"Aye." James held tight to Magda's hand.
"I… yes." In the rush, they hadn't discussed the wording, and she found herself stumbling over the unsaid phrase I do.
"And James, shall you keep and maintain her with meat and drink, and find and keep her in all necessary garments and ornaments?"
"I think I can accommodate that, aye." She heard his quiet chuckle at her side.
"And so, James Graham and Magdalen Deacon, do I declare you pledged to one another."
Magda heard the words and wondered if she was married. It had been so brief, so businesslike. She didn't quite feel married. She knew it was just a handfasting, but still, she'd expected more. Perhaps it was that her parents weren't there. She'd always thought her father would be there to give her away. And her mother. How crushed her mother would've been to know her only daughter had b een married and she'd not had the opportunity to plan it. And what an event that would've been. Magda should've been amused, but she just felt a little sad.
"Hm?" She looked at James. He tucked his thumb down to stroke the palm of her hand, his brows raised expectantly as he waited for her to answer.
She met his gaze, so steady and so focused on her. In it, she saw everything he promised, saw his heart opened to her, and she knew this was right. No matter the future, no matter the past, this felt right.
"'Tis time you kissed me now."
Magda found herself beaming back at him then. And she kissed him.
It had been a leisurely ride north to Perthshire, and for the first time Magda truly began to absorb the land around her. It was more idyllic than any pastoral painting she could've imagined. Blair Atholl, the small parish they temporarily called their home, was all gently rolling glens and lush trees surrounded by the Grampian mountain range in the distance.
MacColla had rallied his troops from the west, and while James spent his days busy with them, Magda explored. Water flowed from higher ground to feed many of Perthshire's waterways, and she often discovered small burbling falls or gently rushing streams, hidden gems that never ceased to delight her. The River Garry wound through the heart of Blair Atholl, and a particular stroll with the river in sight had become her favorite.
Weather during the summer months was as unpredictable as ever, and Magda appreciated those mornings that dawned sunny and clear, where she could take the thick woolen arisaid from her shoulders to savor the feel of the sun's rays.
The days were much longer than when she'd first arrived. She rarely caught the sunrises, which came earlier than ever. The sunsets happened well past supper now, and she loved nothing more than watching the sun drop behind the mountains, warmed by the nostalgic feeling of childhood summers and evenings that went on forever.
Their party was hosted quite graciously by Clan
Donnachaidh. Although Alexander Robertson, the chief of the clan, was too young to join James in his fight, the family showed them every hospitality. James had, without pause, introduced Magda as his wife, raising Will Rollo's brows, but making her heart thrill. As a result, they got to share a lovely room overlooking the gardens of Blair Castle, and though James was immersed in training the massive force MacColla had brought from Ireland, they had their nights together, and Magda savored every moment. Increasingly, she'd caught him staring at those mountains in the distance, his usually easy features furrowed in thought, and she knew that this serene interlude would soon come to a close.
Wanting to be unobtrusive, she'd stayed far from James and his field practices during her walks. But Magda found that her curiosity was getting the better of her, and one day found herself walking toward where she knew James spent his days.
She crested a rise and gasped at her first sight of the Irish encampment. MacColla's forces were night and day from the Highlanders. The Irish traveled with their women and children in tow and had taken over one of the glens, now a vast sprawl of humanity, with dirty faces and threadbare clothes and chaos all around.
"Quite a spectacle, aye?"
Magda jumpe d. Placing her hand on her pounding heart, she turned to see James standing just behind her. A light breeze swept along the hilltop, clinging James's tartan and sweat-dampened shirt to his body, and Magda's breath caught at the sight of him.
"Sorry, hen. I saw you walking the hill like some fey wraith and thought I'd catch you as you reached the peak." A mischievous light flashed in his eyes. "What say you," James clapped his hand on her bottom and grabbed her to him, "have you peaked yet?"
"Stop it!" Magda swatted at him playfully.
"Aye. we can't let the Irish see us indiscrete up here. Though, by the looks of all those striplings running about, they're well versed in the mechanics of indiscretion." He nodded down toward the glen below. "It seems each Irishman brings five sons, if he brings a one."
Shading his eyes, James looked up at the sky. He hadn't shaved that morning, and the sun glinted gold off the whiskers of his strong jaw.
