"And"—he grabbed Magda and pinned her beneath him—"as for presents, who's to say you don't have a gift, hen?"
"A… really?" Her expression quickly crumpled, and she said, "But I have nothing for you, James."
"Are you in my bed?"
"Have you a stitch of clothing on you?"
Smiling, she shook her head slowly.
"Then you've given me my gift. And, before you fash yourself"—James put his hand to her mouth to stop her interruption—"'tis nothing I bought, aye? I've not exactly had the opportunity to take in the shops of the Royal Mile, eh?"
"Not exactly, no."
"So then." He leaned over to scoop his sporran from off the floor at their bedside. He pulled out a small sheet of paper folded in a neat square.
He raised his brows in answer, indicating that she should see for herself.
It was a poem, a handful of stanzas long, written in an elaborate, sloping script. It took her a moment to get the hang of the old -fashioned handwriting but, by the end, she was reading fluidly, gripping James's hand in hers.
"I'd leave you with a token." He gently guided her chin until his eyes met hers. "I need you to know, Magda. To know how I love you. But to know too how I'm driven to what I'm about to do."
"But…" Tears flowed hot down her cheeks, remembering the words she'd heard what felt like a lifetime ago. Captured and hanged.
"Hush." He stroked her brow, thumbing the tears from her face. "You and my country may both be twined in my heart, but it's your love that girds me in my fight. And I will return to you."
Magda slept fitfully that night, knowing that she'd wake and be one day closer to their parting. His last stanza had run her through, filling her with love and fear in equal parts.
I'll make thee glorious by my pen
And famous by my sword:
I'll serve thee in such noble ways
As never heard before;
I'll crown and deck thee all with bays,
And love thee evermore.
The wooden bed frame scudded across the floor as Campbell heaved his body over the wench. She'd gasped at the weight of him,—he was a stately man—but she'd deserved to feel his might, the little harlot.
Just as the Marquis of Montrose would feel his might. He'd had a run of luck with his mad band of Highlanders and Irishmen, but now five hundred Covenanters camped at Inverness, blocking the road north like a cork stopping a bottle. Graham's Royalists were last seen in Lochaber, and there they would die.
Campbell would march, trapping the Royalists between his two Covenanter forces. Graham would be hemmed in like an animal, with the mountains blocking him from behind, their snow-covered peaks robbing him of any hope of escape.
Craning his head to take a bite of the wench's neck, he plowed harder. He would crush Graham against his larger force as a ram battered a gate. Like that gate, Graham's Royalists would splinter into thousand pieces.
The woman whimpered beneath him, and Campbell heaved up to glare at her. Her pitifully small breasts bobbed like peaches as he thrust into her. And she didn't even have the courage to meet his gaze. He had a lesson to teach, though. Since Graham and his men had dogged him like a plague of bloody midges, he'd had to reassert his authority at Inverarary. He'd caught this trollop with a smirk on her face, but his biting mouth had quickly wiped it away. One more go-round and she'd think twice before smirking at his back ever again. He doubted his body could peak again so soon, but strumpets like this one didn't know the difference.
He would show her, and he would show them all. This time he wouldn' t send some trembling lordling into battle, nor would he send General Leslie. Campbell made it his particular purpose to crush those unwilling to bow to him. He'd start with this wench, but he'd end it with James Graham.
She recognized it immediately. Magda's heart thudded in her chest as she wriggled her way behind an oversized armchair to get a closer look at the painting. It had been a part of Walter's anonymous bequeathal. They'd labeled it merely "Nature Painting," a minor, almost crude, work by an unknown artist. Though it hadn't been one of the works she'd restored, there was no way she could've missed it. It wasn't every day you came across a seventeenth -century painting, over five feet long, featuring three dogs attacking a bear.
She'd been trying to lay low in the Cameron household, taking breakfast in her room, retiring early at night, and had avoided the other women as best she could. Most of them spent their days in the great room, gossiping and doing needlework, and Magda was terrified they'd grill her at the first opportunity—about James, about where she came from, about what must've seemed like a strange accent and strange ways.
James had deflected such scrutiny as best he could, telling them a story about Magda's religious father, various missionary expeditions, and vague references to family in Ireland. She had to laugh at his ingenuity, spinning the name Deacon as he'd done. Even her father would've been genuinely amused at that one. Skip Deacon was philanthropic, yes. But religious? Not so much.
