Graeme wiped the sweat off his brow with an exhausted groan and came down with another swing of his hammer. His arms and shoulders were tired after hours of hauling supplies from Castlebay village, but he knew there would be no rest until the work was done. The clang of hammers echoed through the air, competing with the other men shouting jovially at each other. A few feet away from them, waves crashed against the shoreline and gulls cawed in the salty breeze. “This isn’t going to work,” Jamie MacNeil’s voice boomed across the harbor. “The posts aren’t deep enough to withstand a storm.” Graeme set down his tools and sighed, glancing back toward his uncle. The remains of the dock on Vatersay were in poor repair after the latest rainfall, and men had come from all across the Barra and the surrounding islands to keep it from falling into ruin. The wind and battering waves had ripped posts from the ground below and scattered them like debris on the shore. Even the support beams beneath the piers themselves were becoming cracked and displaced. Left untouched, the next rainstorm could very well sweep the entire structure away. As the men came stumbling up to hear Jamie speak, Graeme crossed his arms in front of his chest and cocked a wary eyebrow. His uncle was a well-respected captain in their community and did not voice his opinion lightly. That meant if Jamie chose to speak something was amiss. It took the rest of them a moment to set down their tools and join him on the beach, but eventually they gathered around Jamie in a circle.
“One thing has become abundantly clear,” Graeme’s uncle started. “We’ve had to repair this dock four times, and yet we keep making the same mistake.” The assembled crowd murmured their discontent and men spoke in low, angry voices to each other. Alistair, a giant of a man with rich auburn hair, grumbled. “What are ye suggesting?” Jamie sighed, his blond hair blowing in the breeze. “We’re nae digging deep enough. The foundation is nae adequate to hold the structure we have in place.” “We’ve dug as deep as the posts can go,” one sailor argued. “There’s nothing but rock beneath.” One of the men toward the rear of the crowd strode forward.
“I hear what ye’re saying, Jamie, but what ye propose to do is impossible. Our tools will nae serve to dig us any deeper.” “Then we’ll have to pick another location along the coast,” Jamie told them, pointing off into the distance. “If we build here the port will just be destroyed again. We should take the wooden posts and tools, move them down the coast to where the land is even. It could be over a mile, but we need the earth to dig. Our ships can make the journey, and it’s a wise investment in the future of our clan.” Graeme bristled at the thought of moving their supplies—it would add another day or two of work until the port was finished. What his uncle suggested would be no small task, it required more time than the men had set aside for the project. They would need more wood, and that alone was quite an undertaking.
Still, he knew that Jamie was right. If they were going to build another port, it would have to be able to withstand a storm. It was worth taking time to scout for another location. “What’s the point?” a gruff voice demanded. Graeme turned his head toward the crowd and caught sight of Duncan stumbling toward them. He looked even worse than the last time Graeme had seen him and stank of alcohol. While he pushed his way through the crowd, Duncan still managed to keep hold of the hammer. His once-fine features were twisted with venom and outrage. “Tell us, Jamie, seeing as ye’ve made yerself our taskmaster,” the man said, raising his voice even louder. Jamie sighed as he glanced over at his quartermaster.
“Calm yerself, Duncan. I ken it’s nae ideal, but we have to do this right.” “What do ye ken about what’s best fer us? I say we just get the job over with and go back to Castlebay.” A few men in the crowd nodded and Duncan grinned fiercely. Graeme’s uneasiness grew. Duncan had once been Jamie’s right hand, but now he was just as likely to sabotage him as he would support their cause. Today appeared to be one of his more riotous moods. The last thing they needed was for Duncan to stir up a minor rebellion amongst the crew. “Shut it, Duncan. Jamie has a point.
” Duncan sneered at him, gripping his hammer with white knuckles. “Ye shut yer face, lad. This does nae concern ye.” The crowd behind them grew restless and the mood in the air had shifted. There was tension between the two of them that could spark a fire at the slightest provocation. Graeme and Duncan glowered at each other, radiating malice. “It concerns me if ye’re questioning our captain after Laird MacNeil put him in command,” Graeme responded evenly. “We’ll follow Jamie’s instruction and transport our supplies further down the coast.” Jamie lifted a hand in a gesture for peace. “Thank ye fer the support, Graeme.
