"Is that how it will be?" Campbell asked, his tone inscrutable. "Aye," James replied. "And how else?"
The sound of so many marching feet echoed loudly off the stone bridge, strafing the gently rushing river below. The Dee was in flood, and Leslie had decreed they'd charge on the bridge, forgoing any supplemental attacks from the right or left flanks.
It was a brutal firefight lasting hours, the muskets of the Aberdeen militia having proved unsettlingly tenacious, biting leisurely into the ranks of the Covenant soldiers whenever they attempted an advance.
By day's end, the town's spirits ran high. The accidental realization that their militia could hold their defenses intact against a well-funded attack bolstered them with newfound confidence.
James, however, felt as gutted as his ranks. Many men had fallen. Walking through the camp at day's end found the injured tending themselves in grim silence , binding—and in the worst cases cauterizing—their wounds.
Those who'd survived the day despaired of the fight. The Highlanders, armed mostly with hand-to-hand weaponry instead of guns, were disheartened that Leslie hadn't let them see much of the fighting at all.
The Irishmen, defying all reason as well as a dozen briskly shouted orders to fall back had charged the bridge on foot and had been first to fall in the line of fire.
James scrubbed his face and hands in the frigid river water and returned to his tent to find Magda there waiting for him. A sense of relief hummed through him at the sight of her, and rather than send her away, he thought to allow himself the pleasure of the distraction.
"Good evening, hen." His voice rasped from a day of shouting over the din of battle. "I thought I'd left you in Napier's care. You should be in a croft far from here, if I'm not mistaken."
"I… I had to see if you were alright. Don't blame Napier," she added quickly. "I've promised I'd let him return me after I saw with my own eyes that you were alright."
"I'm glad of it." He stared at her for a moment. He'd thought to muster a smile he didn't feel, and instead let the concern writ on her face be a balm to his soul. Abruptly, he looked down and began to disarm.
"For something that preserves me, och" —James fumbled with the leather straps connecting the breast- and back plates of his armored vest—"this fool contrivance will surely be my death."
Magda instinctively reached to help him shoulder out of his gear.
"Ah, I am most indebted, kind mistress."
Pulling the front flap of his tent aside, he tossed his armor in with a loud clatter, then turned back to find Magda staring at him, frozen. Glancing down, James saw that the torso of his quilted coat retained its pristine buff color, a jarring contrast to the gore spattered across its sleeves and collar.
She clutched her arms to her chest as if suddenly chilled, roving her eyes along his body to ensure he was intact. Moved by the look of worry pinching her broad brow, James said in a deep Scottish burr, "Och, you'll not fash yourself, lassie." He smiled. "It worked, aye? I got your bonny mouth to twitch up at the edges a bit. Now let's see a light in those green eyes."
James paused for a moment, his own despair rising once again to the surface. "I need to see your smile, hen."
"How was it?" she asked, still visibly taken aback by the reality of battle.
"Bide with me." Crumpling his coat into a ball, he threw it into a far corner of the tent and eased himself down just inside. With a heavy sigh, he stretched his powerful legs through the opening. He'd worn close -fitting trews that day. The brass buttons that had studded along his outer leg were now missing, and Magda quickly glanced away from the hard, sinewy patch of thigh revealed through the tear. "'Twas a bit of a disaster, aye? But, truly lass, first I'd hear of you. I see you survived my brother-in-law?"
"Of course I survived." The hint of a smile played on her face. "But he is a serious type, isn't he?"
James had to chuckle at such a kindly understatement of the uptight Lord Napier. Magda seemed encouraged, and sitting down, embellished, "The man must have worn out the soles of his shoes with all the pacing he did. And packing that small bag of his, and unpacking, and packing again, whenever he got new word about what was happening on the bridge."
James stilled for a moment as the dreadful thought dawned on him that he had put Magda in harm's way after all. He hadn't even conceived that they could lose the battle. The horror of what could have befallen her had the townspeople gotten the upper hand chilled him. Napier's restlessness hadn't been high- strung at all. It had been wise.
Pushing that thought aside, James forced ease into his voice. "Aye, that is a peculiar wee valise he has. Margaret would have bought it for him."
"And you can imagine how he approaches packing the thing. The word tidy doesn't begin to cover it—" Magda stopped.
