The Count’s Castaway – Aubrey Wynne

IN THE YEAR of our Lord 854, a wee lad by the name of Arthur MacAlpin set out on an adventure that would turn the tides of his fortune, for what could be more exciting than being feared and showered with gold? Arthur wanted to be king. A sovereign as great as King Arthur, who came hundreds of years before him. The legendary knight who was able to pull a magical sword from stone, met ladies in lakes, and vanquished evil with a vast following who worshipped him. But while that King Arthur brought to mind dreamlike images of a round table surrounded by chivalrous knights and the ladies they romanced, MacAlpin wanted to summon night terrors from every babe, woman, and man. Aye, MacAlpin, king of the pirates of Britannia would be a name most feared. A name that crossed children’s lips when the candles were blown out at night. When a shadow passed over a wall, was it the pirate king? When a ship sailed into port in the dark hours of night, was it him? As the fourth son of the conquering Pictish King Cináed, Arthur wanted to prove himself to his father. He wanted to make his father proud, and show him that he, too, could be a conqueror. King Cináed was praised widely for having run off the Vikings, for saving his people, for amassing a vast and strong army. No one would dare encroach on his conquered lands when they would have to face the end of his blade. Arthur wanted that, too. He wanted to be feared. Awed. To hold his sword up and have devils come flying from the tip. So, it was on a fateful summer night in 854 that, at the age of ten and nine, Arthur amassed a crew of young and roguish Picts and stealthily commandeered one of his father’s ships.

They blackened the sails to hide them from those on watch and began an adventure that would last a lifetime and beyond. The lads trolled the seas, boarding ships and sacking small coastal villages. In fact, they even sailed so far north as to raid a Viking village in the name of his father. By the time they returned to Oban, and the seat of King Cináed, all of Scotland was raging about Arthur’s atrocities. Confused, he tried to explain, but his father would not listen and would not allow him back into the castle. King Cináed banished his youngest son from the land, condemned his acts as evil and told him he never wanted to see him again. Enraged and experiencing an underlying layer of mortification, Arthur took to the seas, gathering men as he went, and building a family he could trust that would not shun him. They ravaged the sea as well as the land—using his clan’s name as a lasting insult to his father for turning him out. The legendary Pirate King was rumored to be merciless, the type of vengeful pirate who would drown a babe in his mother’s own milk if she didn’t give him the pearls at her neck. But like most rumors, they were mostly steeped in falsehoods meant to intimidate.

In fact, there may have been a wee boy or two he saved from an untimely fate. Whenever they came across a lad or lass in need, as Arthur himself had once been, they took them into the fold. One ship became two. And then three, four, five, until a score of ships with blackened sails roamed the seas. These were his warriors. A legion of men who adored him, respected him, followed him, and, together, they wreaked havoc on the blood ties that had sent him away. And generations upon generations, country upon country, they would spread far and wide until people feared them from horizon to horizon. Every pirate king to follow would be named MacAlpin, so his father’s banishment would never be forgotten. Forever lords of the sea. A daring brotherhood, where honor among thieves reigns supreme, and crushing their enemies is a thrilling pastime.

These are the pirates of Britannia, and here are their stories…. Chapter One Secrets and Escapes April 1808 London, England “YOU’RE A DESPİCABLE cur,” shouted a deep, unfamiliar voice. “She’s been dead two years’ time, and you’ve neglected to inform us?” Kate pulled the counterpane over her head. Angry, muffled curses threatened to penetrate her dreams. She reached out for her mother, fingers stretching to touch the soft red curls, lose herself in the kind, blue eyes and warm, brilliant smile. To be enveloped in those loving arms, one more time, would be heaven… “Mama, I need you,” she whispered. I’ll always be here, my sweet. Just open your heart and listen. Her ethereal form faded away, arms still outstretched. I love you, little one.

At the nickname, Kate stirred. She blinked, and her lids slowly opened. The room was dark, but unchanged. The same scratchy, threadbare bed clothing, the same stained, whitewashed walls, the same shabby chest in the corner. The same lonely little girl still missing her mama. Her hand went to her chest, pushed back the pain and sorrow as the male voices rose in the next room. “Three hundred pounds per annum, meant for my daughter and granddaughter. You’re worse than a petty thief, stealing a dead woman’s pension.” Kate threw back the counterpane, tension tightening her chest as her bare feet hit the cold wooden floor. She crept to the door and slowly pulled the handle, allowing herself a tiny crack to peep through.