Duncan is obviously in a foul mood, so just let him be and try nae to pay him any mind.” The crowd snickered at the drunken sailor’s expense and Duncan puffed out his chest in fury. “Dinnae talk about me like I’m nae here, Jamie. I have a right to speak like anyone else does.” “I’m nae trying to insult ye, Duncan. We all ken ye’ve had a rough go of it as of late, and I’m sympathetic to that loss. However, the work cannae wait until ye’ve sobered up and are willing to listen to reason.” “A rough go of it?” Duncan repeated in disbelief. “Morag would still be alive if it wasn’t fer yer brat.” Graeme put his hand on the hilt of his sword and grit his teeth with rage.
“Watch yerself.” Jamie stepped between them, saying, “Duncan, I ken ye’re just speaking through yer grief, but that isn’t fair. What happened to Morag is nae the lad’s fault.” “If there was any justice in this world, she’d still be alive. He should have been the one who died, nae her.” “Enough!” roared Jamie. Before Graeme realized what was happening, Duncan lunged at him, knife in hand. Jamie’s instincts were just a step faster, jumping between them to absorb the blow, ending up with the knife buried in his own chest. The crowd dumbly stepped back from the scuffle, everything over before anyone realized what was happening. Duncan’s face was screwed up in fury and frustration, his wrath unsatisfied as he was forced to let Graeme go and take his leave, shouldering his way through the stunned workers.
Graeme could only stare dumbfounded as he held his uncle up, his body already slumping weakly as his life’s blood ran freely down his wet shirt. CHAPTER ONE Oban, Scotland 1547 Elspeth picked up the hem of her skirt as she followed Glen and Hamish through the path toward their cottage. Sweat dripped down her back from the heat of the noon-day sun and the golden waves of her hair were twisted back and secured with a handful of pins on the top of her head. After their trip to the market, she wanted nothing more than to rest her feet and get through mending a couple of garments before it was time for supper. Stone cottages dotted the Scottish hillside, with heather and thistle growing wild amongst the foliage. Her brothers laughed, chasing one another through the field in a made-up game. She watched them with a smile and rested the basket against her hip when they approached their family cottage. The lawn was surrounded by a wooden fence and a garden full of vegetables and herbs. When she opened the door to go inside, Elspeth found their father passed out in one of the chairs and her smile faded instantly. The entire room stank of ale and his clothes were dirty from being slept in.
Her gaze rested on his face and she saw a cut bleeding along his cheekbone. A bruise had already formed around his eye and a dark purple ring swelled up around its socket. The lads’ came up behind her and then halted in the doorway when they saw him, all thoughts of their game dissolving in a span of seconds. Elspeth winced at the harsh reality of their homecoming and placed her basket on the table. She turned to her brothers and said, “Hamish, please bring me light and a basin of water–I need to see to Da. Glen, go pick some carrots from the garden. I’ll be out to join ye shortly.” Hamish nodded and went to retrieve the water she requested, while Glen huffed back outside. Elspeth exhaled a tired sigh as she watched him leave and rolled up the edges of her sleeves. When Hamish set down a candle and basin of water on the table next to her she gave him an appreciative smile.
“Anything else?” Elspeth shook her head and smiled. “Nae, go help Glen outside and keep him out of trouble. I’ll deal with this myself.” Hamish took one last glance toward their father and obediently shuffled through the door. When the latch clicked shut behind him, Elspeth let out an exasperated sigh and turned back to the drunken mess. She knelt beside him and placed her hand on Angus’ knee to try and rouse him. “Da.” The man snorted in his sleep and a bit of drool dribbled down his chin, but he did not respond. Elspeth groaned and shook him harder, saying, “Da, I need ye to wake up.” Angus jumped at the sound of her voice and sat up in his seat, looking around, confused, until his eyes rested on her at last.
