Rory had thinned his lips, said no more, and stayed to fight beside him, but devil take him now if Alex meant to let the man die beside him too.
They made it to the pine thicket before Rory's knees buckled.
With his towering frame a throwback to the raiding Norseman who had been his several-times great-grandfather, Alex MacKinnon was no wee man, but Rory MacNeill shared his blood and the older man was a deal heavier. He slipped from Alex's hold and landed hard. The blood snaking through the fingers clutching his thigh thinned in a spate of freezing rain.
From the pines a corbie's cry erupted like a pistol's crack, a warning Alex was too slow to heed.
Needled boughs swept aside as a wall of scarlet coats burst from the thicket. He'd no time to raise his sword before pain burst at the back of his skull. There came an instant of blinding light, then darkness closed like a tunnel, at its end his uncle's face, twisted in pain and helpless fury, blood on the hands reaching for him.
CAPE FEAR RIVER
Alex jerked awake aboard the flatboat, poled upriver now against an ebbing tide. The sun hung above the towering trees through which the river snaked, its light falling aslant. He still smelled the salt marsh of the river's mouth, but stronger now on the humid air hung the tang of pine resin. Iridescent dragonflies darted at the river's edge. Mosquitoes clouded its surface. Some had landed on his sweating flesh and stuck there, sprinkled in the blond hairs of his forearms.
"Awake again?" the Englishman, Reeves, asked, stepping into view between a row of crates and the flatboat's cabin. "May I trust to your docility?"
Alex's hands had been freed while he slept, but the African hovered near, dark face gleaming. Rubbing at his wrists, Alex jerked a nod. Reeves held out another canteen. Alex took it and drank, getting his bearings. Along the craft's side two men drove poles into the river and pushed against the current. Voices issued from the cabin, sounding as men did when gaming. Reeves, the former seaman, had them on watches. The bell for Alex's own would soon be sounding aboard the 'Charlotte-Ann,' if he was any judge of time.
Accepting the canteen once Alex drank his fill, Reeves took a seat on the bench beside the cabin. "It's a fine forge where you'll be trained, a well-appointed smithy," he began, continuing their earlier conversation as if there'd been no pause. "Though the work is limited to Severn's needs, that's plenty to be getting on with."
Alex stared at the riverbank sliding by. They were passing a plantation now. A break in the trees revealed a stretch of land planted in what must be Indian corn, leaves like sword blades waving. Nearer was a dock intended for craft smaller than their laden vessel. Against his will, curiosity kindled.
"What manner of plantation is—Severn, did ye call it? Rice? Indigo?" He'd heard those crops were grown in the Carolinas.
Reeves flashed a gratified smile. "Neither. Captain Carey manufactures naval stores—tar, pitch. Lumber too. Most of Severn's acreage is long-leaf pine, but close by the Big House corn is grown, tobacco, flax for Miss Carey's weavers."
Reeves's smile twitched. "She's the captain's eldest daughter. Stepdaughter, to be precise. Though Miss Carey is mistress of Severn, Charlotte is the captain's true daughter."
"Charlotte? Has she yellow hair?"
Surprise brightened Reeves's eyes. "How could you—ah, of course. The Charlotte-Ann's figurehead bears her likeness. A pretty girl, Charlotte. Everyone adores..." Reeves shifted a glance at Demas, then picked up smoothly, "Severn isn't the largest plantation on the Cape Fear, but it is of respectable acreage. Three slave gangs work the forest. A smaller gang runs the lumber mill—have I mentioned the mill? There are carpenters and coopers, a groom and some stable lads. Between the house, kitchen, and the weaving sheds, Miss Carey oversees twenty or so, women and girls, those too old to work elsewhere. I'm kept occupied overseeing the captain's business interests."