The Laird’s Reluctant Bride (Preview)
The year is 1301. Scotland is embroiled in a war of independence against the English. It’s been five years since the exile of Toom Tabard, the Scottish king; three since the rebels’ defeat in the Battle of Falkirk under Wallace; nearly one since the resignation of Robert the Bruce, heir to the throne, as Guardian of Scotland. His rival, John Comyn, has just followed in his wake.
King Edward I is painting the Lowlands red with blood, and the magnates are scrambling to keep the country undivided under his thumb. The prospect of civil war grows with each day that passes, casting a long shadow over the country and its people.
The dream of an independent united Scotland lives on in Robert the Bruce, but he cannot act alone. Cooperation among the Highlanders is of the essence. First, they need to agree to peace amongst themselves. A summit in Fifeshire has been called in his name, inviting clans from far and wide to put an end to their quarrels and form new productive alliances.
Many lairds are in attendance, along with their numerous beautiful daughters. Their agendas are even more plentiful, for where one man sees a chance for peace, another sees opportunity, gain, wealth, and power at any cost.
1301, The Herbride Sea
Sometime before dawn.
By the time Ivy came to consciousness, her wrists were so raw from the ropes that bound her to the mizzenmast she no longer cared about the cold. Her trust in the elements was misplaced and she knew it—the air was biting that night, and people had died of frost for less. Her breath came out in uneven puffs of air, clearer than the smoke rising from the torches dotting the deck of her father’s cog.
At least he had posted a guard to watch over her, as any merchant might do with their chattel. The man with the clinking hauberk had yet to turn around. Ivy watched through wet tendrils of hair as he stalked the stern, stopping only to cast a long look at the horizonless sea between the Isle of Skye and the mainland. Ivy’s gaze drifted to the unreadable stars overhead. There was no telling how long it would be until they reached Glasgow and then Fifeshire where her buyer and new master awaited.
Raucous laughter sounded from the hold, and Ivy flinched, startled. Her head knocked painfully against the mast and she hissed involuntarily, drawing the attention of the guard. The deck creaked beneath him as he turned around, a hand hovering over the hilt of his short sword.
“Has my father forbidden ye from speaking to me?” she rasped, squinting against the darkness. She wriggled forward as far as her bindings would allow, and the exercise roused her fear. “He’ll have words for ye and more if I die afore we reach our journey’s end. I’ll make certain I do die if ye dinnae speak.”
Ivy swore she could hear the guard grind his teeth as he stood frozen. “I have my orders,” he muttered after a while, turning his back to her.
She swallowed hard, and her throat burned. “Orders to kill me or to hold yer tongue? It matters not; ye’ve broken yer vow to him now,” she noted. “I beg of ye, listen to me.”
“What is it ye want?”
“I want—” She cut herself off with an involuntary whimper. She most wanted to go home, but she would settle for being out of the cold and changed into a dry smock and kirtle. “Why cannae I travel below with the rest of ye? I want a meal. I want water. I want to nae be treated like any other prisoner.”
“Ye’ll find freedom aplenty ashore.”
The man took a deep breath and turned to face her. In the torchlight, he revealed himself to be a stranger. Before the fighting, Ivy had known most of her father’s men by name. Now their names were long forgotten, turned into freemen and freemen’s sons who wore the faces of knights. This one was younger than most, no older than four and ten.
“I ken my da’s heart—his good heart—and I ken he didnae ask for me to suffer,” she lied. “Please, untie me and I willnae say a word to any man about it. I only mean to walk a bit, and look, and wait.”
The boy’s face frowned in hesitation, but his eyes were heavy with fright. She knew that expression from the looking glass, and she especially knew what it meant.
Slowly, he shook his head. “I cannae do that, me lady,” he whispered, “but I can ask about a meal for ye,” he added more begrudgingly.
It was something at least. “Do it,” she said softly, trying not to scare him, “and ye will be the kindest man to have ever lived. I kent ye to be of gentle nature.”
Sparing one last look at the sea, the boy turned on his heel and marched toward the bow.
