James thumbed tears from her face that she hadn't realized were there. "Come now, don't be so melancholy," he told her. "The first battle comes soon. I'll keep you close at Blair Castle, and bring you with me when we march on. I can't know my future, but somehow that is what feels right. Travel with my wife, just like our Irish friends, aye?" "Yeah, about that wife thing."

"Och, I know it wasn't done proper. I'd have us joined before all and sundry, with you in a grand gown and the pipes crying our joy to the skies." Frustration knitted his brow as he looked into the distance. "I want a proper wedding for you, Magda."

He looked to her, and she thought she saw an unfamiliar flicker of vulnerability in his eyes.

"If you'll have me?"

She nodded silently, smiling through the tears that still dampened her face.

James kissed her gently. "It seems I've won myself a marquise after all. Magdalen Graham, Marquise of Montrose. And when these troubles are over, we'll have a true wedding, and it shall be the finest in all Scotland."

Sighing deeply, he folded his square of cloth and returned it to his sporran. "But first you'd best accustom yourself to those oatcakes, hen. My plan is to harry the Covenanters, up and down and through the Highlands. I'll not be contented until I see snow on those passes," he nodded to the Grampian range in the distance. "The Highlanders will welcome a march through the sleet. The Lowland gentry, though, in their heavy cloaks and cobbled shoes, will not."

He gave a resigned shrug. "So, my love, as for the dried oats, I fear you've not seen the last of them."

She gave him a brave smile, trying to force out all other thoughts. But Walter's words came to hum at the edges of her mind, faint, like the pipes' ghostly echo.

Captured. Imprisoned. Hanged.

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"But my men grow impatient. You forget, they fight for money, and each day that passes is more coin squandered." Leslie took a healthy swig of ale. "If they dispersed now, it would take me months to gather a like force."

Campbell sucked the venison from his teeth, and stared flatly at the general. "'Tis my coin, Leslie, and my decision." "But we've word that the Royalists stir north of Perth. Graham even now trains an army of men."

"An army?" Campbell laughed. "He's a boatful of Irish refugees and some filthy Highlanders." Campbell dragged a thick slice of bread through the stew in his bowl. "No. Elcho is already poised, ready for what troubles those savages might bring."

"Elcho is a lordling with a mob of untested men."

" Lord Elcho has a Covenanter army of six thousand foot and seven hundred horse. I don't care how brilliant Graham is. If he's foolish enough to challenge those numbers, it will be a rout, regardless of Elcho's preparations."

Campbell belched and pushed away from the table. "No, as much as I'd like to exact retribution from Graham and his bitch myself, you and I stay here. Elcho will obliterate the northern Royalists.

"Mark my words. Leslie." Campbell pursed his thin lips into a thoughtful sneer. "The Lowlands will be the only place of any relevance in Scotland, and the Lowland people its only threat."

Chapter 25

"Ready!" James shouted, and hoped his orders would carry to the men on the far reaches of the line. To pit his twenty-four hundred men against a force near seven thousand strong, he'd drawn his troops into a long and shallow front. Only three men deep, it stretched far along the floor of Tippermuir valley—long enough, he prayed, to avoid being outflanked by the Lowland general.

Sibbald and Rollo manned the left and right flanks, and James and MacColla held the center. They had but three horsemen, a knot of axe-wielding Highlanders, many men bearing sword and large, and some with no weapons at all. James had gleaned a few lucky score of muskets, and it was these that he would use in the first assault, shot from the center of the line.

He'd momentarily silenced the piper. The air was charged, amplified only by the rasping of breath and hissing of steel poised in scabbard.

"Gentlemen!" James shouted. "It is true you have few weapons while your enemy has many." He locked eyes with as many men as he could, and thought in that moment that his heart would break for love of them. They stood brave and eager for battle, seeing their lack of arms not as an obstacle, but a challenge.

"But many stones lie upon this moor, and I say: Take as stout a one as you can manage." The men began to buzz, and James raised his fist in the air. "Run to the first

Covenanter you meet." They cheered him, and his voice grew louder. "And strike him, and take his sword." James yelled above the din. "And then, gentlemen, I believe you will be at no loss how to proceed!"

Whooping and battle cries thundered down the line. "Silence!" he yelled.

The enemy Covenanters had begun their advance, and the hollow echo of approaching soldiers pressed toward them like a wall of sound.

