Read Black Raven's Lady: Highland Lairds Trilogy Online
Authors: Kathleen Harrington
What did make sense, however, was her pressing need to devise a believable reason for wanting to go to Steòrnabhagh. For she surely couldn’t tell Keir the truth. If he knew she was trying to reach Torcall MacMurchaidh—the man he believed to be a traitor—Keir would do everything in his power to prevent it.
ITHIN THE SPACE
of two days, Raine had had enough of being detained in her stuffy cabin. Thankfully she hadn’t been condemned to solitary confinement. Her sea-daddy continued his lessons, teaching her the names of the
’s decks and various compartments.
They were joined by the ship’s two young middies, who were expected to master mathematical calculations and the exact measurements of a galleon’s sheets and yards. The computations were solved in their journals, which would be submitted to the captain at the end of each week for his perusal.
Barrows explained to Raine the importance of their skills at math. A small mistake in plotting navigation could result in arriving at the end of a voyage hundreds of leagues from their intended destination.
The sons of a wealthy Privy Councilor to the king, twelve-year-old Ethan Gibson and his ten-year-old brother, Robbie, would one day take their places as captains in the Scottish navy. They’d been fostered to Keir’s supervision the previous spring in Edinburgh.
Using a worn book containing illustrations sketched for the purpose of instruction, Barrows would point to a drawing on a tattered, yellowed page. Sitting at the small table across from him, the three students would vie to be the first to identify the ship’s section.
The youngsters’ naturally sunny natures filled the cabin with chatter and boisterous competition. When Raine mistakenly identified a main staysail as a main topgallant, the two lads laughed uproariously. And when she called a mizzen sail a jib, they rolled on the floor in hysterics.
Whenever lessons were finished early, Raine would entertain the boys with Celtic wonder tales. “If the Tuatha De Danann become enamored of a comely lad or lassie,” she told them, “they take the helpless mortal to the faery homeland of Avalon, somewhere in the western sea. Our legendary hero, Cúchulainn, was taken by a faery queen, who’d fallen in love with him. There was music and dancing and abundant food and drink at her palace. She kept him there for three years, before acceding to his many requests and allowing him to return to his home.”
“I hope a faery never takes me,” Robbie said, his blue eyes wide with concern.
“Don’t worry,” Ethan replied, punching his brother on the shoulder. “You’re nay comely enough for a faery to fall in love with you.”
Everyone broke into laughter, including the youngster himself.
Still, in spite of the boys’ spirited companionship, being confined to her quarters started to take its toll.
LANCING OUT THE
small window of her cabin on the third morning after Keir delivered his ultimatum, Raine longed to climb up into the rigging with him to watch the sunrise. She admitted reluctantly to herself that she missed the way he’d explained the various sails and their purpose. She missed his teaching her how to recognize the constellations during the stillness of night watch. She missed sharing meals with him in his personal quarters. Keir had always invited one or two men to join them, and the dinner party always enjoyed a lively conversation. Now she ate a solitary meal in her cabin and hated the loneliness.
Restless and bored, Raine felt as though she’d been cut off from the life of the ship. ’Twasn’t Keir, himself, she longed for but the camaraderie of the entire crew. They’d soon be approaching the Isle of Lewis, and Keir intended to set her on shore several days before sailing into the harbor of Steòrnabhagh.
That afternoon, she interrupted Barrows’ lesson with a question of her own. “Would you be kind enough to set our schooling aside for the day? I’ve a request to make.”
Barrows lifted his bushy gray brows and eyed her suspiciously. He’d been in enough trouble on account of her already. Clearly he had no intention of going from the boiling kettle into the flames. “And what would that request be, milady?”
“Please find Laird MacNeil and beg him to spare me a moment of his time.”
Her sea-daddy grinned his approval. “Lesson’s over, gentlemen,” he told the two brothers, who immediately jumped up from their chairs and raced through the open doorway.
“Aye, Lady Raine,” Barrows continued, “I’ll be pleased to take your message to the cap’n. And I daresay, he’ll be happy to receive it for he’s done nothin’ for the last two days but glare at the lot of us and bark orders like a cantankerous ol’ seadog.”
