The Highlander’s Pirate Bride – Cathy MacRae & D. D. MacRae

Rona MacNeill crossed herself once then stepped from the dinghy to the stern of the largest merchant ship in port and wedged herself into the gap between the stern and rudder. Heavy fog blocked the night sky and prevented the ship’s crew from spotting her approach. The lazy slap of the ocean against the vessel rendered the soft noises she made undetectable. Rona smiled at the gloom, knowing the thick mists created perfect cover. Her uncle handed her both her daggers and a knotted rope. “Ye sure about this, lass?” His low whisper barely carried to her ears. “’Tis nae too late fer us to find safer prey. In this fog we have our pick amongst these sea birds.” Rona looped the rope over her shoulder, then pulled a black kerchief over her head and face, daggers bare-bladed in each hand. She patted the ship. “Ye hear the bleating of the sheep as well as I, Uncle. Nae, this fat English lady and her contents shall see our clan through winter. The ship will bring a pretty coin when we sell her to the MacDonnell.” She reached above her head and drove both daggers into either side of the wooden rudder. Using them as handholds to scoot upward, she placed her back to the stern, boots pushing against the rudder.

She repeated the movements until she climbed to the top railing, then peered into the darkness for any sign of crew on the aftcastle. A lone sailor lay slumped against the helm, asleep on his watch. Swinging a leg over, she quickly hid in the shadows of the aftcastle railing, waiting for a reaction. The crewman didn’t stir. Rona flipped her dagger in her hand, then drove the pommel into the back of the sailor’s head, sending him deeper into unconsciousness. After tying one end of the knotted rope she’d carried onto a large cleat, she lowered the other end to Oran and her men. She crouched in the darkness and listened for movement, ignoring the cold. Laughter echoed from below as the public women Rona had hired offered their company and cheap whisky to the men guarding the pier. The whisky would warm their bellies and muddle their senses while the women kept their attention diverted this wintry night. Once Oran and three other of her men stood on deck, she signaled Tomas to return the rowboat to their birlinn.

He and the rest of the longboat crew stood by to tow the English ship out to sea. If their errand failed, they were close enough for a cold swim and quick escape. With Rona in the lead, she and her men descended the ladder from the aftcastle onto the deck, keeping to the shadows. Two more crewmen stood port side toward the dock, likely listening to the women flirt with the guards. She and Broc knocked them out cold, catching the hapless sailors before they dropped into the water and gave away their presence. Carr and Arlen located another seoladair asleep at the bow, then slipped silently to a ladder which led below deck to make sure there were no other crew. Arlen rose from below deck moments later and waved. Carr followed with another unconscious sailor slung over his shoulder. Rona nodded to Broc and Oran, and they released the ropes securing the cog to the dock. Rona grabbed a rope coiled on the deck with a monkey fist knotted at one end and returned to the aftcastle.

Uncoiling a few feet of rope, she twirled the monkey’s fist a few times before releasing it to where the rest of her clansmen had positioned their birlinn close to the cog’s stern. The knotted ball soared through the mists and landed with a muted thump on the birlinn’s deck. She tied her end to the stern cleat. Moments later, Oran joined her at the helm and handed over her fur-lined cloak. She gave him a reassuring look. “The hard part’s done, Uncle. I’ll bet my share of the drink below we slip away like ghosties, without anyone hearing anything a’tall.” Oran grinned and shook his head. “I’ll nae bet against the Black MacNeill.” He jerked his chin toward the prisoners.

“What are yer orders for the captured men, lass?” “Bind them and put ’em in the rowboat once we’re away.” Oran descended the ladder to see it done. Rona kept the rudder steady as the ship backed from the dock. The oars of the birlinn worked in tandem with the waves to hide any sound they made. It appeared the holiday revelries had dulled the senses of even the most loyal sailor. She’d chosen the date well. Once clear of the dock, she tossed the tow line down to Broc who secured it to the bow. Carr, Broc, and Arlen lowered the unconscious sailors into their old tender. They’d awake in a few hours with a headache, but alive. Leaving all hands alive was the Black MacNeill’s calling card.

Oran and the others headed below deck to man two of the massive oars, which normally required three men each. Though the fog covered their theft, it also meant no wind for sailing. Rona and her men had a long night ahead, but they only need clear the firth by full daylight. Once they entered the western part of the firth, she knew the north wind would find them. She pointed the rudder toward the birlinn, allowing the crew to navigate. Huddling deeper into her cloak against the bitter cold, she smiled as she thought of the treasure stored below. The sheep and the price she’d gain from selling the ship were worthy of the risk they all took. Any foodstuffs would pad the clan larder, and all other goods would be sold or bartered for much-needed supplies. The Black MacNeill they called her. ’Twas a bit of irony as her hair was as bright as the sun and her eyes the clear gray of morning mist.

