James tugged a strip of blue silk from beneath his chest armor, the bit of hem he'd snatched from her dress just two days prior. He took the talisman and held it to his lips, eyes not wavering from hers.
"I will come back to you," he whispered, and disappeared through the trees.
"Tom, my good man!" James boomed, his arms outstretched. "Come, come! I've set aside a dram of the good brandy."
Hopping up from his seat by a small bonfire, James ducked into his tent for his flask.
"A moment, James…" Tom hesitated.
Peeking back through the canvas flaps, James feigned astonishment. "Such dire spirits! Don't you know we've won the battle? I understand you fancy yourself more spy than soldier, but even you can't have missed that we've more men left standing than our opponent has, aye?"
He laughed heartily, then added, "As my emissary, perhaps you'd be so kind as to root out a fine set of clubs. I'd give the links at the Royal Aberdeen a try before returning to Montrose."
"James," Tom said again, with more surety. "We'll not be playing any golf."
"What madness is this?" James asked broadly.
The grin on his face slowly dissolved into bewilderment then concern. "What is it, man? Has something happened to Magda?"
"No, no, it's naught to do with the lass. As far as I know, she remains under Napier's watchful eye." Tom scrubbed a hand over his forehead. "It's Aberdeen, James. They've razed it."
James stared blankly, so Tom continued. "After the bridge fell, Leslie and his men disappeared. You'd gone off to salute the Camerons, soldiers were going every which way. It was mayhem all about, James." Tom pitched his voice as if to offer consolation, earnestly trying to convince his friend of something. "You can't have accounted for every man."
"Just tell it," James said through clenched teeth. "What is it you're telling me?"
"The general and Campbell, and some of their men… They've laid waste, James. Thievery, mostly. But there was some, well… Leslie's men are savages, many of them."
"Och, hell." James dropped to the ground, legs crossed, cradling his head in hands. "The accursed Campbell. Napier warned me, aye? Warned of men drunk on newfound power."
He ran his hands over his face and through his hair, "I need to make it right. I'll not abide barbarism. Releasing a pack of wolves on my own country was never my intention." He rose again, solidly to his feet. "I must go, have an audience with the king himself, make him listen to reason. The fall of his supporters in Aberdeen should have captured Charles's attention." James paced a few steps, and then turned to face his friend. "I started this madness, Tom, and now I will finish it."
"But there's more," Tom said quietly. "The king and his Catholic wife have divided more than just Scotland. Parliament has risen against him. Charles has fled London and set up a military court in Oxford."
James was silent for a moment, then said, his voice steady, "Then it's to Oxford we go. Now."
"I've been told as much."
"I cannot come with you this time, James."
Silence hung between the two men. Just the slow popping of the dwindling fire filled the late afternoon air.
"Aye, I've anticipated this day." "What of the lass?"
"I'll keep her by me, of course." "You cannot."
"And why not?" His friend had situated himself by the fire, and James stepped closer to stand towering over him. "The lass has a sound seat on a horse. She'll make the journey just fine."
"Aye, the lass has a pretty seat indeed," he said, and James's glare was deadly in return. "Listen to reason, man." Tom rose to face him. "It's been pure good fortune that nothing has befallen her thus far. Think you, what would've happened had today's battle gone the other way? Who would've protected her?"
Tom let the thought hang heavy in the air before continuing, "The battle in Aberdeen has opened a Pandora's box. Traveling as a stranger, and on the road to England? Men will be on the lookout, and with hatred in their eyes, for any sign of a Covenanter. Others will want vengeance against any Royalist they can find. And then there are those who'll merely be suspicious of everyone." He met his friend's eye with uncharacteristic challenge. "And what of you now, James? What of your Covenant now? How would you choose, if you were forced to pick a side?" He placed his hand on James's shoulder. "I know you'll want the lass in your case," he added quietly. "But for her safety, you must part."
"Aye," James said finally, his voice ragged. He flinched his shoulder from beneath Tom's hand. "I'll return to Montrose and gather Will Rollo. I'll need another man at my side." Turning his back, he spoke staring into the fire. "I must leave at once. If I ride through the night, I can be there by dawn. I'll gather some provisions and head to the land of our king."
