The Scarlet Blade of the Sea – Celeste Barclay

Keith MacLean surveyed the people sitting with him on the dais. He took in his twin brother Kyle’s wary expression. While his sister-by-marriage, Moira, gave him an encouraging smile, he noticed the varying degrees of skepticism from the members of the clan council. He inhaled deeply, considering his choices for the hundredth time before he slowly nodded his head. “I would go with you, you know that, if Moira weren’t carrying our bairn,” Kyle said for at least the tenth time. Keith nodded, knowing it was the truth. The twins entered their indenture when they were barely eight years old, sold from one pirate ship to another. They’d lied, cheated, stolen, and killed to stay together. They were now the captains of their own ships and never sailed separately. The longest they’d ever been apart was three months here and there, when their previous captains—the legendary Blond Devil and Dark Heart—sailed apart. But even that was a rarity, because the two infamous pirates were cousins. Rowan MacNeill, the Blond Devil, and Ruairí MacNeill, the Dark Heart, were virtually inseparable. They’d retired from their piratical lifestyle, living with their families at Kisimul Castle on the Isle of Barra. Rowan was now Laird MacNeill, and Ruairí was his trusted second-in-command. “I understand, brother.

This isn’t one of our honest merchant voyages within the British Isles, but it needs doing,” Keith admitted. “I won’t lie and deny that I’m uneasy about sailing without you. It feels odd.” “It feels odd to know you’re sailing without me,” Kyle agreed. “But I can’t bring Moira along, and I won’t leave her here.” Kyle shot a menacing glare at the other men at the table. Moira accepted her chieftain position after the death of her older brother, Dónal, the former clan leader. The council begged Moira to return after she’d escaped her brother’s tyranny and the council’s apathy. But the stipulation had been that the clan accepted Kyle as a member and her partner. She ruled in her own right, and Kyle was the head of the clan’s guard and merchant fleet.

In the four months since Keith and Kyle made their home at Dunluce along the northern Irish coast, they’d made several legitimate trading voyages without engaging in any thievery. They both welcomed a calmer life after spending most of their lives fighting every day to survive. The MacNeills’ retirement enabled the MacLean twins to become captains in their own rights. Keith inherited the Lady Grace from Rowan, and Kyle inherited the Lady Charity from Ruairí. In the year since the twins assumed their new duties, they’d sailed alongside one another, never more than a few yards apart. Keith never begrudged Kyle for falling in love with and marrying Moira MacDonnell, nor did he regret his brother’s choice to make his home on land now that Moira was the chieftain of her clan. But it meant that Keith would now sail alone. “I’ll have Aidan,” Keith said ruefully. “That is hardly reassuring for any of us,” Kyle pointed out. Aidan O’Flaherty was the most notorious Irish pirate sailing within the British Isles.

Only the Blond Devil, the Dark Heart, the Red Drifter, and the Scarlet Blade surpassed his reputation. Kyle earned his moniker as the Red Drifter for his bright red hair and his penchant for setting his victims adrift. Keith earned his moniker as the Scarlet Blade for his own red hair, and for giving his captives the choice between dying at the end of his blade or taking their chances with the sharks. While Keith, Kyle, Rowan, and Ruairí trusted one another implicitly, none of the Scottish pirates trusted Aidan—at all, at any time. “Aidan will fall in line,” Moira reassured, her smile gone. Her sordid history with Aidan made her the least trusting, but it was that past that forced Aidan to follow Moira’s… requests. “He can carry on as he always has when he’s on his own. But if he wishes to continue trading with the MacDonnells, then he will comply. If he wishes to put food in his belly and find a pillow under his head rather than my knife through his throat, he will comply.” “And if he doesn’t, I have enough room in my hull for his cargo and mine,” Keith’s voice reflected his resolve.

He wouldn’t hesitate to sever their agreement with Aidan, but he doubted he would offer Aidan a choice about it. He would run the man through without consideration. “When does he arrive?” “Two days,” Moira answered. “Fionn is expecting you. You can stay in Baltimore with the O’Driscolls until the MacNeills arrive with their whisky.” “They may already be there,” Kyle noted. “It’s a shame you won’t see Rowan and Ruairí.” “Neither will leave their wives and bairns any faster than you’re leaving Moira,” Keith reminded. “I’ll stop at Barra on my return, after I store the new goods on Canna.” “Bring back all the silk,” Moira stated.