Less than five minutes later, Barrows returned. “The cap’n says he’ll see ye now, milady. I’m to escort ye to him.”
ROM HIS PLACE
on the starboard side of the quarterdeck, Keir watched the bosun’s mate bring Raine up through the companionway and lead her across the main deck.
Keir had no intention of meeting her in private. By God, that was one mistake he wouldn’t make again. Three days ago he’d almost grabbed Raine and pulled her to him. Not in anger as she most likely believed. Nay, ’twasn’t rage that nearly turned him into a slavering beast. ’Twas plain unguarded jealousy and lust. He cringed inwardly when he thought of the revulsion that would have crossed her perfect features had she suspected what was in his thoughts.
The Camerons had been loyal friends to Keir and his brothers for years. He wouldn’t repay their past kindnesses by betraying their trust. For though they may not have sent Raine to him as she’d first claimed, they would expect him to protect her from evil. And that included his baser self.
Keir watched her approach, once more dressed in the borrowed clothes of a cabin boy, with Barrows by her side. Even in the male attire, she exuded an untouchable, inviolable purity. She was femininity in its most perfect form.
Nay, Lady Raine Cameron wasn’t for the likes of the Black Beast’s Spawn. Her mother and uncle would most likely be the first to point out that Raine deserved a young, unblemished gentleman, perhaps the son of an earl or a member of the king’s Privy Council. Hell, his own family would probably be quick to agree, for Keir had a reputation as an inveterate womanizer.
But neither was Raine for the likes of Colin MacRath or Tam MacLean. No man of Keir’s acquaintance was worthy of her. But somewhere in Scotland there had to be an estimable man deserving enough to be her husband.
“Lady Raine,” he greeted with a curt nod when the pair reached him. Glancing to meet Barrows’ eyes alight with rampant curiosity, he dismissed the bosun’s mate with an almost imperceptible jerk of his head. Keir knew better than to say a word within hearing of any man- jack of the crew. In the close quarters of a warship, gossip spread like wildfire. He wasn’t about to feed the flames.
As Barrows moved away, Keir turned his attention back to Raine. “You asked to see me?” he inquired sternly. “I take it you’re ready to tell the truth at last.”
She gazed up at him, her wide-set eyes somber. “Aye,” she replied in a tone of quiet resignation.
“Well,” he prodded impatiently. “I’m waiting.”
“You asked me to tell you the reason I came on board the
. Well the truth is, I embarked on this voyage because I wanted to reach the Isle of Lewis, where I hoped to see the standing stones of Calanais.”
Keir stared at her long and hard, testing to see if she’d blush or turn her gaze away, a sure indication she was lying. He found her explanation hard to fathom. “Why would you want to see that collection of old rocks?”
She released a long, drawn-out sigh, as though unable to believe the absurdity of his question. “Aunt Isabel told me about the ancient stone circles when I was only a child. I want to visit the site and see for myself if there is any truth to the tales told about them.”
“What kind of tales?”
“Tales of wonder and magic.”
Keir stepped closer and bent his head. “Raine,” he said softly, “the clergy frowns upon visits to the standing stones.”
“I don’t care,” she answered with a stubborn lift of her chin.
Her determination didn’t surprise him. Isabel Cameron had imbued Raine with foolish superstitions, including an unshakeable belief in magic. Fully aware of the curious gazes fastened on them, Keir drew a deep calming breath before continuing in a low voice. “What you and your aunt do in the safety of Archnacarry Manor is one thing. Exploring a primitive spot linked to pagan idolatry is another. Do you know, lass, what happens to women who are accused of dabbling in magic?”
A rosy hue spread across her cheeks, indicating that she did, indeed, know that anyone suspected of practicing witchcraft could be burned at the stake. “That’s why I kept my reason for traveling to Lewis a secret,” she said barely above a whisper. “ ’Tis why I made up the story about a cousin having a difficult pregnancy.”
As maddening as Raine’s explanation was, he didn’t doubt the truth of it. Thanks to her befuddled aunt’s influence, Raine had departed the safety of her home and family to go on a dangerous quest to observe the forbidden stones at Calanais.
