The seasons didn't change with a bluster. Rather, winter crept over the Highlands, displacing autumn, slowly bleeding sun and color from the land around them.
James and his men had spent September intoxicated with their triumphs. They'd marched from the decisive battle at Tippermuir back to Aberdeen, securing another significant—not to mention emotionally charged—victory. They'd been joined by the Earl of Airlie's second son, Thomas, who'd wanted to avenge the burning of his family's home at the hands of the Campbell. Despite reinforcements, the Royalists remained a scant force: merely fifteen hundred men and fifty horses compared to Campbell's massive cavalry.
Numbers hadn't mattered to James, though, when a Covenanter soldier shot down a Royalist drummer boy before they'd even reached the field. Infuriated, he'd used the Covenanter overconfidence against them, splitting horse from infantry, to win the battle tidily.
But this time, James chose to make an example of Aberdeen at battle's end. Though he'd ordered no bloodshed, he allowed his soldiers to pillage the town, raiding cattle and stealing stores of corn and oats.
From there, MacColla, Rollo, and Sibbald had left to find new recruits while James restocked, melting candlesticks, thimbles, even metal bands from wine casks, in order to make as many bullets as possible. Bullets that he'd turned around and shot at Campbell's primary seat at Inveraray
Castle, in a brief interlude on their way to Tor Castle.
By the time they reached Lochaber and Cameron country, the December air had the bite of winter and snow dusted the mountains on the horizon. Despite his threats of subsisting solely on dried oats, James had taken good care of Magda on the road, and they'd lived well off the land, supplementing their meager stores with fresh game and berries. He'd also introduced her to more exotic fare, like arctic bramble and sorrel that, though sour, tasted delicious mixed with what eggs they could occasionally scare up.
Sitting by the blazing hearth, Magda was nonetheless pleased to be back under a warm roof, thrilled to rest for awhile at the Cameron's Tor Castle, and embracing oatmeal porridge with renewed zeal.
"I'll leave after Hogmanay," James said, and Magda at once pushed his words from her mind. Life on the road had been hard, and it finally became clear that they'd both be safest if she took shelter with the Camerons. But until the day came when they had to part, she was determined to enjoy the peaceful respite.
"That will give us time to regroup," James continued. "Gather what supplies we can carry. I need to scour the countryside for clothes enough to outfit my men for snow." He and the young Cameron laird Ewen sat near her by the fire. They'd all but ignored Magda, engrossed as they were in talk of battle, and she had been more than content simply staring at the flames, savoring the feel of a chair, rather than a horse, beneath her.
They would have Christmas together, and New Year's. But Covenanter forces were gathering, and James predicted that soon both the weather and the battles would become dangerously bitter.
"Your woman is a welcome guest in my home."
"And I thank you for that, Lochiel," James told Ewen, using the laird's term of address. "I know not how long we'll be away. We'll be constantly on the move now."
"In return, my desire is to join you in your fight with the Campbell."
"I'd pinned my faith on your support," James replied. "But it's not just the Campbell I battle. I go to fight for Scotland." He leaned forward, intent. "For peace, and for the freedom of her oppressed and enthralled subjects."
"Aye," Ewen growled at James's ornate words. "But will there be a battle?"
"But of course, Cameron." James laughed, nodding at the young man's passion.
At the sound of the laird's intensity, Magda turned to look at him. Though she estimated Ewen was still in his late teens, he was large, with strong hands that she imagined he'd grow into nicely someday soon. He raked a hand through the black hair hanging loose to his shoulders, and Magda thought he'd likely develop into a very attractive man.
Searching for a resemblance, Magda looked over to Ewen's uncle, who sat by the light of the window playing chess with a blond, bookish young man whom they'd referred to as the laird's foster brother. Neither bore a likeness to
She had, however, noted a similar swagger when comparing Ewen and his grandfather. It seemed the lairdship was in transition to the younger man, and she'd gathered that his grandfather, though a vigorous old man, had been feeling his years of late, and at the moment had retired for an afternoon rest.
"I've many men who'd go happily to the fight," Ewen said.
"Some number of swords, and pikemen plenty."
"Campbell marches east, eager to take vengeance for the damage done to his holdings at Inveraray." A smile flickered across James's face, remembering, and then he was somber once again. "I have word that a massive Covenanter force has gathered at Inverness. We've chosen mobility over firepower, and that is what will enable us to intercept Campbell before he reaches the rest of his forces." Magda shivered at his words. She had tried not to listen, but couldn't avoid it. She tried, to deny it, to force the topic from her mind, but it was impossible to silence the fear, a constant drumbeat hammering in her core.