“The English will pay a pretty penny for Near Eastern goods. You’ll need to sail with MacDonnells if you don’t wish for the English to capture you while you trade.” “Aye. My neck needs no stretching.” Keith looked toward the massive doors leading out from the Great Hall. The Lady Grace would be bobbing high in the water just past the wall on the far side of the bailey. Keith could nearly smell the sea air, and his longing to be back on the water stirred within him. He’d been content during his time on land as Moira and Kyle settled into their new roles, but his heart remained with the sea. It was no secret among Keith, Kyle, and Moira that Keith wished to settle down and build a relationship like the one Kyle and Moira shared, but Keith was in no hurry. He still enjoyed the company of a variety of women, and he intended to make the most of his two days left on land.

He didn’t intend to partake of any pleasure while visiting the O’Driscolls. He wouldn’t risk irritating the already-cantankerous Fionn. Once he was out to sea and making his way to the Mediterranean, there would be no leisure activities until he reached the Greek Isles, where he would make the most of his journey. “Get yourself there before you plan on how to spend your time,” Kyle muttered as he raised his chalice to his lips. Keith didn’t repress his grin, his emerald eyes crinkling at the corners in his suntanned face. The MacDonnell women often remarked on how similar his eyes were to the Irish grass after the rain. They’d charmed many a woman before he even opened his mouth to speak. In the Mediterranean, they would be a novelty. At the establishments he intended to visit, they—along with his hair—would be recognizable, reminding the women that they would enjoy their time spent with him as much as he would enjoy his. “I was thinking that the Lady Grace’s hull needs the barnacles scraped.

” Kyle’s only response was a snort. Moira pursed her lips, knowing her husband once shared Keith’s plans while traveling. Kyle’s arm, already draped around Moira’s shoulders, tightened while his fingers skimmed the exposed skin at her collarbone. Keith watched the couple, knowing Kyle had no interest in thinking about his brother’s intentions. Kyle was the most doting and devoted husband Keith knew besides Rowan and Ruairí. Even the blind could see Kyle and Moira were a love match, but it didn’t negate the rowdy debauchery Kyle and Keith once enjoyed together. “Get yourself there in one piece, then do as you please,” Moira quipped begrudgingly, before her smile broke through. She knew Keith and Kyle shared a penchant for the same carnal activities, the very types she relished with her husband. She also knew the Greek Isles were where Keith and Kyle received their initiations. She may not have been eager to recall Kyle’s past before they met, but she knew she benefited from her husband’s earlier tutelage.

“You mean get Aidan there in one piece. He’s likely to forget why we’re sailing there and try to attack every merchant along the way,” Keith grumbled. “And you thought to reassure me by reminding me that you’re sailing with him,” Kyle grinned. “If you’re finished reminiscing about your shameful exploits, perhaps we can conclude,” Cormac interrupted. His son Grady died when Kyle attacked the ship upon which Moira was smuggled away from Dunluce. He’d been the most vocal opponent of Kyle making his home among the MacDonnells, and he was counting down the days until Keith sailed away for good. “You are free to leave at any time,” Moira stated softly. Her quiet voice belied the authority she conveyed. Cormac and his brother, Curran, had been on the council since her father was the chieftain. While she appreciated Curran’s voice of reason, Cormac’s grief made him contentious for the sake of being contentious, not out of concern for the clan often, and made it difficult for the council to come to a resolution with the clan’s trade runs, which Kyle now led.

No one could ignore the increase in prosperity since Kyle took over negotiating their agreements, and it stunned almost everyone to observe his prowess at legitimate business. “I will leave as soon as Aidan arrives and sail south to Fionn’s. Assuming the MacNeills are already there or arrive close to when we do, there’s no reason we can’t be underway to the Med in a sennight. It’ll take nearly a fortnight to reach the Greek Isles. We’ll sell the Scottish whisky there before moving on. I hope we can find the goods you want in the local markets without having too many stops. I’d prefer to keep my distance from the Saracens. I have no interest in being sold into slavery. Indenture was bad enough.” Keith crossed his arms and sat back in his chair.

