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Ireland – 1654
Kian MacTiernan’s jaw pulsed as he squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head, letting his shoulder-length hair fall forward, hiding his pained expression. He fisted his hands, and the rope tying his wrists together behind his back burned his skin. The chain around his ankles kept him from running. He could do nothing.
That morning’s breakfast rose into his throat, burning all the way up, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. His wife stood less than four feet from him, tied at the hands and feet as he was. He no longer heard his wife’s cries because his thundering heart drowned out everything else, but he could see her yelling, calling to him. He saw her mouth moving, her face streaked with tears, and her body twisting to free itself from her captor’s clutch.
“Let her go!” he bellowed.
His mouth was his only weapon, and a powerless one at that. He wanted to destroy, to maim, to break limbs. The blood coursing through his veins heated his face. He lunged forward, but the rope tied around his neck went taut, yanking him backward and onto the wet ground.
The English bastard at the end of the tether laughed deeply. “Where do ye think ye’re going?” The Englishman hauled the lead straight up. His metallic gray eyes twinkled with enjoyment as he looked down at Kian.
Kian gagged and his eyes bulged as the rope squeezed his throat. He stumbled to his knees, easing the tension around his neck. Once on his feet, he glared at his captors. Someday he would kill these devils, he thought.
Everyone had ignored his pleas. The men continued bringing his children out and dropping them to the ground, their long white nightshirts stained with mud as they struggled to their feet. With sleep still in their eyes, his children’s gazes darted from him to their ma. He would remember the looks on their wee faces until the day he died — their cheeks all flushed and hair tousled from the fight, their eyes wide with fright and shock as they pleaded with him, their da, to make the men release them and let them return to their cozy beds. More than anything, Kian wanted to embrace them and tell them it would be all right, but he knew their lives would never be the same.
“Da!” his youngest child, Brannagh, called to him, distracting him from his thoughts. Brannagh had been sleeping when the English had stormed his home.
Kian’s watery eyes searched Brannagh’s wee form for any damage as she stood in the mud outside their house. His arms ached to hold her, and his fatherly instinct itched to search her body for injuries, but all he could do was watch and observe.
He blew out a breath he realized he had been holding.
Lorcan, his eldest son, had a swollen eye. They had tied his wrists together while inside the house; he must have put up quite a fight. Tighe, the middle child, stood with his mouth agape, his deep green eyes brimming with tears.
Kian shook his head and looked at his children. “Da will get you later. Go with the men. Do not fight them.” He turned his face toward the thieves and through gritted teeth snarled, “You hurt my family and I will kill you.” Kian’s jaw pulsed with fury and frustration. If he could untie his wrists, he would pummel every man who had touched his family. He wanted to see the men’s faces fill with the same terror as he saw now on his babes’ faces. He wanted the bastards’ blood to run from their bodies as his fists slammed into their bones. He yearned to hear their gasps of pain, their cries for mercy, but he could only watch the outsiders push and shove, lift and carry, his family.
A man was supposed to protect his family, to keep them safe from harm. A man’s job was to provide food and shelter for his woman and children, and Kian had done that, but now he was failing them. Now, when they needed him most, he watched, powerless to protect them. He was allowing these thieves to steal from him what mattered most in the world, and this realization rolled in his gut like a rock. The English were taking his family, his world.
“Go on!” The man with the icy eyes shoved Kian toward the ship that was anchored in the River Boyne. Kian stumbled forward and took the first step away from his family. He could not look back at them. He didn’t want to see the pain and disappointment on their faces. But he heard them – the children’s sobs and his wife’s soft pleas to the Englishmen to leave him alone, to give him back to her. His heart twisted.
A line of captured villagers formed along the sandy shore. All of them were from Drogheda. Kian braved a peek back at his family. He noticed that they remained standing in front of their house. Perhaps the men would leave them alone. Maybe they had come only for him. That thought eased the tightness in his chest – but just a bit.
The English had raided the village before dawn. No one had heard them coming. The villagers had heard rumors that men were stealing children from other villages across Ireland and taking them aboard ships, but Kian had not believed this. He did not understand why any person would do such a thing and had thought the stories myths.
Now he knew better.
Kian stumbled in behind another man from his village, the chains forcing him to shuffle more than walk. Neither man looked at the other. They kept their gazes on the wet Irish sod that squished between their toes.
Where would they take him?
He did not want to get on that boat. If he got on the boat, there would be no escape. His life would be over. A swell of emotion built in his gut and fluttered his heart, sending his pulse racing. He had to think of a way to escape. Every step he took felt like a little death, one step closer to captivity and one step farther away from everything he had ever wanted or known. His mouth went dry and sweat rolled from beneath his dark hair.
The invaders stomped around, pushing men, women, and children into one line or another. Whips cracked and screams erupted, but the men kept rounding more people up near the shore. There had to be nearly fifty villagers and maybe twenty shipmen, Kian observed.
“There are more of us than them,” Kian whispered, leaning toward the man in front of him.
The man remained silent.