"She's not here, lad," Napier said, perplexed. James had finally found his brother-in-law in the crofter's cabin, all its other inhabitants gone to the soldiers ' camp to celebrate the Covenanters' victory. "We thought surely you'd be raising a toast to your great triumph by now. She went off and about with the cook. Magda has no shortage of questions for her. I don't know what manner of missionaries her parents were, but it seems your lass wouldn't know the difference between sustenance and certain death when it comes to living off the land."
James only nodded absently, so Napier elaborated, amused by his own story, "Cook only just stopped her from poisoning us all with a basket full of spindle berries. She finally decided simply to take Magda on one of her foraging walks. I've not done wrong to let her alone?" he asked, sudden panic seizing his voice.
"No, no," James replied, his tone distant. His eyes scanned the room once more, as if Magda might somehow magically appear. The single cookpot. A lone cot. Grit and dirt on the cold stone floor. She didn't belong there, in such an untamed land. How would she survive it? She'd want her museums and grand baths, not spindle berries. She'd want to return to her home.
"You did well." James's voice was rough. He raked a hand through his hair and began again. "These past days. You did well, tended Magda well. You've my thanks. It's been a great relief to me. But…" He clasped his hand to Napier's shoulder. "I've one more favor to ask of you."
"You know you have only to ask."
"I need to be off. And soon."
"Can you not wait for Magda's return? It can't be more than a matter of hours."
"I have no choice." James paused, blinking his eyes shut tight. When he opened them, his gaze was sharp on his brother-in-law. "I need to leave for Montrose at once. You were right about the Covenanters. It appears we've created a many- headed beast. Even now, Campbell razes the town, and the king has lost London to Parliament."
"Civil war?" Napier asked incredulously.
"That is the question, aye? I'm off to Oxford to treat with Charles. Gather what I might about the situation. But Magda…"
Napier nodded, knowing.
"I'd wanted to see her once more…" His voice trailed off, remembering the vivid green of Magda's eyes. In them he'd seen the promise of something greater than just a man and a woman lying tangled together. But whatever potential he might feel with this strange, wayward woman, he knew she had to return home. That England was on the brink of civil war only confirmed it. To keep her in his world would only put her life in jeopardy.
James inhaled deeply, gathering himself, then focused once more. "The lass needs help. Return her to Montrose for me, offer her my every hospitality." He added somberly, "Help her find the way home."
"Anything, James, of course."
"Ask her story. And Napier?"
"I would that you believed her."
Ignoring the other man's confusion, he continued, "Take her to the monastery. My hope is the Black Friars might lend assistance."
"Where exactly is the lass from?" Napier asked uneasily.
"In good time, man, in good time… Ah, one last thing." James reached down, and extracting a small knife from the cuff of his boot, he sliced a navy and gold enameled button from his coat. "Give her this from me," he said, pressing the button into Napier's hand.
"A trifle to remember me. When she finds herself home, I'll be long dead."
James smiled for the first time since Aberdeen. It felt so good to be by Rollo's side once more. They'd grown up together, and he'd missed the man who'd become like a brother to him.
"Have you need of assistance?" he asked, seeing Rollo struggle with his saddle. Though a riding accident as a child had damaged his friend's back and left his legs without much feeling, the near constant spasms had rendered them unusually strong. Sheer determination and grit drove him and, once seated, he was one of the greatest horsemen James knew.
"I'm lame, James," he bit out, "not a half-wit." Rollo pulled himself into place, and bending to adjust the thick straps, grumbled, "I think I am capable of buckling my own leathers."
He sat up. nodding grimly at James. Will Rollo cut a regal figure, sitting tall on his gray- speckled stallion, an unusual, and pricey, mount for a Scotsman. If it weren't for so many straps and the extra-high pommel and cantle of his custom saddle, one would never guess the pain and stiffness he suffered.
"I find you cheerful as ever, my dear friend." He erupted in laughter, which Rollo answered with a begrudging smile. James inhaled, savoring once again the tang of sea in his throat. Though the coast was at his back, he could feel its distant pulse like the snore of a slumbering monster, and it was something that never ceased to bolster him.