"Plantations on the river tend toward the sprawling, thousands of acres, and so require to be self-supporting. Severn has its coopers, millers, carpenters. It had a blacksmith, until six months ago when an unfortunate accident rendered the fellow unfit for the work. That's where you come into it, MacKinnon. You're to be trained in the smith's art. I chose you for your size. You're the first man I've seen who comes close to matching Demas's physique. Perhaps with another stone or two of meat on those long bones, you shall."
Reeves grinned as though he'd delivered the best possible news.
Seven years. His strength spent at an Englishman's pleasure, without even the freedom of the sea. Demas seemed to sense the impulse to escape that again swept through him. The African tensed, but when Alex made no move he settled again, hands loosening from the fists he'd made of them. Fists like hammers.
That was meant to be his lot. Hammers and fire and glowing iron. Seven years.
On his side again with the sun beating down like a forge's fire, grief and rage flowed over him. He was well and truly a prisoner in that godforsaken place, though why should that surprise? God had forsaken him months ago on a moor near Inverness.
* * *
16 APRIL 1746
CULLODEN MOOR, SCOTLAND
From the first cannon's thundering, then the screaming charge that carried the Highland army into the Duke of Cumberland's scarlet lines, the battle had been bloody bedlam. Alex MacKinnon had slain too many men to count, with never attention to spare beyond the reach of his broadsword; just now a redcoat had his blade tip caught in its woven guard. Giving the sword a violent twist, Alex snapped the snagged blade clean. Wrenched nearly off his feet, the redcoat left his throat exposed above a muddied stock. Alex had only his sword arm free. The other gripped his uncle. Wounded by the redcoat before Alex could intervene, Rory MacNeill sagged against him, a gash opened deep in his thigh. Raging against exhaustion as much as his foe, Alex roared with the effort needed to swing his blade across that exposed English neck. The redcoat slumped, dead before
he hit the ground.
With the shout that carried him through the deed dying on his lips, Alex had space to look about. It was chaos on the moor, curtained in the gray of powder smoke and sleet. Icy needles flayed his cheeks as he squinted to see men reeling, locked in combat with sword and dirk, halberd and bayonet. Their screams mingled with the keening wind that cut through soaked linen, leather, even wool. Somewhere an officer shouted, gathering men—to fight or flee there was no telling. Around him lay the slain.
When no more redcoats loomed from the mist to challenge him, Alex thought of refuge, a place to lay his uncle, tend that gaping wound. At once he saw it, a dip in the moorland where the fighting had passed. He made out a blur of green farther along: pines, scrawny and wind-stunted. Shelter enough.
Strands of his uncle's hair whipped Alex's face as he grappled for a better hold. Pain tightened Rory MacNeill's voice as his hand clamped his thigh. "I'll manage, lad—dinna slow yourself on my account."
Alex drove his heels into the muddy turf to stay upright. "Wheest, Uncle. Let me help ye."
Rain had collected at the depression's base, along with bodies. Red-stained water gushed icy through Alex's cracked shoes as they wove their way, Rory cursing Charles Stuart with every step. As he ought to have been cursing Alex. Surrounded by the fallen, plaids blending with moor grass and heather, he kent his uncle had been right to abide by The MacNeill's will. Their chief had dithered away the months of the Stuart campaign to retake the English throne for the exiled King James, neither lending the Jacobite cause support nor openly censuring it. Thinking himself wiser at twenty-two than Rory at nine-and-forty, Alex had crossed to Skye, joined his father's MacKinnon clan, and marched away to restore King James to the throne. Without the blessing of uncle, chief, or any saint he'd ever prayed to.
At Inverness, days ago, Rory had found him, tried again to persuade him from his course, knowing the ill turn the campaign had taken. Alex had given his oath to the House of Stuart. Men depended upon him. Did his uncle expect him to do other than hold to his word, having raised him to count it his bond?
* * *