Under his breath, Kian continued with urgency, “If we get on that boat, we are as good as dead.”
The man turned an ear toward him, and Kian persisted pleading with the man, “If we rush them, we might be able to take a few down.”
The man snorted. “Aye, and then the rest of them would kick our arses.” He turned away from Kian and stared at the back of the man’s head in front of him.
One of the Englishmen walked up behind Kian and shoved him forward. Kian did not like being shoved. Something in him snapped, and all the anger and frustration boiled up racing through his veins. Without thinking, Kian jabbed an elbow into the man’s stomach and then watched as the man bent over and groaned. It felt good to get a hit in, if only for a moment. The blood still boomed in his ears, threatening to explode, but the jab had released a wee bit of pressure.
A crewmember ran back to the end of the line where Kian stood smirking and staring down at the wounded trader.
“You’ll not do that again!” A heavyset sailor lifted his arm and slammed a club across Kian’s head. Pain burst through Kian’s skull. He fell straight to the ground and then everything went dark.
A rocking sensation and the stench of urine first offended his senses as he woke. He squinted and felt a throbbing above his left eye. His hands were still bound, and he could not wipe what probably was blood off his forehead. The rough floor of the ship scratched his cheek. The smell of urine and feces stung his nose. His stomach rebelled against the odors. The boat swayed, and the contents in his belly flowed like a wave. He pulled himself to a sitting position and then checked the area for his family.
Hundreds of people were sitting shoulder to shoulder. Men, women, and children huddled together like frightened sheep. Men stared at the floor or their feet, anywhere other than at one another. Kian peered over the faces stained with tears, heads bowed in shame and fear –not one recognizable face. They must be from other villages. A spark of hope lightened his heart, and for a moment, he envisioned his family snug in their beds, the foreigners gone.
The dark wood in the bowels of the ship wrapped the interior in gloom. Sunlight shone through the boards above his head, creating columns of light that blinked off and on as the boat rocked. Footsteps tapped on the deck, and deep voices mumbled overhead. Sniffling and hiccupping floated through the crowd like the bleating of sheep. He neither heard nor saw his family amongst these poor souls.
In a soft voice, he asked the old man beside him, “Have you seen a woman called Fiona? Black hair fastened atop of her head, blue eyes.”
Without lifting his gaze, the man shook his head.
Desperation mixed with something close to excitement boiled in Kian’s gut, and he hollered, “Fiona!” He held his breath and listened. Children whimpered and winced as he called for his wife again. “Fiona!” Could they still be on shore? Perhaps the traders had captured only the men from the village and then released his family.
“Shh.” The old man beside Kian elbowed him.
Feet pounded above deck and stomped down the steps, and then an Englishman burst in.
“No talking! The next one who even whispers gets thirty lashes!” The man with the smoky gray eyes was the same one he had seen on shore. The man’s cold stare looked left and then right. He rubbed a hand over his prickly chin and then climbed back up to the deck.
Virginia – 1655
Kian had never found his wife or children. In his heart, he hoped they were still in Ireland. It kept him going, thinking they were free, even though he clearly was not.
For the last year, he had belonged to a family by the name of Dunkirk. Apparently, they had paid about ninety pounds of cotton for him. That was extremely cheap for a slave, but the Dunkirks needed many workers to tend their large plantation. They farmed in the colony of Virginia and had hundreds of acres that needed tending. Kian worked the fields alongside dark-skinned people and fellow Irishmen, and as long as he made no trouble, he avoided lashings.
From sunup until sundown, he toiled in the fields, pulling weeds, removing any bugs from the leaves that might harm the plants. Sweat oozed from every pore of his body as the intense Virginian sun scalded his shoulders and back, something he’d never experienced in Ireland’s cooler climate.
Just before sunset, Kian, along with the rest of the slaves, heard one of the workmen signal the end of the day. In unison, the sweaty, exhausted men turned from the fields and shuffled back to their huts.
Inside the one-room cabin, he fell onto his bed and dreamed.
Brannagh shrieked as Kian stood bound outside his gray stone home. She yelped and kicked as one man tucked her under his arm like a bundle of wood and dropped her on the ground. A breath rushed out of her when she hit the hard earth. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she grabbed her stomach.
“She cannot breathe!” Kian hollered. “For God’s sake, help her!” He thrashed wildly to get to his daughter, but the leads were too tight and his enemy kept a firm grip on the rope, which held Kian in place.
His eyes flew open. He sat up. Sweat poured off him, and he looked around, realizing it was a nightmare. He sat in his bed in a hut, surrounded by snoring men, their bodies secreting sweet, sickly onion-scented perspiration. Slamming his head back onto his pillow, which consisted of a change of clothes rolled into a log, Kian sighed.
Nay, Fiona no longer lay beside him, nor did his children sleep just a room away. Bereft of Fiona’s warmth and her twinkling blue eyes, he tried to return to sleep and dream of her. There, he could be with her. There, he could see her still and smell her hair perfumed by the sea breezes. In his dreams, her arms wrapped around his waist, and her soft lips touched his. He could see his children running through the pink heather, laughing as they chased one another. He even heard the sheep bleating in the pasture behind his house.
