Magda had assumed that all monks were like Lonan, inspired to monastic life from some quiet conviction, or to pursue a life of contemplative study. But she'd been shocked to hear that some families donated a son in return for blessings. Though, seeing the carnage wrought by men like Campbell, she thought perhaps that wasn't such a bad fate.
Lonan stood in the doorway. Magda didn't know how long he'd been there, silently watching her. His appearances were rare so, tapping her wooden spoon at the side of the pot, Magda set aside her current task to visit with him.
"Our time grows short, child."
By now, she had a good enough sense of Lonan to know that such ominous pronouncements weren't to be taken lightly. In their weeks together, Lonan had not yet once discussed the nature of time, Magda's appearance, or for that matter, the part Lonan played in it all, having painted the portrait that had been her portal into the past. She'd long stopped pressing him on it. Seeing the somberness on his face now, though, Magda thought perhaps the moment to ask him just one more time had arrived.
"I found your journals," she ventured.
"I know." A mischievous light wrinkled the corners of his eyes. "I left them for you, after all."
She gave him a quizzical look and was met only with placid silence, so she continued, "You wrote something like, time abides. What did you mean by that?"
"Time doesn't flow like a river, child. It simply is."
Magda raised her brows. Now that he was finally willing to talk, she wanted more than just this abstruse explanation and hoped she wasn't going to have to pry every sentence out of him.
He sighed. "Everything man needed to know was within his grasp thousands of years ago." Lonan pulled a three -legged stool from along the wall and eased himself onto it. "The nature of time, astronomy, mathematics, these are things that were mastered millennia ago. The Indus Valley civilization, the ancient Babylonians, Hittites, Mayans, Persians. Magda, you have studied these peoples, their symbology.
"Despite the rigid exterior you present to the world," he smiled fondly, "you are raw to it. Art is the soul of the universe, and your study has opened you to its ebbs and flows. This is why I think the portrait pulled you through. "No," he said firmly, in answer to her silent question, "I did not pick you, Magda. I merely etched symbols on a canvas, then painted the image of our James."
"Aside from the fact that we share a common enemy?" he asked, a devilish light in his eyes. "A monk I might be, but I've not forgotten the battles of my youth. My uncle, though a man of God, was ever a man of his clan. And we Gordons harbor no love for the Campbells, this brute in particular." "But why choose to paint James," she pressed, "and not the king, or some other clan chief?"
"I am surprised that you need ask that, child." Lonan tilted his head knowingly. "You of all people recognize the heroism and charisma that is the Marquis. But I will spell it plain for you. Few truly great men have walked this earth. Sometimes the Fates need a nudge, to lend these men aid, to empower them."
"But for what?"
"For some later, greater purpose," he answered mysteriously. "You see, child , our James has this capacity for greatness, for great success. But there is also the possibility of great sacrifice. And it's upon this latter path James finds himself, marching inexorably toward tragedy. That is, until you crossed it. The moment you laid eyes on his portrait, history came to a crossroads and the universe near vibrated with it."
"But I lived hundreds of years after his death."
"I told you, child. Time is not some fugitive, racing in a straight line ever forward, discrete moments never to b e experienced again. Think of time as a circle. It merely is, and you, Magda, you found yourself at the center point of that circle."
Lonan shook his head in awe. "Think, how many thousands of people viewed that portrait in the last how many hundreds of years? And yet it was you it called through. You must have touched the portrait, engaged the symbols in some way."
"But," Magda interrupted, "that doesn't explain how you know things are going to happen. You've alluded to things. Like, expecting me, or leaving the journals for me."
"Ah, yes," the Brother's grin was uncharacteristically broad. He fumbled in the deep pocket of his cassock. "Wine of opium, child." Lonan pulled out a small brown bottle filled with dark liquid. "I discovered long ago a tincture ofopium and sugar opens my senses to the universe. It was only when I began sketching and musing in my books that I discovered I had the power to… to see things."
"Isn't that…" Magda couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity. "Isn't that laudanum?"
"Aye," Lonan said sheepishly, his childhood brogue momentarily slipping though, "I suppose it is at that."
"Well, what am I supposed to do, then?" Magda worried the overlong cuff of her threadbare sleeve between two fists. "Does this mean I'm supposed to stay? How on earth am I supposed to be able to help James?"
