She was being hunted, tracked easily from Campbell lands. Magda realized she'd galloped off, unthinking, leaving deep tracks across soft glens and scraping hard lines down gravelly hills. The trail she'd left must have been nothing short of an engraved map to her current location.
Horror dawned on her that there was no way to outrun the men who hunted her. She was trapped. It was impossible to return the way she came—even now she imagined she heard the rustling of riders through trees—and yet the lake filled the horizon, no visible curve to indicate land on the other side, simply water as far as she could see.
Magda pulled her horse to a halt, her heart thundering in her chest. She instinctively patted the animal on the neck, an apology for brutalizing him, and for the bruising she'd given his mouth with all of her tugging.
She needed to gather her wits. She dared not think what would happen if she were captured. Campbell would not forgive a second escape attempt. Magda knew she couldn't outrun these men. but if she'd only get a hold of herself, she might be able to outthink them.
She remembered a foxhunt she'd gone on as a teenager. It had been her first and last, so horrified she'd been at the sight of the terrified animal tearing under bushes and through trees. She'd thought angrily, if the dumb creature would only go to ground, throw off the hounds somehow. When it was done, the master of the hunt had merrily smeared its blood across her cheeks as her father looked proudly on, and it had been all Magda could do to choke down the bile that had risen in her throat.
Magda studied the lake, and Peter's face came to her—freckles and orange hair and the lank body of one full-grown yet not fully a man—and the memories ran her through with fresh anguish.
She was cornered, just like that fox had been, and she felt herself start to shut down, beginning to feel the quiet dread of acceptance.
And then, as if summoned by remembrance of her brother, she saw it. Magda slid from her horse and squinted into the distance. The day's flat light had played tricks with the dark water and the shadowy trees all around, and she hadn't spotted it before. An island in the middle of the lake. Far, but not too far for a good swimmer.
And even as she felt a flicker of hope, her heart sank. She hadn't swam since Peter's accident.
Images of James came in a rush. Him sitting so still on the riverbank beside her, listening with care to the story of her brother's death. The sun had picked shades of amber in his brown hair. His hand had almost just touched hers in the grass.
Was James already dead? The grim thought sputtered briefly, and Magda just as quickly stifled it. She knew in her heart that James was still out there. He had to be out there. The memory of him was too vivid. His firm nod of understanding, accepting without question the pain of her loss, and the absence of any blame. She saw him in her mind's eye, and he revived her.
Her brother had drowned to save a stranger. Magda knew Peter would have struggled until the end. And she knew too that, more than anything, James would want her to struggle now. Nobody had come to save her, but she would fight, to save her own life .
Magda slapped her horse hard on the rump, and the beleaguered animal took off as far and fast from his abusive rider as he could. Scraping her heels against the muck of the shore, she hastily covered her tracks and sent up a silent prayer that the horse would make too big a trail for her pursuers to ignore.
Magda stepped up to the water's gently lapping edge, and it bit at her toes, numbing them instantly. Freezing damp crept along the soles of her slippers and the rawhide shriveled, tightening around her feet.
She had no choice now, she thought grimly. She'd chosen her path, and it was straight into the water. And fast too, if she didn't want to die at the hands of the Campbells, or by languishing in the icy lake. She knew she'd be hampered by her clothing, yet disrobing now would render useless whatever false trail the horse had lain for her. Fear threatened in the back of her mind, and crushing it, Magda dove in and pounded out as strong a crawl stroke as she could.
Lake vegetation grew thick in the shallows and brushed against her, ghostly and delicate, and she forced thoughts of Peter from her mind. A thick strand tangled her foot, pulling her slipper from her like a creature grasping hungrily from the deep. Renewed panic skittered up her spine as she kicked and slapped frantically at the water. Magda was aware of the shore behind her. and sensed that the men had yet to break through the trees, but she knew she didn't have much time.
The lake got deep quickly. The thick wool of her dress reluctantly absorbed water and it slowly grew heavier, until the fabric swirled between her legs, beckoning her under. Hysteria gripped her, hammering her pulse and robbing her breath, and Magda stopped to tread water, clawing the dress from her body as if it were some fo reign entity attacking her, purposely pulling her down to drown.
She sensed the rustle of trees at the lakeshore and knew the men were dangerously close. Wadding her dress beneath her feet, Magda pressed it as deeply as she could beneath the surface. Pulling a calming gulp of air into her lungs, she slid under the water and exploded forward. Encumbered only by her thin muslin shift, she kicked and stroked, skimming easily just beneath the surface.