"Midday is upon us." He opened his sporran and took out a cloth-wrapped mound. "Would you join me? Though I fear all I have is a cold oatcake and some dried meat." He gave a sheepish shrug to his shoulders.
"I'd love to," she said as they sat in the grass, "but I think I'll pass on your feast there."
The grass was cool and slightly damp beneath them, but the sun was warm on their shoulders, which touched gently as they leaned into each other. Their peaceable silence was interrupted only by Magda's stray giggles at the sight of James struggling to chew and swallow his lunch. Bagpipes jarred to life, as they invariably did, cutting across the valley like a knife. Listening to the notes keening and tripping along, Magda couldn't tell if the tune was joyful or mournful, and she realized that was precisely the reason the pipes were so uniquely Scottish. In their music—as in their landscape and their lives—jubilation and desolation lived in tandem, Scotland's warp and woof. She couldn't help the tears that stung her eyes, filled as she was with emotion, its roots as likely from joy as fro m sadness.
"The tune is called 'Flowers of the Forest.'" James wrapped his arm around her shoulders, clutching her tight to him. "Do you know the story, hen? Of the Battle of Flodden?"
She looked at him, her knit brows asking for his explanation.
"Well you'll know King Henry the Eighth of England, aye?"
"Well, the Battle of Flodden was a bloody battle. And mayhap one of the largest ever fought on our land. 'Twas between Henry the Eighth and Scotland's King James the Fourth, well over one hundre d years past now."
Nestling his chin on her shoulder, his voice was wistful over the drone of the pipes. "The Scots army was hewn into a mountain of dead that day, with King James himself cut down."
He sang a line from the song, his voice low and cracked,
" Sighing and moaning, on every green loaning, the Flowers of the Forest are all withered away." James inhaled deeply, letting the title's meaning hang, punctuated by the shrill cry of the bagpipes. "They say up to ten thousand men died that day. Every hearth in all Scotland felt the devastation, both Highland and Low. King James had been a good man, aye? A noble man, fair and kind."
"That's not always enough." Fear made Magda's voice waver. It was impossible not to think of her own James, her own good man.
"Aye, but he was braw too," James said, mistaking her meaning. "He was struck by one arrow and five swords that day, and yet he stood to slay five with his pike. And when that was shattered in his hand, King James took up his sword and slew five more."
She suddenly felt his sword, its hilt cold and hard leaning into her hip, both a reminder of battles he'd fought and a portent of what might come.
"It will begin soon now," he said. James took her hand in his and traced the lines of her palm. "Once the fight begins, we'll be on the move. Magda," he looked in her eyes, "I think it best you return to Montrose "—
"No." She pulled her hand away and sat up to face him. "I will not leave you. I can't leave you." They'd finally reunited, and the prospect of parting again terrified her. She feared for his safety, and for hers apart from him. But mostly she feared the hazy destiny that loomed possible on the horizon. The outcome so nonchalantly described to her, by Walter, at the Met what felt like a lifetime ago.
"Och. hen, don't fret so." Stroking her hair from her eyes, he cupped her chin and kissed her cheeks.
"But you don't understand, James. Something bad happens. I know something is going to happen."
He stilled. "What do you know?"
"I'm not sure when it will happen, just that you get captured. I just don't know, James." Magda's voice grew louder, and she spoke with uncharacteristic intensity. "It could be today or it could be in twenty years, but Walter said you…" Her voice hitched. "You get captured and hanged."
He was quiet for a moment. "And so it may be." James gave her a quiet smile. "But you're here now, so I don't suppose you'll let that happen, worked into a lather as you are." "Don't joke about it," she snapped.
"Nay, hen, I'll not joke." He took her hand back into his and sat in silence.
"You can't just leave me," she said abruptly. "What if I was sent back for a reason? Maybe even to save you?"
He studied her face, and she could tell by the light in his eyes that the prospect of Magda saving him both touche d and amused him. But it didn't matter, she thought, so long as he didn't abandon her in the middle of seventeenth-century Scotland. To worry over his fate from afar, waiting powerless to hear the possibly dire outcome, wouldn't be much different than returning home and reading about him in the history books.
"Whatever morbid destiny history once augured was altered when you came to me. I feel it, aye?" He laced his fingers in hers and squeezed hard. "'Tis you, Magda. You've changed it all."