***SPOILER ALERT*** This is the first chapter of Book Four....so if you haven't finished The Deck of Crows already, AVOID THIS POST! For those of you who have finished that far in the series....brava! And thanks for reading!
-November 29, 1746-
Carlisle Castle, England
The water seeped in under the door of his cell, and Duncan MacLeod was glad for it.
It had been raining for the last few hours. Enough that water was finding its way into Carlisle Castle unbidden. If it was here, it had most likely made its way into other cells, where it would keep other prisoners alive. The Garrison Commander at Carlisle, Caroline Frederick Scott, apparently didn't feel food or water was necessary for his prisoners. The men in Duncan's last cell, all Jacobites, had been left to lick the rocks of their prison walls, hoping to survive off the dampness that sometimes clung to the stone.
They'd moved him to a cell of his own, away from the others, about two days ago. At least, he thought it was two days. It was hard to estimate the time when you couldn't see the sky. He didn't know the reason for the move. He probably never would.
He'd been in a prison before. Not one as huge as Carlisle. This castle was the Crown's launching point for its operations in Scotland, and looked the part. About a year ago, he'd been one of the attackers that took the Castle for the Bonnie Prince during the uprising. He'd been impressed with the place from the beginning. There was much history here. This had been a Roman Fort once. Mary, Queen of Scots, had been imprisoned here.
Now he was about to become part of its history.
He'd started off thinking they'd ship him to London. But as the days went on, he became convinced they'd try and hang him here. Well, they wouldn't actually have a trial. They'd fill out the paperwork like he'd had one and then simply hang him, like they had all the other Jacobite prisoners.
He thought of Vika. He knew she was out there. Probably stalking the southern road, hoping to spring him loose when they transferred him. He hadn't seen his sister in half a year. He prayed for her safety, and the safety of the men who rode with her, and occupied himself with childhood memories of her as he sat in the near-absolute blackness of his cell.
He wondered if Alex had made it west. He'd be headed this way soon once he got the message his mother was imprisoned here as well. If she still was.
It made him feel better to know Alex and Vika might be out there in the woods together soon. They'd keep each other sane.
He heard a footfall outside the door, and a creak as the door opened. He raised his hand and squinted against the brilliant light of the lantern one of the guards held. His eyes weren't used to it.
"Duncan MacLeod," said a man with a clipped English accent. "On your feet. Move."
Interesting, thought Duncan. That's an educated accent. An officer, most likely. They wouldn't bother sending one simply to move me. Which means it's my turn to die now.
The Highlander rose to his feet. Let's get this over with, then. His one regret was that he wasn't going to be taking at least some of these bastards with them.
He thought of a night about eighteen months ago, sitting next to a fire in an inn near Doune late at night, drinking whisky with Alex and a few other friends.
"When they finally hang us," Mackie had said, "what will your last words be?"
He knew immediately. "Alba gu bràth," he'd responded.
Scotland forever. Alex had nodded, seconding the emotion, saying nothing. And Duncan had felt, once again, that his young protege was as close to a brother as he'd ever get.
There were four guards in addition to the officer. They manacled his hands and led him up the stairs and into the courtyard, where the sun was just beginning to light the heavy gray sky to the east. Dawn. The rain had stopped. Duncan could hear the sounds of the men stationed here as they began their day. Not long ago, it had sounded much the same when he'd been here with Alex. When they'd been focused on feeding and housing and supplying their own troops as the Uprising set its sights on London.
He looked up, and saw the gallows.
But there was no hangman there, as there should have been.
And it was too early for much of a crowd from the town to assemble for the spectacle of a hanging.
His eyes roamed the towers.
And he saw her, up on one of the walkways near the front gates. Adamina Scott, accompanied by three guards, and one Garrison Commander. Caroline Frederick Scott was with her. They shared a surname, but were as different as day and night.
"Duncan!" she cried. "Duncan!"
He smiled and nodded at her. Caroline Scott had no compassion for Highlanders; he certainly hadn't brought her out to be a friendly face at his execution. What the hell was going on?
