And now James was off, more reckless than her brother ever had been. Magda didn't think she could bear to watch yet another man cut away from her. She couldn't withstand more grief.
"To what horrible place have I lost you?" The gentle tone of James's voice brought out a husky Scots burr. He sat, setting his bonnet on the grass by his side, and the soft brown waves of his hair tousled loose in the wind. "You seem as if you're the one who's off to battle. Tell me your mind, hen."
She tried to inhale deeply, her breath coming in shudders as she fought back the tears. "It's my brother."
"You've a brother then? I thought you said—"
"Had a brother. He drowned." She took the ragged hem of her dress and twisted it between her fingers.
"Ah." His face went still. "That's it then. The reason you were so stricken at the stream."
"Yeah, I don't think I'll ever again be able to be near the water without thinking of him." She spat out a mirthless laugh. "Sucks for me, huh? Seeing as the world is made of water."
Ignoring her dismissive laugh, James caught her eyes with his and held Magda with his solemn gaze. "How did it happen?"
"He was visiting my folks. He'd just gotten back from South America. Ever the adventurer, my brother." Magda gazed blankly at the rushing water. "He helped build some school." She shook her head. "Adventurous and charitable."
Dropping the hem from her fingers, Magda switched her focus to stare intently at her hands as they brushed along the top of the grass. "Not me, though. I had to work. Or… well, I chose to work that weekend. Work, work, work," she added in a fake bright tone.
"He went to visit my parents, and I didn't." She shrugged. "They had… they have…" She fumbled for a moment, suddenly intent on finding the proper tense. "They've got a retreat on Lake George. Peter—my brother—was camping with some kids. Just a bunch of stupid, rich kids. They'd set up on a small private island on what we called The Narrows. They'd been drinking, of course. Probably something stupid like cheap light beer. It made them feel superior to think they were slumming it."
Realizing she'd been rambling about what were likely some pretty foreign concepts, Magda paused for a moment to see if James was registering her story. Somehow she wasn't surprised to find his eyes holding hers steady, her pain mirrored in his drawn brow.
"Anyway, a couple of them went for a midnight swim, and Peter heard one of the girls get into trouble. He went out to help. Neither of them came back."
She paused for a moment and froze, willing away the ache that inevitably clutched her throat at the thought of her brother. James slowly placed his palm flat on the grass, just a blade away from touching.
She stared at his hand so near to hers. "I can't figure it out," Magda finally continued. "The others said they heard her screaming, flailing. She must have pulled him under. That's really the only explanation. He was a strong swimmer. We both were."
"Yeah, well, I sort of lost the taste for swimming after that." "Aye."
Magda was grateful for his firm nod, as if there could be no other response.
"The thing is," she said, desperation in her voice, "I can't get over that I wasn't there. I don't even remember why I thought it was so important I go to the museum that weekend. And if I'd been with Peter instead, maybe I could've saved him."
"No you couldn't have," James replied firmly. "There's none stronger than a panicked swimmer. If you'd gone in after your brother, it would have been the both of you pulled under."
"Well, that's not what my parents said."
"Och, your bloody parents were wrong!"
A shocked laugh burst from Magda. She'd beaten herself up over Peter's death for a year now, holding herself secretly accountable, and here was this man she hardly knew, saying just the right thing to momentarily blunt the pain.
"Thanks," she said. " My bloody parents." She smiled at James through her tears. "What's the other thing you say? Like, they bother me… ?"
"Aye," he laughed, then said in an exaggerated Scottish brogue, "they fash ye!"
"Aye," she replied with a twinkle in her eye. "They do at that. Or," she added quietly, "they did…"
He woke at sun's first light, with the strains of the regimental piper keening in the distance, and inhaled the crisp dawn air that smelled of the brilliant blue sky to come.
James knew battle tactics well, and was an expert swordsman and champion archer. Today he'd don his armored breastplate, trading bonnet for a helmet of steel. Today was the day he would lead an army in defense of church and country, and he thought his chest would burst from the joy of it.
He and General Leslie broke their fast with oatcakes and cold rashers. They'd not risk smoke from a fire that morning, even though the townsfolk would have to be hidden under some pretty large rocks not to know what was about to hit Aberdeen.
