Later, when Magda spotted the girl from the tent—her young eyes empty despite the bright face she tried to don for her equally young husband—the glimmer of resolve she'd felt exploded into a determined rage.
Magda was all alone now, and the one person who'd risk helping her was as good as a world away. It would be up to her to save herself. She'd spent her days plotting, but could come up with only one simple strategy: run.
Another day passed, and Magda's opportunity never presented itself. They stopped to camp for the night and her dignity demanded she force herself not to limp, pushing the stiff ache in her legs to the back of her mind and rallying muscles that felt wrung out from a day coiled in anticipation.
They'd traveled south along the coast, and it had been hard riding, rocky and treacherous, and spectacularly terrifying with the sea pounding relentlessly, always somewhere to their left.
There would've been no way for her to outride the Campbells on such terrain, even if she had been left alone once all day. Even relieving herself had been humiliating, as anonymous clansmen pretended not to watch avidly her quick squats behind those rare tangles of coastal brush that'd been thick enough to conceal her. She swore that, by day's end, Campbell was choosing such desolate areas for their breaks on purpose.
Her resolve was beginning to blur into something more like despair and she knew she had to escape, immediately. Though Campbell was the only man who had a tent, Magda had considered herself lucky to have been given a swath of broadcloth she could use to protect herself from the elements. She'd been shocked that Campbell had allowed her that concession, and she suspected it was a gesture to his clansmen that she was off-limits. He'd said he had big plans for her, and Magda shivered to think how this temporary protection was related to Campbell's grand scheme. She had a hunch he was saving her for himself. She relied on that stretch of broadcloth now, using the semiprivacy to disguise a meager lump of branches and brush as herself, fast asleep under the covers.
Though frightened to leave in the night, she was more terrified of the fate she imagined at the hands of these men. It seemed she waited an eternity for the sun to set, looking out from her scrubby nest, the cold earth intensifying the feverish ache of her muscles. As the granite-colored sky deepened into a deep indigo bowl overhead, she thought of that night with James under the stars and was comforted to imagine him settling down for the evening underneath the same sky.
A band of light the color of eggplant lit the horizon. It appeared so slowly, Magda wondered if it hadn't been there all along. But then there was a flicker, like the curtain of the night sky parting, and green lights shimmered overhead. The purple halo cupping the horizon intensified, and seemed to shoot up from the earth even as the green swirled overhead like vapor in a witch's crystal ball. Magda felt humbled by this unexpected gift: her first sight of the Northern Lights. And it emboldened her, its grandeur somehow a reminder of how miniscule humanity was in the scope of things. Campbell and his men seemed suddenly absurd, simply men, fallible, who'd been long dead by the time she'd been born.
Magda sprang from her refuge, feeling gloriously like a wild animal, and ignoring the slap of branches at her cheeks and the bite of rocks at her feet, she ran hard into the night.
"Whatever could you be thinking? That's good beer, you daftie." Sibbald whacked James with his riding crop.
"You'll not strike me, old man," he said, turning his back to the colonel. James stepped close r to his horse, as the beast continued to lap enthusiastically at the bucket of ale.
"Aye, there's no stopping him," Rollo said. "What began as the whimsy of a bored, rich boy has become a habit surrounded by no less superstition than an adder spied on an old woman's doorstep."
"You call me an old woman?" James kicked the bucket to the corner of the impromptu stall, and slapped his horse on the neck affectionately.
"Aye, I am that." Rollo shooed away a stableboy who'd come to help him onto his saddle. He clambered onto the mounting block just outside the door to what was once a Christ Church dining hall, now royal stable. He stopped struggling once he got his belly to his mount, as Rollo used his extraordinary upper body strength to seat his uncooperative legs in the saddle. "And you move as slow as an old woman on Sunday too."
"You'll cease your complaints. Will. At least you're not the one disguised as a groom." James nodded to his costume. While Rollo and Sibbald were outfitted like noblemen, James wore threadbare, colorless clothing appropriate for a stableman.
"I've always wanted to give you orders." Rollo's face cracked into a rare smile. "Now can we move from this place?" "What?" James asked. He inhaled deeply. "Has Oxford's rich bouquet become too unbe arable for your delicate sensibilities?"
"I beg you to reconsider your obsession with Perthshire," Rollo said, ignoring his friend's joke. "Can we not strike at Campbell from someplace closer to Oxford?"
"Perth is a hub of money and politics," James said, the smile gone from his face. "To triumph over the Covenanters there would be to command victory.