The rhythmic kicking and exhaling composed her. and Magda was able to swim underwater for long periods of time before coming up for air. The sounds from the shore had quickly dispersed. It seemed the men didn't think swimming across the lake a viable escape option.
Magda thought one last time of that glorious horse , and was grateful. She hoped the men never found him, imagined that maybe he'd live out his days beloved by some farmer's daughter. But she knew better than to dream of happy endings, she thought, as she kicked and pulled her way toward what she hoped was the island.
She'd crawled to safe ground and hidden beneath a cluster of low brush at the island's shore. Despite the violent shivers that wracked her, Magda felt her consciousness slip away and a pleasant emptiness slide over her.
A hand, hot and dry against her pale wrinkled skin, tugged at her, and Magda came awake to the feel of the ground sliding beneath her.
A man knelt in the twilight, holding her foot, and she was instantly on the defensive, kicking at him, yelping, and trying desperately to skitter back into the bushes. He seemed monstrous. A fringe of wiry white hair sprang from around his otherwise bald head, making him look a madman. A thick, shining scar ran down the side of his face and perfectly bisected his left eye, twitching sightlessly, its dull milky whiteness appearing eerily luminous in the day's dying light.
"Hush, child," he said, and the gentle creak of his voice gave her pause. She studied him. The man wore a rough black cassock, faded with age and cinched off at his waist with a hank of rope. Magda looked again at his hair and realized it wasn't that he was balding. It was a tonsured monk who held her foot in his hand.
He smiled hesitantly, and the right side of his face creased into well-worn lines around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes. But on the other half of him, the waxy cord of his scar buckled his skin in two, cutting the expression from his face.
"How do you know me?" she asked, the familiar trill of alarm heightening her senses.
"I am Brother Lonan," he said gently. "And I've been expecting you."
"Lonan?" Confusion and shock dulled her senses, and she let herself be pulled to standing. "Wait." She jerked away from him, her tone taking on a note of hysteria. "The Lonan who knows James Graham?"
"Indeed," he chuckled. "I am that very Lonan." He tucked her icy hand in the crook of his elbow. "And now it's to the Warming House with you, before I lose you to another faint."
"But how did I get here?" She did her best to walk, her chilled legs shuffling slowly. "Why did you bring me here?" "First things first, child." Lonan patted her hand and guided her to a squat stone building. The small size, low ceiling, and enormous hearth declared its sole purpose to be heat. He steered her to a large leather chair by the fire. She sat, mesmerized by the flames, dancing tall and warming her to the bone.
"But how did you find me?" she asked, as he slathered a foul-smelling paste on her extremities. She shuddered to think what sort of rancid animal lard was currently warming her through. "I hid in the bushes."
"Yes," he said, and Magda had to avert her eyes from his grotesque smile. "You dragged yourself under coven leaving a path in the sand like a turtle up from the sea to lay her eggs."
He slowly wiped his hands on a rag tucked in the rope of his belt. Using a pair of crude tongs, Lonan began to pull strips of heated linen from a cast-iron pot and laid them out along a blanket by his side. "If this is how you hide, my child, I count you doubly blessed. It's a wonder you made it here at all."
"What about the painting?" Magda struggled to keep her emotions in check as all of her questions and fears and worries of the past weeks boiled to the surface.
Lonan looked up at her with a kindly smile. "What ab out the painting, child?"
"The painting. You know." She pulled her feet out from Lonan's hands. "You were the one who did that portrait of James. How did you do that? I don't understand why I'm here."
Lonan tsked. "You'll injure yourself further, child. Your feet are shredded and in need of warmth and cleansing."
He tenderly took her feet back in his hands and, cupping her heels in his palms, said, "All in good time, Magdalen. You will understand all in good time."
Maybe it was her exhaustion, but although she wanted to protest further, she found she trusted the old man. Magda let him finish in silence then, watching as he bound her feet with the soothing linen bandages, transfixed by his age-spotted hands and knobby fingers covered with patches of wiry white hair. Despite herself, her own mind gradually grew quiet.
"Ah," Lonan said, as he tied off the last of her wrappings.
He'd been kneeling in front of Magda, and as he rose creakily to his feet, she prepared to catch him if he toppled. He took a small handkerchief from his pocket. "Lest I forget." Unfolding it, he produced a small square the color of seafoam. "This is for the wound under your skirts."