcher, so calling him Will Fletcher seemed a good notion.”
“It sounds wise to me,” Alyson said, smiling at Will, who bobbed a bow in return. He looked a year or two older than Jamie, had darker, curlier hair, and a demeanor nearly as solemn. “Your father made arrows, did he, Will?”
“He did, aye, m’lady.”
“A cousin of mine is a highly skilled archer, so I know about fletchers. How did you come to be friends with James?”
“Me mam were dead, and when me da fell out o’ an apple tree, he died, too. I didna like the tanner we worked for in Doune, so I joined up wi’ Jamie instead. D’ye ken how long we’ll be aboard this ship, m’lady?”
“That likely depends on the weather,” she replied. “The winds have been unpredictable, so we cannot count on their goodwill. Would you two like to go below with me and see your cabin and mine?” When they nodded, she said, “Did you bring aught with you to occupy yourselves?”
“I have a chessboard and pieces tae play chess or dames,” Jamie said. “Orkney and I taught Will tae play, too. So if you know how…”
Alyson grimaced. “I know the moves, but I fear that either of you will beat me easily. Still, it will be good for me to learn more.”
“Aye, well, I can teach ye, m’lady,” Jamie said. “Mayhap Orkney will, too, or your husband, Master Clyne.”
Alyson nodded as she passed them to go down the ladder. In truth, she had barely spoken with Niall since they’d arrived at Leith Harbor to meet Mungo. And now that Orkney was aboard, she doubted she would see much of Niall at all. Orkney’s business would keep him and Mungo busy, as it usually did.
Unstable weather continued as they traveled south. By Tuesday, their fifth day at sea, the wind had picked up again, and Jake thought the merchantman’s captain was letting it push the ship dangerously near the English north coast.
Although England, France, and Scotland were enjoying a rare truce, he had no faith in truces. Moreover, he had heard men say that pirates prowled that coast.
By Thursday, Alyson had still seen little of her husband, because other than brief encounters, the only times she saw him were when they took their midday dinners with the boys, Mungo, and Orkney in the earl’s cabin. The three men spent the rest of their days and evenings together, while Alyson, Ciara, and the boys occupied themselves below or walking on deck when they could.
Seamen brought down trays each morning for them to break their fast and again at night for supper. Meantime, they played chess or dames, or walked, and talked about any number of things, including the boys’ time on the Bass Rock.
Alyson found it hard if not impossible to imagine how any business of Orkney’s could consume so much of three men’s time. But so it was, and it was no business of hers to question the earl. Her husband was another matter. At midday, during their meal, she asked if she might have a private word with him afterward.
Niall nodded, but when Mungo asked him to spare him just a moment first, Alyson went on out with Ciara and the boys. Sending Ciara below, Alyson watched the boys run about on deck while she waited for Niall… and waited.
Because it was unlike him to break his word, she believed that Mungo had intervened. Growing chilly, she rapped at the master-cabin door. When Mungo opened it, she did little to conceal her displeasure beneath her courteous request to have a word with her husband.
“Sorry, lass,” Mungo said quietly. “His lordship has commanded that we get right to work. If this is important, I can relay your message to Niall.”
“I would liefer speak to him,” Alyson said. “If Orkney can spare you to answer the door, surely he can spare Niall more easily.”
To her surprise, Mungo smiled and said, “Aye, sure, but be quick. His lordship may seem always to be charming, but he does have a temper. And we have much still to discuss before we reach France.”
He shut the door, making her wonder if he meant to leave her waiting again. But it opened moments later, and Niall said, “I thought you saw that I had work to do. What is so important that you could not wait to discuss it later, at supper?”
“I apologize if I have vexed you,” she said. “You did agree to talk with me, though. Surely you will not count brief discourse at this open door as such.”
“Nay, but if you are irked that I did not tell you about young James…”
“I know that you were unaware that he’d be on the ship,” she said when he paused. “But I am your wife, Niall, and we have scarcely enjoyed an hour together since leaving Perth. Nor had I seen you for weeks before then. Come to that, sir, other than the two days you spent with my family last summer to ask for my hand and the few days you spent at MacGillivray House for our wedding, I’ve seen you only occasionally since our childhood. We did agree that this voyage would give us time to know each other better as husband and wife.”
