The King's Mercy
Summer 1747 — Spring 1748
Let every man seek his own safety the best way he can.
—Prince Charles Edward Stuart to his defeated Jacobite army
Cape Fear River, Colony of North Carolina
Alex MacKinnon roused to the press of wood beneath his cheek and an ominous churning in his gut. He tried to rise, but his hands were bound behind him. Without their aid he made it to his knees and, as the world spun in a blur of sunlit green, lost the contents of his stomach into mud-black water rushing past below. A powerful grip dragged him back onto rough planks. He felt solidness behind his back—curving barrel staves, hotly fragrant in the sweltering heat.
“Catch yo’ breath,” said a voice deep enough to have issued from a well’s nethermost reaches. “Don’t do no stupid.”
Alex drew up his knees and dropped his head, then jerked as a lance of pain split his skull. Moving must be the stupid the well-bottom voice warned against.
“Still yo’self,” it cautioned now.
Alex complied. The pain in his head receded to a pounding. Sweat stung what must be a gash at his temple. Dried blood stiffened his face. Arms, legs, torso all ached with the bruises left by blows. He’d been attacked.
“Ah, Demas,” said another voice. “He’s awake? Excellent. I was about to be concerned.”
The speaker hadn’t sounded concerned. He’d sounded downright blithe. And English.
The surface beneath Alex dipped. Nausea surged with the motion. This time he forced it back, eyes shut against the sun-glare.
“And here at last we’ve the tide to speed us along,” the English voice added.
The scrape of wood on wood. Water splashing. Feet thumping boards. Men’s voices rising and relaxing as at the end of prolonged exertion. All familiar. All wrong.
Alex opened his eyes. Though not yet high in the sky, the Carolina sun burned fierce. Bearing its assault, he took in what he made for the aft deck of a flatboat. Within his view a man, shirtless back a glistening blue-black, had hauled in a dripping pole and was stowing it along the deck rail, over which Alex had been sick. The vessel surged, picking up speed though none poled it now that he could see.
Alarmed, he looked out over silty water, expecting to see the merchant ship, Charlotte-Ann, riding at anchor beyond the smaller craft lining Wilmington’s quay. He didn’t see the quay. A tree-lined bank slid past, edged inmudflats dotted with quarreling seabirds.
They were on the river.
A throat’s clearing curtailed his observations. Squinting, Alex made out the Englishman seated on a crate shaded by a cabin in the craft’s center. He wore no coat or hat, but his breeches and waistcoat were cut of good cloth and fit his trim person well. With dark hair smoothly tailed, he bore no trace of sweat on his brow, as if the neckcloth knotted below his chin didn’t smother him. He looked not yet thirty.
The man bared good teeth in a smile, an expression that took his unremarkable features—longish nose, thin lips, hazel eyes overshadowed by strong brows—and rearranged them into a mask of disarming appeal.
He’d seen the man before. Alex closed his eyes, searching his memory for that face, and found it.
His eyes flew open. “Ye’ve made a mistake! I’d an agreement with the ship’s master. Captain Bingham will tell ye…” But Bingham wouldn’t. The Charlotte-Ann’s captain was complicit in this. Minding that now, too, Alex strained against his bindings. Could he pitch himself overboard, hope to reach the bank?
“I wouldn’t try it,” the Englishman advised. “Alligators infest these waters. You missed the last sighting. Quite the sizeable specimen.”
Alligators. Alex had yet to see one of the fearsome beasts since they’d begun their piloted journey into Wilmington’s sandbar-riddled harbor, but the Charlotte-Ann’s crew had encountered them on voyages past. His sweating scalp crawled at the thought of jagged teeth closing over him, powerful jaws dragging him under the river’s dark surface. Still, he’d rather face that battle than what awaited him at this riverine journey’s end.
He made it halfway to his feet before the massive hand that had steadied him before clutched his neck from behind. Alex bucked and thrashed, in the process glimpsing the African who had hold of him. He sucked in air, or tried to. Thick fingers squeezed. Just as he felt himself sliding into darkness, the grip on his neck eased.
The Englishman in the shade had watched, unperturbed. “Demas once snapped a man’s neck one-handed—so I’ve heard. Promise to cease thrashing about and I’ll bid him release you. Then we’ll discuss your situation like civilized men.”
Glaring, Alex jerked his chin against the gripping fingers.
At a glance from the Englishman his throat was released. The African hunkered within arm’s reach, powerful hands loose between thighs like tree trunks.
Alex concentrated on breathing, forcing swallows past what felt like rocks lodged in his throat.
The Englishman raised a brow. “Are you a civilized man? I know you for a Jacobite, one of those Stuart rebels King George defeated… When was it? A year since?”
Alex might have told him to the day.
“Alastair Seamus MacKinnon by name, according to your papers,” the Englishman went on. “Well, MacKinnon, I’m Phineas Reeves, and this craft we occupy belongs to Severn, the plantation for which we’re bound. The journey will take the day long. Perhaps into the night. Time enough for us to become acquainted.”
“It wasna meant to be me,” Alex ground out. “Take me back.”
“To Wilmington? We’re miles upriver, moving with the tide. Even were we not, Captain Bingham has no further claim on you. You’re indentured to a new master.”
The gut-churn threatened. “D’ye not mean yourself? Ye’re the owner of the Charlotte-Ann.”
“Me? I’m but his overseer. A hired man, as is Captain Bingham. As for the prisoners brought over from London—including yourself—it was from their number the Charlotte-Ann’s owner was to have first pick. Surely Bingham informed you of the arrangement.”
“He gave me to think otherwise.”
“That would explain the difficulty we had in extricating you.” Something akin to contrition crossed Phineas Reeves’s face. “I was sent downriver to meet the Charlotte-Ann and bring back a likely man for Severn. You seemed exceedingly so to me, and Captain Bingham was agreeable to the choice. He’d sold the rest of his indentures before we started upriver, and I must return with someone. You can appreciate my position.”
The shock of it was stunning. Reeves’s voice cut through it like the jabs of a blade.
“I regret the headache you must be enduring. I’m afraid Demas doesn’t know his strength.”
Recalling the careful clenching of that massive hand at his throat, Alex took leave to disagree.
“This should help.” Reeves held out a canteen. Too thirsty to refuse, Alex took it and drank while the man nattered on. “It occurs to me I haven’t named your master. Edmund Philip Carey, Captain of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, retired. His last command was the frigate Severn, for which his plantation is named.”
Ceasing to listen, Alex looked round him again with aching eyes. The men piloting the barge were a motley lot: black, white, somewhere between, one possibly a red Indian. He knew little of the natives of this New World. Purportedly fierce, warlike, prone to taking a man’s scalp off his head—if his fellow seamen were to be credited. Reckoning himself safe enough from scalping at present, he cast a bleary gaze across the wide river at the shoreline passing in a green tangle, raised the canteen to his lips, and drained it as dry as his plummeting hope.
Why had he trusted Bingham—an Englishman—after everything?
“…and that’s where I first met Captain Carey. I was a cabin boy aboard the Severn…in another lifetime.” Reeves, still chattering away, smiled again as Alex flicked him a glance. “Doubtless you’re wondering what Captain Carey means to do with you for the next seven years.”
He hadn’t entertained the faintest curiosity. Until now.
“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.