Sagging against the mast, Ivy felt the first tears run down her cheek. Staring straight ahead, she rubbed her wrists together behind the mast, testing the rope’s slack. Whoever had tied the knot did not intend for her to flee for they knew she would try. For what reason she could not fathom; there was little she could do. She had no weapon and could not wield one if she tried. And certainly there was nowhere to run but into the sea.
“Into the sea…” she breathed, and her eyes rounded in dread, but also in sudden realization.
All was quiet on deck; the boatswain likely gone to eat. The guard had dipped into the hold and faded from view. There were no other ships as far as the eye could see, but her hands kept working against the rope anyway. Her knees grazed painfully against the boards beneath her as she struggled, her heart hammering in her chest. If she could only slip through this net, there would be a chance—perhaps not for life, but certainly for freedom.
She forced the base of her palm into the knot and whimpered at the thought of facing the bitter end.
There was a reason she had denied the nunnery despite her mother’s urging. There was a reason she had dreamed of peace in a lifetime of war. Ivy MacLeod believed she was meant for greater things, the greatest things in fact, and it was better her dreams die with her than she without them.
Her hand slipped free of the ropes all of a sudden, ripping the skin from her thumb and forefinger.
She let out a cry of both relief and pain, and promptly bit her lip. God’s teeth, nothing had hurt worse in her life. She dared not look down at her hand. The fire racing up her arm was proof enough of her victory. Her other hand carefully slipped the loop; she was free.
Her knees buckled beneath her as she tried to stand, and she fell forward onto her chest, grazing her chin against the deck, providing one more scar to layer over the others she was accumulating. Darting her gaze upward, she was relieved to see that nothing had moved at the other end of the cog—not the guards, nor God.
The sails whipped menacingly against the wind above her. A squall was brewing, or perhaps something worse. If she didn’t act soon, they would drag her down into the hold to weather the storm and she would come out of it an unwilling married woman.
Wiping the blood from her chin, she pressed herself against the mizzenmast. Her hand curled around it, leaving blood ingrained in the wood. They would find it in the morning, but she would be long gone. She had to be gone.
With uneven steps, she staggered her way to the stern. The waters were dark and inviting below, reflecting the heavy light of the moon. Had the sea always seemed so pleasant a canvas? If so, she could not remember but sent up a prayer of gratitude at its invitation.
Perhaps she could swim to safety. Perhaps she would die. She did not spend time considering her options; she simply sought freedom.
Hoisting a leg over the side of the ship, her heart lurched in her chest. Her long ashen hair blew westward, but she planned to jump to the east toward the sun.
Her desperation and misery had been born in fire. With water, she would smother it for good.
The last thing she saw before she jumped from the ship into the sea were her father’s colors flying above her in the inky sky.
1301, Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye
Eight hours earlier.
The fire roared in the fireplace, and Ivy was transfixed by its flames lapping against the stone. She had despised the keep when they first took up residence within it, so different it was from the MacLeod croft of her girlhood. Gone was the burn at the bottom of the farmlands where the children would bathe. Gone were the fields of heather where she watched the knights riding through the glen. Gone were her mother and brother too, who had been born there, and who had died there in the fire set by Comyn’s allies while her father was away.
There was not a moment’s peace to be had in Dunvegan. The gates to the keep were forever open to more cavaliers, more tinkers, more magnates—more bloodshed. She thought how strange it was that she would now trade forever and a day for one more night in this noise-plagued burgh.
Her attendants flitted in and out of the room packing her trunks, and she directed them absently. She had no care for her garments, no care for anything at all but the fire to warm her. So, when they asked where she was going and what she thought best to take with her, she offered them the same answer she had been giving them all afternoon.
“Father has said nae a thing to me about my new home, only that it is far from here on the mainland and safe.” She knew at least one of those things to have been a lie: there was nowhere safe in Scotland anymore.
With a gentle sigh, she rose from the edge of her canopied bed and walked toward the hearth. There, she plucked a small sculpture from the mantle, a wooden carving in the shape of a wolf. Her brother had been no fine craftsman before his death, but Ivy smiled affectionately as she ran her thumb over the uneven notches in the walnut.
“Seems more a cow to my eye,” she remarked upon receiving it some six years ago, “though I suppose I should thank ye for the thought.”
