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North Sea, Isle of Skye, Scotland
September 30th, 1742
Marcus MacDonald turned his face into the wind and gazed at the point where the North Sea met the sky. Never had he imagined that being a MacDonald fighting for the MacLeods would secure his letters of marque so quickly. He and the crew of The Cliodna were now privateers and were authorised by the government to attack enemy ships for their own gain as they sailed off to make their fortunes.
They were heading north-east to the open waters of the Atlantic where they would be tested, Marcus was certain, not just by an unforgiving ocean, but also by the ships they would encounter. Marcus was new to the profession of seafarer and pirate, though as a MacDonald he’d seen his share of combat. His crew was in good hands with him as their captain, and with his first mate, Eckland MacFarlane, who’d been born to the sea. Between the two of them the souls aboard The Cliodna would be successful in their endeavours. They had to be. Marcus’s very existence and that of his soon-to-be bride depended on his success.
Marcus shifted his gaze to the sails billowing in the wind. They would reach the Atlantic in no time if the winds held. Then their adventure would truly begin. The scent of the sea surrounded him as his gaze shifted yet again to a seabird following in their wake. Marcus would take that as a favourable sign since their ship was named for the otherworld goddess of the sea who took the form of a seabird during the day.
A smile pulled up the corners of his lips when a shout came from the crow’s nest above. “Shipwreck ahead to the port side.”
“Lower the sails. Maintain our distance to keep us away from unseen dangers,” Marcus called to his men as he grabbed his spyglass and moved to the port railing. As the crew gathered the sails and tied the ropes, Marcus peered at the flotsam in the water, identifying parts of a ship but no survivors. Then he spotted a larger portion of the ship’s hull and a sodden lump farther from the rest of the wreckage. To his first mate, who had taken the tiller, he shouted, “I see a possible survivor two points forward of port beam. Proceed slow and steady.”
When the ship was within range, a rescue boat was lowered. Marcus watched as four of his crew rowed towards the object in the water. They pulled a body into their boat and rowed back to The Cliodna. It wasn’t long before they had the man stretched out on the deck. Marcus knelt beside him and placed his cheek close to the man’s mouth. A soft whisper of breath came from the survivor’s mouth. “He’s still alive. Bring me several blankets.”
As the blankets were placed about the man, Marcus moved the wet strands of his long white and grey hair away from his cheeks to reveal a weathered face. His skin was leathery and pale. The survivor was perhaps seventy, but it was difficult to say as a result of how long the man had been floating in the water and subjected to a chilly autumn wind.
“’Tis a miracle he’s alive,” Marcus said. “Take him to my cabin and place him on a cot. Bring a bucket of hot rocks to warm him.” The crew dispersed to do as Marcus asked while he followed those who took the man to his quarters.
When the survivor of the shipwreck was settled and the crew had departed, Marcus moved a chair closer to the man’s cot. They had no one aboard with any kind of medical training except Marcus’s own basic survival skills. He hoped that would be enough to help the man before him.
Marcus pulled the covers up higher to better warm the man as heat from the hot rocks warmed the captain’s quarters. Several minutes later, Marcus had to remove his surcoat. As the temperature in the chamber increased, the man on the cot started trashing about, though he did not wake.
A knock sounded at the door. “Enter,” Marcus bid the unseen crewman.
Eck MacFarlane entered and quickly shut the door behind him to maintain the heat. “How is he doing?”
“Not well,” Marcus said. The man on the cot looked pale and weak, though the thrashing of his head back and forth indicated an inner strength. Perhaps that would be enough to see him through this ordeal.
“Will he live?” Eck asked.
Marcus shrugged. “It’s really up to him now that he is out of the water and warmed. I got him to take a few sips of broth.”
Eck leaned against the cabin wall. “What do you suppose he was doing near Cape Wrath? Everyone who lives near here knows how dangerous that section of water is to navigate. ’Tis not called Cape Wrath for no reason.”