“Ack! …Elspeth…” He calmed down once he recognized her, easing back into his chair. “Oof, I must have dozed off there fer a minute.” “Aye,” she grumbled. “What happened to yer head?” His eyebrows knit together as he lifted his hand to the side of his face and touched the bleeding wound. When his fingers found the mark, Angus flinched and turned back to her with a grimace. “It must have been a rough day.” “I’m glad it isn’t worse,” she told him, rising to her feet. “But to treat that properly, it’s going to need stitches. Come on, we better get started. I dinnae want Glen and Hamish seeing ye like this.
” Angus frowned. “Why not? I’m nae ashamed. They should learn while they are young that life is nae always easy. More often than not, the world is cruel and can knock ye on yer ass.” Elspeth rolled her eyes and scoffed. “Because it sets a bad example. Do ye want them to start getting into fights?” Her father sneered, grabbing Elspeth by the wrist and saying, “I’ll be the judge of what sets a bad example in this family. Yer livelihood depends on me, and what I do to provide fer us. Ye dinnae ken a thing about it.” Elspeth ripped her arm away from him and snapped, “I ken ye’re spending too much time at the tavern and nae enough with yer family.
What would Mam think if she could see ye like this?” Angus’ expression softened at the mention of his wife, and he nodded. His shoulders slumped in a sign of defeat and he hung his head in embarrassment. “How much money did ye lose?” she asked him nonchalantly, making her way into the kitchen. “Dae it matter?” She retrieved a wooden chest off one of the shelves and brought it into the living area. “Ye’re right, I should nae have pried.” Her father grimaced as she set the chest down on the table and then lowered herself into the chair beside him. She dipped a clean rag into the basin of water and started wiping the blood off his cheek. Little by little the cut began to clear, and the rag Elspeth was using became stained with red. When the wound was clean, she was relieved to find the cut looked shallow, nothing to cause concern. What did worry her was the frequency and severity of these beatings was getting worse.
Her father, Angus, had come home broken, battered and bruised so many times Elspeth was becoming quite skilled at putting him back together. She had a knack for the healing arts and the more she practiced, the more she learned, and the better she became. Blood did not upset her the way it once had—it was merely part of the process. Once the bleeding stopped Elspeth patted the area dry and placed the rag down on the table before picking up a needle and thread. She threaded it carefully and lifted the needle to his face, saying, “This might hurt a little.” Angus grunted. “Get on with it then.” “It would be easier if ye dinnae struggle,” she chided gently. He huffed in annoyance, but turned to give Elspeth access to the cut. She pierced the needle through his cheek and pulled it out the other side to sew the opening closed.
Her long, nimble fingers worked carefully to use small, even stitches to minimize the scar. “How were things near the harbor?” Angus asked. Elspeth kept her eyes focused on the work as she responded, “It was busier than usual. There was a load of new ships. Glen wanted to go down and see, but I wouldn’t let him. We had to get back and finish dinner.” Her father stiffened. “What kind of ships?” “I…dinnae ken,” she responded nervously. “The regular sort? Mayhap Laird MacDougall has some visitors. We dinnae have much time to look at them.
” He seemed to relax at her explanation and eased back into his chair. Elspeth finished tying off the thread and cut it with a pair of scissors. After she set the needle and thread down on the table, Elspeth sat back to examine the cut with better light. “It should heal fine, but keep it clean and dry,” she told him. Angus nodded and mumbled a sheepish, “thank ye,” as she was rising to her feet. Elspeth grinned and leaned over to kiss him on the forehead. “Ye’re lucky I ken how to do this. Otherwise, it could fester.” She picked up the wooden chest of tools and went to return it to the shelf, calling back over her shoulder, “Hurry and get cleaned up. Hamish and Glen will be back soon with a load of vegetables.
” Angus stood up from his chair and picked up the dirty water basin to throw out on the grass. He refilled it from another pail and dipped his hands inside to splash some water on his face. Elspeth said nothing and handed him a rag, waiting for him to finish. After a moment, he placed his hands on the edge of the table and hung his head in shame. “I’m sorry, Elspeth.” “Fer what?” “Fer everything. Fer putting this responsibility on ye. Ye deserve more out of life than a drunken father. After yer mam died, everything just fell apart. I never meant fer this to happen.
