Highland Raider – Amy Jarecki

Retreat!” Angus bellowed above the thunderous tumult of battle. Swords clashed, barbed maces thudded into iron mail while dying men shrieked in a fight no mortal could win. Sidestepping toward the shore, he thrust out his shield, stopping an attacker with the deadly spike jutting from its center. Within his next heartbeat, Angus drove his sword into the gullet of another. “To the boats!” “They outnumber us ten to one,” shouted Raghnall, still fighting like a man crazed. “Go now,” Angus ordered, as he cut down another, creating a gap for his men to escape. “Raghnall, I commanded ye to withdraw!” The man-at-arms leapt in front of Angus, fending off the army as the gap closed. “Not until ye’re aboard, m’lord.” Slinging his targe to his back, Angus grasped the man’s plaid and dragged him into the surf. “There are too many of them and I’ll not see ye killed this day.” Behind them, MacDonald warriors had already taken up oars in the nearest birlinn, its sail billowing with a fierce westerly, thank the gods. His boots filled with water and slowed his progress, though Angus gnashed his teeth and surged ahead with all his strength, defying the tug from murderous kelpies of the deep. He tossed the enormous sword he’d inherited from his father over the side and summoned the dregs of his strength to haul himself into the hull. Raghnall landed with a thud beside him. Gael MacDonald thrust a helping palm in front of Angus’ face.

“We feared we’d lost ye, m’lord.” “Never.” Taking the offered hand, Angus let his man tug him to his feet, though nothing could have prepared him to face the massacre on the shore behind them. Worse, the two men who’d led the charge were already bound and gagged. All but two of the birlinns Angus had provided for this mishappen raid were alight, flames leaping where they moored just shy of the sands. “My God,” growled Raghnall, leaning heavily on the rail as he sucked in deep breaths. “’Tis amazing anyone survived,” said Gael. “I fear the king’s brothers are lost.” The man-at-arms pounded his fist on the side of the boat. “Those hapless bastards will be executed for certain.

” Gulping against his urge to wretch, Angus turned away and headed for the tiller. Before they set out, he had told Robert the Bruce this was a stargazer’s plan, but the king chose to ignore his warning. Regardless of what Angus predicted, he had already given his word—committed sixty men and five of his fleet to Scotland’s cause, which set the bile to churning in his gullet. ’Twas a foolish risk, though one he’d recklessly hoped was worth taking if it meant ridding the Hebridean Isles of the Lord of Lorn and his clan of MacDougall scourge. Those feuding bastards sided with Longshanks. They’d killed his brother, the man who ought to still hold the title of Lord of Islay. Come what may, Angus would pledge his soul to any king who promised to help him in his quest to claim vengeance. Raghnall sat on the bench in front of the tiller and took up an oar. “Robert never should have divided our forces.” Angus ground his molars.

He’d argued the same to no avail. From the outset there’d been nary a choice—side with Bruce or side with Longshanks, even though at one time they’d all pledged fealty to the English crown. ’Twas difficult to believe an alliance with the man who claimed himself overlord of Scotland once seemed the right thing to do— until the bastard had become a tyrant. Nonetheless, Scotland had been embattled for nearly a score of years and her sons were not yet ready to take on the fiercest army in Christendom. Aye, the newly crowned King of Scots had spent most of the winter in hiding. Now His Grace had only begun to raise an army and the damn mutton-head decided to split his forces—attack the northern and southern borders of his ancestral lands. Although, if Angus wore the man’s cloak, he’d thirst for retribution as well. But before he sent his kin into battle, he would have made certain they had the numbers needed to face Edward’s army. As the birlinn sailed into the North Sea, Angus bore down on the tiller and pointed her westward. His losses had been heavy, but not as devastating as those of the king.

Moreover, Angus should have been the man to lead the charge. He should have been the one the English captured—rather than taking up the rear, no matter how much the Bruce’s brothers had argued. He may have been overruled from the start, but never again. He was Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of Islay, and he intended to protect clan and kin no matter what. As the boat chased the setting sun, the dreaded truth weighed heavily upon his shoulders, yet the hours passed in a blur. By the time they reached the promontory on the southern end of the Isle of Islay, Dunyvaig Castle was but a black shadow against the night sky—looming like the murky abyss in Angus’ heart. “It looks as if the king has returned,” said Gael, pointing to a row of MacDonald birlinns used in the attack on Turnberry. Even if the king had failed, more men must have survived the northern raid for certain. Ready for a confrontation, Angus disembarked first. Raghnall hastened to catch him and walked at his shoulder as they made their way up the hill and into the great hall of the keep.