His cheeks reddened, but he said with his familiar twinkle, “Allie, I did not know Orkney would be traveling with us, either. Mungo told me only to look after our usual tasks whilst he was away and to meet him at Leith. But, as you just said, we’ve known each other since childhood. I doubt that we have much more to learn.”
“Aye, sure, we do,” she said. “As children, we learned only as much about each other as children can learn with parents and families about. You ken fine how much my family demands of me now. You saw that for yourself when you stayed with us those few days after our wedding. We’d both be so tired by the end of a day that we could scarcely stay awake to bid each other goodnight.”
“True,” he agreed. “We kept busy at Leith whilst we waited for Mungo and the ship to arrive, but I’ll admit I’d hoped for more time now to relax. We have work to do, though, before we reach France. This matter of James is delicate, lass. His grace trusts the French king to guard him. But Orkney must be able to make his grace’s expectations clear without offending the French king or his court. We’ve only begun to plan our strategy. In troth, I dare not linger now. Mayhap we can stroll on deck tonight and talk.”
“If it’s too cold, Ciara could stay with the boys for an hour,” Alyson said.
“Aye, she could. But I likewise expect that, after spending the whole afternoon below, as you will unless you and Ciara brave the winds up here, and mayhap rain this afternoon, you will be chafing to breathe fresh air.”
Looking at the dark sky, she knew he was right. “Just do not forget, sir. A gentleman should not neglect his lady wife as wickedly as you have neglected me.”
Kissing her cheek, he said, “I’ll try to do better in future.”
She heard Mungo’s voice in the background.
“I must go,” Niall said, already turning away.
When he shut the door, she called to the boys and heard Jamie shout that they’d be along straightaway. Realizing that Ciara was likely growing impatient in the cabin, and would either carp or complain, Alyson went below.
The boys did not come immediately, but they did eventually, and Jamie brought his chessboard and pieces. When Ciara complained that the cabin was too small for four people, Alyson, weary of her grievances, said, “Mayhap you would liefer enjoy a nap in the boys’ cabin, where you can rest undisturbed.”
With an injured look, Ciara said, “Mayhap I’ll seek some fresh air.”
Alyson knew that the woman did not enjoy the voyage and could scarcely blame her. Thanks to the unfortunate weather and Niall’s preoccupation with his duties, Alyson would not have enjoyed it either had it not been for the boys.
Jake was watching the skies. The weather had grown worse, and they were still dangerously close to the English coast. By midafternoon, besides the incessant heavy wind, the air was so damp and clouds so dark that a downpour was imminent.
So far, they had had no difficulty following the Maryenknyght, because the galley was faster and more maneuverable than the larger ship, and in the Isles, his lads often worked in heavy seas. But if the weather closed in, it would become much harder to see the merchantman.
Feeling the first sprinkles of rain, he went to the top of the forecastle cabin to view the sea around them. A squall line had formed in the northeast.
Turning, he saw five ships emerge from behind a massive outcropping to the west and head for the Maryenknyght.
In her cabin, by the light of two oil lanterns swinging overhead, Alyson was playing dames with Will, supervised by Jamie, when Ciara burst into the cabin.
“My lady—!” The ship lurched unexpectedly, making Ciara break off to grab the door jamb and Alyson fear for the lanterns as she and Will scrambled to grab and replace pieces sliding out of place and off the board.
“My lady,” Ciara repeated as she latched the door, “a flotilla o’ ships be coming toward us! They must be some o’ them pirates we heard of in Leith. Ye’ll recall that the captain o’ this very ship warned that such villains plunder vessels along this coast.”
“What I recall is that Captain Bereholt said the Maryenknyght would easily evade any pirates,” Alyson said. She watched the board to be sure that she and Will were putting the pieces back in their rightful places.
Jamie said, “We heard talk o’ pirates, too. Aye, Will?”
“Aye,” Will said, catching one of his pieces when the ship’s wretched rolling slid it off the board again. “Lord Orkney did ask that Mungo chap if he’d heard aught o’ them lately. But Mungo said he’d heard nowt.”