A tall man with black silver-streaked hair, dressed to the nines, towered over her father. “She’d have rather had a visit from you than an annual donation to ease your conscience,” spat out her da, his bloodshot eyes narrowed in anger. “Don’t you dare turn this around. You married her, hoping to get your fingers on my money. And when that didn’t work, you threw every coin she gave you into some chancer’s scheme. But to pretend my daughter is still alive and steal her allowance…” The older gentleman turned red, his fists clenched. Was this handsome older man her grandfather? Kate’s eyes widened as he towered over her father. “I’ll see you hang for this.” “And leave the poor lass an orphan? She’s the reason I kept the money,” Papa hurried on. “I was in shock when the fever took the love of my life so suddenly.

” Papa sighed heavily. “Then the painful mourning blackened my soul, my heart broken, and my sweet Katherine brought me back into the light.” Kate recognized the entreaty in her father’s countenance. The same expression he used whenever he needed something or was lying or in trouble. “I loved Hannah and just wanted to raise our little girl as she would have.” “Wilken, you must think me an idiot.” His gaze traveled around the small parlor and his lip curled. “Wake her, or I’ll do it. I’ve asked around. You have her working like a kitchen wench to cover your rent.

By God, she’ll not sleep another night in this hovel.” Kate hiccupped, then covered her mouth. Two pairs of eyes locked onto her through the crack in the door. Her father’s hazel gaze and the other a glittering familiar blue. She held her breath, to contain the hiccups and her nerves, and pushed the door open. “Hello.” She gripped both her pointer fingers together in front of her. Her nightdress was too short, and the cold crept up her ankles. Without thought, one foot covered the other as she warmed her toes and balanced on one leg. “Hello,” a quiet, deep voice returned, the anger gone.

“I’m Katherine Wilken,” she said, her stomach quaking as her neck bent backwards to look up at this giant of a man. Kate pushed her unruly curls from her forehead, her brows furrowed. “You have Mama’s eyes.” “So do you, and her red locks.” He laughed, but there was sadness in his regard. “The resemblance is remarkable. Your grandmother will cry when she sees you for the first time.” His voice was rich and warm. It wrapped around her like a snug coat and made her smile. “Have you come for me, then? Mama said you would.

” “She was a wise woman. Wiser than her father, I’m afraid.” He squatted down, so they were equal in height. “Are you as sensible as your mother?” Kate bit her lip. “Mama called me an adventuress. She said I was clever, but that wasn’t the same as common sense. That was something our entire family needed more of.” Her father snorted, but she ignored him. Her attention was transfixed on this elegant, handsome man with the deep honey voice. “You want to take me away?” she asked, her heart hammering so hard she couldn’t hear her own breathing.

He nodded solemnly. “Yes, I’d want you to come home with me. Your grandmother is very anxious to meet you.” Guilt niggled at her belly, and she avoided her father’s stare. She blinked back hot tears, willing her limbs to stop trembling. “Yes, I would like to live with you. I’m tired of taking care of Papa.” “Taking care…” Her grandfather shot a venomous look at her father, and Papa shut his mouth. “How old are you, Katherine?” “She’s—” “I didn’t ask you!” The anger was back in her grandfather’s voice but evaporated when he addressed Kate. “If I recall, you were eight years old when we received the last letter.

” “I’m almost eleven now. Old enough to be married in some countries, Papa says.” Her grandfather’s jaw ticked. “That’s true, but not in England. You have many years of being a young girl before we will consider marriage. Now, why don’t you go pack anything that is important to you. Everything else, we will purchase.” “You can’t just take her. She’s my daughter.” The argument continued as Kate scrambled around her room, changing into the chemise, petticoats, and skirt she’d worn that day to help the landlady clean the rooms.

Wings fluttered against her belly as the argument began again. She carefully folded the one decent dress that fit and placed it inside her mother’s leather satchel. Looking around the small area, she added her still-warm nightgown and one pair of leather shoes with a hole in the bottom, then pulled on the cheap boots that pinched her growing toes. Her fingers absently clutched the locket beneath her bodice, hidden away from her father’s assessing eyes. Kate’s heart pounded with excitement. Her grandparents wanted her just as Mama had promised. Her papa had lied to her. Again. Nervous and hopeful, Kate took a deep breath, opened her bedroom door, and stepped back into the tiny parlor. The emptiness sent a shiver up her spine.

No, no, no. Hugging the satchel to her chest, she squeezed her lids shut against the foreboding and the sound of footsteps in the outer hall. What had her father done? The door slammed open. Da’s hazel eyes shone with anxiety. “Good girl, you’re packed.” He grabbed a broadcloth sack and began to dump in random items. Items he could pawn. An action she associated with rent running, each time they dodged a landlord. Her breathing stopped. No, no, no! Grabbing his hat and jamming it in on his head, he nodded to the door.

“Shall we?” Kate winced as he seized her elbow. “A driver is waiting downstairs.” Kate sucked in air, relief washing over her. A driver. Her father wouldn’t have hired a hackney. “I’m still meeting my grandfather?” “I have some business to take care of first.” He paused to look down at her, cupping her chin with his palm. A lock of deep brown hair fell across his forehead as a slow smile turned up his mouth. “You’re turning into quite a fetching bit o’ muslin. He’s right, the resemblance to your mother is striking.

