They dined in Blair Castle, and James found the Great Hall a warm welcome indeed. The room was simple but gracious, with high ceilings and a fire roaring in the hearth. Sconces and candelabra chased the gloom from the hall and filled it with a warm golden light.
"Why, James can't be called a bonnet-laird what with all the Graham landholdings." Alexander placed his cutlery down, contemplating the issue in earnest. Though already named chief of his clan, he was a young fourteen and his title was more honorific than realistic as yet.
"No. lad," Rollo said. "I think the MacColla's meaning has more to do with James's battle courage and acumen."
Rollo's usually hard -edged voice was kind, and belied the great pain he must have been enduring. James knew at what cost his friend sat a saddle for the day, and a number of times he'd caught Rollo pounding the feeling back into his rigid, bent legs.
"Aye, but I curse the Campbell." MacColla slammed his fist on the table. "The rogue was too much of a coward to face us himself."
"I've a feeling he'll not let this day stand." James poured himself another glass of Bordeaux. "Bide your time, friend. You'll get your chance at revenge against the Campbell." The glee that had suffused James was subsiding, and he grew thoughtful. They'd only lost one man to the Covenanters' thousand. It was the first time he'd seen a
Highland charge in action and he was awed. And sobered. "Over a thousand dead," Alexander marveled, as if reading James's mind. "Never before have so many fled from so few."
"Wise words from a young mouth, lad." James raised his glass in a toast. "You'll make a fine chief."
As the dinner guests began to disperse, James once again addressed his young host. "I've a gift for you, Alexander." James walked to the corner of the hall and retrieved his musket from the shadows. "I owe you a great debt for the hospitality you've shown us. I find this is no longer of any use to me," he said, and holding the barrel pointed toward himself, James handed him the gun.
The boy merely looked at him, incredulous.
"Aye." James smiled. "My bullets are spent, lad. I've my broadsword, and that will more than suffice."
Alexander took the musket gingerly into his hands. The butt of the rifle was made of wood the color of cocoa that James had polished to a fine patina, and it was short compared to the barrel, which swept forward in a thin, elegant line. Other men in his acquaintance coveted firearms with elaborate carvings or even ivory inlay, but James prized simplicity in a weapon, and his plain iron matchlock was polished to a bright silver sheen.
"Use it well, lad." James smiled. Alexander beamed in reply, moved by the gift. "I'm taking our fight deeper into the Highlands," James said. "It's the weapon of a Highlander I'll use now."
James leaned down and traced his fingers through the water. "Touch it," he told her.
"I'd rather not."
Magda had been out of her mind with fear during his battle, and she was left uncharacteristically prickly the next day. It had all been so loud—louder than she could've ever imagined—with those godforsaken bagpipes keening all the while, making her think she'd tear her hair out. Not knowing, amidst the distant shots and screams, if James lived or died. And the only thing she'd been able to see on the horizon was a thick cloud of gray smoke hanging like an evil portent over the battlefield.
She'd been unable to relax, or even speak, through dinner, alternating between utter euphoria over James's safe return and bitter resentment over her decision to commit herself to this life of dangerous uncertainty.
He had been eager to lie with her that night, but Magda couldn't shake clear the anxiety, confusion, and fear that fogged her. So, he had woken her early the following morning, and with a wicked glint in his eye, had spirited her away for a long ride in the countryside. When they'd reached their destination, the sight of Loch Tay glimmering before her hadn't done much to soothe her nerves, and she wondered what James had been thinking to bring her to a lake, of all things.
James put an arm around her shoulder and gently pulled her down to squat at the water's edge. "Touch it, " he whispered.
"Och, hen, for me, aye?"
She turned to him. this otherwise strong, handsome warrior, looking at her with the eager intensity of a child, kneeling beside her as if Magda were all that mattered in the world. Not battle, not politics, j ust her good opinion.
She reached down, and her breath hissed in with the shock of it. "It's warm!" Magda couldn't help but laugh, astonished.
"Aye," he smiled broadly in return, the sun picking out highlights in his hair, soft and loose in the morning's gentle breeze. "The wind blows in from the south and traps the warm water at the top. And since this wee bay is shallow for a ways out"—he shielded his eyes with his hand and looked into the distance—"you've warm water for swimming in the summer months."
