"It 's always struck me as a rather simple piece," he said. "Do you see that dog's tail? It's longer than the piteous bear's arm."
A clipped laugh escaped her. She nodded, warming to this peculiar young man and his awkward candor. "Or that thing." She pointed to a dark brown form snaking along the ground behind the bear. "Is that supposed to be a bear tail?"
"Or something else entirely?" he asked, awe in his voice. Magda had to clap her hand over her mouth to silence a very unladylike bark of laughter.
"I imagine your father has done quite a lot of missionary work in the British colonies, in the Americas?"
Magda was thrown off by the abrupt, and dangerous, return to the original topic.
"Yes, some." Panic flushed her anew, and she wondered frantically at a possible escape strategy.
Just as she was about to stride purposefully over to pull a book from the shelves, he asked, "The southern colonies or northeastern?" Robert spoke slowly, as if her answer would hold great import.
She hesitated, then said, "northeastern mostly."
"Aye." A strange smile bloomed on his face, and he appraised her with eyes that seemed to hold a secret. "I'd guessed the northeastern colonies."
"They've got him," Donald said. The old man stood, hand on the hilt of his sword as if poised at that very moment for vengeance. Streaks of muddied ice soiled his trews, and a thick layer of frost weighed down his bonnet, making the wool hang heavily on his head. "They've got the Lochiel." James had sent the Cameron laird and his uncle ahead to scout Campbell's exact position, while he'd continued to march his Royalists through the snow-choked Grampian range toward their point of attack. Last they'd heard, Campbell had been on the move, bringing additional forces from the west, thinking to trap James between Campbell's Covenanters and the five thousand more that awaited him in Inverness.
But Campbell hadn't wagered on Highland ferocity. Rather than be cowed by the icy conditions around them, James and his men had been invigorated. Jagged mountains stretched vast and desolate around them. White snow dusted the high passes and seemed to melt directly into the white clouds that dotted the clear blue sky overhead.
James led his men into the foothills, and it was as if they were a single magnificent, wild force sweeping up effortlessly to elude some cruder and more banal predator below. Then they climbed higher still, along the snowy passes, cutting and kicking steps into the mountain for their ascent.
"The Campbell has come to rest, and the bastard cools his heels close to Cameron lands. The Lochiel, och"—Donald pulled the bonnet from his head and scrubbed his face with his hand—"Campbell's reinforcements camp at Inverlochy, and I'd wager there are no less than three thousand of them."
Colonel Sibbald had approached and heard the last of Donald's report. "Close to Tor Castle?" he asked, rubbing his hip where he'd been wounded near two decades past. The lead shot was never removed, and James knew it troubled the old colonel when the weather was cold. The man seemed to be having a particularly tough time of it now, and James had smelled whisky on his breath more often than usual. He didn't want to say anything to him—Sibbald had been leading military campaigns when James was still in knee breeches—but his misgivings grew as battle neared, and he thought the man's life to be more valuable than his dignity.
"Aye," Donald replied, "they edge onto Clan Cameron's very lap, and it didn't please young Ewen overmuch."
"I imagine not," James said. He forced th oughts of Magda from his mind. She stayed at Tor with the Camerons, but he couldn't think of that now. Anxiety over her safety would do him no good. Retaining his focus would be the best and only way to protect her.
Shaking his head, Ewen's uncle slapped his bonnet against his thigh, releasing a small cascade of snow and ice. "The lad got it into his head to cut a few Campbell throats on our way out, and I think he got himself a few too." Pride flickered in Donald's eyes. "And then I spied it, a wee tussle ending with Lochiel pulled from one of the larger tents, the lad struggling like a roped bull, a pistol at his head and two Covenanter swine at his side." Donald smiled. "If I know my nephew, I'd say he went for the throat of the Campbell himself. Though that cur would've had guards posted." James held Donald's gaze. "I'll not abandon Ewen." He looked away to the ragged peaks of frozen rock stretching far into the distance. "Inverlochy, eh?" And a shiver ran through him, followed quickly by a buzz of excite ment, the lust for battle deep, and startling.
"We'll turn at once, of course. Double back on our position. Head over the Devil's Staircase, across the high passes to the north side of Ben Nevis, then we're on down to Inverlochy."
Donald barked a startled laugh, then stared in silence as he realized that James was serious. "But lad, we've just passed Glencoe. Inverlochy is ten leagues from here. It will take days for so many men to travel so far."