“Braw, Da will be pleased,” her brother had replied, “to ken ye have manners, and because a cow is more fitting for a MacLeod lass—especially ye, sister.”
Ivy hadn’t asked what he had meant, and she suspected it was for the best. The sweetness of her memories was all she had left of Peter.
“Och, and this cow,” she grumbled under her breath.
One of the girls looked up at her with curious, rounded eyes, and Ivy dismissed her with a smile. “I shall take this with me,” she said, handing the girl the sculpted figure. “Wrap it safely in a wimple as I should despise for it to break.” She nodded to the other girls and made her way back to the bed. “Whatever ye cannae pack ye may keep for yersels, but dinnae wear anything of mine before Sir Gavin, or trouble will find ye.”
The girls gleefully returned to their work. By the time they were done and the sun had ticked to the west, someone rapped on the door. Ivy didn’t bother turning around. She knew who it would be, and the fire needed stoking.
One by one the girls shot to their feet and bowed, leaving Ivy’s packed trunks behind them. The room was so still she could hear the song of the blackcap warblers outside. Her father’s call was not nearly as sweet as theirs when he decided to speak.
“Out,” he ordered, and Ivy’s maids were quick to comply.
Her father shut the door behind them, and its whine made Ivy’s skin prickle with gooseflesh. Still, she sat patiently waiting for him on the edge of her bed, having averted her eyes from the flames to the soft linen of her gown. Any sudden movement in his presence could spell her ruin.
Her father prowled toward her slowly, walking the length of her bed and coming to loom over her. Like a veritable animal, his every step was calculated and measured, every intake of breath filled with purpose. She supposed that was how he’d survived as Comyn’s prisoner for all those years at Falkirk and more. It didn’t mean she admired him, and it certainly didn’t mean she liked speaking with him. She stifled a smile at the thought that it was a chore she would not have to suffer for much longer.
He pinched the edge of her veil and slowly ran the fabric between his thumb and forefinger. As he observed her, she only allowed herself to look at his thick hairy fingers. There was muck under his nails, though she knew it was more likely dried blood, and she wondered to whom it belonged. But all questions pertaining to her father were best left unanswered.
“Ye will take this off when we land and plait yer hair like the Highland lasses,” he said coolly.
Ivy clenched her jaw and nodded. There was no point in telling her father that she didn’t know how to plait her hair. His order wasn’t about plaits anyway; it was about making his daughter look desirable. For whom, she did not know.
With a weary grunt, her father kneeled before her. Ivy almost thought she was dreaming. Her father had kneeled for no man but their exiled king and Robert the Bruce; never for a woman.
Looking into his countenance, her eyes welled with tears. Her father looked so much like Peter with his strong nose and brow, only war-hardened and two decades older, poisoned by his own cruelty. His eyes were completely different from Peter’s because they were so much like her own, an amber shade and utterly distrusting even as he looked his own flesh and blood in the face.
“My bairn,” he sighed, cupping her face with his hands like she was not a woman of nine and ten but a girl of seven, “look into yer father’s eyes and see yerself as he sees ye.” For the first time in what felt like years, his lips curled into a smile. “Ye are reborn this day, daughter of mine. As a woman, as a daughter of Scotland and a MacLeod, do ye feel the hands of change as I feel them wrap around us?”
He placed a heavy hand on her shoulder, and she wanted desperately to shrug it off. To her, it was known as a great instrument of pain. Instead, she leveled her gaze at her father and bit her lip.
“I desire to ken where ye are taking me, Father.”
His fingers dug into her skin, but his face showed none of his typical disdain. He had grown too apt at hiding it over the years before he lost his temper, but Ivy knew. She always knew. Rocking back on the heels of his boots, her father stood up straight. His aketon was quilted with scarlet linen, and all she could see was red before her, a bad omen that portended ill.
“Ye ken we are at war, bairn.” He waited for an answer as though he doubted it, and she nodded to appease him. “Robert the Bruce has seen fit to bestow upon us—upon ye—the greatest of honors. An invitation, bairn. There’s to be a clansmeet in Fife, where the greatest warriors over the country will convene to do what is right.”