James had been trying his best to be amiable, hoping to push the pain of battle to the back of his mind, but images of the day's senseless killing kept rising to the surface.
"Can you tell me what happened today?" she asked quietly. "Magdalen," he began, moderating his breathing as moments from the day came to him in a rush.
"I spent a lifetime in hell this day. I spent years studying, training, preparing for a day such as this. To lead soldiers into battle, protecting the rights of my country, its people." He caught her eyes and held them. "But the horrors I saw, lass. These men… many of them boys ye t. They'd pledged their life's blood for my battle, my dream. And yet, at day's end, there were only but a few familiar faces among the fallen. These men died under me, and I didn't even know them."
She was quiet for some time, then finally ventured, "You could get to know them. Should get to know them. It would make you a better leader."
"Aye, you speak true. I thought to follow the general. But a man—a true man—stands alongside, not behind. I ken he's a seasoned soldier, Leslie is, but he doesn't know most of the men he fights with. I'll not accept that a general can have success on the field if he's no true knowledge of the weapons in his arsenal."
He touched his hand to hers, squeezing it briefly, then pulled back. "So many men, and bedlam all about. The Irish boys took off like a flock of loosed pigeons. The hired men fired muskets and hoped for a fair spot of luck. And the Highlanders. Och. the most blooded of all of us. With nary a musket among them, they were forced to spend the day seated upon their hands as Leslie demanded that the brunt of the attack come but from the center, while we were choked on that bridge like a cork in a bottle."
Magda hesitated, "Do you have to fight on the bridge? Can't you fight somewhere else instead?"
"What?" James looked at her flatly.
"Just, I don't know," she stammered, looking nervous to say the wrong thing. "Move the battle or something. You know, just come at them from a different place, maybe?" "It's impossible." He shook his head. "The plans have been drawn. The Dee is in flood. Our strength is firepower: we'd never get the men and their weapons across a swollen river."
"Well, you don't have to use just the guns, right? I mean, people cross rivers all the time. And most of your men have swords anyway. You just said the Highlanders don't even have muskets."
James started to dismiss her once again, then began to think. "I suppose it could work," he said after a time.
"So simple, aye?" He nodded now. considering. "With the Dee in flood, they'd never expect us from the right flank." He began to think out loud, passion renewing his voice.
"We scout downriver a bit. Surely we'll find some place to ford across. The ponies could manage it. And I know just the lot of men for the job. So simple. It's brilliant, lass."
He enthusiastically cupped his hands on Magda's cheeks and planted an offhanded kiss on her mouth.
He pulled away quickly, and they both froze. James memorized her face, so close to his, and her eyes, glittering green like a cat's in the evening twilight. He marveled at their vibrancy, alight like some rare gem. He looked into those eyes for just a heartbeat too long and felt panic skitter through him. He sensed himself in a very different kind of danger, even as her gaze pierced him through and warmed him to the soul. And it was in that instant James realized he was capable of loving, truly loving, a woman. Something flickered on the fringes of his mind, urging him to flee, to avoid at all costs this vulnerability. To be rid of this sudden feeling of want that he hadn't known possible. Instead, unwilling to help himself, he reached out to her. Tangling his fingers through the fine auburn silk of her hair, he cradled her head and brought his mouth roughly to hers.
She was so soft in his arms. Her full lips opened to him with an eagerness that nearly undid him. He inhaled deeply, hungering for as much of her as he could take, wanting to consume her, to feel Magda's tongue in his mouth and her breath in his lungs.
She wrapped her arms about his neck and pressed herself against him, her breasts firm against his chest. His hand trembled as he drew it carefully from her hair, grazing down her cheek and jaw, her skin as soft as those rose petals beneath his fingers.
Magda stretched higher, pulling closer, rubbing against him, and more than anything he wanted to bring his hand down and tear the dress from her, taking those breasts in his hands, his mouth.
"Och." With a groan he pulled himself from her. "Good Christ, lass, but I want you so." He brought his forehead to hers and tried to calm his thundering heartbeat. He breathed slowly, deliberately. "I'm a ruined man, Magda. Like an angel you are, sent to me from some place beyond my ken, and you've doomed me to forever crave your touch."
"James." She whispered his name, and tracing her tongue along his lip, she beckoned him back.
"Magda," he murmured. "Lovely Magda." He brought his mouth to hers gently then, and the taste of her moan in his mouth broke him.