” “I know that, Da.” “That dinnae make it good,” he insisted. “I love ye, Elspeth. I wanted to give ye and yer brothers everything. I wanted to provide a better life fer us…but I dinnae ken how.” Angus wrapped his arms around her and cried into Elspeth’s shoulder. She embraced him tightly and stroked the hair on the back of his head. “I love ye too, Da. Ye’re right that things have been hard, but we’ll get by somehow.” It took a while for him to cry out the rest of his emotions, but then his tears ran dry and he seemed to regain composure.
Elspeth watched him nervously after she released him, waiting until she was convinced he had recovered, and then turned her attention to the fire. The flames crackled around the base of a pot, heating the soup she’d left to simmer while they were gone. When she lifted the lid, the smell of herbs and spices filled the room in a mouthwatering concoction. Her golden hair curled down across her chin as she leaned over to sprinkle a few more ingredients into the pot and stirred it with a spoon. Outside, she could hear Glen and Hamish talking to one another while collecting the vegetables she’d requested. Elspeth smiled, listening to their happy chatter and finished preparing the evening meal. More than anything, she wanted her brothers to have a happy childhood, and not be burdened with the weight of adult responsibility. The wee lads were only four and seven, and still found magic in everything around them—Glen especially. Just as she was about to put the lid back on the pot, both of them came walking inside with their arms full of carrots and other vegetables. “Elspeth, look how many we found!” Glen called to her from the doorway.
She glanced up at him and smiled. “Oh, excellent job, Glen. Go and set them in the basket. I’ll prepare them fer tomorrow once we’ve had the chance to eat.” At her request, Elspeth’s brothers set down the vegetables in a basket on the floor, and then went to prepare the table. Hamish retrieved dishes and utensils from the cupboard, while Glen set out the cups and brought them to the table. Their father beamed with pride as he watched them work, taking his seat at the head of the table. “Ye lads are getting more grown up every day,” he said. “I trust ye’re nae giving yer sister any trouble. Keeping up with all yer chores?” “Aye, Da,” they responded in unison.
Elspeth grinned as she ladled some soup into their bowls and gave Hamish a little wink. Glen sniffed at the meal appreciatively and grabbed a spoon from the place setting, but Elspeth smacked him on the hand before he could take a bite. “Ow!” Glen cried out in surprise. “We haven’t said grace,” she scolded. “Where are yer manners?” Glen hung his head and said, “Sorry, Elspeth.” She returned the spoon to its place beside the pot and took a seat at the table beside them. “Now, who would like to pray?” Hamish raised his hand. “I will.” They held hands together and closed their eyes in reverence when he started, saying, “Dear God —” A swift, hard knock on the door cut off his words and Elspeth’s eyes snapped open. She turned toward the sound suspiciously and asked her father, “Are we expecting company?” Angus’ eyes grew wide and he shook his head in fear.
When no one went to answer it, Glen stood up from his chair and headed for the door. Elspeth felt a knot form in the pit of her stomach, warning her that something was amiss. She’d felt uneasy since their outing earlier and couldn’t seem to shake it. Now, an unexpected visitor seemed to confirm her looming fear. The wee lad pulled the door open to reveal a tall, dangerous looking man standing in the doorway. On instinct, Elspeth stood up from her seat and snatched Glen away from him as quickly as she could. The man in front of her seemed impassive as his cool gray eyes took in the cozy scene. He had long, black hair hanging down across his shoulders and an exquisite coat belted around his waist. Fastened on the hip of their intruder was a rapier of fine craftsmanship, the hilt of which appeared to be wrapped in leather and had silver plating on the handguard. His shoulders were broad, but not overly so, and gave him a regal countenance when he came into the room.
