I’m pleased to offer a taste of Severed Knot. This excerpt happens to be one of my favourite scenes of the novel, and I hope you enjoy it. Be sure to add Severed Knot to your Goodreads shelf.
The energy changed in the compound late Sunday afternoon. Iain sensed this shift long before Tam appeared carrying a stick, rapping against logs to get everyone’s attention as he strode along the row of huts.
“Hie yourself up to the crushing mill,” Tam called out as he passed. “Where the finest music in the West Indies will be played.”
“Come on,” Glencross said, kicking Iain in the foot. “The cèilidh will do you good.”
“Go on without me,” he muttered. “I’m tired.” No more than usual, but he had been edgy all day.
“You brood too much.”
“My back hurts, and you want me to do a jig? Are you daft, man?”
Glencross ignored his protests and nudged him out of the hut. “Out with you.”
Iain didn’t resist, but all along the uphill march to the crushing mill, he was plotting when he could slip away and return to the comfort of his sausage casing.
All the indentured servants and African slaves had gathered at the crushing mill. Tam and his lads had pooled their freshly distilled mobbie and were filling cups as they were passed around. Alastair stood at the head of the crushing mill, helping some of the others set up their hide-stretched drums. One of the men gave a tentative rap, and the sound bounded off the conical stone walls and back into the crowd.
Iain went straight for the keg of mobbie.
“You’ve developed a taste for it, have you?” Tam laughed and filled a cup for him.
“I’ll take what I can get.” Iain took a sip and grimaced. He quaffed his drink as he scanned the crowd. He wasn’t aware that he was looking for someone until his eyes settled on Mairead. She stepped into the clearing with her cousin, Ciara, beside her. Mairead’s brown hair had been gathered in a loose plait that hung down her back. Wispy tendrils curled around her face.
While a number of heads followed Ciara as she passed, Iain couldn’t turn away from Mairead. Her step was light and her movements fluid. She headed straight for the musicians setting up their instruments. Iain had not seen her this animated; she was a veritable arrow set to fly.
Glencross called out to her. He reminded Iain of a puppy taken off his leash. Mairead and Ciara looked up together. Mairead hung back, her gaze lingering on the musicians, but after her cousin said a few words, the pair headed over.
Iain wondered if his brother-in-law wasn’t a little besotted by Mairead. Iain took a long draught of mobbie and mulled on it. So what if he was? She was a bright lass with more than her share of spirit, and the lad deserved some happiness, wherever he could find it. Iain took a longer draught of mobbie, only this time the drink had a bitter edge to it. He tipped his cup and watched as the mobbie dribbled to the parched ground.
If he were honest with himself, a touch of envy soured his gut. Too long without a woman. Nothing more. And yet he had an uncomfortable suspicion that had he caught Glencross tupping the chit Lucy behind the shrubbery, he’d not spare a thought.
Iain forced his attention elsewhere and settled on Ciara. There was a quality in her that reminded him of Innis. He searched his mind for what it was. Physically, the two women bore little similarity to one another, and in all ways not at all to Mairead. Then it occurred to him—fragility. That was what it was. As though he were looking through a piece of thin glass.
As Iain continued to muse about Ciara, Mairead turned to ask her cousin a question, and she responded with an answering smile. Iain could understand how men could be half-smitten with Ciara because there was sweetness in her glance. She even laughed briefly at a story Mairead recounted with lively animation, but the moment Mairead turned back to Glencross, Ciara’s face fell. It was like watching a shutter being latched.
The first pounding of the drums cut into his thoughts.
On the platform, a few men had gathered, including some of the African lads. One sat behind a homemade drum and nestled it between his thighs. He started to experiment with the sound, tapping on the skin with the flat of his palm and with his fingers. Soon he had settled into a rhythm that made a few women move in time. A second man took out a crudely carved pipe and tested the sound, closing his eyes and adjusting his mouth until clear notes filled the air.
The two started to play together, merging the higher wind melody with the baser rumbling of the drum. The sound carried Iain away from this cursed island, back to his laird’s home, when travelling musicians would gather what instruments they could find to play for their lord’s pleasure.
The pipe hit on a melody that made Mairead’s feet move while she clapped in time to the drum. Iain admired the way her skirt swirled around her ankles and felt his interest stirring. He tore his eyes away and put the cup to his mouth, realising too late that it was empty.
Sitting alone on an upturned barrel, Alastair watched the performers, keeping time to the music by tapping on his knee. Iain had rarely spoken with the boiling master since the day of the auction. He couldn’t help but associate Alastair with having been sold on the block, even if Alastair didn’t own his indenture. This holding a grudge prevented him from getting on the right side of a man who could mean the difference between survival and defeat. Time to act like a man and swallow his pride—again.
Iain refilled his cup and headed over to Alastair. He found an empty spot to stand beside him and greeted him with a nod. “They play well. Have they been at it for long?”
“When they can,” Alastair replied.
“Tam mentioned they fashioned those drums with skins.” Iain searched for common ground. Dropping Tam’s name couldn’t hurt.
Iain shook his head. “I’ve had other concerns in my life.”
“Shame,” Alastair said with a curl of his lip. “Look around. Music can make life bearable.”