"What's more, we need to fight a battle of our own choosing. We've no artillery, and no cavalry but our own piteous mounts, and that will be our advantage. Our want of metal and mount shall find us fleet of foot. The Highlands will be our weapon, her people our blade." James smiled. "Why battle in the south, my friend, when we can lead Campbell on a merry ride through the Highlands?"
"A bloody ride, more like," Sibbald said, thoughtfully stroking the balding crown of his head.
"Aye," James said, "bloody indeed."
And he sent up a silent word of thanks that Magda was somewhere safe from harm.
Magda had been running for what felt like hours when she heard the muffled sounds.
The momentary bravado she'd felt had quickly turned back into terror as her side cramped from running, and she realized she had no way of knowing where she was headed. She'd fallen more times than she could remember, scrambling down hills of scree then through glens damp with night's moisture. Her palms and feet throbbed with scrapes and embedded gravel.
She tuned her ear to the night, and attributed the sounds to a trick of her fatigue; fright and exhaustion morphing the noise of her huffing chest and the snapping of brush underfoot into something more sinister.
And then Magda heard it again, more clearly now, a sound like laughter. She froze, her heart pounding. The countryside was finally clothed in darkness, and her eyes strained to make out human shapes among the muted grays and blacks around her. Adrenalin poured into her, dizzying her with the horror that she was no more able to defend herself than a frightened deer.
And again the laughter, coming from all around now, the sound surrounding her as it shattered the night's silence. "Can I help you find somethin'?" A tentative voice shouted, and was met by titters that echoed around her.
A hand swiped at her arm, and the sensation of movement so close spurred her into action, as the hysteria of the initial adrenalin spike honed into instinctive flight.
Magda fled once again through the darkness, thighs straining as she slid down a hill, then feet slapping against the dewy grass yawning before her. Again she felt a slight stirring of air at her back as someone swung for her. Thrown off balance, she tripped and was momentarily airborne, then thudded hard to the ground.
Someone kicked at her shoulder. "Rise and shine, lassie." She struggled to pull breath into her lungs, paralyzed from the impact of her dead weight falling to the unforgiving glen.
Two sets of hands grabbed her roughly under the arms and pulled her to standing. She saw them in the moonlight. Not much more than boys, they laughed nervously, stealing feels of her breasts and legs and sides.
"Campbell says we're not to touch you overmuch." She felt a hand grope hard between her legs.
"I reckon he wants the first taste for himself." The stench of foul breath surrounded her as one of the boys opened his mouth wide and licked her neck with the flat of his tongue.
"You like it!" He cackled and reached over to punch his friend's shoulder. "She likes it, aye?"
Magda merely stood still, erect like a statue. She knew that fear could kill her, and she racked her brain for some plan. "Lads." The word was a threat cutting through the night, stern and deadly. The clutching hands at her arms loosened, but she still wasn't free.
A horse chuffed in the darkness, and Magda heard someone approaching. Her heart leapt to think help had arrived, that James somehow, inexplicably, knew she was in danger. That he had come back for her.
Instead, the shadowy figure that emerged was shorter, stouter. He warned again, "In time, lads. In time." Campbell's features slowly materialized, and he brought his face close to hers, gray and spectral in the darkness.
"You pulled me from my bed, woman."
Magda began to turn her face from him and he grabbed her, pinching her chin hard between strong fingers.
"I've no patience for insolent females." He gave a quick shake to her chin. "I intend tomorrow to be a day of magnificent triumph for Clan Campbell. I already have big plans for you, but if your escapade tonight diminishes me or my men in any way, you'll pay."
He released her chin and stroked slowly down to her throat.
Campbell's hand twitched, gripping her in a sudden choke hold, and he leaned in to kiss her with exaggerated tenderness on each cheek. "And I will exact payment in ways you could never have imagined."
They cut inland the next day, and the rocky coast gave way to yellow green glens and rolling hills. It had been impossible for Magda not to notice the massive forces gathering under Campbell. His ranks had swelled in their trek down the coast, and she now estimated they numbered in the hundreds. Some rode Highland ponies, stout, blunt-nosed creatures that looked absurdly diminutive beneath the lot of scowling, surly men. Most, however, were on foot, and the pace had slowed considerably. Campbell had let her, continue to ride her own mount, and watching the ponies, she was grateful of the creaky old nag's long gait. Though, why he'd chosen to grant her such a luxurious allowance as a horse baffled her. A now-familiar wave of revulsion curled through Magda, imagining what fate Campbell was preserving her for.