There had never been an opportunity for Keith and Kyle to earn their way out of working aboard ships. When Rowan and Ruairí became captains, they had a choice for the first time in nearly two decades. With nowhere to go and no one missing them, the twins opted to remain pirates. “Bah. They wouldn’t want you, anyway. You’ve spent too much time in the sun. You’re not a lily white—” Kyle stopped before he insulted not only the English, but his new family. “Your skin is too dark.” “I like my golden skin.” Keith stuck out his arm, jokingly examining his skin.

“Perhaps the Grecians and Neapolitans will think me one of their ancient gods. Fiery hair and golden skin. I can think of plenty who find it a fetching combination.” Keith’s grin once more made his eyes crinkle, and his white teeth shone. “Be back here in six sennights, or I will be the one to cut off your cods if I’m forced to go traipsing after you,” Kyle warned. His tone sounded light, but Keith knew his brother wouldn’t forgive him if he forced Kyle to leave Moira to search for him. “No gallivanting on my part,” Keith swore. While he might have reveled in the entertainment available on land, the dangers of sailing along the Barbary Coast were infinite. He and Kyle experienced the deadliest battles of their lives against the corsairs. He didn’t intend to linger only to make himself a target.

“I’m off to my barnacles.” “You’re off to the lists,” Kyle corrected. The twins exchanged a glance only they understood. The men would spend as much time with one another as they could before Keith departed because they both knew it could be their last hours together. KEITH WINKED at the two women who’d helped him pass the evenings between the last clan council meeting and his departure. He couldn’t remember which was Katie and which was Sarah. He wasn’t entirely certain those were their names. But they’d enjoyed themselves without conversation. Keith turned his attention back to the men loading the goods onto his ship and carrying them down to the hold. He kept a running tally in his head of how many barrels of Irish whiskey came aboard, along with the crates of wool.

He would trade the oilcloth-wrapped hard cheese with the O’Driscolls for more crates of wool. The wool and alcohol from Ireland and the Hebrides would fetch plenty of coin in Naples and the Greek Isles. Wool wasn’t a rarity like the alcohol, but the Irish wool was thicker and more durable than that found in much of the Mediterranean. The Irish claimed the sheep were hardier since they didn’t bask in year-round sunshine, but survived the bitter cold from the Irish Sea that swept the island. “Don’t whittle,” Keith muttered to Kyle, who stood beside him. “You’ll only set me on edge.” “Good. I’m already on edge. Misery loves company.” “We both know we must do this.

If the MacDonnells are your clan, then their business becomes yours—and mine by extension. Moira can’t travel with you while she’s carrying, and it’s far too soon to trust the council to respect her word. Even I don’t trust them not to forget she’s not the woman who fled here. With their help, mind you. She can stand on her own two feet. I worry more that we’d return to half the council in their graves if they try to browbeat her. They need you.” Keith chortled as he looked at his brother. They’d never known who was the elder because their mother claimed she hadn’t been able to tell them apart. Their parents only married when they discovered their mother was with child, and their father abandoned their family, claiming that two squalling babes were more than any man should bear.

Even Rowan and Ruairí struggled if the brothers weren’t on their respective ships. Moira was the only one who could. “And I need you,” Kyle admitted. “I’ll be back before you can miss me. You’re still too besotted with your bride and spend so much time chasing her to your chamber that you won’t even notice I’m gone.” Keith watched as his crew carried the last of the goods below deck. The tide was with him, so he would have to set sail soon. He met Kyle’s gaze and knew they wore matching expressions of dread. “I need you, too.” The twins embraced, neither eager to release their hold.

It had never been easy when Rowan and Ruairí sailed separately, but they’d always had their captains as their friends and their distraction. Now only Kyle had a confidante and distraction. Keith grinned as he thought that Kyle’s distraction was the best either ever had. “I’ll still miss you,” Kyle mumbled, reading Keith’s thoughts as easily as they had since they were children. “I love you, brother. Come home.” “I love you.” The men may not have voiced their sentiment loudly, but they expressed their feelings often. Both their crews knew the men never hesitated to admit their bond, but they were all wise enough not to comment on the fearsome pirates’ softness for one another. They clapped one another on the back as Moira climbed the ramp and stepped on deck.