“What are ye planning to tell the Bruce?” asked Angus’ most trusted man. “The truth.” “Aye? Ye aim to tell the King of Scots he sent his brothers on a fool’s errand? ’Cause that’s the reality of it. Damnation, Scotland’s never going to win this war.” Angus stopped and grabbed his man by the throat. By the gods, he loved Raghnall as a brother, but he’d not tolerate anyone who bleated words of everlasting doom. “We may have lost this battle but, mark me, I’m no’ aiming to lose another.” Raghnall threw out his palms. “Forgive me,” he croaked. “I spoke out of turn.

” Releasing his grip, Angus shook off his ire. “Och, I’m every bit as disappointed as ye are, lad. We’ve not but to face our failures, pull ourselves together, and persevere.” “I’d be happier about it with you at the helm.” “I’m no king,” Angus growled. “How can ye say that? The blood of Somerled flows through your veins. Besides, ye look as if ye’ve been kissed by the sun itself.” Rather than reply, Angus continued to trudge along the path. Aye, the great NorseGaelic king, Somerled, had formed the Lordship of the Isles and were it not for the marauding MacDougalls, the entirety of the Hebrides would be well and truly under the MacDonalds’ banner. If only Alasdair were still alive to claim it.

But the burden of the lordship had fallen to Angus, a mere second son. “Fairhair has returned!” shouted the sentry from atop the baily walls. Angus snorted. He’d been referred to thus since he was a wee bairn and, at one time, the epithet caused him consternation, even though his ancestor Harald Fairhair had reigned as King of Norway. When they were lads, Alasdair had oft poked fun and thought his younger brother weak, until Angus grew larger and stronger. Now he’d met no man who could best him, though the name Fairhair had stuck. Every time the men called it out, he was reminded of his mishappen youth—and the triumph of besting his elder brother, God rest his soul. Tonight, the weight of an anvil hung about his neck. Not only had good men lost their lives, Angus had naught but to face the king. As he strode through the sea gate and toward the doors to the Dunyvaig keep, his feet grew sluggish, the fatigue from the battle made facing his duty all the more repugnant.

“Greetings, m’lord,” called a pair of sentries as they opened the heavy oaken doors. Angus gave a tight-lipped nod. No salutations were in order for this day’s failure. Judging by the music and merriment coming from the great hall, the raid to the north had been a success. To my very bones, I pray they fared better than my sorry lot. Indeed, the ale was flowing, the piper and fiddler playing, but as soon as Angus stepped inside, the merrymakers took one look at the grim expression he wore upon his face and the hall fell silent. Upon the dais, King Robert slowly lowered the tankard from his lips. He first looked to Angus, then his gaze trailed beyond. Any joy that may have shone in his eyes turned to black cinders. Steeling himself, Angus removed his helm, strode to the dais, and climbed the steps.

At the top, he dropped to one knee, bowing his head. “My Lord King.” “What news from Loch Ryan?” “We were ambushed, Your Grace. Upon our approach, it first appeared there were no more than a handful of soldiers guarding the bay. However, after we disembarked, Edward’s army set upon us like ghosts descending from the trees.” As the silence swelled through the air, Angus didn’t move. He barely breathed. He focused on the floor, his knee grinding into the unforgiving hardwood in front of the high table where most days he presided as Lord of Islay. There he knelt as time stopped, his helm tucked in his arm, his fair head bent to a king whose next act might be to sever it from his body. “Where are the others? Did ye not return together?” “All dead.

” Angus looked up and met Robert’s hard stare. “Your brothers Lord Alexander and Lord Thomas led the charge as agreed. They were captured early on. We were outnumbered ten to one—out-armed and out-armored as well. Five birlinns set sail. Only two returned.” “And yet ye sailed for home in one of the fortunate two?” asked the king, the same question Angus had grappled with ever since catching sight of the Bruce’s brothers being bound and gagged as his birlinn made its escape. He must offer no excuses. “I was, sire.” Robert pounded his fist on the table with such force, goblets and tankards teetered, their contents sloshing.

“Fie!” Angus stood and approached. “I swear on my brother’s grave, I would trade places with your kin here and now.” “Aye?” the Bruce scoffed. “Yet there ye stand, mayhap bloodied, but alive and otherwise unscathed whilst my brothers will doubtless suffer the same fate as Niall and William Wallace. Am I to have no family remaining when the time comes to march on Stirling?” Angus could provide no answer. The king was aware of their plans—Alexander and Thomas were eager to lead the charge, eager to claim accolades for a victory while the MacDonald forces were ordered to take up the rear and attack with a second wave. “What of Turnberry?” he dared to ask. “We captured the village and Lord Percy has fled. I’ve left the task of seizing the castle in Sir Douglas’ capable hands.” The news posed as much of a relief as it did a slap to the face.