She felt a pang at the memory of her father. Her parents no longer existed. They were centuries away from being born.
Yet somewhere out there she did have ancestors who were very much alive, growing their families, making their livings. It was an eerie thought. Perhaps they had in fact been religious people. She knew that many surnames originated in such a way, people like millers and masons taking the names of their jobs.
She dampened the memories of her parents and thought again of James. The one for whom she'd abandoned her blood family. The person she longed to see more than any other. The Camerons had been more than hospitable to her, but the polite pleasantries felt empty when the only thing on her mind was James's safety. The smiling nods and wishes good-day all seemed so inane when what echoed over and over in her head like a morbid mantra was Walter's " Captured, imprisoned, and hanged in Edinburgh." Eager for something, anything, to occupy her mind, she'd decided to explore the castle. Her "Nature Painting" was hanging in the library, a room that was its own phenomenon. Dark paneled wood, a fireplace large enough to stand in, and a number of books that would be impressive for a modern collector, to say nothing of an old Highland laird.
The thrill of recognition began to subside as she insisted to her herself that, though stumbling into this painting was mind-blowing and against all odds, it was nonetheless an acceptable circumstance. Just a piece of art, likely with no hocus pocus or time-traveling portal. Still, she kept her hands fisted firmly at her side, not about to touch any more strange artworks.
Though the dark colors and masculine theme were well suited to hang in a library, the painting really was quite rudimentary. The bear's and dogs' lips peeled back to reveal perfect white fangs, and none of the animals seemed to bear weight. They simply floated on the canvas like two-dimensional cutouts.
"What a pleasant surprise, Lady Magdalen."
"Oh!" Magda jumped, slamming her hip into the side of the chair just behind her. "Ow!"
"Oh dear," Robert said. The boy looked genuinely stricken. He was one of the very few people she'd encountered in the castle who didn't bustle around like he owned the place. "My apologies."
"Please don't worry." She sidled out from behind the chair. "You startled me. And, please, just Magda is fine."
"Lady Magdalen" made her feel like some sort of religious figure.
"Thank you then, Magda." He smiled, and she thought how… pretty … his features were. Lithe limbs, shining yellow blond curls, and impeccable grooming set him apart from the average seventeenth -century man in her acquaintance. Granted, many of those men had been soldiers on the move, so she had to allow them some leeway.
"Pray tell, what is your peculiar accent?" His head canted to the side, questioning, and Magda's stomach knotted. "My… accent?" James hadn't explicitly forbidden Magda from disclosing her true origins, nor did she have any reason to doubt the Camerons, who'd seemed nothing but loyal and trustworthy where he was concerned. Although the story James had woven about her family seemed to explain away things like her accent and bearing, Magda still felt as if she stood out like some greatly displaced and alien creature. James was the only one she truly felt she could trust. She feared that the others—though they had seemed kind—might just put her to that burning stake James had so cavalierly mentioned when she'd first arrived.
"Aye, I can't place it."
Robert leaned, in and she instinctively stepped back, bumping once again into the chair. If she didn't know better, she'd think he was about to sniff her, like she was some hitherto undiscovered species of plant. His eyes swept over her and lingered overlong on her teeth. Pursing her lips shut, she ducked around him to the middle of the room, making as if to study the books.
The corners of his lips curving up slightly, Robert added, "I suppose it must be from all that travel."
"Yes," Magda said, cursing the blush she felt infuse her cheeks. "I suppose it must be."
He was quiet for a moment. "That is some painting, aye?" Having abandoned his original question, Robert walked over to rest his elbow on the chair. "Do you know much about art?"
"Yes. I mean, no." She struggled with her reply, thinking that a missionary's daughter probably wouldn't have much experience with art. "I mean, I just know what I like."
"And you like this one?"
She simply nodded, wary of where this was going.
"Did you know bears are actually related to the dog family? Family Ursidae."
"Um, no actually, I didn't know that." They stood silently, studying it. "Really?" she asked suddenly, incredulous. "Aye, really." Leaning in closer, he tilted his chin as if to look down along his nose, and Magda wondered if he was nearsighted.