“Take care, brother,” Moira said as she stepped into Keith’s embrace. Moira’s appearance on Kyle’s ship had been unexpected, and Keith had held some skepticism in the beginning. But it hadn’t taken long for Keith and Moira to grow close, teasing Kyle that they had the good fortune to choose one another as siblings. The comment was more a jab at Moira’s dead brother, Dónal, and her banished sister, Lizzie, but it made them laugh when Kyle scowled. “Take care of him. He’s lost without me,” Keith jested, forcing the lump in his throat to fall and join the knot in his stomach. He didn’t fear sailing without Kyle, but he couldn’t shake the sense of disquiet. He supposed it would be hardest this first time, but there would be more journeys without Kyle in the future. “I will. Don’t dillydally, or you will find me at the bow of the Lady Charity when we come looking for you.

” “You will not,” Keith warned, no jest in this tone this time. He didn’t put it past Moira to insist—even stow away—to join the search. “Then come home.” Moira squeezed tighter. “I love you.” “I love you too, sister.” Moira squeaked as the two mountainous men trapped her between them as they exchanged a last embrace. Keith watched as Kyle escorted Moira back to the dock. Moira waved, and once more the twins’ expressions were a match, showing stoicism before their men when their hearts were silently aching. Keith waved before turning toward his crew.

“Raise the mainsail and release the bowlines,” Keith commanded as he walked to the helm. Navigating the MacDonnells’ docks and sailing into the channel would monopolize his attention. He could only spare a glance to his family on land. He admitted to himself that it made it easier to leave them behind. He concentrated on maneuvering the Lady Grace, calling out commands for various sails so that her stern swung clear of the docks. The wind gusted, making their departure swift. Keith inhaled the tangy saltwater scent, and a sense of calm settled over him. He hadn’t forgotten his family or his sadness, but the open water was where he was most comfortable. The prospect of adventure made his blood pump once more, and eagerness dulled the edges of his pain. He looked back once as Dunluce faded into a shadow on the coast.

He reminded himself that he had more than most men he knew. He had a family and two homes—Dunluce and the Lady Grace. “Braedon,” Keith called out. “Aye, captain,” the adolescent replied as he scampered toward the mainmast. Braedon was the ship’s barrel man; he had joined Ruairí’s crew much the same way that Keith and Kyle began their lives at sea. Ruairí bought Braedon’s indenture, but only to save the boy’s life. Once aboard the Lady Charity, Ruairí gave Braedon the choice to work or go ashore at the next port. An orphan like Keith and Kyle, he’d chosen to remain with the ship. When Kyle took ownership of the Lady Charity, Braedon stayed aboard, climbing into the crow’s nest as the ship’s lookout. Braedon had eagerly accepted Keith’s suggestion that he join the Lady Grace’s crew for this voyage.

As Keith watched Braedon climb the rigging to reach his perch, he smiled. He remembered his time as a barrel man on his first ship. He and Kyle were brought on board as barrel men and cabin boys. They both looked forward to their time in the lofty seat because it was time spared from their first captain’s threats. Their second captain was the cruelest they ever faced, so they both pretended to be seasick when they went to the nest. Sick was safer than afraid; weakness would have gotten them killed. But vomiting from the elevated stand freed them from the duty and meant they could always remain close to one another. It was the only way they survived that crew. They’d run away from that ship and crew when they docked in a small English wharf. Kyle approached a captain, spinning a yarn only a sailor could tell, and got himself hired on.

They successfully hid the fact that there were two of them for nearly three months. They’d bounced from one crew to another for years. When a brothel owner duped Rowan and Ruairí into joining a pirate ship rather than a merchant’s, Kyle and Keith had already been aboard for a year. “Samson.” Keith beckoned his first mate to join him at the wheel. The colossal Black man made his way across the deck, his knees slightly bent as he absorbed the roll and pitch of the waves against the hull. His ebony skin shone in the bright sunlight, his teeth a pure ivory. While Keith and Kyle stood well over six feet and had developed broad shoulders during their time fighting and working the riggings, Samson made them look like mere boys. “Aye, Capt’n.” Samson’s heavy accent flavored his words as he met Keith at the helm.

“We will make fine progress if the wind continues to favor us. We stored everything in the hold, and the men know your orders.” “Thank you.” Keith looked at his friend and grinned. “I noticed the women grew particularly fond of you.”

.

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