"So indeed! She played golf with the men." Margaret put down her teacup to free her hands for broader gesturing. "As did I."

Napier's usually stoic demeanor shattered as he let go a brief and explosive laugh.

"I most certainly did," Margaret huffed. "That Sydserf and I were a duo. I made quite a pretty shot on, what do you call it, the fairway."

"Dear heart, women don't "—

"Women most certainly do. Why, Mary Queen of Scots herself was quite the golfer."

"Oh really?" He chuckled. "My Margaret playing golf." Napier shook his head. He looked at his wife, ever amazed that he'd been so blessed with a woman who never ceased to surprise him. He wasn't a naturally joyful man, but his wife made him more of one each day. Napier's mind turned to coarser things, and he mused he'd risk much to catch sight of that plush rump of hers bending over a tee. "Well, that would be quite a sight."

Margaret flushed. They'd been together nearly twenty years now, and he knew she recognized the look in his eyes.

After savoring her discomfort for a moment, Napier aske d, "But who is this lass then?" He'd finished with his tea, and set to smoothing the corners of his moustache up and the length of his goatee down. He knew that such vanities only emphasized his thin, elongated features, but he knew too that his Margaret's preference was a well -tended and fashionable man. "Who—and where—is her family?"

"She claims the surname Deacon. I think it's Irish."

"And are we to welcome this rudderless lass into our home?"

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"Well," Margaret exclaimed, "we shall be gracious as always."

Napier recognized that even Margaret herself hadn't known until that moment where she would stand regarding the strange and wayward woman.

"But of course we'll do whatever you say, my beauty." He smiled warmly, a rarity seen generally only by his wife. Beautiful she was too, he thought. Her glossy brown hair was not yet grayed, and she bore the Graham family regal height and carriage. She'd grown in girth since their youth, but he loved her all the more for it. Margaret was lush refuge for his tired bones, though he'd never dare breathe as much to her, knowing how prickly she'd grown about her weight. "You are my one and only mistress, and you know I live only to please you."

"Good." Margaret's eyes sharpened. "Then you will refrain from this Aberdeen madne ss."

"Ah." Napier girded himself. He'd known she wouldn't be happy about his departure, and had been fearing this exchange. "Go I must, dear heart. To protect your brother, at the least."

"My brother," she grumbled. "And what of your very own wife? You don 't even agree with all this Covenanting nonsense."

"No, I do not, it's true."

"And yet you go all the same? When I've explicitly asked you not to?"

"Your brother needs me, Margaret. Even in his youth, he was a lad of principle. But a man can be blinded by his good intentions. James doesn't suspect the knife at his back, wouldn't think to. And yet I fear that with his Covenant, these Lowland noblemen see their opportunity. His virtuous movement has become an adder's nest of callous and opportunistic ambition."

"Will there be a fight?"

"I hope not." Napier's usually unreadable face creased with concern. He hated to see his wife worry so. "Fret not. Margaret." He took her hand. "I travel not as a soldier, but as a guardian. If this Magda is to travel with us. we'll need to install her well outside Aberdeenshire limits."

"Well, do care for yourself, Archie." Margaret sniffled.

"Of course, pet."

"I'd die without you."

"And I you."

"And you'd best vow to bring my scamp of a brother back to me alive."

He laughed and took her hand to his lips for a kiss. "Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps James has the right of it. I hope so for his sake. Regardless, I will be an ally at his back."

"To watch for that knife?"

"Yes. dear heart." Napier placed her hand back in her lap with a gentle squeeze. "To mind that knife."

"Lowland nobles gather even now, and the weight of our war purse grows heavy." Archibald Campbell rattled a small leather purse, disdain beading his small, close-set eyes and quivering his thin, bloodless lips. "The gold your little German princeling paid you was surely no more yellow than ours."

Campbell grew vexed. He'd summoned this general -for-hire all the way from the warring on the Continent, thinking that Alexander Leslie's Scottish heritage might inflame him to the cause, but Leslie only played as shy as a maiden at her first dance.

"Aye, gold is good, but I care no more for this prayer book than I did for Gustavus," Leslie replied, referring to the Swedish king and would-be German princeling who'd last bought his military services. "Should King Charles march on your Covenanters, he might well have more men at his back than I ever faced in Germany."