“But he must have, because he traveled to France to arrange for this ship and back again,” Alyson said, looking from one lad to the other. “Sithee, Ciara is right. Captain Bereholt did talk of pirates. He told us, too, that we would be keeping at least ten miles off the coast to avoid running into them.”
“We’re none so far off the coast now, though,” Jamie said. “Will and I could see it from the rail today after our midday meal. The clouds were hanging low, but we could make out the coastline.”
Ciara stood nervously near the door, shifting from one foot to the other.
Abruptly, Jamie said, “I’m going up on deck. I want tae see those ships.”
“I’ll wager that they are just traders or merchantmen like this one,” Alyson said. “Doubtless, they are setting out for some European or Hanseatic port and travel together to deter the pirates.”
“Likely, ye’re right,” Jamie said. “But I want tae see them. Come, Will.”
Since she had no true authority over either boy, she warned them only to keep out of mischief, and won a grin over his shoulder from Jamie.
When they had gone, Ciara said, “I dinna think them ships be friends, m’lady. Sight o’ them sent a sailor running for the master’s cabin. I hied m’self down here, so I dinna ken what happened after that.”
“Whatever happens, the boys should be safe,” Alyson said. “No one will let harm come to them.”
“I ken who that Jamie is as well as ye do,” Ciara said. “I should think that with him on this ship, we’d have a flotilla along to protect him.”
“Well, we don’t,” Alyson said.
She did not want to try explaining to Ciara that Orkney and others who had arranged the voyage, including the King, must have hoped to transport Jamie in the deep secrecy that had cloaked his whereabouts before Christmas. According to her cousin Ivor Mackintosh, such a scheme had worked the year before to convey Jamie to St. Andrews, where he had lived under the bishop’s watchful eye. But then, shortly before Christmas, Albany had summoned the lords of Parliament to meet at Easter.
Doubtless, aware that Albany meant to retake the Governorship he had lost to Davy Stewart on Davy’s coming of age—and wanting to protect Davy’s little brother now that Davy was dead—the King had decided to move Jamie again.
Ciara had grimaced at Alyson’s brief reply but said nothing more, and Alyson retained her customary composure until they heard a distant boom.
Frowning, she said, “I don’t think that was thunder.”
“Nay,” Ciara said. “Mayhap we should go up and—”
“Hark!” Alyson interjected, hearing pounding feet in the passageway.
The door burst open, and Jamie, entering with Will on his heels, exclaimed, “They have cannon aboard the biggest o’ those ships! It’s shooting at us!”
Hearing cannon fire, Jake saw the merchantman heave to and watched in dismay as the English ships surrounded it. The two largest ones, using grappling irons, flanked it.
Although he climbed the mast to watch the confrontation, he could do naught to aid the Maryenknyght. The much smaller Sea Wolf carried no artillery and was heavily outnumbered. Nor had it been anyone’s intent that he do more than witness the prince’s safe arrival in France and report back to Bishop Wardlaw.
If the pirates took captives, Jake would follow them and hope to create an opportunity to rescue Jamie and Orkney, at least.
Alyson jumped up, steadying herself against the roll of the ship as she headed toward the door. Chessboard and pieces lay forgotten on the table.
Pulling the door open, she stepped into the passageway just as a crash and instant darkness told her someone had slammed the hatchway shut.
As she struggled to collect her wits, Jamie said in a carefully calm voice, “Do you think those pirates will capture us?”
“Whether they will or not remains to be seen,” she said. Knowing that the boys had explored the ship, she added, “It may be wise for us to hide, in case they do, though. Do you know of a place where you and Will might conceal yourselves?”
“We could go into the hold,” Jamie said, frowning. “Orkney did say that we were no tae go down there, because there will likely be rats. And the captain said we’d no see anything anyway, ’cause he has strict rules against lanterns unless someone else goes along wi’ water tae douse any fire. But with all this wind—”
“Aye,” Will said, nodding. “The way the sea be a-tossing o’ this ship, even a grown man would ha’ trouble staying upright down there wi’ a lantern in hand.”
Eyeing them both, Alyson suspected that the only way either would descend to the hold would be if she and Ciara went with them. Recalling the older woman’s terror of the dark, the possibility of the ship’s sinking if a cannonball struck it, and the way that Ciara’s eyes had widened at Jamie’s mention of rats, Alyson knew she’d have trouble persuading any of them to seek refuge in the hold.