Ivy’s face dipped into a frown before she could temper it. “And what is right, Father?” she asked only to hear him speak it aloud.
He seized her chin with his thumb and forefinger, angling her head so as to look up at him. “To unite as one, Ivy, and pave the way for freedom as Robert sees it. He wishes the clans to meet and follow him into war. He wishes it, and we will make it so.” He thumbed her bottom lip. “I will play my part on the battlefield, and ye will play yers by selecting a husband worthy of ye.”
It took all of one second for Ivy’s stomach to turn over on itself. She had forever known this day would come. There had been a time she had dreamed of marriage because it meant escaping her father’s clutches for good. But the way he presented this “honor” from Robert the Bruce, it did not sound like a dream, nor like freedom.
She was a pawn in his games, and this was his final move.
She bit back the bile in her throat and closed her eyes. “Ye’re selling me off to the highest bidder,” she whispered, unable to voice the full truth of the matter. There is a price on my maidenhead, and ye wish to see who will vie for it the most. “Is there nae price too high to please yer would-be king?”
The flat of his hand came quick and hard against her cheek. She reeled back, clutching her face with her own hand, but it did nothing to soothe the physical pain or the hurt within her.
Her father tittered and ripped the veil from her head. “I would trade a thousand daughters to please him; never doubt that.” He stalked over to the hearth and cast the cloth in the fire. “Dinnae call me yer enemy, bairn—nae when I toil night and day for yer happiness. In Fife, ye’ll have yer pick of the strongest, richest men in all of Scotland. There are worse fates for a woman yer age to marry into a clan of power, and ye ken ‘tis true.”
“I ken naething at all.” She bit her lip to stop from breaking. “Naw—I spoke a lie. I ken one thing: I willnae be married to a man I dinnae ken! That I dinnae trust!”
Ivy scurried back pre-emptively on the bed, but her father didn’t move. She wished with all her heart that she could understand him, or God willing, anticipate his next blow. It was a mistake to challenge him, but he knew it, too. He had made the mistake of striking her across the face one too many times, and the burgh always fell pregnant with rumors of his tyranny toward her in the aftermath of his lashings. He had learned eventually and spared her the rod, taking his anger out on Ivy’s favored servants instead.
She cast a rueful look toward the door where her attendants were most certainly listening in. If he meant to send her away, there would be no one to save them from her father’s wrath in her stead.
When she looked around, her father had turned his back to her, his fingers curled so strongly around the lip of the mantle they had turned white. “Even on this day of hope, ye speak my world into darkness. I pray for ye. Truly, I do.” He pushed himself away from the fire and stormed to the door muttering, “Be ready by sundown.”
If he had cast her one last look, Ivy might have had the good sense to show up at the front of the keep with her effects later that day and say nothing more.
“And I pray for ye, Father,” she shot back, stopping him in his tracks. As quietly as she could, she slid off the bed. If her father heard her, he did not stir. “With the Lord as my witness, I pray ye dinnae regret playing these games of blood and power when Scotland is won and find yerself in an empty keep, with only yer glory for companionship.”
Before the storm of her father’s anger came always a great stretch of silence. In those moments of quiet, Ivy reached into herself, seeking purchase on any strength she had hidden away for safekeeping. After years of violence, that pool was near empty. There was nothing to hold back her pain as her father covered the distance across the room and propelled her back against her waiting trunks.
Her hip collided with the stone floor, sending a sharp jolt up her side, but the pain was nothing compared to the visceral fear she felt as her father grabbed her by the neckline of her dress and yanked her off the floor.
Sir Gavin may have said something before beating her. Or maybe he didn’t. Ivy’s only memories were of birdsong and her fire.
1301, just off the coast of the Ilse of Mull
The following day.
By the time Blaine’s men had earned their sea legs, they were halfway through their journey to the mainland. He supposed their ineptitude at sailing was partly his fault. His lairdship was far from landlocked, and there were numerous reasons for the recent sea voyages. However, up until three years ago, Blaine was busy fighting Wallace’s war, and the state of MacKinnon’s men had been his father’s burden to bear. Frankly, he was more comfortable with a pike in his hand than he was anywhere else in the world—especially ruling over the men he had once called friends.