"So, we'll just have to make haste, aye?" James announced. He would hurtle his fifteen hundred men like an avalanche down the mountain to crush Campbell from the rear.
He quickly rallied the men as word carried down the line of their new destination. The Highlanders took the change of plans in stride. They merely regrouped and took a final meal before the last push, using the opportunity to share in the few brace of black grouse and snow hare that some MacDonald clansmen had hunted, as if they hadn't been truly hungry before the suggestion of it. They'd looked on in amazement, though, watching their marquis pounding dried oats into the snow to scoop them up on his sgian dubh for one last meal of frozen porridge.
The Royalists jogged through the day and night. All rational thought had long been expunged from James's mind, leaving in its wake only the instinctive bobbing and leaping over the uneven terrain, and the rhythmic pumping of his legs, keeping time with the steady in and out of air in his lungs. Elusive wisps of white smoke danced in the bitter air, the breath of over a thousand men racing across the mountains.
A MacDonald clansmen guided them. When MacColla had first broached it with James, telling of an unlikely man who knew the lay of the mountains like no other, he had been surprised and amused. What better army than his own, after all, to be led to battle by a poet? Iain Lorn MacDonald was a bard of the MacDonalds of Keppoch, and his artistic nature had apparently led him to many a day spent in those very mountains, contemplating the jagged sweep of the land and the vast bowl of the Highland sky.
James sensed a slight alteration to his internal rhythm, and his mind coming back to him, he realized that the men ahead paused slightly before canting to the right and resuming their pace.
As he approached he saw Iain lying in the snow, the man's face turned to the dawn sky as if to will the sun's wan light down to warm him.
"Iain, man." James dropped beside him, the trampled snow crunching beneath his knees. "Are you hurt?" He patted at the man's ankles and feet. "Cold then, is it?" James blew heat on his hands, then cracked away some of the ice that had frozen his thick beard. "Och, and to think they call you 'Bald Iain.' You with hair enough for a shearing."
Slowly the russet of his beard showed through, and James paused, renegade thoughts of Magda pushing to the front of his mind. Inexplicably, he thought of her dead brother, wondering if he'd had the same red hair as this man before him. And he wondered too if this stranger, who'd forfeited his life to rally under James, was someone's brother. Or husband.
"Leave me b-b-be," Iain whispered. He was already covered with a fine dusting of snow, and his lean body chattered, exaggerating the stutter he was known for. He gestured north before dropping his head back to the ground. "I c-can go no f-further. You've but to f-follow the northern slopes. The Camerons will see the way. Climb the peak at
Meall-an-t'Suidhe. There y-you'll perch like a gold eagle high above Inverlochy to stalk your prey."
"You'll not get poetic with me, lad." James took the man's hands and chafed them between his. "Now up with you. Before the blood freezes in your veins."
"We've still s-some distance to go." Iain said. "Just let me be."
"I'll not." James opened his coat and pulled out a small leather flask that had been kept warm at his side beneath layers of clothing. "We need our bard among us. Who else to sing our praises after the battle, aye?"
Iain's eyes opened wide, his face frozen in shock. James looked at the container he held, its oblong shape much resembling a powder flask, and he laughed. "Don't worry lad, I'm not going to shoot you. 'Tis whisky I administer, not gunpowder."
He unscrewed the brass stopper and tipped it to Iain's mouth. "Though distillers are known to mix their whisky with gunpowder and set it alight. If the potion explodes they know they've made their drink too strong."
Iain turned his head to the side, sputtering a cough.
"Aye, that's the way," James said. " Uisge, the water of life, to warm a man through." He took a sip and shut his eyes to savor it. "Amber liquid, like a drink from the rising sun." He tucked the flask back under his vests, quickly rebuttoning his overcoat. "And you'd thought yourself the only poet among us." He pulled Iain up to sitting.
"You'll need something to absorb the drink, or it'll go straight to your blood." James rifled through his sporran and retrieved a small square containing the last of his dried oats. "I want to warm you, not get you in your cups."
"B -but what of you?"
"I've had my fill. Take it," he said, wrapping Iain's hand around the cloth packet. "I've choked down my last drammock for a time. Any more oats and I'll grow a tail like a horse."
Iain hesitated, but James insisted. "No, we'll sup well tomorrow. The Camerons will feed us all," J ames laughed, "whether the Lochiel likes it or no."