Her usual common sense stirred sharply then.
“I expect that the hold is the first place the pirates would go,” she said. “Whatever else they may do, they’ll surely take what stores we carry and our cargo of hides and wool. Can you think of anywhere else to hide?”
“We’ve a big kist in our cabin like them two yonder,” Will said, pointing to two wooden chests by the wall opposite the shelf bed. “If we climbed in and ye threw a dress or two over us—I’ve me doots any pirate would touch a dress.”
“Aye, sure,” Jamie said. “We might both fit inside ours if we take our things out and scatter them about.”
“Go and do that, then,” Alyson said. “Do you need help?”
“Nay, we’ll do it,” Jamie said, dashing out with Will right behind him.
“Ciara will throw clothing over you and latch the kist,” Alyson shouted.
“I’ll be right along,” Ciara added. She had opened one of Alyson’s kists and was flinging clothing from it onto the bed. As she did, the whole ship shuddered.
“What was that?” Alyson said.
“I been hearing more o’ them booms. Mayhap a cannonball hit the ship.”
“I doubt they’d risk damaging the ship,” Alyson said. “They must want its cargo, after all. Why else would pirates attack us?”
Ciara glanced toward the door that the boys had gone through.
Following her thoughts, Alyson felt a shiver. Nevertheless, she said firmly, “Don’t be daft, Ciara. English pirates could not possibly know who is aboard this ship. I would remind you that it sailed to Edinburgh from France and that we are still flying a French flag. Moreover, England and France are enjoying a truce.”
“France is our ally, m’lady. But for most o’ my life and surely all o’ yours, the French have been at war with England. We should never have got so close to shore.”
“In such awful weather as we’ve had, the captain surely thought it safer,” Alyson said. “You know as well as I do that he could arrange only hasty repairs after the great storm that damaged this ship on its journey to Scotland. He dared not fight the force of the heavy winds and inflowing tides any more than necessary.”
“Get into this kist, m’lady,” Ciara said. “I’ve left a few things at the bottom so ye’ll no be lying on hard wood, and I’ll drape summat over ye. Then I’ll see to the two lads afore I climb into that other kist.”
Alyson nearly protested. But, again, common sense intervened. She and Ciara would be no safer than the boys were if enemies boarded the ship.
Thanks to the Sea Wolf’s rutter, the invaluable record in which Jake noted details learned from experience or from other seamen about every mile of coastline that he or they had sailed, he had identified the outcropping from behind which the five ships had come as Flamborough Head. It jutted from England’s Yorkshire coast some twenty miles south of Scarborough.
He wished he could know what was happening aboard the Maryenknyght. That the merchantman had submitted after the lead English ship fired its cannon told him only that the merchantman was as unarmed as the Sea Wolf was.
He knew Henry of Orkney well enough to be certain that the young earl was reacting strongly to this turn of events. But Henry was no fool and would do nowt to endanger his charge. He and Jamie would be traveling as ordinary passengers, not as a great nobleman and a prince of the Scottish realm.
Even if Henry should so far forget himself as to think of declaring his identity, he would surely realize before he did so that even the powerful Earl of Orkney could not fight off five shiploads of greedy pirates, if that’s what they were. Henry would also understand that identifying himself would suggest to pirates or anyone else that the Almighty had sent them a wealthy earl they could hold for ransom.
Jake also wished he could be sure that the English attackers were just pirates. No one would care for the loss of hides and wool, least of all Henry. Nor would he care if pirates stole the ship’s stores or anything else aboard, as long as they left the young prince alone and the ship seaworthy. And why should they not?
To pirates, Jamie would be just another child—a nuisance to themselves if they took him aboard. The only real danger then would be if they seized the Maryenknyght and decided that its captain, crew, and passengers were expendable.
A sense of unease stirred as these thoughts sped through his mind. He was certain that no other ship had followed the Maryenknyght. But he could not be as certain that the reason for its journey to Edinburgh and back had remained a secret.