“Trea . . . sure,” a gravelly voice said.
Both men turned towards the cot. The older man’s eyes flickered open. His eyes darted about the cabin before coming to rest on first Marcus and then Eck. “Where . . . am I?”
“You’re safely aboard The Cliodna,” Marcus assured him. “Your ship went down. We found you in the water.”
The man swallowed roughly. “Anyone . . . else?”
Marcus pressed his lips together as he shook his head.
“The entire crew? Seven-and-eighty men.” The man closed his eyes and sank back against the cot. A mournful sound escaped him.
“We’ll give you some time to yourself,” Marcus said as he stood and moved towards the door with Eck.
“Nay,” the man said. “Must tell you. Before I die.”
Marcus and Eck shared a glance then returned to their previous positions. Marcus leaned closer to the cot. “Save your energy. You need to rest.”
The man shook his head sadly. “So cold. I can . . . feel death creeping . . . over me.” He struggled to sit up, but was too weak.
Marcus reached for the pillow from his own bed and placed it behind the man’s head, raising him slightly. “What is your name?” Perhaps his identity would give them a clue as to why he was sailing dangerous waters.
Marcus straightened. He’d heard that name over the years associated with some of the most fantastical treasure-hunting stories shared amongst the clans. It was only a couple of years ago that a tale had spread of Jacob Thorne finding the legendary Spanish galleon, El Grande, that sank in sixteen hundred and eighty-three. Only four of the four hundred and ninety-six men survived, but not one of them could tell where the ship sank after encountering a hurricane. The ship was said to be carrying silver bullion, spices, gold, pearls, and emeralds.
“Is it true that you found the El Grande?” Marcus asked as he carefully studied the man’s face. Looking for any signs of deception.
“I did.” The hint of a smile pulled up Jacob’s lips. “And I brought its treasure back to Scotland.”
The pride momentarily shining in Jacob’s eyes validated the claim. Marcus’s stomach clenched. ’Twas exactly the type of treasure he himself needed to discover in order to establish a life for himself and Rowena. “If you found such a treasure then why were you out on the sea looking for more?”
“Some men hunt treasure for the money. Others for adventure. I discovered . . . I fall into the latter after my first discovery . . . nearly forty years ago.”
Eck straightened. “What did you do with all that bounty? Would there be anywhere safe to store such a treasure?”
Jacob swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a moment before proceeding. “I put fourteen chests filled with treasure in a place . . . no one would think to search . . . the Cave of Gold. Terrifying legends of the place . . . would protect my wealth, but not death.” He turned his head towards Marcus. “Recently, I was searching for two Spanish galleons that were said to be laden with gold off the shores of Sandwood Bay. They are there—I know it. My men and I found . . . a few Spanish coins. There are more. Before we could retrieve them, the wind changed . . . It blew our vessel onto the rocks. The Mandara broke in two. We had no chance . . . to lower the boats.”
“What day was that?” Eck asked, his voice soft.
Jacob’s brow furrowed, remembering. “September twenty-fifth.”
“Five days ago.” A wave of sympathy came over Marcus. It truly was a miracle the man was still alive after being exposed to the elements for so long.
“You saved me . . . so I will tell you. Continue my legacy. Promise to do something good . . . with the treasure.” Jacob reached out and curled his cold fingers around Marcus’s hand.
Marcus’s chest tightened, making it difficult to breathe. “I promise,” he said, though he had no idea how he would fulfil what the old man asked.
The man’s eyes drilled into Marcus’s. “I believe . . . you.” His voice was a mere breath of sound.
Marcus released Jacob’s hand. “Rest for now. We will talk later.”
Jacob shook his head. “I am dying . . . there’s no time. Deep in the Cave of Gold . . . I’ve hidden the fourteen chests. They’re yours . . . for trying to help me.” His chest rattled with every breath. “The two galleons . . . you’ll find them at the bearings I’ve scratched into the flesh of my arm.” He raised his left arm briefly before collapsing onto the cot once more.
