My Captive Highlander
The twenty-oar birlinn sliced through the rough waters off Scotland's west coast. The cool wind lashing at him, Shamus MacKenzie glanced up at the dark clouds hovering over the gray-violet sunset. A storm was fast approaching.
His oldest brother, Cyrus, Chief of Clan MacKenzie, had sent him and his two brothers, Dermott and Fraser, along with full crews on their two galleys to escort the Earl of Rebbinglen to Glasgow. Having accomplished their task five days ago, the brothers and clan members were now on their way home. The weather had been calm until this night.
Black clouds rolled in faster and faster. Lightning flashed, near blinding him. They were in for a thrashing.
"Whose canny idea was it to leave Inveraray?" Fraser grumbled behind him.
Shamus turned, barely able to make out his younger brother's blue eyes and black hair in the dimness.
He well knew Fraser would've liked to have stayed at Inveraray for a fortnight with all the lovely ladies. "Cyrus wanted us to return home forthwith," Shamus said loudly enough to be heard over the rising wind. If they'd stayed any longer, no doubt his irritable older brother would've sent a fleet of galleys to fetch them home.
Though now, he wished they had waited a day or two to continue their journey north.
Thunder boomed and the western wind off the sea blasted them. The oarsmen heaved and grunted, trying to stay the course as the galley rode up and down through the giant swells.
"Stay away from the rocks!" Shamus commanded. The white caps and swirling currents betrayed the dangerous hidden boulders closer to shore.
The helmsman shouted something Shamus couldn't hear over the wind.
Drops of rain stung his face, and a moment later, pounded him in cold sheets.
Saints, he'd never been at sea in such a quick and terrible gale. Blood pounded in his ears as he tried to figure out a course of action. How could he keep his younger brother and his clansmen safe?
Dermott manned the other galley. During a lightning flash, Shamus' gaze scanned over the rough waters and he glimpsed the other vessel some distance behind them.
"May God protect us all," he whispered, salty seawater splashing into his mouth.
Torrents of chill rain drove against them. Though the sail was down, the fearsome wind, along with the enormous waves, propelled the birlinn eastward, toward the shore and the treacherous unseen boulders just beneath the churning surface.
"Stay the course!" Shamus commanded, scrambling over two thwarts and joining the helmsman in the stern. He grabbed hold of the rudder, helping to steer. He squinted through the rain, able to see only the outline of the mainland. The torches on shore they'd been using to help gauge their route had recently been doused in the downpour. The brilliant flashes of lightning revealed little but the violent sea.
A massive wave crashed into the birlinn and sent it careening into a deep trough. Shouts sounded all around him as Shamus grappled to keep his hold on the slippery rudder, his stomach dropping.
Was this the end? Would they all die this night?
"Hold on, Fraser!" he yelled.
The oak hull crashed against the rocks and splintered. The massive jolt knocked his hands from the rudder and Shamus plummeted overboard into the icy depths.
Despite the shock, he forced himself to hold his breath, kick his feet and swim toward the surface. Fear for his brothers and the crews of both galleys infused him with strength. Fortunately, most of them knew how to swim, but if some had been hurtled into the rocks, they might be badly injured.
When his head broke through the seawater, he barely had time to inhale before another powerful wave crashed over him, driving him down again. The water roared in his ears. Flailing, he propelled himself to the surface with his legs.
After inhaling a breath of air, he yelled, "Fraser!"
The lightning overhead illuminated naught in the dim gloaming but the giant boulders protruding from the sea. Had their clan's other birlinn been smashed to pieces, or had Dermott and the crew managed to stay offshore enough to avoid the peril? Where were Fraser and his own crew?
Shamus flung the wet hair from his eyes and yelled his brother's name again. This time when the lightning flashed, all he saw were fragments of their birlinn's broken hull floating out to sea.
"Saints," he hissed. Surely they weren't dead. "Dear God, protect them," he whispered.
Another great wave rose up west of him. He ducked beneath the surface to avoid the worst of the hit. The force of it sent him tumbling deeper. His head and shoulder slammed into a gigantic rock. Pain pounded through him and his head spun. Feeling the boulder anchored in the sea, he climbed up it for a breath of air and held tight. When the next wave struck, he couldn't hold out. The power of it sent him rolling through the waves and all went black.
Maili, younger sister of the MacDonald chief, awoke, gasping for breath in the cool darkness of her bedchamber in Bearach Castle.
Cold seawater had enveloped her. So real. She placed her hands over her head. Nay, her hair was dry.
"Just a nightmare," she whispered, then inhaled sharply and tried to calm her racing heartbeat.
Lightning flared outside and thunder boomed. She leapt up and hurried to her chamber's narrow window. All was dark except when lightning illuminated the loch's rugged and deserted shore line.
Fear iced her veins and she shivered. Someone was out there… in the storm… in the turbulent sea beyond the saltwater loch. His head and shoulder had hit a rock and the pain had been blinding. She'd felt it all as if it were happening to her.
Who was he?
Not one of her kinsmen. Nay, she didn't recognize the man. He was a stranger.
She pressed her eyes closed, once again feeling torn about the special ability she'd possessed since birth. Was it a gift or a curse? Her family hated that she had "the sight" and at times feared her. Even her tyrannical older brother, who had taken over as chief last year when their beloved father had passed, often eyed her warily and gave her a wide berth. Did Elrick fear she would put a curse on him if he didn't please her?
She wished she could, but she knew naught of curses, magic or witchcraft.
What of the man in the sea? Squinting against the bursts of lightning, she sensed nothing from him now. Had he drowned? She couldn't go out to find him, for the storm raged on and her brother's guards would never allow her beyond the gates at this hour. Besides, they would all think her mad.
They did anyway.
