Return of the Highland Laird

By: Amy Jarecki

A Novella

~Book Four: Highland Force Series~




Chapter One





The North Channel, off the coast of Scotland, March, 1587

The gale hit with destructive force as Alexander’s small birlinn rounded the Mull of Galloway and sailed into the Irish Sea. With a crack, the rope steadying the rudder snapped and whipped through the air, smacking him across the face with the power of a bullwhip. Clapping a hand to his bloody cheek, Alexander reeled back. A gust of wind blasted in from the starboard side. His grip slipped from the sail line. He tightened his fist, but the hemp rope cut through his palm like a slicing dagger.

His wounds stung, but if he wanted to live, he’d best fight the sea.

The square sail collapsed and flapped, resembling bed linens hung out in a storm. Angry white swells crashed over the bow and the boat listed from side to side. If he didn’t gain control soon, the birlinn would capsize for certain. The boom groaned and swung toward him with deadly speed. Alexander ducked and dove for the rudder.

Slippery from the driving rain, he steadied the long oaken handle under his arm. It took all his strength to keep the boat on course. Peering over the bow, he could see nothing but rain and waves so high they could swallow him into the icy depths at any moment. Though late afternoon, the clouds dominated the sky, making it dark as midnight.

A lightning bolt flashed and streaked into three fingers, followed immediately by a deafening roll of thunder.

His heart pummeling his chest, Alexander planted his feet against a rowing bench and pulled back with all his strength, roaring with the agony of exertion. The boat listed portside. Alex countered with the rudder. Rain and saltwater funneled into his eyes, but he could spare not a heartbeat to wipe them.

On and on he fought the sea, damning himself to hell while lightning streaked and thunder boomed above. He’d been a fool to sail from Raasay alone. He’d been a fool in so many ways. He had no right to be laird of Clan MacLeod. If only he’d been the one who’d fallen from the curtain wall and not Ilysa. She’d never done anything to incite the wrath of God. But Alexander had. He deserved punishment worse than death.

A rogue wave crashed from the starboard side. Timbers cracked. The boat listed so far to port, Alexander clung to the rudder and closed his eyes. Have mercy on my soul.

With his next breath, the birlinn buoyed upright. Alex squinted through the rain. A light flickered in the distance. He blinked and it was gone, hidden by the deluge and enormous swells. Had he been mistaken? He hoped to God he hadn’t and bore down on the rudder, praying his course was sound and the shore was near.

Though a robust man, every muscle burned while he fought the powerful current. The birlinn had twisted and turned so much, he could very well be on a course to the open sea—a folly no skilled sailor would ever make. If his father, the great Laird Calum MacLeod, were to see him now, he’d shake his head and turn away. Alexander had once thought he could follow in the wake of his father’s success, but he’d failed.

Miserably.

His entire life, tragedy and destruction rained down upon him akin to the tempest now threatening each breath.

Ahead the light flickered again. Alexander’s every muscle trembled with fatigue while he strained to see it. Brighter now, he spotted the glint each time the movement of the waves dipped. The birlinn bobbed with the sea and thrashed erratically. Alexander licked the salty sea water from his lips and strained to make out the shore. Sailing into rocks or cliffs would tear the boat into splinters. But the unrelenting rain refused to pause.

He kept the birlinn on course, convinced the light was a beacon calling to him. And then he saw it. The grey sands of a beach lay ahead, and yonder, a large whitewashed building—an inn for certain. Praise the heavens. He held fast to the rudder and set the course straight for the sand. When the boat skidded to a stop, Alex dropped anchor and jumped over the side into thigh-deep waves. The icy water was no colder than the plaid and shirt that clung to his skin.

The wind cut through him while he marched through the surf. Adjusting his sword belt, he ran his fingers over his dirk. He still didn’t have his bearings. If the birlinn had sailed due south, he’d be on English soil. The thought made a shudder slither up his spine.

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