A year ago, almost to the day, Jamie’s older brother Davy had died. If the King of Scots died today, Jamie would succeed him, thus setting off a power struggle to determine who would control the throne. The Scots were tired of governors—or regents, as other countries called them—ruling in place of their rightful King.
Many believed that a full-grown man, a strong one, should rule.
Jamie’s uncle, the Duke of Albany, believed he was that man. And Albany stood next after Jamie to inherit the crown. Worse, Albany had a long history of learning things that others did not want him to know.
“May God curse him if he’s arranged this!” Jake growled.
When the five English ships finally disengaged themselves, leaving the Maryenknyght to pitch about in the angry waves, apparently uncontrolled, Jake ordered the Sea Wolf closer. He wondered why the pirates had not sailed their prize into harbor and, more important, if they had left anyone alive aboard.
Having shut the lid of the kist into which Alyson had curled herself, Ciara had run across the passageway to drape clothing over the boys. Meantime, Alyson listened intently but heard only great crashing sounds that made the whole ship tremble. Trying to ignore both sounds and fury, she heard Ciara return at last and begin flinging things from the second kist to the shelf bed.
“Did both boys fit in the one kist, Ciara?”
“Aye, m’lady. But I doubt they are comfortable or that such a hiding place will serve if them villains come down here.”
“Pirates will think only about our cargo,” Alyson said, praying that she was right. “They’ll want to offload it to their ships and won’t spare a thought for these two wee cabins before they do that.”
“I’m none so sure o’ that,” Ciara said. “What if they seize this ship?”
Alyson sighed. “I’d hoped that that dreadful thought would not occur to you. You did not share it with the boys, I trust.”
“Nay, nor would I,” Ciara said “But if they do board—”
“If they do, they do, and we’ll cope as well as we can,” Alyson said.
Another crash rattled the ship. “Do hurry, Ciara. These bangs and shudders grow worrisome, because it feels as if other ships are banging into ours. If the pirates are boarding, you don’t want them to find you!”
“I should bolt the door. Not that it will keep them—”
“Don’t,” Alyson said urgently. “If you bolt it and someone comes, he will know that someone is here. A bolt cannot shoot itself home.”
No reply other than a rustling sound came to her ears, but it told her that Ciara was climbing into the kist. As Alyson waited to hear the thud of its lid closing, another crashing shudder diverted her.
Heavy footsteps thundered in the passageway.
Yearning to tell Ciara to hurry, she dared not make a sound, lest it carry into the passage. As the thought flitted through her mind, she heard the door bang back on its hinges, followed by a cry of alarm from Ciara.
“Here now, what’s this?” a deep voice demanded. “What be a female doing aboard this ship?”
“Get ye gone from here,” Ciara snapped. “Ye’ve nae business troubling a decent woman.”
“To me, lads,” the man shouted. “Come see what I’ve found.”
Ciara screamed, and more feet pounded in the passageway.
Alyson tried to push the lid of her kist open but could not. Evidently, Ciara had slipped the steel pin into the hasp that secured the lid in place.
Alyson bit her lip to keep silent, praying they would not hurt Ciara.
Ciara screamed again. Then Alyson heard the last thing she wanted to hear, when Jamie shouted, “Leave her be, ye gallous beast!”
Sounds of more struggle ensued, and she heard Will’s voice along with Jamie’s and Ciara’s. Other masculine voices joined in, followed by more cries and conflict as captors shoved their captives out the door and along the passageway.
Alyson reached to try the lid of her kist again, only to tense every muscle when a footstep sounded right beside her.
The metallic sound of a pin being slowly drawn from its hasp followed.
She held her breath, afraid to let it out.
A voice, clearly English, shouted from the passageway, “Stir your stumps, Geordie. This devilish tub be a-sinking!”
“God-a-mercy,” the man murmured. Then he was gone.
Pushing against the lid as hard as she could, Alyson realized the effort was useless. Ciara had put the pin in, and the villain had not got it all the way out!
Jake saw long before the Sea Wolf neared it that the Maryenknyght was listing. “Nay, then,” he muttered, amending the thought. “She’s going to go under!”
Beside him, Coll nodded. “She is, aye, sir. But likely they’ve taken all aboard her onto them other ships.” Looking up, he added with a frown, “I think it be starting to rain, but with this wind whipping up the sea as it is, a man cannot be sure.”