Maybe the drowning man had only been a bad dream and not something that was actually happening.
"Please, let it be so," she whispered.
"What is it, m'lady?" her young maid, Anora, asked from her pallet before the fireplace where only the embers glowed.
"The storm awoke me," Maili said.
"Aye, 'tis a bad one."
Maili couldn't stop her eyes from searching the shore every time lightning illuminated it. Someone was out there. She felt him again, as if he were clawing his way from the darkness.
"Do you see something?" Anora asked.
"Nay, 'tis only… I felt something… as if a man were drowning… out there."
"Oh," the maid said in a small voice.
Her strange gift frightened the maids, especially Anora.
Maili wished she could scramble down to the shore and see for herself if a man had washed up, but she didn't ken why she should care. What if he were a dangerous outlaw or pirate? He might kidnap her and hold her for ransom.
Men were a mystery to her. Over the past few years, she'd had three offers of marriage and three subsequent rejections… once the rumors about her had reached the men's ears. They called her the MacDonald witch, or the Bearach witch.
She was no witch; she simply knew things she shouldn't… they claimed. To her, 'twas natural to see things in her mind which were happening at a great distance or in the future, things she could not see with her eyes or hear with her ears. When she'd been a small child, she'd assumed everyone had this ability, but when she'd mentioned it to her nursemaid and her mother, they'd eyed her fearfully.
They always whispered behind her back, but she knew what was in their minds.
A sudden chill gripped her. She hurried back to the bed and crawled beneath the warm blankets. She could not sense the man now. All was empty and dark. Though she didn't know him, she felt hollow inside. How could she miss someone she'd never met?
Distant shouts awoke Shamus. Where the blazes am I? When he opened his eyes a crack to the bright sunlight, pain ricocheted through his skull and his whole body. He muttered a curse and tried to make sense of the situation. His plaid and shirt were wet and cold. He lay on an unfamiliar, pebble-strewn beach. Waves crashed nearby.
When he squeezed his eyes closed against the blinding sun, images came to him—the lightning and waves of the storm. The fierce wind. The broken shards of the galley smashed against the rocks.
Fraser? Where was he… and Dermott? And the rest of his clansmen? Shamus lifted his head, wondering if they'd issued the shouts he'd heard. He squinted along the shore and spotted three unfamiliar men swathed in plaids scrambling over the massive boulders and rushing toward him, a sword in each of their hands.
"What the hell?" he muttered and shoved to his feet. The pain that latched onto his left shoulder almost sent him crashing to the ground again. Grinding his teeth, he just managed to stay upright. Blackness threatened. His head swam and he staggered, the pain in it throbbing anew. He grabbed for the sword at his side but 'twas gone. Damnation, he must have lost it in the storm.
His dirk. His hand closed around the familiar grip. Thank the saints 'twas still in place. He drew the foot-long weapon from the scabbard. Holding onto a boulder, he tried to take a defensive position against the three warriors advancing on him.
Who the devil were they? And why did they look like they wanted to kill him?
A dirk against three swords?
'Twas useless. He needed to climb up the cliff further along the shore. In a limping run, he charged in that direction. After a moment, he glanced back. 'Slud! They were still gaining on him. His toe caught on a stone and he slammed onto the ground. Growling at the pain lashing through him, he grabbed a fist-sized rock and hurled it at his closest pursuer's head. It struck his shoulder and he shouted. His two cohorts rushed Shamus. One kicked the dirk from his hand.
"Who are you, stranger?" one of the men asked, holding the sword's tip too close to Shamus' neck.
"Shamus of Clan MacKenzie. The chief's brother," he said, clenching his teeth against the agonizing pain. Surely they would treat him well if they knew who his brother was. Cyrus held a great deal of power and territory in the northwest of Scotland and the Western Isles. "Our birlinn wrecked last night during the storm." He glanced at his shoulder and the torn sleeve of his blood-soaked doublet.
"MacKenzie," one of the men growled as if 'twas a foul word.
"Aye, and if he's the chief's brother…," another said.
Grinding his teeth against the pain, Shamus slowly forced himself to his feet and surveyed the calculating looks on the warriors' faces. Each of them held a sword directed at Shamus.
"I ken all about the MacKenzies." The brown-haired, bushy-bearded man narrowed his eyes. "Your clan killed my father and my uncle at Morar."
"Which clan are you?" Shamus asked, fearing he already knew the answer.
"MacDonald of Moidart."
"'Twas a battle," Shamus said. "Not murder." Hell, couldn't he have come to his senses anywhere but on MacDonald soil? The MacKenzies and MacDonalds had engaged in a furious feud almost twenty years ago when Shamus was only a lad. The conflict had been a topic much discussed during his childhood. All had been resolved by the king's hand when he'd granted Shamus' father a charter for the land in dispute, and his father had also paid the MacDonalds a large payment.
"Dead is dead," the bearded man grumbled through clenched teeth.
"Not by my hand," Shamus said in a reasonable tone. "Nor did you three kill any of my kin. We were all lads then."
"The chief will want to speak to you," the tall, lanky MacDonald man said.
"Aye, he'll have a cozy, dark chamber for you below stairs." The third man—the one he'd stoned earlier—smirked.
The dungeon? The bastards were going to imprison him. He grabbed for the nearest man's sword arm and gripped his wrist so he'd be forced to relinquish his blade. But, with his injuries, Shamus found his normal strength flagging. They toppled to the ground, pain shooting through him anew. The other two MacDonald clansmen landed blows against his face and chest. Possessed of a sudden fury and survival instinct, Shamus fought them with all his might. When something struck his head, all went black again.
My Captive Highlander copyright 2015 Vonda Sinclair
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Formerly in the Kissing the Highlander anthology!