Keir didn’t have time to argue with her now. At the moment his goal was to sack the castle at Steòrnabhagh and take Donald Dubh Macdonald and Torcall MacMurchaidh prisoners. Then he’d disabuse Raine of the possibility of her errand.
NDER COVER OF
the dense morning fog, the three galleons slipped past the gun emplacement on Arnish Point in line-ahead formation and into the natural sheltered harbor of Steòrnabhagh. Keir had planned to wait for several more days, giving the shore party plenty of time to spike the cannons on the point and return safely to the ship. But with the fortuitous appearance of the fog, he’d moved his timetable for the siege ahead.
’s forecastle, Keir gazed through the drifting mist to the ancient fortress that had been the stronghold of the chiefs of Clan MacMurchaidh for centuries. As the ships tacked into the calm harbor and luffed into position for broadsides just out of reach of the castle’s outdated iron cannons, he recalled the departure of Lady Raine with her capable escorts in the longboat the previous evening.
Along with Barrows, Keir had sent two of his strongest men to guard her. Will MacElvie stood six feet tall with broad shoulders and muscular limbs. Stocky and built like a bull, Davie Swinton had proven his courage in the midst of battle time and again.
Raine seemed to understand he was sending her away for her own good. Seated in the bow of the longboat, she held her blue cape tight about her, the satin-lined hood covering her hair and part of her face. She never once looked back at the
The tiny fishing village of Sanndabhaig boasted only a few small crofts. The fishermen there were little interested in the problems between the clan chiefs of the Hebrides and the king of Scotland. They fished the nearby waters of the Atlantic and raised their flocks of sheep and goats much as their ancestors had for centuries. The sturdy fisher wives would offer the wellborn visitor their warm hospitality and shelter her in a cozy stone hut. Even now Raine was probably waking to the welcome smell of porridge cooking on the open fire. Keir remained certain ’twas the best decision. He was happy knowing she was safe.
Now when the fog gradually lifted, the inhabitants of Castle Murchaidh would be waking to discover a trio of warships with gun-ports open and long-barreled brass cannons ready to commence firing, clearly out of range of the fortification’s ancient breech-loading weapons.
, Keir stood beside his uncle. He waited patiently, giving the castle gunners the time to fire, certain his own ships were safely beyond their reach. He had no wish to demolish the fortress unless absolutely necessary. Once it became obvious the castle was outgunned, the chief of Clan MacMurchaidh might well make the decision to surrender before any great loss of life or the total destruction of his home.
, Fearchar and Colin watched for the
’s signal to begin the siege. Every seaman on board the three galleons stood at his post. Belowdecks the gun crews waited, ready to load and fire the long-range eighteen-pounders.
In the breathless anticipation of the impending battle, the unnatural silence seemed to stretch on endlessly as the last of the morning mist lifted. Into this frozen tableau sailed a bright yellow fishing boat, its single patched sail stretched taut in the cool morning breeze.
“What the devil!” Keir rasped. He raced to the gunwale and watched the boat move steadily across the harbor, sailing directly between the castle and the three privateers bristling with guns. His heart stalled in his chest at the sight. Aboard the small vessel a slender figure wrapped in a blue cape clutched the mast with one hand and held up a piece of white cloth with the other.
“Mother of God,” Macraith choked out in a strangled voice.
Not taking his eyes off Raine, Keir rapped out his orders. “Tell Apollonius to fire a warning shot well ahead of the fishing boat’s bow. And tell the Greek if that cannonball comes anywhere close to Lady Raine, I’ll personally skin him alive. Then lower the cutter for me.”
When the order reached the master gunner on the gun deck below, a single cannon boomed. The shot fell harmlessly into the water well in front of the yellow boat, and her owner immediately reefed his solitary sail and waited to be boarded.
Before the captain’s cutter could be lowered, another vessel moved into the arena. Skimming across the flat water, the
’s longboat closed in on the becalmed fishing boat.