"That I cannot say, child." Lonan rose to leave. "I'm unable to see your fate here, only its necessity."
He paused at the door. "We Brothers may choose the study of life over the living of it, but we are not without wisdom. Augustine of Hippo taught ' Victoria veritatis est cantos.' 'Nothing conquers except truth and the victory of truth is love.'
"You love James Graham, do you not?" he asked tenderly.
"I—" Magda faltered, tears filling her eyes. "I suppose I do." "Then you'll know what's best, child."
Lonan left Magda, the room silent but for the thick burbling of oats.
Her bed had never felt so uncomfortable, and Magda spent hours tossing and turning. The monks retreated to their cells early each night, and though she usually passed the time reading by candlelight, tonight she'd found herself eyeing the same line over and over again. Rather than waste what was a luxurious allowance, she'd blown out her beeswax candle and attempted sleep.
Magda froze at the sound of shuffling just outside her door. She strained her ears in the dark, and her heart began to pound as a terrifying thought unfurled.
Campbell must have found her.
She inched back on the bed, the blanket pulled tight below her chin, as the door creaked open.
It was a man. He extended a candle into her cell. Though his face was cast in blackness, the wavering flame made his shadow flicker along the open door, exaggerating his height and the stolidness of his stance.
As Magda's eyes adjusted, she began to make out his shape.
The shadows coalesced in the dark.
Then she saw his tartan, and knew. This man was not a monk.
"Is it you, hen?" His voice was a husky whisper in the dark. "James?" Magda nearly shrieked his name. "Is that you? How did you find me?"
She sprang from the bed, knocking into him in the dark. "Are you alright?" Magda rubbed his arms and patted her hands to his chest to assure herself that he was truly there, whole and healthy before her.
"Hush," he said, laughing quietly as he quickly pulled her door to. "You'll waken the entire priory. 'Tis I indeed, and I'll have you to myself till dawn if you'd but keep your voice down."
She heard the rasp of wood on stone as he slid her chair in front of the door. "That will do," he mumbled. A thrill shivered up her back realizing that he intended to lock them in.
He placed the candle on the room's only table and strode to her. "But what of you? The bastard didn't touch you did he?" His voice was cold steel, but his touch on her was gentle, stroking arms and face as if she were a fragile piece of glass.
She shook her head. "No," she whispered. "He didn't hurt me."
"Are you certain? Come, let me look at you, Magda." James angled them toward the candlelight, and she thought she'd neve r seen such a beautiful man.
The flickering glow warmed one side of his face, and she saw that James had changed since she'd last seen him.
When she'd first met him, his face was smooth- shaven, all relaxed lines and fluid expressions. It had been impossible not to think him handsome in his fine waistcoats, his basket- hiked sword ever at his side.
But it was a harder man who stood before her now. He even appeared rougher on the surface, his stubbled jaw and shadowed eyes speaking of weeks on the road. His clothes had changed too. He'd snuck to her room, his head and feet bare, and Magda let her eyes roam along the deep green and blue plaid of his tartan and the solid lines and slopes of his muscular calves.
She looked up to face him. and the want that smoldered in his black eyes sent tremors of anticipation and fear and excitement through her.
James wore a shirt of coarse linen, and though it was belted loosely at his waist, Magda could still discern the outline of his chest and arms in the darkness. Her gaze lingered on the flex of his lean muscles as he took her hand and pulled her close to him.
His skin was warm, and her pulse skittered at the feel of his strong, calloused fingers enveloping hers.
James had unleashed something dark in himself. Magda sensed it now and felt an untapped well stir in answer, the sudden force of her desire, feral and raw, shocking her with its intensity.
The energy crackling between them became almost unbearable, and Magda heard herself speak. "You came back."
"It seems you've become a habit with me." His voice was low, and tight with desire.
James gently pulled her back to stand close to the bed. His touch grazed up her arms, and he slowly began to walk around Magda, trailing his fingers along her breastbone, across her shoulder, down her spine. "Safe," he murmured.
"You're safe." Pausing at her back, he slowly lifted thick handfuls of her hair and traced light kisses up her neck and along the curve of her ear. Magda felt his tongue flick along her earlobe, and a steady pulse thrummed to life between her legs.