Then, the rooster crowed. He woke, and his heart ached once more.
Time to break his fast. The Dunkirks fed their workers well, as they wanted their slaves healthy and strong. Kian supposed he was lucky in that sense. He had his health and was tall with good muscles. The work drove out his frustration, of which he had a never-ending supply. If there was one thing he could do without, though, it was the collar.
Kian tugged at the heavy metal encircling his throat. Apparently, in the past, some slaves had run away. To deter the slaves from attempting to escape, the Dunkirks had collared their property. On the thin metal ring around Kian’s neck was engraved the name of his owners and their address – just like some folks branded sheep or cattle, he mused. The metal chafed his skin, and sweat pooled in the hollow above the bone near his neck.
He supposed he should be thankful that the Dunkirks even cared to monitor their slaves. Some slave owners would hunt the runaway down, kill him, and then simply purchase a new one. Irish slaves were some of the cheapest, so Kian tried to be irreplaceable as well as cooperative.
One evening during dinner, Kian overheard men talking about a new shipment of slaves that the Shively family had purchased. The Shively plantation was the nearest neighbor, but even at that, the farm was more than five miles away.
“…lots of women apparently. Mrs. Shively’s going to have help in her kitchen now. Since that last Negro girl ran away, she hadn’t been able to find a replacement.” The slave slurped from his bowl.
“Aye, well, Mr. Shively will have another use for them.” The other man shook his head and scowled.
“They’re all from the island, poor bastards. Shivelys hate the Irish and are going to work them to the bone.”
“Hey, Kian!” one of the men called.
He nodded at the man.
“Did ye come from Drogheda?”
“Aye, why do you want to know?”
“No reason. I heard some of Shively’s slaves were from Drogheda.”
Kian’s pulse escalated. He sat up straight. All the moisture left his mouth. He cleared his throat and asked, “Do you know any of the women’s names?”
“Nay. Did ye have a wife, Kian?”
He did not answer. Instead, his mind began plotting his escape. It would be worth a lashing just to see his wife, to know she was alive.
The next night, Kian went to bed as usual but did not sleep. He lay awake for hours until the plantation and cabin were silent but for chirping crickets and scurrying mice. He rolled off his blanket, grabbed his bundle of clothes and food that he’d stored beneath a floorboard, and crept toward the door. One man rolled over and sniffed. Kian held his breath and eased the door open. It creaked. He froze and listened. Satisfied that everyone was still asleep, he opened the door just enough so his body could slip through the crack.
Outside the cabin, the singing crickets and barking dogs quieted as he stepped onto the grass. He inhaled the crisp autumn air and swore he could smell the marshy scent of the River Boyne. Images of his wife combing wool from the laird’s sheep floated to his mind. He remembered her sitting on a stool outside their stone home, her long raven hair blowing in the breeze.
He needed to know she was alive and well.
Kian took one step away from the cabin. His insides quivered and he had no spit in his mouth, yet he took another step, and when no door opened and there was no sight of a Dunkirk on the porch with a gun, he ran. He headed for the forest, and he never looked back.
The Shivelys’ plantation was at least five miles south of the Dunkirk plantation. Kian knew this because he had heard the Dunkirks talk about the Shively estate, as they would occasionally pay them a visit.
The woods were dark and the sky moonless, so Kian strained to see just a few inches in front of him. Dried leaves covered the ground and crunched beneath his feet. To him, the sound was deafening. Surely, someone would hear him. Nay, he wouldn’t think about that. He would run until his lungs and legs could no longer keep the pace. It was after midnight, and he wanted to be at the Shivelys’ before dawn, before everyone woke and word spread like fire that he was missing.
Sweat poured down his back and off his forehead. His lungs burned with the exertion. He stumbled and tripped over something hard, probably a log. He took that moment to catch his breath. As he sat among the leaves, he listened for any sounds – sounds of the plantation owners coming after him, sounds of men’s voices rousing to form a manhunt — but he heard only the crickets and an owl. He stood and brushed the leaves and dirt off his ragged pants, then stopped. To his left, something rustled the leaves. A twig snapped. More leaves crunched.
If he had not been standing still, he would never have seen it or heard it. In fact, even now he wasn’t sure he had. It was so fast, so subtle, that only the soft rustle of leaves gave the creature away.
Kian’s pulse thundered in his ears as he tried to hold his breath in hopes of hearing better. It was probably a deer, he thought, fighting to calm his body and mind. They came out at night, didn’t they? Or maybe a raccoon, he surmised. He sprinted onward, not waiting to find out.
Then a shape passed in front of him, maybe six feet ahead. It appeared to be a human, as it walked upright on two legs. He crept forward, pausing between each step. He listened and stepped. He broke into a jog. Something solid knocked him to the ground. His bundle of food and clothes flew from his hand. Had he hit and dislodged an uprooted tree? It lay on top of him. Definitely human in form – but nothing human could move that fast. ~more~