"Prime!" James ordered. The sound of clicking metal was shrill in his ears as hundreds of men pulled back on the cocks of their muskets and methodically primed their weapons. They pressed hammers forward, opened priming pans, tipped powder flasks, poured, returned hammers.

The acrid smell of gunpowder subsumed everything, drowning the stench of unwashed men.

"About!" James called, and was roused by the sight of so many men moving in unison. Swinging their muskets butt first to the ground, pouring a measure more of gunpowder into the barrels, plucking lead balls from between their teeth to drop onto the powder.

"Draw ramrods!" There was a great screeching as his men withdrew their rods from channels beneath mus ket barrels, and plunged them down to seat bullets firmly against powder.

"Aim!" The snap of metal reverberated down the line, one single, tremendous sound, as James's men pulled their muskets to full cock.

"Fire!" he shouted, and flinched at the deafening boom. Black and gray smoke filled the air, and James whooped at the unexpected rush of exhilaration and the sensation that he was raw and alive to everything around him.

Lord Elcho, the enemy general, had taken a standard approach to the battle, and hoping to draw James's men from their ranks, was sending a cavalry unit as his first advance.

But the band of Highlanders and Irishmen had cut their teeth far from those military colleges favored by rich, young lords. They didn't know that proper infantry like themselves were supposed to fear men on horseback. Rather, James and his men merely fired their single round and then, with looks that ranged from unimpressed, to impatient, to disgusted, threw down their muskets and charged the horses head-on.

The valley was choked with smoke, and at first the Covenanters only heard James's men. Many hesitated at the blood-chilling chorus of shrieks and cheers and howls, as if they were to stand witness to some epic Gael force risen from the dead.

James roared his own battle cry and ran beside his men as they exploded through the dense cloud of gun smoke, leaping and whooping, mad with delight and fury, and hundreds of their enemy soldiers turned their horses and fled from the sight.

Unfettered by horse or musket, James felt the rage of battle course through him with a newfound intensity and clarity. He dashed and leapt, cutting a path along the uneven terrain, and as his feet pounded directly along the Scottish soil, more than ever before he felt as one with his country. Just as his feet were linked to the beloved ground, so too did the sword in his hand seem to extend effortlessly from him as if a part of his own body. He and his sword arced and sang through the air, cutting down any foolish enough to stand in their way.

His enemies fled. Lord Elcho frantically tried to regroup, but the horsemen who'd fallen back collided with the Covenanter foot soldiers who'd remained on the field, and the results were catastrophic. With James and MacColla carving a path through the Covenanters from the middle, and Rollo and Sibbald holding their flanks, they routed the enemy.

James found MacColla in the center of the valley, standing and laughing at the outrageous vision of Highlanders throwing stones at their retreating enemy.

"'Twas a braw day, Graham." MacColla clapped him hard on the shoulder.

"Indeed." James nodded, sharing his good humor. "Though I'd wager you could walk from here to the gates of Perth without touching your foot to the ground." Bodies of Covenanter soldiers littered the field. James scanned his troops and shook his head in disbelief. "What of our casualties?"

"I know of but one man lost," Rollo said, riding up from behind. "One man for one thousand Covenanters."

"Extraordinary," James murmured as he took in the devastation around him.

"I'll get you a full accounting by day's end."

"Aye, do that. And where has Sibbald got to?"

"He took himself one of those Covenanter ponies," MacColla said. He looked around the field as if struck by possibility of procuring his own spoils. "It looked to me like the old man rode east."

"To Perth?" James pulled off his bonnet and shook the sweat from his head.

MacColla merely shrugged.

"Rollo," James said, "We need to arrange a quick surrender with Perth. I'd not have it suffer the same plu ndering as Aberdeen."

"I understand." If they were to avoid the plundering that could happen after battle, they needed to broker the town's surrender as soon as possible. Rollo turned his mount and was off at once, his horse picking a tentative path through the carnage.

"Aye, and the Irish were shocked that our James is no blustering bonnet-laird!" MacColla leaned over and clapped James hard on the shoulder for what must have been the twentieth time that evening. The man was built like an ox, and James thought sure he'd have a bruise by night's end. Young Alexander Robertson and his family hosted a celebratory dinner for them, seating James in an honored place at one end of the table, with Magda and MacColla sitting to either side. He was becoming quite fond of MacColla and his bluster, though the man did have a startlingly vicious streak in battle that James thought he'd best keep an eye on.