"The Brig o' Dee guards the main approach, aye?" General Leslie nodded to the bridge in question, then paused to clear his throat, thick from the early hour and hoarse in the way of a man who lived hard.
He spat, then continued, "They've dug in around the city, but 'tis a blind man who wouldn't see our approach. You can be sure they'll marshal forces at the mouth of the bridge, and that's where we'll dance."
James had harbored hopes that the townsfolk would see reason, and greeting the Covenanting troops as protectors, sign their fealty to the cause. But scouts had brought news that the men of Aberdeen had raised a militia, now entrenched in various key points on the outskirts of the town.
The dry food stuck in his throat, and James washed it down with a swig of icy water from the Dee. He was sorely wanting a cup of tea, and he believed it would be one of the first things on his mind at the battle's conclusion.
Nodding at the general's words, James looked around at the men in their charge. A few noblemen had come to stand at their side, in their armored kit, second sons the lot of them, he'd wager.
The rest of the men were in various states of traditional clothing. Hardened by their years fighting in Germany, Leslie's hired mercenaries had forsaken heavy armor, instead donning additional weaponry and clothing that allowed for agility and speed. Most wore close-fitting trews and a leather vest, with a musket on their shoulder and sword at the hip.
A small band of Highlanders had gathered for the cause as well, and James had to smile at the audacious lot of them. He hadn't seen the men set camp—they'd merely disappeared the night before, reappearing like mist with the dawn. They dressed like true Scotsmen in belted plaids; some bore only tall hooked pikes, others carried dirks and scarred shields, and a few wore claymores strapped at their backs.
"I hope I'm not interrupting your repast, gentlemen."
James and Leslie looked up at the source of the sarcasm to find Campbell standing over them. A long royal blue waistcoat, knee breeches, and hose announced that he would not be seeing battle that day.
"I see I've dressed for our side this morning," he added snidely. Inspired by the blue talisman James had pinned to his bonnet, dozens of blue ribbons had sprung up in just as many shades, knotted from bonnets, or worn as sashes across chests.
"Aye," James replied smoothly, "the men are calling it the Covenanting blue."
Campbell looked in the distance, disdain souring his features. "I see not everybody has been informed of your winsome badge."
A group of I rish, many no more than boys, had gathered not far from them. James had been surprised to find that Irishmen had come to bear arms with them, and was told merely that they'd come to repay a debt. They had stood out at once from the crowd, having all, inexplicably, donned long yellow shirts for battle.
"Aye," Leslie answered slowly, picking the oats from his teeth. He studied Campbell's coat. "We need all the swords we can today, seeing as not all stand at the ready."
Ignoring the jibe, Campbell said, "Ah, you remind me." Pursing his thin lips, he shrieked out a whistle and a young boy appeared with a dog at the end of a cloth leash. Campbell thrust his hand toward the boy, making him balk. "Come lad," he scolded, "I've not all day."
Face crumpled in a mixture of terror and anger, the young boy reluctantly handed the whimpering dog to Campbell.
"I find it auspicious to greet a day of battle having fleshed my maiden sword."
His blade, a showy broadsword with gilded basket and filigreed base, swept down, catching the mutt at the shoulder, clumsily cleaving his head from his body.
The young boy let out an anguished cry, and James jumped to his feet, hand poised on the sword at his side in outrage and horror. "What are you about, man?"
"Don't just gape like an idiot, lad," Campbell chided the young boy. He nudged the limp body with the flat of his blade. "Take this thing away."
General Leslie merely looked away, bored distaste playing across his features, as he continued to pick at his teeth.
"So guileless, James?" Campbell laughed. "Do you think that title of yours was a reward for noble goodwill? No, Marquis, your wealth was bought with the blood of those who came before you. You're off to battle today. Now act it." James remained standing, jaw set and steel in his eyes. "Now, Leslie," Campbell continued as if James were no longer there, "how do you plan to manage today's affair?" "We march on the bridge," the smaller man replied, spitting some bit of food from his mouth. "We use musket fire first. What doesn't scare off the townsfolk will thin them. We hold fast in the center. Once it gives, we charge in and finish it."
"The townsfolk shall be offered clemency," James interjected. "My desire is for order and civility above all. Provisions shall be replaced, and none will suffer needlessly. Once Aberdeen fully understands the king's folly, I am certain they will accede."