Elspeth glanced at her father, terrified, watching his mouth open and close without any words coming out. The expression on his face was of sheer horror, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. She realized he’d be no help to them and turned to the intruder, asking, “Can I help ye, sir?” A thin smile curved up at the edge of his lip when the man responded, “I have business with Angus MacDougall. We have a score to settle after our game last night.” “I have nothing left to give ye,” Elspeth’s father sputtered. The guest frowned at his declaration and took another step into the cottage. He closed the door behind himself with a gloved hand and walked over to the table. “I’m sorry to hear that, Angus, but yer debt has still nae been paid. Reparations will have to made, or I’m forced to make an example out of ye.” Angus gulped, eyeing the man with fear as beads of sweat rose up onto his forehead.
Elspeth didn’t like the way the stranger used her father’s name–it was too familiar. She didn’t like that he knew her father to begin with. “Who are ye to him?” The man’s smile widened. “Captain Graeme MacNeil.” Elspeth’s face went pale as she whipped her head around in shock. “MacNeil?” she gasped. “Then ye’re…ye’re a pirate.” “So it would seem,” the man allowed. “Ye’ve a lovely family, Angus. I assume these are yer children? Ye should be ashamed to squander good coin when ye have wee ones yet to feed.
” Angus said nothing and slunk back farther away from him. Elspeth pursed her lips together and asked, “How much does he owe ye?” “Three hundred and eleven pounds.” She felt the breath being stolen from her lungs as the amount of his debt sunk in. It was a small fortune. “B-but that would bankrupt us,” she informed him desperately. “Ye cannae expect him to repay that sum in such a short amount of time.” Graeme grit his teeth and said, “Then yer da should nae have made wagers he cannae afford. I’ll send my men up from the harbor to collect everything of value. We can sell it when we return to the Barra.” The words ripped from her in a panic before she could stop herself, saying, “Nae! Please, ye cannae do this.
” Glen cried, burying his face into Elspeth’s tunic as her mind raced through different ways to try and save their family. “Ye seem like a reasonable man,” she told the captain slowly, hoping to bide her time. “I’m sure we can work this out. Even if ye took everything from this cottage, it still would nae be enough to cover the amount he owes ye.” Graeme paused with his hand on the door and turned to look at her with a bemused expression. “And what do ye suggest?” “There are other ways a debt can be repaid…manual labor perhaps? I could weave yer fishing nets, or repair yer clothing…” The captain shook his head and frowned. “I have nae need of fishing tools, and as ye can see, my clothes are in fine repair.” “What about this?” she asked him, pulling out a piece of jewelry from around her throat. It was a silver locket given to her at the age of nine–the most precious thing she owned. “’Tis but a trinket,” he appraised.
Elspeth felt like she’d been slapped in the face after being told her most treasured possession meant next to nothing to men like him. If the silver necklace did not pique his interest, what else could she possibly have to offer? Graeme’s eyes flicked to Hamish when he approached. “How old are ye, lad? My ship is always in need of useful hand. I could train ye to be a proper sailor.” Elspeth stepped in front of her brother defensibly as he stared up at the man in terror. “He’s seven. It’s too young to be on a ship.” Graeme shrugged. “That’s nae older than I was when I first took to the sea. Come on, lad.
Pick up yer feet and let’s get going.” Hamish cried out in fear and glanced up, wide-eyed, at his sister. The decision took no time at all. “Nae! If ye’re looking fer ship hands then take me instead, I’d be far more useful.” Graeme crossed his arms in front of his chest and sauntered back into the kitchen. “Women are nae generally allowed on board our ships. What could ye have to offer my crew if I took ye on?” “I’m stronger than I look,” she informed him stubbornly. “And I’m a fast learner. Please, dinnae take this home away from us. It’s all they have.
” For an instant, Elspeth and Graeme made eye contact with each other and his smile flickered. He stroked his chin and considered her plea while glancing at the stitches on her father’s cheek. “Is that yer handiwork?” “Aye…” “Ye did a fine job of stitching up his cheek,” the pirate mused. “Thank ye.” “I’ve got nae interest in the other skills offered, but if ye’d be willing to join us as a surgeon… that might be something I’d consider.” She swallowed the lump rising in her throat and nodded. “I’ll do it.” “Then gather yer things.”