The men were shoving him roughly towards the innermost gatehouse. And then…they took him through.
His mind shifted into planning mode. Something strange is happening. I'm through the first gatehouse. An entirely different part of his mind jumped into action, pulling up memories of this part of the Castle. Maps. Resources. Exits.
Maybe he wouldn't need those last words today after all.
They were moving him towards the second gatehouse. God Almighty, it's cold.
His mind turned to Vika. They'd been trying to catch her for years. Was this part of a plan to lure her in? Had they offered some sort of trade? Vika'd never fall for that.
Adamina and her escorts had crossed to a different area where she could see him better. He looked up. He was almost directly underneath her.
"Tha mi còmhla riut," he shouted up to his fellow prisoner. She'd understand. I am with you. He'd always been impressed with Adamina's unflagging devotion to the traditional and often endangered stories, language, and music of Scotland. He knew hearing Gaelic would boost her spirits. So what if it's outlawed. They're already either going to hang me or free me anyway.
He saw Adamina's face light up. One of the guards shoved him hard.
"Innis dha mo mhic gu bheil gaol agam orra!" she shouted back. Tell my sons I love them.
I'm getting out, Duncan thought. Adamina clearly thought he'd be seeing Edan or Alex or Gil soon. She knows. She's a part of this.
But why release him, and not her?
He turned to look up at her as they moved him under the overhang of the second gatehouse.
Three of the guards left and went back inside.
There was a horse standing on the other side of the portcullis. A horse with full saddlebags, and no rider. Just a groom, holding the reins. He looked to be about thirteen.
They're releasing me. Holy shite, they're releasing me!
His mind spun. And they're going to track me. They're hoping Vika's team pops up to assist me. How stupid do they think we are?
He had to suppress a laugh. Caroline Scott is convinced we're all idiots. It's one of the things that lets him hate us. Us Scots, we're lesser people in his eyes. A small smile crept across his face. Well, you know what the Crown isn't good at? Thinking on the fly.
Garrisons don't pivot well.
The portcullis was open. His remaining guard and the officer with the clipped accent escorted him outside. The officer drew himself up to his full height and cleared his throat as the guard put the key in Duncan's shackles.
Oh shite, this motherfucker's going to make a speech.
"Duncan MacLeod," began the officer with great ceremony, "the Garrison Commander, …"
He made it no farther than the fifth word. Duncan pulled off his boots, ran right past the horse, and jumped over the side of the bridge into the freezing moat water below.
Had he not been underwater, he would have heard the shouts from the bridge and gatehouses, and been treated to the sound of the Garrison Commander cursing a blue streak at the top of his lungs.
It was cold. So very, very cold. Duncan struggled to stay conscious as he headed for the first checkpoint. He'd done this route before; if he could get to point two he'd be able to do it again.
He surfaced behind some debris from a fallen structure, gulped down some air, and disappeared underwater again. Checkpoint one complete.
They'd expected him to jump on the horse and lead them right to Vika. Screw them all.
He was having trouble feeling his fingers and toes. Nearly there. Nearly there. Last time he'd done this he was well fed and in fine shape from riding and fighting. This time, he hadn't eaten anything in three days. But this time was for real.
He felt a rush of warm water. The hot spring. Checkpoint two was just a yard or so ahead. He bet those redcoat assholes had no idea this spring was here.
He surfaced again behind a large stone. Checkpoint two complete. He pictured Alex laughing as they'd surfaced last time, soaking wet and cracking jokes in Gaelic. Duncan inhaled a large lungful of air. The banks of this moat would be overrun with soldiers any second. This was the part where he'd have to go deep. He hoped nothing had changed in the last year.
He thanked God for Alex's overactive mind.
"I ken we hold it now," Alex had said to him once the Jacobite Army had taken the Castle, "but that doesnae mean we always will. I'm going to plan a way out, just in case we ever need it." Alex grinned. "As many ways out as I can find. You or I could be a prisoner here one day, ye ken."