Sweeping a glance over the waters, Blaine sheathed the skene he’d been polishing. The day was bright, the weather was fair, and his siblings were quiet for the most part—something for which he was grateful. His sister had charmed the crew out of their superstitions as they broke fast, and his brother had busied himself by assailing them with questions that were arguably more invasive.
When at last Errol reared his ugly head from below deck, Blaine whistled for him to join him by the stern.
Huffing and puffing, Errol came up beside him. “Ach, there’s no land for miles! Are ye certain ye’re not playing some wee trick on me, brother? Luring me out onto open waters so ye can be rid of me for good? I’ll have ye ken, I cannae swim.”
Blaine wrestled with a smile. He didn’t like indulging his brother’s antics at the best of times, but the deck of a ship was hardly the place for a fight. “’Twould be a mighty poor trick, dinnae ye think?” he said, “Trapping mysel with ye, and nowhere to hide?” He leaned over and clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Och, will ye nae wipe that look off yer face? The journey to Fife willnae pass quicker with a jester aboard, I promise ye that.”
Errol hopped away, laughing. He was outfitted like a true warrior before they had taken to the sea, but he had quickly done away with his armor and now paraded about in his chausses, boots, and tunic. Despite his four-and-twenty years on earth he often had all the manners and wisdom of a rock.
“What? Dinnae ye think mighty Bruce can take a joke? Naw, ye’ll be glad to have me by yer side when we meet him.”
“I have met him. Ye ken this.”
“Aye, but ye weren’t a laird then. Ye were a—”
“Aye, what was I?” Blaine interjected, scowling.
Errol smirked, his green eyes glinting. “Naething, brother. Ye were naething at all.”
Blaine looked over his shoulder to make sure the crew was busy. The last thing he needed was for them to think he was as mad as his brother. When he was certain the coast was clear, he cracked a smile and grabbed Errol by the scruff of his shirt.
“I’ll cast ye overboard, ye slippery sod,” he warned laughingly. “Dinnae ye think I willnae because we’re blood.”
“I’d like to see ye try, ye lump,” Errol shot back, twisting himself out of his brother’s hold. He beamed as he straightened himself. “If ye’ve made up yer mind about putting me out of my misery, will ye nae tell me where it is we’re headed? Dead men are particularly braw at keeping all sorts of secrets.”
Blaine leaned back against the ship, crossing his arms over his chest. “Ye ken we’re sailing to Glasgow and then to Fifeshire.”
“I ken where and I ken to whom, but I dinnae ken why.”
Blaine ran a hand over his face. It had taken no small amount of subterfuge and strife to keep the truth from his meddling siblings. As far as Errol knew, they were meeting Bruce and his allies on the mainland to discuss troops. That was part of it, of course. Blaine had one of the finest armies in all of Scotland under his belt, and Robert the Bruce had made clear his intention about recruiting them to the cause. However, there was more to this clansmeet than anyone dared speak, and it involved all of Blaine’s least favorite things. And chief among them: politicking.
Just as Blaine had resolved himself to speak, his sister climbed up from the hold and caught his eye. Hannah’s blonde hair lifted in the wind, and her milky skin dappled in the sun. She looked so much like their mother, even at six and ten with the bloom of youth upon her. She would meet just as grizzly an end if Blaine was not careful in the coming days. Because while Bruce had said he wanted a united Scotland, what he meant was in part that he was looking for wives for his allies. Blaine would watch the whole country burn before he sold his sister off to a man unworthy of her, and so without her knowledge, he planned to drop her off with the nuns in Glasgow.
Shooting Errol a look telling him to keep quiet, he waved his sister over to them. “Good morn to ye, sister,” he said, cupping the back of her head and pressing a kiss to her forehead. When she pulled back, Blaine worried that his guilt was written all over his face and Hannah would see it and know, but Errol was quick to distract her.
“Ye dinnae ever greet me like that,” he teased, feigning disappointment.