Iain didn’t answer. Nothing would make this place bearable. The old ballads never failed to trigger memories of childhood and a simpler time, but music was what you did on a winter night during winter quarters. It passed the time; it did not change the world.
His attention lit on Dunsmore standing with Masterton and Angus. Dunsmore crowded them both, leaning in close and speaking intently. Angus nodded at times and glanced often over at Masterton for his reaction, but the latter only chewed on his bottom lip. Classic Masterton the Younger crafty expression. Usually reserved for dealing with something thorny and unpalatable. A common enough reaction to Dunsmore, but something about this didn’t sit well with Iain.
A new tune started, this time with the pipers leading the chorus. Iain tore his attention away from Masterton and Dunsmore. He’d speak to Masterton later, but in the meantime he needed to win Alastair over.
“Were you a musician before?” Iain asked the boiling master.
“Not hardly,” Alastair said. Iain detected a slight bitterness. “I was a chandler in Glasgow.”
“How did you end up here?”
“On my own,” he said grimly.
Mairead hovered close and drew Iain’s attention. She watched the performers as though the rest of the world mattered naught. She kept her hands against her thighs, and Iain couldn’t help but notice how her fingers moved in a strange pattern with the music.
“She’s a good lass,” Alastair said, pulling Iain’s thoughts back.
He muttered his agreement and took another sip of mobbie.
“I’ve heard you look out for her,” Alastair said.
Iain hadn’t realised that had been obvious. He shrugged. “She doesn’t deserve to be here.”
“Aye, she doesn’t, but she is.”
“Nor me or my men. You know this.”
Alastair shrugged. “But we’re all here now. Fate can be a bitch.”
Iain gave a grudging smile and lifted his cup. “Do you not miss Scotland?”
Alastair snorted. “The damp, the cold? My old bones welcome this heat. This place will either destroy you or make you a fortune—which one depends on the strength of one’s mettle. In the end, few return back from whence they came.”
Iain tossed back the rest of his mobbie. Damn that. Not only would he survive, he’d find his way back to Scotland. If Alastair wanted to feel better about staying in this hellhole, let him square that with his conscience.
“You don’t believe me,” Alastair said. “Think only a fool would remain, given the chance?” He hopped down from the barrel and gave a nod to Iain. “Right, then. I’m off.”
Well done, Locharbaidh.
The song ended, and Iain watched Alastair as he entered the crushing mill. He disappeared for a moment, and when he reappeared, he cradled a violin in the crook of his arm.
Iain couldn’t sit there any longer. Passing by the keg, he dropped the cup on top and manoeuvred through the crowd to head back to his hut.
Tam stopped him. “Where are you off to, Scotsman? You’re truly sour, man.”
“I’ve had enough.” Iain patted the man on the shoulder and attempted to move past him. Before he did, he glanced to the crushing mill in time to see Alastair handing the violin to Mairead. The rapt expression on her face made Iain pause. She handled the instrument reverently, as carefully as a woman cradling her bairn. Iain had never seen her eyes so round, her normally wary expression soft.
Mairead lifted the violin to her collarbone and adjusted her grip. She tried a few tentative plucks and adjusted the tuning until the chord sounded right. She lifted the bow against the strings and started to play.
The sound that came from her violin was low, wistful and with a melody that stirred long-buried hopes. Both light and dark notes rounded each other out as she pushed the tune farther along. A low drumbeat joined in, and she adjusted her rhythm slightly to hit the rising notes with the downbeat.
Then the main melody started.
Iain knew this song. An old Scottish ballad, one of his favourites. It called to mind the longing of home. It had been the song that he had sung to himself during the gruelling journey from England.
How was it that she stood there playing that very song?
The melody had always stirred him, providing comfort during all those times he had been away on campaign, far from home. But Mairead’s rendition added layers he had never heard. The mournful tone of the violin spoke of the wind in the firs and smoky twilight clinging to the mountains. A flight of swallows darting in a cold twilight sky and the cry of terns riding a lonely sea breeze. It called to memory swiftly flowing burns bordered with purple heather, and the hope of love reunited.
As she played, the lyrics flowed through his mind: An’ what will be the love-tokens that ye will send wi me . . . A kiss, aye, will I twae an’ ever she come to fair Scotland . . . I the red gold she sall gae . . .
Iain felt it deep in his bones. Each note ripped through his defences, stone and mortar. Everything melted away. He forgot the crowd, forgot his situation and the harshness of the sugarcane fields. Only Mairead and her song remained.
He moved closer to the platform. Mairead stood several feet away, her eyes closed and head tilted sideways. Her lashes fanned her flushed cheeks, and her mouth was slightly parted. At times, a smile flitted across her lips, while at others her brow puckered into a frown, but always her expression remained enraptured. He watched, fascinated, as the bow danced over the strings, directed by nimble fingers.
Iain hung on every note as though it were the last. Good, sweet Lord, he didn’t want it to end.
The song finally ended, and Mairead drew her last pass with the bow. Her hand stilled, and her shoulders went limp. A single tear traced down her cheek. When she opened her eyes, her unfocused gaze found his, and the look shot right through him.
Around Iain, men whistled and clapped, not realising that the earth had just shifted.
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