N THE YELLOW
sailboat, Raine watched in fright as Barrows, MacElvie, and Swinton, pumping their oars as fast as they could, pulled alongside the fishing craft. She would never have willingly put them in danger. She thought the castle’s bombardment was still days away. Dear Lord above, the dense fog had hid their imminent peril until it was nearly too late. “Get in the longboat, milady,” Barrows shouted. “Quick! Quick! Before they start bombarding the castle!”
“You, there,” MacElvie hollered at the fisherman whose boat she’d hired. “Help the lady with her things. If you don’t do as we say, you bloody bastard, our captain will seize your boat and use it for cannon practice.”
That brought him to the side of the sailboat. The tall, sea-weathered man heaved Raine’s canvas bag carrying her personal effects into the longboat. “Please, I beg you, my lady,” he said, “I can’t make a living without my wee boat. I’ll gladly return the unicorns you paid me.”
“Of course,” she agreed, giving Barrows her hand and clambering into the longboat. She looked back at the fisherman. “Keep the coins,” she told him. “You’ve earned them with your courage. Thank your wife for her kind hospitality.”
DING WITH HIS
uncle at the
’s gunwale, Keir had watched the brief, animated discussion amongst the seamen in the longboat and the fisherman on the yellow sailboat. Relief washed over him when Raine joined the
Deprived of his valuable cargo, the fisherman immediately spread sail and scooted across the harbor toward the town’s port and out of harm’s way.
“Look,” Macraith told Keir, pointing to the castle’s battlements. “They’ve struck their colors.” They watched as the MacMurchaidh clan banner came down the flagpole and dropped out of sight.
“Aye, and thank God for that,” Keir said, as he hurried toward the main deck.
The crew on board the
waited in mute dismay as the three men in the longboat plied their oars and quickly came alongside the galleon. Lady Raine was handed up the ladder first and helped over the side, followed by Barrows, who started his explanation even before his feet hit the deck.
“The lassie gave us the slip last night whilst we be sleepin’, Cap’n,” he began, as MacElvie and Swinton clambered over the gunwale behind him.
Speechless with fury, Keir reached Barrows in an instant, grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and the seat of his pants and hurled him overboard. The other two seamen immediately jumped over the side, saving him the effort.
Raine gasped in horror. She raced to the railing and looked down. Several crewmen had already descended to the longboat and were fishing the drenched men out of the cold water with boat hooks.
She whirled to find Keir stalking toward her, his face dark with rage.
“You beast!” she called, not caring who heard her. “Those men could have drowned!”
Without saying a word, he grasped Raine by the waist and picked her up, lifting her entirely off her feet. For a moment, she panicked, certain he was about to fling her over the side as well.
“I can’t swim!” she screamed in terror, clutching at his shirt.
Not a member of the crew moved to save her.
Raine had the sickening realization that, to a man, they would stand by and watch as their commander tossed her overboard to her death.
Grim-faced, Keir set her back down and released her. His eyes crackled with a cold, banked anger. “There was never any danger of them drowning,” he said in a low, terrible voice. “Every man of my crew knows how to swim.”
Keir turned to his uncle. “I’ll leave you to escort the lady to her cabin before I do something we’ll all regret.”
Macraith took Raine’s elbow and gently turned her toward the companionway.
“He’s a savage brute,” she said, making no attempt to lower her voice.
Macraith shook his head. “Nay, you’re wrong there, milady. ’Twas either toss the three idiots overboard or have them flogged, which they richly deserved,” he continued calmly as he led her down the steps to her cabin. “And my nephew would nay have a man flogged whilst you’re on board. So the fools ken they got away lightly enough, seeing that your safety was in their hands and they failed in their duty.
“Well, I—” she began and then stopped, as a dawning awareness of her own culpability cut short her explanation. Every man on board ship realized the three men’s dunking had been her fault. Had they been flogged, the crew would have blamed her for every stroke of the lash.
The previous evening she’d bribed the fisher wife and waited until her three guards were sleeping. Then along with the fisherman, Raine had slipped out of the village and onto his yellow sailboat, just as the sun came up. She’d planned to reach the town of Steòrnabhagh and from there ride the short distance to Castle Murchaidh long before the bombardment started.
HE CASTLE FEL
without a shot being fired.