” Kate hugged her belongings close, not sure if that was good or not, and followed her father down the narrow stairwell. The cab waited on the street; an old black horse with a sagging back stood patiently in the mud of the alley. Puffs of air floated above her father’s head while he gave instructions to the driver. She pulled the cloak around her and buried her the tip of her nose within the wool. Once inside, Kate settled against the musty squabs, her mind whirling. With barely time to wipe the sleep from her eyes, she’d met her grandfather, packed her belongings, and was en route to a new life. Breathe. Her chest beat with a nervous excitement, her empty stomach roiled. Whatever tomorrow brought, it would be an improvement to her present situation. Would her grandmother be as warm and affectionate as her mother had been? Or would she look at her with pity, or worse, disdain? Her throat thickened at the memory of Mama’s arms around her, humming a lullaby.

The vehicle lurched forward, its springs groaning in protest. Until her mother died, her father had been a smiling, pleasant man she saw briefly once a day, if that. How drastically her life had changed. At first, she’d had her books to keep her company. But those had been sold within six months. Then the money had run out. Her days were spent tending to her father, cleaning, or waiting for her father to return. Papa didn’t seem to notice her unless he was inconvenienced by a cold meat pie or an unwashed shirt. They rarely had a conversation. He would grunt or mumble as she set a plate before him or took his soiled clothes to wash.

Occasionally, when he was in high spirits, he would pat her head and tell her she was a good girl. How she missed the talks with her mother. And the laughter. “He ought to be whipped, I tell you,” the landlady would mumble. “Never spends a dime on you, with your body growing and spilling out of your clothes. I suppose we should be happy he doesn’t beat you.” Kate would have preferred a beating to the lonely life she led, trapped within the dingy confines of one tenement flat or another. “Mr. Wilken has a mind for the niceties but always an empty pocketbook,” the landlady would say with a shake of her head. “He goes through coin like water poured in a sieve.

” The woman had taken pity on Kate, allowing her to work for hot meals. She’d learned to cook, sew, and wash anything from floors to linen. Kate had become her father’s servant, tending to his clothes, meals, and the small flat. He rose in the morning with bleary eyes and a sallow complexion. After a cup of coffee, with a “taste” of whisky added, he would scan the newspaper. “Off to find my luck,” he’d say as he left for the day, then stumble home late in the evening. Kate would scramble to serve him supper before he fell asleep at the table. Last week, he’d fallen face-first onto his plate. Tears threatened again as the conveyance hit a rut. The entire frame jarred, clacking her teeth together.

The noise outside increased, as well as the smell of decaying refuse. Eventually, the dark outline of a ship’s hull bobbed. Deep voices called out orders, shouts blurred with groaning wood as crates were hoisted by gigantic ropes. “Papa, why are we at the docks?” Perspiration beaded along her scalp and moistened her collar. “Is this where my grandfather is? Are we taking a boat?” “Blast it, girl, enough with your questions. Keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking, and all will be well. I’ve decided to expand my horizons and sail to America. I’ll put a gun to my head before I go to debtor’s prison.” He pinched her cheek, and she winced. “And we both know I love myself too much for that.

” He scrounged around in his vest pocket and pulled out a coin. “My last one. That pompous old man paid for the ride, so I still have a little something left.” He flung open the door, jumped to the ground, and turned his back on her. Kate cautiously placed a foot on the step, clutching the arm strap with one hand and her bag with the other. Squinting, she saw her father’s form hurrying toward the dock. She scampered after him, dodging the men with heavy trunks or bags on their shoulders. The dawn was just beginning to spread its light over the wharf. “I remember you,” said a burly, balding man in a strange accent. Almost British, but not quite.

His round belly and flat nose reminded her of a boxer her father had bet on last year. “Decide to see the world, did you?” “Aye, I’m in need of new surroundings.” Her father grinned. “Where do I sign?” “I didn’t agree to any children,” the man said, his gaze on Kate. “She’s small for her age. She’s twelve and can cook, sew, whatever you need.” Papa gave her a sharp look that reminded her to stay quiet, then waggled his eyebrows at the stout gentleman. “She’ll be a woman soon.” The man’s lip curled. “I’ve got me a wife for those needs.

Got a daughter her age, for Christ’s sake.” “No disrespect intended. To each their own.” Her father tipped his hat amicably. He pulled Kate forward, reaching behind her and pinching the hair at the nape of her neck when she opened her mouth. “Follow me,” the man said. He led them across the gangplank and onto the ship’s deck. It was crowded and hectic, with ropes as wide as her calf to step over and puddles to avoid. Ripples of pink and orange filled the sky with early morning light. They took a flight of stairs into the bowels of the vessel, along a dim passageway, and entered a large room.