Blaine thought to reply and appease him, but something in the water caught his eye instead. Narrowing his gaze over his sister’s shining head, he tried to discern what it was as it bobbed and weaved between the waves. It seemed too strange a color for driftwood, too limp, too… bodily in nature.
“’Tis because he favors me over ye. And who can blame him?” Hannah heaved a sigh and leaned over the side of the ship. “Ye’re too old, as well. Those years between us make all the difference in how insufferable ye are, ye ken.”
“Aye. I look at ye and I ken.”
“Och, I never could have guessed how boring sailing is. If naething else, I thank ye for this most revealing experience, Blaine. And ye ken what’s more boring than sailing?” she lamented.
“Blaine?” Errol suggested with a twinkle in his eye.
“Sailors,” she bantered.
“Will ye nae both be quiet for a moment?” Blaine ordered, racing up to the stern to get a better view. “I could have sworn…” His fingers curled around the gunwale, seeking purchase against the rocking of the vessel. Suddenly, the sun hit the object of his curiosity at just the right angle, and there was no mistaking what he saw next: a pallid face washed over by water, disappearing as quickly as it appeared. There was nothing he could discern beyond that—nothing he needed to either.
There was a body in the water.
Like two eager pups, his siblings followed after him. Blaine knew only from the pattering of their feet.
“Do ye think he’s seen something?” Errol asked Hannah.
“I think he thinks he has,” Hannah answered. She leaned forward over the side of the boat, and Blaine quickly put an arm out to stop her from falling. “Look!” she cried. “I see it! I do! ‘Tis a woman,” she gasped. “There’s a woman in the water!”
“Ye’re fibbing,” Blaine said, but he had thought much the same himself. He clucked his tongue and turned his sister around by the shoulders, remembering himself. “Ye shouldnae look, Hannah! Get down in the hold with the others—”
“Ach, poor lassie must have drowned.” Errol sighed.
“Errol, dinnae say that!” Hannah snapped back. She whipped back around, slippery as an eel, dirtying her gown against the sea-stained wood of the bulwark. “Och, ye must help her, brother! Willnae ye help her? Please!”
Blaine shook his head, looking out over the waters. “Ye dinnae ken ‘tis a woman. More like ‘tis the body of a fallen fighter, and we cannae say for whom the wretch took up arms.” Blaine steeled himself as the body came back into view, drifting closer to their ship with each ripple of the waves. “I willnae have a man’s blood on my hands—nae corpse will drag us into war.”
“’Tis nae right to leave her at the mercy of the sea—or him. I dinnae care!” Hannah whimpered, turning back to look for the body. “If ye had died in battle and been chucked in the sea,” she added, uncharacteristically forlorn, “God’s teeth, brother! I pray someone would have fished ye out and brought ye home.”
Blaine had spent a lifetime fending off the most ruthless attackers, but he was powerless to resist his sister’s pouty plea. Clenching his jaw, he hissed his defeat, and his siblings cheered in nervous approval.
“Ye shouldnae take the Lord’s name in vain,” he muttered, divesting himself of his belt, boots, and weapons, his skene and broadsword clattering against the deck. “Learn fast ‘afore we reach the nunnery, or they willnae let me take ye home.” He shrugged off his hauberk and his aketon came with it. All at once, the only thing standing between Blaine and the sea was his fear. “God’s blood…” he whispered.
Hannah was good enough not to call him a hypocrite.
“Be kind enough nae to drown, brother,” Errol muttered as Blaine paced the deck, looking for a point of entry. “I love our clan. Really, I do, but nae enough to rule over it.”
The waves lapped against the side of the ship like hounds hungry for their dinner. The clear, gray-blue color of the waters was misleading, and Blaine knew it all too well. The sea would be colder than the air, and if he was not careful he would lose his life to it and more.
Blaine looked out over the sea, then back at his anxious siblings. He could command one of his men to jump in after the body and they would do it willingly, but it would not be right. A few of his guards were beginning to approach, but he held them off with the palm of his hand.
This was something he should do on his own—if not to prove himself a hero and gladden his sister, then to make his father proud. Too long had he ruled over his family’s clan with all the involvement of a stranger. If the castaway revealed herself to be Blaine’s death, at least he would die with a clear conscience.