“Get us closer,” Jake said. To one of the lads resting nearby, he added, “Fetch my sword from my cabin. I want to see if anyone’s still aboard.”
“She’s like to go under afore ye could search her,” Coll said. “And if we be alongside, she’ll take us down with her.”
“Just get me close enough to see for myself that those villains have not left anyone behind. They’ll have been interested only in her cargo of wool and hides.”
“I doubt they thought of aught but their own hides, sir.”
“If Orkney knew the ship was sinking, he’d have done everything possible to get his young charge out of danger,” Jake reminded him. “Sakes, what the devil… Coll, do you see that? There is someone aboard, and if my eyes do not—”
“Your vision be as good as ever,” Coll said grimly. “That be a female, and by the way she moves, a young one.”
“Bring us alongside the ship,” Jake said in a tone that would brook no argument. He was already scanning the ship’s side, seeking a way up.
The man he had sent for his sword returned with it, and Jake slung it on.
“Someone’s cast a rope over the side yonder near the stern,” Coll said. “But she’s sinking fast. I’d wager that their cannon shot farther and more accurately than they expected, or them villains damaged her when they grappled onto her.”
“The latter, I think,” Jake said, pointing. “That gash there dips below the waterline. But we’ll climb up here. ’Tis a shorter climb, and in this wind and these seas, we’ve no time to try aught else.”
“Sir, with respect, she’s like to go under afore ye can get back to us.”
“We’ll just have to move faster than she does,” Jake said. “Mace, to me!” he shouted. “Bring your sword!”
A fair-haired oarsman on the first bench, nearest the stern, relinquished his oar to another man. Grabbing his sword and sling from under his bench, he stepped to the gangway down the middle of the deck between the two banks of oarsmen, and moved swiftly along it to Jake.
“Aye, Cap’n?” he said as he slung his own longsword across his back.
“You and I are going to board her. At least one person is still on her. But there may be others, and the ship is sinking. Coll, get us near enough to catch that rope. Wait only to see us aboard, and then haul off a safe distance. It is indeed beginning to rain and may soon come down in buckets. Whether it does or not, in the increasing darkness, you’ll likely lose sight of us. If you do, turn back to Filey Bay.”
“Northward, sir? Won’t we be a-following them villains then?”
“We’ll certainly try to learn where they’re going if they take Orkney and his charge with them,” Jake said. “But even if they do, they’ll likely have a lair nearby. They turned back toward Flamborough Head, that great promontory you can still make out yonder to the northwest. I’m thinking they’ll seek shelter until they can sort things out for themselves. I doubt they’ll keep innocent men and boys aboard. Nor are they likely to risk killing them.”
“Sakes, why not?” Coll demanded.
“Because Orkney will identify himself if he must, to protect his charge. He will doubtless say that James is his son and claim that returning them alive will fetch those villains an enormous ransom from the Sinclair family.”
“If he thinks of that,” Coll said.
Mace was silent, eyeing the dangerously listing merchantman narrowly as the Sea Wolf sped toward it, and Jake didn’t blame him.
“Don’t fret,” Jake said. “That rope may have been a wee bit short for us before. Now it’s well within our reach. You go first.”
“Aye, sir,” Mace said.
Jake saw something else. Chuckling, he said, “We’ll be safe enough, Coll. They’ve left their coble on the deck. And with the ship at the angle it is now, Mace and I should be able to launch it ourselves. Then we’ll be fine. Mind you don’t go too far north if we lose you,” he added. “Filey Bay has a long reef at its north end. Check the rutter. Seek a barren patch of sand midway, and we’ll find you in a day or two.”
“Aye,” Coll said, shaking his head at them, indicating—and not for the first time—his firm belief that his master was daft and took too many risks.
They were close enough now for Mace to grab the rope. He went up it without hesitation and hauled himself over the railing.
Jake followed and saw that Mace had gone straight to the coble. He saw no sign of the lass. Then he heard her voice: “Help us! Over here!”
Excerpted from Highland Lover by Scott, Amanda Copyright © 2012 by Scott, Amanda. Excerpted by permission.
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