He stood and stripped. James had long traded his armor and trews for a tartan in muted green and blue. He wore a Highlander's bonnet now, in which he'd pinned a sprig of oats twined with the swatch of blue he'd torn from her skirt what felt like so long ago. Magda stared at the sight of him. Though she hadn't wasted time memorizing his naked body, they had always lain together in some sort of shelter, lit by nothing brighter than a candle or what renegade sunlight graced them. But now the afternoon sun mottle d his body with light and shadow, etching sharp contours around the ridges of his muscles.
He strode to the water's edge and dove in. For a single heartbeat, Magda knew panic skittering up her spine. Then James sprang above the surface, swinging the curtain of wet hair from his eyes, joy writ clear on his face.
"Come in, hen."
"I…" She raked her fingers through her hair in distress. "You know I can't, James."
"But you can, Magda." He waded closer to shore. "I know what this means to you. But I know you've the strength to do it, and I think it important that you know it too."
He emerged from the water, and she was mesmerized by the drops of water on his skin, reflecting the sun like so many tiny crystals.
"So, my love," he said, undressing her gently but surely, "you can." He ushered her to the water's edge, and not dropping her gaze, made sure of her assent. "And you will." Magda tentatively stepped in, trying to force all thoughts from her mind but for the sensation of the lake's surface bobbing along the length of her calves.
James swooped her into his arms, and she shrieked a startled laugh. "A bonny sight you are, wearing naught but the breeze." He walked in up to his thighs and jostled her and made to drop her, with Magda laughing and kicking, stretching to the water to try to splash him.
"You've no hope, lass. I've got you. I'm a kelpie, aye? Or have I not told you?"
"Oh, you've not heard the story of the kelpie?"
She shook her head, eyeing him suspiciously.
"Well, they say kelpies make their home at the bottom of lochs and rivers." He walked in deeper and Magda felt the water kiss her hips and ankles. "But they're canny creatures who can change shape at will. And a kelpie in want of a wife? Och, lass, beware. He'll go to ground, roaming the land in the shape of a magnificent horse, to capture himself…" James paused dramatically. "A comely lass like yourself perhaps?" Magda giggled as he dipped her backward to steal a kiss at her throat. "To bring as his bonny bride to the kelpie's watery home."
James looked around him as if on guard, and finished in a whisper, "And some say that's why the loch is so warm. Not from sun, nor from the shallows, but from the mason he'd brought home one day, captured to build a chimney for the kelpie's young wife who pined for her life on land, but was instead doomed to live forever, cold at the bottom of the loch."
Magda listened, relaxed, and before she knew it James had eased her in, the water lapping and clinging just above and between her breasts.
When she'd swam across Lake Menteith, Magda had been fleeing for her life. She'd known only the burning of her lungs as she fought to stay as long as possible underwater. Experienced only terror when she'd instinctively opened her eyes in the water to see blackness all around, imagining the lake a thing of evil capable of taking her as it had her brother. She'd pulled her arms and thrashed her legs, kicking and lurching beneath the surface, her efforts seemingly in vain in the lake's vast darkness.
When she'd fled Campbell that day, she hadn't felt the water cradle her softly as it did now. Much older memories came to her at once, like some primal knowing, as she embraced again the sensuous feeling of floating weightless, naked, every part of her caressed by the water.
James held her from behind. His arm snaked slowly around her chest to take her breast in his hand, to chafe her hard nipple between his knuckles. He kissed and bit slowly, his tongue warm on the chilled, exposed column of her neck, the damp of his mouth mingling with the beads of water that clung to her.
James pressed hard against her back, and then slipped between her legs, skin dragging on skin, until he slid into her, the sudden slickness pulling him deep.
The water swayed with them, following the slow rock of their bodies, and thick waves slapped gently against their shoulders.
Though the water was shallow, James was the only one who could touch the bottom, and Magda floated weightless, her toes ever-so-slightly brushing the velvety soft mud of the lake botto m. She wondered at discovering this joy, at how rich a gift to delight once again in water, and for a moment she felt the hot ache of unshed tears.
Magda experienced the familiar coiling in her belly, but it was somehow different this time. This time she found comfort as much as pleasure, and as she tensed and released, her body rippled around James just as the waves undulated and whorled outward across the water.