Sucking in his breath, he climbed over the bulwark and took pause. He waited just long enough for the sea to calm a tick before launching himself off the gunwale and into the waves below.
The first thing he felt—the first thing and the last—was the biting slap of the water against his skin. For a moment, nothing existed in the world but that pain. It wreathed around him, with the water pressing down on him, keeping him trapped beneath the waves like the cruelest siren call.
It was cold but it was blissful. There was nothing to hear, nothing else to feel, no enemies in hiding, only one that he could fight. He needed to fight or he would lose the battle and die, along with the castaway.
He snapped his eyes open beneath the water, and they stung, but a rush of feeling gave him the courage to glance at the filtered sunlight and swim upwards. For the second time, he broke through the water’s iron plate. As he did, relieved roars erupted from the boat, but he could barely hear them over the sharp intake of his breath. He hadn’t the time to look back, not while his body was on fire with cold. It was enough to know they knew he was alive.
The sun was too bright above him, and he could not remember whether it had always been that way. Blaine pushed his arms out before him, and with all his might, he swam toward the crowning head of the fallen soldier—whoever they were. Within moments, he adapted to the dance of the sea, swimming not against the tide but with it. A head of dark hair called to him like a beacon, dipping above and then beneath the waves with every inhale of breath he took.
However, the sea was not a kind mistress that day. When he was close enough to see the body properly, so close he thought to reach out and touch it, it slipped beneath the waves so swiftly it was as though it had never existed.
Throwing his head back in disbelief, Blaine dared to look back at his siblings on the side of the boat. He could not make out their faces—he could see nothing but their twin heads of blond hair, so much like his own—but he knew that if he did not act quickly, one or the other would be foolish enough to jump in after him. Focused to the exclusion of everything else around him, Blaine thrust his body beneath the waves again, adjusting himself to its sweet cold imprisonment.
That was when he saw her.
Hannah had been right. The castaway was a woman, and she was floating beneath the sea like she belonged there and always had. She looked peaceful with her delicate white face, paler still than the white of her smock—her long, ashen hair floated like a halo around her. She might as well have been an angel, he thought, reaching a hand toward her. She appeared to radiate all the divine power of one and may God smite him for thinking it.
In that watery cage alone with her, he felt oddly at peace. Perhaps he could stay with her forever beneath the sea, and that peace would stretch on as long as their bodies remained there.
He let out the last of his breath, as though trying to speak with her to ask her to stay when panic set in. There was nothing more tethering him to life but his terror. From the looks of things, the woman had stopped breathing entirely. Steeling himself, he swam nearer to her and gathered her in his arms. With the last of his strength, he propelled them toward the surface of the water, holding her against his chest like a sleeping babe he dared not wake.
When he reached the surface, the world crashed upon him in a cacophony of sound. The waves were deafening, the sun was blinding, and whatever peace he had found was sundered, split in two. The only thing left to do was survive.
“Survive,” he pled, not knowing to whom he prayed, but knowing it sounded desperately sincere. “Survive this with me.”
The swim back to the boat felt like torture, but he made it. There had never been a sweeter sound than the clatter of the ladder down the side of the boat and into the water. Hoisting the woman over his shoulder, Blaine climbed up the side of the ship, only stopping for breath once he reached the very top, at which point he fell to his knees. The woman tumbled over his shoulder and onto the deck, her clothes pooling around her.
“Brother!” he heard Hannah’s cry of relief. She pushed past his guards with a groan and knelt before him. “I cannae believe ye did that!” she whimpered as she threw her arms out to hold him.
Blaine put a hand up to stop her and looked up at his men. “Prepare a clean pallet for her and tell the captain to make haste for Glasgow,” he ordered. He dipped his head to catch his breath before scuttling over to the woman.
“Ye were right, sister,” he muttered, before dragging the soaked woman up by the arms and pounding her on the back to bring up the water she’d swallowed. He pushed against her back and turned her head, relieved to see her expel seawater. He pumped until no more was seen, and then he collapsed beside her, exhausted but sucking in great gulps of clean salt air.
The only weapon he had in his armory was hope, and it had carried the day.
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