Alex had been the Jacobite Army's Quartermaster, and a damn fine one at that. He always looked for alternative routes. He had a sobering habit of planning for the worst. And he loved, loved, loved a challenge. Thinking of ways out of Carlisle and then seeing if they would work had been fun for him. And he'd made Duncan try it.
Duncan went down and across the moat, towards a formidable iron grate that separated the moat from the underside of the town of Carlisle. The Romans had taken advantage of several hot springs in the area, and had built a bathhouse for the original settlement here. The tunnels underneath the town had been expanded for defense and storage over the centuries, and the current town was built on top of those ruins.
And Alex had found a sizable chunk of the iron grate was no longer intact. A sizable chunk under the surface. Any soldier looking at the grate from the banks would assume it extended all the way to the base of the moat.
It was hard to see, being as early as it was. But Duncan found the hole and made his way through, careful to avoid the jagged metal rusting on his left side. Checkpoint three complete.
He surfaced, gasping for air. While the water was warm, the air was decidedly less so. And it was dark here.
But they'd planned for that.
Duncan found the edge of the concrete landing and pulled himself up out of the water. He groped along in the dark until he found the left wall. Alba gu bràth. Eleven letters. Eleven steps. "So you dinnae forget, old man," Alex had teased him.
He took eleven steps forward, and felt along the wall. In a recess there he found fire starting supplies and two lamps with oil. A few strikes and one of the lamps was lit. He heard rats scurrying away in the darkness.
Forward. He could move faster now. He knew what he was looking for. A wooden door on the right hand wall. He grinned as he saw it. Alex found himself very amusing. He'd painted his initials "AS" in letters about a foot high on the front of the door.
Duncan shoved the door open. There was a large trunk inside. Towels. Clothing. Duncan dried himself off and changed his clothing rapidly, putting on the pair of boots they'd left in his size. So much better. Warmer. He pulled a wool jumper on over his shirts. When I see that lad again, I'm going to make him an honorary MacLeod for thinking of this.
He found a bag next to Alex's clothes containing a mirror, a razor, and a bottle of cedarwood essential oil mixture. He returned to the hallway and found a crate to put his supplies on, and shaved as best he could. They'd send soldiers to the town to look for him; any change in appearance was a good idea. He returned the supplies to the trunk, and picked up a belt, a brown coat, and a black hat. There was a wool scarf, and two of his old knives. He smiled. Paper and ink. He returned to the hall and used his crate as a desk to write five letters in code for the message drops.
Vika. I'm out. I'm well. They know you're there. Morrigan's Cave.
He closed up the trunk, leaving Alex's things. I pray he never needs them. Checkpoint four complete.
He picked up the lantern, and headed further down the hallway towards checkpoint five. Through a room full of crumbling concrete and tile. Down another hallway full of disintegrating crates. And then, another door. AS.
Inside, two packs hung on the wall. Inside each was an empty canteen, a bedroll, a first aid kit, a comb, a fire starting kit in a leather pouch, and a bag of coins. Duncan took one and slung it over his shoulder. Checkpoint five complete.
He took the stairs at the end of the hall and emerged through an old trap door in the storage room of a bakery. There were two men working at a counter in the next room. Duncan had long ago learned that if you just moved as though you were supposed to be in a place, people tended to give you the benefit of the doubt. Especially if you were tall, well-dressed, and armed. Which he now was. He walked through the room in plain sight behind them, and they didn't look up.
He was absolutely starving. He grabbed a loaf of bread that was cooling on one of the racks as he passed by without pausing. Through the back door and into the street. He took a sharp right and headed away from the town square. He'd need a horse, but not from here. Once he had one, he'd make it to his Aunties by tomorrow evening.
He ate the bread as he walked, filled his canteen from a pump near the farrier's, and bought two sausages from a street vendor nearby, which he ate immediately. The soldiers scouring the town didn't even look at him. Ten minutes later he walked out of Carlisle, headed for the first message drop.