“Perhaps if I had sent the Black Douglas in your stead, matters would have been different at Loch Ryan,” the king added, the jibe hitting its mark. Angus deserved such a retort and more. “Only two ships returned?” asked Sir Arthur Campbell, sitting at the king’s right. “How many men lost?” “As I said, two birlinns returned. The rest were set afire.” Angus gripped the hilt of his sword. Good God, the bitterness of his next words might slay him. “Two and ninety lives lost.” “But not your kin,” groused the Bruce. Angus scowled.

His clan alone had lost twoscore of good fighting men but saying so would only further incite the king’s ire. If only he had insisted on leading the charge, at least one of the Bruce’s brothers may have returned to tell the tale. “Losing so many boats and soldiers will cripple us,” said Sir Robbie Boyd, a young knight who sat on the king’s left. In truth, had Angus the use of the skill of Douglas, Campbell, and Boyd this day, their losses might have been far less. The king’s expression grew even darker. But no matter how much the man would like to heft the blame of this day’s tragedy upon Angus’ shoulders, the burden was the Bruce’s to bear. Though the truth gave Angus no comfort. Not only were lives lost, clan MacDonald was now seen as unworthy in His Grace’s eyes, a fact that stung more bitterly than a hive of angry bees. Just as Angus steeled himself to be seized by the guard and hung in his own tower’s gibbet, the king leaned forward, resting his forehead in his palms. “I’ve no choice but to appeal to Ulster.

” Campbell reached for a pewter ewer of ale. “With all due respect, Lord King, he is aligned with Edward.” “Mayhap, but Longshanks is the same bastard who has captured his daughter, my wife, mind ye. The miserable sop has imprisoned her in some frigid dungeon in Wales for all we ken. Elizabeth is of Ulster’s blood. The earl must have some sense of decency, some sense of justice.” “I reckon ’tis worth pursuing,” Boyd agreed. “But we go in ready for a fight.” “Nay.” The Bruce grabbed his eating knife and pointed it toward Angus’ heart.

“We go in bearing the flag of parley—and a well-fortified retinue.” “Aye,” Angus agreed. “And this time I’m no’ staying with the bloody boats.” “WHERE ARE YE OFF TO NOW?” asked Finovola. “I thought the countess said you were to have the embroidery completed for your gift to Lord O’Doherty afore Saint Valentine’s Day.” “And what if I do not?” Anya loved her sister, but the lass had no sense of adventure. “His Lordship will be none the wiser and I can present the linens to him on our wedding day.” If there was to be a marriage. She had been not quite betrothed, and more or less promised, to the man for two years, yet the date still had not been set. Unfortunately, however, it seemed Anya wasn’t destined to be waiting for the rest of her days.

Lord O’Doherty was due to arrive for the Saint Valentine’s feast two days hence, when he planned to finalize the details of the marriage contracts with her guardian, the Earl of Ulster. Anya cringed every time she thought of marrying O’Doherty. In truth, she’d been reticent about the idea ever since her guardian had proposed it. Why was it only men were allowed adventure? Would it be too much to ask to see a bit of the world before she married? Goodness, even a jaunt to Dublin or London might be welcome. Finovola twirled across the floor of the bedchamber the two sisters shared. “If I were you, I’d be over the moon with glee. Imagine it, oh, sister mine. Ye are to be wed to a fine Irish lord. Ye’ll have your own keep to run, and servants aplenty.” “Mayhap.

” Yes, Chahir O’Doherty was a lord, though an underling of the Earl of Ulster, who had assumed guardianship of Anya and her sister after their father’s untimely death. Her intended was fine-enough looking, she supposed, though a bit dull. Months ago, they had strolled atop the wall-walk together and after they’d spanned the distance between the first two towers, they had absolutely naught to say. At first, Anya had tried to find some activity they both might enjoy, but they may as well have been on opposite shores of Ireland for all they had in common. The notion of marriage filled her with more dread than warmth and no matter what Finovola said, the longer it took to finalize the contracts and the terms of her dowry, the better. “Lord O’Doherty may come to Carrickfergus on the morrow and tell the earl he has had a change of heart.” Finovola stopped dancing and dropped her hands to her sides. “Whyever would he do such a thing?” “Perhaps he has fallen in love with another.” “Nay!” Stamping her foot, the lass turned as red as the scarlet thread Anya used to make the roses on her godawful embroidery. Her sister was such a dear—thoughtful of others, always dutiful.