Her coloring and height spoke well of her Norse heritage. Covering her features with black cloth had suggested the name, and it had stuck. The MacNeill clan was small but proud, claiming the Isle of Gigha as their territory, along with the tiny neighboring islands of Gigalum and Cara. They enjoyed a long history of piracy—one Rona and her cousins happily kept alive. They mostly ignored their Scottish neighbors and instead preyed upon the English, stealing from Longshanks every chance they found. This night’s theft was the boldest she’d attempted. They’d gotten away undetected, and with any luck would sail past the Rhins of Galloway before sunrise. By morning, they’d rounded Cairngaan and the Rhins. As expected, the north wind made a forceful appearance, causing them to tack back and forth as they traveled north by northwest. No longer needing to row, her crew shifted to manning the sail while Rona and Oran took turns piloting the cog.

Oran stretched. “I’ll check the cabin and see if they’ve somethin’ to fill our bellies. Keep ’er on a straight course.” He clapped her shoulder as he passed. Rona fixed her gaze on the horizon, hoping the sun would bring a bit of warmth. A sharp bark and a shout of anger yanked her from her musings. She darted to the rail and peered to the deck below. “Anything amiss, Uncle?” Another bark and low growl parried Oran’s reply. “Damned dog! I dinnae know the captain kept a guard in his cabin.” “It doesnae sound verra big.

Does he give ye much trouble?” Oran’s rumble didn’t quite reach her ears. She laughed. A few moments later, Oran stumbled up the steps, pausing to shake a leg. He gained the aftcastle, a wee dog attached to his boot. It growled and tugged, clearly intent on inflicting damage. Rona’s chuckles increased. “Och, Uncle, he’s scarcely bigger than a large rat. Do ye think he’ll get any bigger?” “Nae if I have anything to say about it,” Oran grumbled. “Get by, dog.” He jerked his boot from the dog’s jaws.

Panting heavily, the wire-haired imp stared at its prey before shifting his attention to the two interlopers on his ship. He set up a frenzy of barking, high-pitched yips that undoubtedly would have carried far over the water were it not for the thick, enshrouding fog. “Hush!” Rona hissed as she reached for the dog. Quicker than a striking goose, it leapt away, leaving Rona with naught but a tuft of hair and a scrape of sharp teeth. “Damn!” She shook her hand, eyes narrowing on the creature which had just lost its status as cute. It cocked its head, but ceased barking, tongue lolling out one side of its mouth. “Cheeky little bastard, isn’t he?” Oran sat on a barrel and opened a bit of linen he’d folded around some hardtack which he shared with Rona. “Lass, have ye noted the name of the ship, yet?” Rona nodded thanks as she accepted the biscuit, breaking off a piece which she tossed to the little terrier. “Likely named after some comely wench.” She stole a glance his way.

One side of Oran’s mouth pulled in and upward as he often did when worried. “Nae a comely wench, then. Mayhap a flower?” Oran shook his head. “Nae.” The dog sniffed the hardtack then licked it cautiously, a skeptical gleam in its eyes as it watched its new benefactor with suspicion. Rona laughed. “Ye wee skunner. I’ll name ye Murdo for the terrible sea warrior ye are.” Oran cleared his throat. Rona shifted her attention back to her uncle.

“What has ye puckered up like an auld woman?” “We’ve stolen the Puthaid.” “The Puthaid?” She tossed the dog another bite. This time he snatched it up eagerly and wagged his stumpy tail for more. “Nae Englishman would name his ship the Puf in.” Oran rubbed his whiskers. “He wouldnae,” he agreed. “Makes ye wonder whose ship ’tis.” Rona shrugged. “Nae matter. ’Tis ours now.

” “Aye. But fer how long?” Rona grinned. “Until the MacDonnell shows us good coin for her. He can deal with any problems after that. She’ll nae longer be our worry.” Oran dipped his head but didn’t appear happy. Two days later, Rona strode into the main hall of the MacNeill keep in Ardminish village, Oran and Murdo in her wake. Her da huddled in his chair before the large fireplace, a blanket over his legs. He glanced up and a smile lit his face. “Och, the Black MacNeill and her henchman return.