Eck frowned down at the dying man. “Why would you hide your gold in a place called ‘The Cave of Gold?’ Isn’t that an invitation for thievery?”
“Too haunted.” Jacob’s lips tugged up as his face turned even more ashen in colour. “Too dangerous. Perfect hide.”
“It is a rather ingenious place,” Marcus agreed. “It is said the Cave of Gold is very deep. Some say it extends as far as Fairyland; others say it extends to Hell. It is also rumoured that a ferocious green dog guards the entrance, hiding in the shadows and ready to kill anyone who attempts to enter.”
“Saw . . . no dog,” Jacob said, the rattling in his chest growing louder.
Marcus offered the man a sympathetic smile. “And if what you say is true, then you are also the first person to come out of the cave alive.”
With difficulty, Jacob brought his right hand up over his heart. “Swear . . . what I say is true.” His words were slow and pained, then his face went slack and his hand sank down beside him. “Only wish . . . more time to enjoy . . . my efforts.”
Marcus reached for the old man’s hand. His fingers were icy cold. As Marcus watched the last vestige of colour drain from the man’s face, a cascade of emotions came over him. Angst twisted Marcus’s gut at the knowledge that Jacob had been saved only to die. And yet a flutter of hope filled his stomach at the thought that what Marcus and his crew sought might be obtained so quickly.
“You do us a great honour, sharing your life’s efforts with me and my men. We will find some way to do good with your treasure and to keep the memory of your life alive.” That was if they found any treasure, for Marcus was still not entirely convinced what the old man said was true, but Jacob did not need to witness this doubt when his time on this earth was coming to an end.
Jacob’s chest rose, then fell slowly, as a deep rattling sound followed.
Marcus swallowed against the thickness in his throat. “Rest in peace, friend.”
Jacob squeezed Marcus’s fingers lightly as his eyes closed. “Friend . . .” He went still.
Marcus’s breath arrested. His chest tightened as Jacob’s chest settled.
Several long moments passed as Marcus watched the old man as though waiting for him to take yet another breath. When he did not, Marcus looked to Eck. “He’s gone.”
Eck nodded. “Do you believe what he said about the Spanish galleons and the Cave of Gold?”
Marcus shrugged as his gaze dropped to the hand he still held. He released Jacob’s hand then with both hands forced up the sleeve of his shirt. There, cut into the man’s own flesh, were the numbers 58.5396 degrees north by minus 5.0623 degrees east. “He believed in the treasure enough to mar his own flesh with the location.”
Eck looked at Marcus inquiringly. “We’re close to those coordinates. Is it worth us taking a look?”
The air in the cabin was suddenly charged with possibility. “This man and his crew gave their lives for their belief that the Spanish galleons were there. I’d say we owe them a measure of our time as long as we can keep our own ship safely away from the rocks.”
“The men and I can do that.” Eck straightened as though awaiting orders.
Marcus rose to his feet. “Send two men here to prepare Jacob for burial. We will leave him with the rest of his crew in their watery grave.” He moved to his desk where he picked up a piece of parchment and his quill, and quickly wrote the coordinates before handing them to Eck. “The rest of the crew should prepare the ship and themselves for the treasure hunt ahead.”
Eck’s face lit up with his smile. “I imagined our journey to be one of boarding enemy ships, fighting, and looting for our treasures. Never did I imagine diving into the depths of the sea to retrieve them where nature would be our greatest threat.”
“Nature is still a force to be reckoned with. None of this will be easy.”
Eck reached for the door. “Life often requires a struggle. The men and I are prepared for whatever lies ahead.”
Marcus nodded, feeling as much excitement as trepidation. Recovering whatever remained in the wreck of the Spanish galleons would be as dangerous as anything he’d ever done in his life. But if he wanted to create a life for himself and Rowena, independent of her family, he would have to take that risk.
End of Excerpt