Torcall MacMurchaidh and his guest, Donald Dubh, had sailed out of Steòrnabhagh harbor with their men-at-arms two weeks before, leaving only a small band of men to secure the fortress.
A talkative captain of the guard, relieved to still be alive, told the disappointed invaders that no one had expected privateers coming from the north. They’d been assured by informers that the royal fleet was amassing at the Dumbarton shipyards and would sail from the south for the Outer Hebrides in the next few weeks. Hence, MacMurchaidh’s own galleon was hurrying southward to meet up with his Macdonald allies in anticipation of a sea battle.
No one was more disappointed to hear the news than Raine. She’d risked so much only to have her hopes dashed once again. She hadn’t been allowed to set foot onshore at Steòrnabhagh, let alone visit her father’s surrendered fortress.
She’d believed that if she could reach the castle, she would meet the man who’d abandoned her pregnant mother. She wanted to ask him why, during all the years that followed, he’d never made a single attempt to seek Lady Nina’s forgiveness. Or learn anything about his illegitimate child.
Raine had learned from Aunt Isabel that Torcall MacMurchaidh had married and fathered three sons. His third wife had died in childbirth fifteen years ago, after giving birth to a daughter.
Heartsick and disillusioned, Raine stood at the
’s taffrail and watched the castle grow smaller in the distance, as the three men-of-war sailed in line formation out of the harbor and into the Minch.
Raine knew that Keir remained on the quarterdeck above her, watching the filling sails and the men scampering amongst the ratlines and out onto the yards with unconscious grace. He hadn’t come near her since that awful moment when she thought he was about to toss her overboard. After that, she’d never caught him so much as looking in her direction.
Dear Lord above, there was no doubt about it now.
He hated her.
She’d known since she was seventeen that Keir disliked her. He’d all but avoided her since that summer he’d come to Archnacarry Manor with Lachlan for a visit. Until then, Keir had been friendly enough in his rough, outspoken way. He’d sometimes teased her when she was a child, tugging gently on her braids and quizzing her on the multiplication tables. Truth to tell, she’d always compared Keir to his handsome older brother and found him wanting. ’Twas Lachlan who entertained her family with his Spanish guitar and magnificent voice. ’Twas Lachlan who had the looks of an archangel and the manners of a knight-errant on a quest for the Holy Grail.
When Lachlan MacRath had left for England the previous spring to escort the Tudor princess to her wedding in Edinburgh, Raine had known he would come back with his pregnant English mistress. She’d seen it in a vision and had shared the secret with Aunt Isabel.
The summer before, when she’d just turned seventeen, Raine had also seen Keir in a vision, which she’d shared with no one.
No one at all.
For at the time, the dream seemed to evoke an erotic longing she’d never felt before. She’d refused to accept it then. And now, knowing that he hated her, she no longer needed to worry that the vision might come true. She had no intention of being added to Keir MacNeil’s long list of discarded mistresses.
Keir had issued the invitation for Raine to join him at the evening meal, the stubborn lass appeared in the open doorway. He watched as she stopped short, her wary gaze flying around the otherwise empty cabin and then back to meet his eyes. She still wore the shirt and breeches of a cabin boy, but her ebony hair streamed over her shoulders, as though she’d been loosening her braid when his summons reached her.
“Don’t worry, Lady Raine,” Keir drawled, rising from his place at the table. “We won’t be dining alone. Macraith will be joining us shortly.”
She remained at the door, stiff and unsmiling, with her hands held sedately in front of her. When she spoke her voice sounded reedy and thin. “First I’d like to apologize for putting the lives of your three men in peril. If I’d known your ships would sail into the harbor that morning, I would never have risked our lives or the life of the innocent fisherman. I’d been told you wouldn’t begin the siege for two more days.”
Keir could read the sincere contrition in her worried eyes. He knew what a blow to her pride she’d suffered in humbly asking his forgiveness. “I changed our plans to take advantage of the fog,” he explained, “and I accept your apology. I’d also like your promise never to leave the
without my permission.”
Raine stared at him in obvious consternation. She lifted her chin and scowled. “I promise I will never put your men in jeopardy again.”