” He gestured to chairs near the hearth. “Come. Sit. Tell me the tale of yer adventures. It appears ye’ve added one to yer crew.” Rona and Oran each took a seat near the fire. Murdo trotted about the room, nose to the floor as he explored. “A terrier. A keep can never have too many ratters. His name is Murdo.

” She rubbed her thumb over the scraped bit of skin on her hand. “He bites.” “Of course he does.” Laird Galen MacNeill eyed the dog warily then waved to a kitchen lad. “Are ye hungry or thirsty, mayhap?” Rona nodded. “We ate afore leaving the ship, but a couple of mugs of hot cider wouldnae go amiss.” Young Hamish grinned then bolted to the kitchen. Rona waited to give her account until the lad returned. All the lads on Gigha cut their teeth on such stories. She knew the details of their trip would be soon told several times over as a score of clansmen had met them earlier to relieve the Puthaid of her burdens.

Rona wondered how exaggerated the tales would be by the time the men arrived at the keep for the evening meal. Hamish returned, red-faced and out of breath, with a pitcher and two empty mugs. Oran shot her a smirk then took the items from the lad and set them on the small table beside them. The boy sat on the floor, a whistle on his lips, a bit of meat in his hand. Murdo cocked his head then quickly approached the lad, accepting both a pat and the treat. Others in the hall also gathered for the story-telling. Murdo adroitly avoided further pats and slipped beneath Rona’s chair where he settled, his gaze on the crowd. Rona poured a mug for Oran and herself before topping off her da’s. She then settled in to hear of Black MacNeill’s latest exploits. Oran was the clan’s best skald, and the crowd was soon enthralled with his tale.

She chuckled with his attempt to paint her as a ruthless pirate. What kind of pirate cuts no bloody swathe, and ensures the guards are treated as kindly as possible? This was only his second telling—she heard the first as they unloaded the stolen cog. By this evening, his third account would be even more dramatic. Once Oran wound down, people went back to their chores and the preparations for the evening meal, smiles aplenty on excited faces. Laird Galen handed his mug over for a refilling. “Is she beached at the northwest bay?” Rona nodded. “Aye. None shall see her unless we wish them to.” The northwest bay was a narrow inlet with craggy rocks on either side blocking the view unless someone sailed near the mouth. The deep water bay suddenly ended in a sandy beach, making it the perfect spot to hide ships.

From there, off-loaded goods were hauled by wagon to the keep and outlying crofts. “What’d she bring?” “The cog is on the smallish side, but held fifty ewes, casks of wine and mead, barrels of dried fish, oats, and a few furs. There were also two large jars of some sort of sweet, thick jam. I dinnae recognize the taste. We gave them to Cook to see what he could make of it. I expect ye’ll see it on yer table in the morn.” Her da grinned at the mention of sweets, but he quickly sobered. “Though I heard Oran’s tale, I wonder if we should expect trouble?” Oran paused before he answered, then shook his head. “Nae, Laird. The Black MacNeill paid two, er, ladies to ply the guards with whisky.

They dinnae hear us board the ship and the crew never saw who laid them out.” “And, yet ye seem uncertain,” Galen replied. Rona chimed in. “Yer brother fears we’ve stolen a Scotman’s ship rather than an English one.” Galen cocked an eyebrow. “And why would he fear that, daughter?” Rona shrugged. “She’s named the Puthaid, nae an English name.” “Ye dinnae think to take another ship?” “’Twas dark with a fog thick as porridge. I dinnae know the name until halfway across the firth.” Galen shook his head and pointed a gnarled finger at her.

“Ye should have been more careful. We cannae afford to anger a powerful clan.” For the first time, fear fluttered in her belly. Oran scratched his beard. “I’ll see to it she’s renamed. Arlen’s kin by marriage live on Islay. I’ll send him to Aonghus Og to barter a price and have her off our hands afore Yuletide.” Galen nodded. “Aye. ’Tis a good plan.

” His gaze leveled on Rona. “Heed my words, daughter. Ye are responsible should any trouble come our way o’er this.” She was tempted to deny any ill would appear. Hadn’t Oran just claimed the Black MacNeill always got away cleanly? Laughter silenced on her lips. When did she start believing in her uncle’s tall tales? She’d see to it her clan profited from their raid without bringing trouble to their shores. Somehow. She rose and considered what must be done to rid themselves of the Puthaid. She considered setting it adrift but knew her da would never agree to such a waste. With the Holy Days upon them, she hoped the MacDonnell was in a generous mood.

Galen took a sip from his cup. “We’ll use the coin from the sale of the ship for yer dowry.”

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