If only Finovola were the elder of the two girls, she could marry His Lordship. “Lord O’Doherty would never renege on his word. Heavens, defy the Earl of Ulster? It simply is not done.” And there was Anya’s conundrum. No one ever defied their guardian. Even if Chahir O’Doherty loved another, he would still proceed with the marriage. If only Anya were able to ask him if he found her appealing, or clever, or interesting. In truth, Finovola was far prettier with golden hair and flawless skin. The two sisters couldn’t be more opposite. Anya had dark brown hair and a splay of freckles across the bridge of her nose.

She was shorter than the withers of a wee pony and stout to boot, while willowy Finovola was tall, thin, and graceful. But neither Anya’s adventurous spirit nor Finovola’s beauty would ever prevent them from walking down the aisles of their fates. They were the daughters of Lord Guy O’Cahan and destined to wed for the benefit of augmenting their future husbands’ lands, riches, and power. Alas, if only she could meet someone, fall in love with him, and sail into the sunset on a journey of new beginnings and fascinating discoveries. Why was it love matches abounded throughout Ireland for everyone except the highborn? Anya tied her cloak and slung her satchel over her shoulder. “I’m nearly finished with my drawing and Lord only knows how much longer I’ll have the freedom to slip outside the castle walls.” “Ye hardly have the freedom now.” She kissed her sister’s cheek. “I must complete it today whilst the weather is fine. This is the last time—at least afore the feast, I give ye my word.

” Without further argument, Anya slipped out the door and hastened through the corridor until she reached the narrow stairs leading to the cellars. She stopped and listened for a moment. Though the keep consisted of five stories, Anya could detect a guard’s heavy footsteps all the way down to the bottom of the stairwell. After hearing nothing, she tiptoed around and around until she reached the dark cellars. She’d been using this route for seven years and needed no light to show her the way. Besides, torches were dangerous. They brought too much attention. If her guardian ever heard how often Anya left the castle to steal coveted time alone, she’d be disciplined for certain. She ran her fingers along the damp walls, turning left, then right, then left again until daylight shone through the bars of the forgotten old cellar gate. Anya dug in her satchel, pulled out a key, and slipped it into the rusty lock.

Shortly after she’d arrived, she found the key hidden behind a loose stone near the hearth in her chamber. A slip of velum was attached to the loop with a bit of twine. Upon the note was written two words: vinariam porta, the Latin for cellar gate. Of course, having been tutored in Latin as well as being a bit of an adventurer, Anya immediately went searching for the mysterious lock to fit the key. She let herself out of the captive tower, locked the gate for good measure, and returned the key to her satchel. Pulling the hood of her sealskin cloak low over her brow to ensure she wouldn’t be recognized, Anya quickly skirted the shore, ever so careful to stay away from the prying gazes of villagers who tended the earl’s livestock and whatnot. She hastened up the hill to a small outcropping where she’d be sheltered from winter’s bitter wind—straight to her own little alcove. By the saints, it was good to be alone in her secluded hideaway. With her warm cloak wrapped snuggly about her person, she sat in the comfort of the grass and pulled out her scroll of velum and charcoal. Generally, Anya drew flowers and animals, but because she was soon to be taken away from Carrickfergus, she’d been working on a drawing of the castle and the cottages in the foreground.

Aye, on any given day she’d be able to draw the keep with her eyes closed, but this work was different. She painstakingly detailed the masonry, the merlons and crenels, three feet in depth, no less. She used the minutest of strokes to etch the thatch on the cottage roofs, making it look as if it were real. Most of all, she paid particular attention to the animals—the thick sheep’s wool, a workhorse who was old and stooped, the dairy cows with their black and white spots. Over and over again she sharpened her charcoal and painstakingly added the finer details, while in the bay, ships came and went, bringing their cargoes of grain and stores for the castle, all none the wiser that Anya sat in her little alcove concealed between the stones, taking in every detail. She even captured the seabirds in flight. Lost in her work, she didn’t notice when the sun sank low in the western sky, but she jolted upright when a drop of rain splattered the toe of her shoe. Quickly rolling up her work, she looked to the clouds. When she’d ventured out, the sky had been clear, and now it looked as if a storm were brewing. She shoved her scroll and charcoal into her satchel and grabbed the strap.

In her rush to keep the drawing dry, the bag caught on a craggy stone and upended, spilling everything into the grass. “Curses!” she swore, shoving her things back inside, then hastened down the hill.

.

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