Though Christmas in the Highlands was a much more somber occasion than what she was used to, Magda had been moved by the simplicity of the Cameron family's celebration and was feeling contemplative when they gathered round the hearth after supper.
She was feeling pleasantly muzzy and full from a large supper and many cups of wassail, a mulled ale drink that filled the great room with the sharp scent of apples and spices. She'd stuffed herself on mincemeat pies and oat bread, followed by a hearty slice from the black bun, a dessert rich with fruit, nuts, and a healthy dose of whisky. She'd been skeptical, wondering just what it was about holidays and fruitcakes, but the black bun was delicious, despite its ominously dark appearance.
As in many Highland homes that night, candles had been lit in every window to mark the way for travelers, and tall shadows danced along the rough-hewn stone of the castle walls.
"I imagine fine courtiers like yourself don't bother with such nonsense as the Cailleach log."
Magda scowled. It was that girl Mairi, trying once again to ingratiate herself to James. She was lovely and petite, with a curtain of dark hair hanging smooth down her back, and Magda thought she'd throttle her if she caught the girl flirting with James one more time. She'd been told Mairi was Ewen's intended, though she didn't see any signs to support that. The laird, though gracious to all, seemed to have a mind only for the upcoming battle.
"Quite the contrary," James said, his tone icily polite in a way that both surprised and reassured Magda. He was urbane and politic when he needed to be, and she imagined James would be as magnificent a sight working the court in Edinburgh as he was in the woods with broadsword and tartan.
"Graham family holdings may not be of the Highlands, but neither are they Lowland. Rather, they lie just between, a wedge that runs from the Montrose seaport, to Stirling, to the Ochill Hills. A courtier I may be, but I am a Scotsman through and through. Edinburgh may be Scotland's spine, but the Highlands are her soul, and it's those traditions I value above all."
Ewen gave a quick nod in assent, and turned to Magda. "Do you ken the Cailleach log, lass?" His deep voice was kind, and she thought how Mairi didn't seem to deserve him, no matter how gorgeous she was.
"I… no…" Magda hedged, and the studious- seeming teen she'd heard referred to as Robert chimed in.
"It's a Highland tradition, dating possibly from pagan times. A face is carved into the Cailleach and then burned."
He used his finger to outline the crude features of an old woman etched in the wood. "It is the burning of the Spirit of Winter. As the Cailleach log burns to ash, so too does the bad luck and enmity of the past year."
Magda wondered at this strange boy. He seemed as different as night and day from the laird, and yet they couldn't have been separated by more than a few years. James surreptitiously took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers, and his smile warmed her more than any hearth fire could.
"Aye," Ewen chimed in, "they claim she lives at the top of Ben Nevis itself. So old is th e Callleach, her plaid is faded to white. And at the start of each winter she scrubs this great plaid of hers, and so too is Scotland washed white for the season."
"You best not have burnt the log without me."
Everyone had been listening in rapt silence, and Magda gave a start at the sound of the old man's voice booming through the room.
Ewen's grandfather walked in, gait and grimace betraying the stiffness of his limbs. Ewen rose from his seat by the fire to offer it to his elder. "We'd not dare," he said, and took the log from Robert to place on the fire. While most watched the flames lick and snap at the dry wood, Magda caught a furtive look shared between Mairi and Ewen's grandfather that turned her stomach. Main's chin tucked low, her mouth a teasing pout and the devil in her eyes. The old man's tongue flicked out to wet the thin skin of his wrinkled lips. Surely, Magda thought, she didn't just see what she thought she saw.
James's whisper in her ear interrupted her thoughts. "The little chit thinks to butter her bread on both sides, I see." Amused, Magda bit her cheek to school her face into an impassive mask, all the while thinking that if she could kiss James full on the mouth without causing a scandal she would.
"But why aren't you… merrier?" Magda asked James as they lay in bed. He looked at her quizzically, so she elaborated. "Well, it's a happy holiday after all, right? I mean, in modern times, we say 'Merry Christmas' to celebrate, and we exchange presents."
"The good cheer begins come Hogmanay," James said. "The days before New Year's, aye?" he added, seeing her confusion. "You think you've a full belly now. You'll have black buns and sun cakes and mincemeats a plenty come New Year's. I imagine you'll see Ewen's clansmen become quite boisterous, the lot of them.