Bunks were attached to the walls; clusters of people conversed and arranged luggage on the thin bare mattresses. “Find yourself a spot, get the lass settled, then come up and find me.” The beefy man left. Her father found an empty bed and told her to remain there while he finished his business. “I’m sorry, girl, but I need you with me. I’m thinking we can settle in Boston. Being English and gently bred, you should be able to get a position in a fine house. You’ll have comfortable accommodations, and your wages will cover my rent. My promise to your mother will be fulfilled, my conscience clear, and everyone happy.” Kate dropped her satchel on the stained tick and plopped down beside it.

A tear slipped down her cheek; her shoulders sagged. The knot in her belly twisted painfully. She would not meet her grandmother. She would never see her grandfather. “Why?” she whispered as Papa smoothed his hair back and tugged on his vest. But he never heard the question. “WAKE UP, CHİLD.” Someone jostled her shoulder. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, trying to remember where she was. The broad flat-faced man stood above her, his mouth turned down, hands on his hips.

Kate leaned up on an elbow and pushed the hair from her face, wondering how she’d managed to fall asleep. “Yes, sir?” she asked obediently. “Does Papa need me?” “More than you know,” he mumbled, his small, dark eyes avoiding her stare. “I’m afraid there’s been an accident.” She bolted up, at both the words and his tone. “Your father is dead.” The burly man’s voice softened. “He was caught adding a card to his hand, and one of the seamen called him on it. There was a scuffle and…” Kate heard the soft keening and realized it came from her own throat. She shook her head, gasping for air.

No, no, no. “My grandfather, take me to him.” She reached out and gripped the man’s thick fingers. “Please, please, he wants me to live with him. He is very rich.” The man shook his head, and she noticed the sun-burned creases in his fleshy neck. “I’m sorry for your plight, child, but the ship has sailed, and there’s no turning back.” “What shall I do?” “Your father signed a contract of indenture—both of you for seven years. You’ll be in my charge now.” And with that, he gave her an awkward pat on the shoulder and walked away.

Panic engulfed her. She struggled to take in air as the tears streamed down her cheeks and puddled in her frayed collar. Fate had taught her the first lesson in life. Things could always get worse. “Mama, what will I do?” she whispered again. “Troubles, little one?” She spun around at the term of endearment her mother had always used. A tall woman addressed her, sympathy in her soft brown eyes. Lines creased her eyes and mouth when she smiled in sympathy; silver threaded her auburn hair. Kate nodded, not trusting her voice. Her belly gurgled and bile rose up her throat.

She would not shoot the cat, as Papa would say after a particularly long night out. Instead, she hugged her stomach and rocked back and forth, the tears falling silently from tightly squeezed lids. Strong arms enveloped her. “There, there, sweet lass. Ye’re no’ alone.” The woman’s tone soothed Kate. Rather than holding Kate’s body still, the woman rocked with her, smoothed back Kate’s hair, and continued her murmurs of comfort. “I want my mama,” she finally whispered, sniffling and wiping her eyes. “And where might she be?” Kate peered up at the lady from beneath her wet lashes. She wasn’t as old as the landlady, with auburn hair pulled back in a tight knot and laughing blue eyes.

“Heaven. Like Papa.” He may not have been a good father, but he was all she had. Her voice broke. “I’m alone.” “No, ye’re no’, lassie, ye’re with us,” spouted an older boy with bright red hair and the same blue eyes as his mother. “I’m Rorick, but ye can call me Rory. I’ll share my ma with ye. She’s a braw one.” Kate looked up at the boy’s smiling face and liked him immediately.

“My name’s Katherine Wilken. I’m pleased to meet you.” She held out her hand as her mother had taught her. He shook it and gave her a slight bow. “And I’m Mrs. Craigg. Ye can call me that or Ma. Whatever makes ye smile, Katie.” Katie. She liked that.

Perhaps she needed a new name to go with this new life. “Thank you. Both of you,” she said with a shy smile toward Rory, making his face flush. “Now, gather yer things and come with us. It seems we’ll both have the same master for quite some time, so consider us yer family.” Mrs. Craigg rose and held out her hand. Katie didn’t hesitate, convinced Mama had sent these Scots to protect her. Rorick carried her satchel for her. “Mr.

MacDonald isna a bad mon, ye’ll see. He ken my father before he died and offered to help us. Though he prays to the almighty coin, he willna beat ye.” Was that supposed to be high praise? She bit her lips against the hysterical giggle that bubbled up her throat. Gripping Ma’s hand, she took a deep breath. Whatever the future held, Katie was no longer alone. That was enough for now.

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