"The religion of your country is under siege." Campbell pulled his face into a mocking pout, exaggerating the sag of his thin skin and his droopy, overlong nose, making his face seem a thing carved from wax left too long in the sun. "Are you to tell me that Alexander Leslie, celebrated sword-for-hire, cares solely for his own hide?"

"And who else's?" Leslie replied matter-of-factly. "Campbell, I've no care for your cause. Spare me talk of king and kirk. I fight for the highest bidder, so save your sanctimonious breath for those precious noblemen of yours. I don't see many of them raising broadswords for this Covenant." He kicked a stool close to sit across from Campbell at his ornate desk. "But double your payment in gold, and you've my sword and my word." He carefully twisted the ends of his long moustache, letting the statement hang in the air. "You crooked little man," Campbell muttered, reaching in a drawer for additional purses. "But—,"he snatched the money back before Leslie could grab it—"I'd have your word that my coin also buys me the services of some seasoned men. If Aberdeen refuses to sign the Covenant and sides against us, I'd not belabor this. I shall need you to fight them. With hired men at your back, the townsfolk should scatter like leaves in the wind."

"I'll thank you not to call my ability into question. I can gut the Aberdeen townsfolk, if you will it. My father was a captain, as was his father before him."

"Yes, but your mother was a wench."

"Och." Leslie snatched the pouches from Campbell's hand. "You'll have your men," he spat. "And pleased they'll be for a day's work in their native land for a change. But what of you, Campbell?" he sneered. "Whose back will you be guarding the day we take Aberdeen? As I understand it, you favor the taste of blood."

Campbell's face soured, and he stared blankly at the mercenary seated in front of him. "I'll have my own… concerns … that day."

He shuffled through papers on his desk as if already dismissing the soldier. "But you do remind me," he added offhandedly, "there's a small matter of sharing your command. There will, in fact, be some of your detested nobles fighting that day, and they'll not follow a mere sword-for-hire." He eyed Leslie derisively.

"Aye, I feared as much, though it might cost you more coin." Leslie strode to the door, his presence more commanding than his small, wiry frame might suggest.

"Especially if I'm expected to keep your noblemen alive. I'm a soldier, not a caretaker."

"Despite your contempt, they're men of reason and class, who will want to follow one of their own. James Graham will march with you. The Marquis of Montrose. I suppose he 's a skilled enough fellow," Campbell added. "He's learned in the arts of war, with the teachings of battle in his head, if not the taste of it in his mouth. You'll stand with him, Leslie."

"You send me to battle with a man who knows no more of war than what he was spoon-fed by his betters?"

"Ho!" Campbell silenced the general's protestations with a raised hand. "Protocol demands you've a nobleman as second in command. And I tell you, the Graham will suffice."

"I see." Leslie's face was dark. "Is that all, Campbell?"

"One last thing. Pray, remind me, what was that word you learned on your continental campaign?"

"Aye," Leslie smiled broadly, "'tis a German word I've come to hold in high regard."

"Plunder!"

Chapter 9

She was tired, her face was cold and stiff from squinting, her hands covered in an oily grime of horse and dirt, and she hadn't been that saddlesore since she'd taken her first long trail ride at the age of nine. And it was only the end of their first day.

Magda hunched low in her tent and wrenched herself into a cross-legged position. She felt the slick of sweat under her arms and scowled as a fresh cloud of her own body odor filled the enclosed space.

"A problem, hen?" James scratched on the flap of canvas that gave her some semblance of privacy. "You're muttering like an old woman in there."

"I am not muttering."

"So say you."

She heard his chuckle and angrily pulled the flap aside. "I smell."

He inhaled deeply. "Like a rose on the vine, you are." James laughed then, and Magda swatted at him with the scarf of plaid wool she'd worn knotted tight at her chin all day. "Come."

"You've got another thing coming if you think I'll follow you again. I've followed you enough for one day."

"Come, come." He reached his hand into the tent. "I'll not bite. " He waggled his hand for her to take it. "No need to be churlish. I've prepared your bath, m'lady."

"A bath?" Magda ignored his outstretched hand and crawled from the tent.

"Aye, there's a wee burn not half a league hence."