"But I heard the Cameron laird was captured."
"A momentary obstacle." He grabbed Iain's free hand and hauled him to his feet. "Now off with us, lad. You're the one who'll guide us to our triumph."
Iain seem as buoyed by the newfound hope as by the shared sustenance. James broke into a slow jog, looking behind him to make sure the bard kept up. "Make haste, lad. With the MacColla cutting our trail, I fear we'll all end up in Ireland."
They finally arrived after dark on the night of February first. His men were mostly quiet now, ordered to rest a few hours until their dawn attack.
James had made his decision. He would go ahead of the others. To strike Campbell's camp before rescuing Ewen would be signing the young laird's death warrant. James himself would go alone, before dawn, and retrieve the Cameron.
He kicked at the ice, studying the dead stumps rotted beneath. It appeared that a small stand of pines had once braved the high altitude, their gnarled roots still clinging tenaciously to the hostile mountainside. James looked around, studying his position. Although the Highlanders claimed to enjoy using the snow as a pillow, James didn't look askance at warming himself by a small fire. Despite the freezing weather, the run had soaked his shirt through with sweat, and he felt the chill creeping into his muscles. They were high enough above Inverlochy that the smoke wouldn't betray their locations, and he'd do himself the small service of at least melting the ice that had hardened the wool of his trews into a frozen crust.
Will Rollo hadn't been physically able to march into the mountains, and James was in mind of him now. His friend's severity always had the ironic effect of putting James into good spirits. But Rollo had been a mix of sadness, regret, envy, and anger at not going into battle with men who'd become like his brothers. Rollo had felt the loss of that fellowship keenly, and he had James's sympathy because of it.
MacColla, with his boisterous brand of courage and hearty goodwill, had been great solace to him, though. After weeks on the road, MacColla's black beard had grown full, and with his height and broad shoulders, he seemed like some great, burly bear marching through the snow. It was MacColla who'd lead the charge that day, Irishmen, Camerons, MacDonalds, Stewarts, MacLeans, and more at his back. James hoped to join them all, Ewen Cameron at his side, by the time the battle was underway.
James kicked at the ice again and saw the fuel he needed. He had fashioned a hearth easily enough by loosely arranging stones atop the snow, and collected dead branches enough for kindling. Giving the fire its heart, however, was a problem. Pulling his sgian dubh from the cuff of his boot, James scraped into the hardened stump and the smell of pine sap filled his senses; the frozen gold shone dully in the moonlight, thick enough to keep a small fire burning through the night.
He mourned the loss of Magda's wee red fire starter she called a lighter. It had simply died one day, and she'd insisted there was to be no reviving it.
Hands chapped and frozen, he set to work lighting the fire. He'd had to be creative with tinder, but some woolen lint from the waistband of his trews worked nicely. Pulling a small snuffbox from his sporran, he retrieved a piece of char cloth, one of many squares of scorched black silk that had proven miraculously flammable.
He withdrew his flint from his sporran. The stone glimmered blue black as if it were a piece of the night sky made whole, and James took care not to cut his numbed fingers on its sharp edges. A few strikes of his blade and sparks showered onto the char cloth, which set to glowing and lit the tinder at once. Blowing steady encouragement on the tiny flame, James quickly added small scraps of kindling, and then stacked a careful pyramid of wood on top.
He dropped in the slivers of pine sap and a burst of black smoke spewed out. James squatted, warming his hands over a fire set to last for hours.
"That's a bonny wee blaze you have there."
James nodded a greeting and shuffled over, making room for MacColla by the fire.
"You're off for the Cameron then."
"Aye, I'd not leave such a good man to the dogs."
"If he's still alive."
"Aye, if he's still alive." James nodded grimly. "Ewen is a canny one though, and strong. I'm wagering he lives still. The Campbell would think to use him to some end." They sat in silence, letting that last thought hang.
"I'd have you lead the men."
"And who else?" MacColla's white smile glowed eerily, his dark features otherwise imperceptible in the night. "'Tis a chancy thing you do, James. Not many would stroll into the Campbell's lair to retrieve a stripling laird."
"Which is why I'll let none see me," James replied, his cavalier tone belying the danger of his task.
"I'd thank you." Before he could interrupt, MacColla continued, "Never before have I seen so many men banded together. Different men. Men of differing religions. Men of warring clans. We all fight for different things. You fight for the King. My fight is against the Campbell. Others fight for the Highlands. But it's only you, James, a man not born to the Highlands, who has been able to unite all Highlanders." "Not all the Highlanders," James's protest was lighthearted. "Och, the ones that matter, aye?" Laughing, MacColla slapped him hard on the back, and James looked on his friend with affection.
He was humbled by the sincerity of MacColla's words. And by the responsibility. "I thank you."
"Godspeed, Graham." MacColla nodded thoughtfully, knowing the danger they both faced. The Royalists were hungry, exhausted, cold, and outnumbered more than two to one.
"Aye, good man." James clasped MacColla's shoulder and gave a curt bob of his head. "Godspeed."
Making a stealthy approach when traveling alone wasn't a challenge. He'd had to half run, half slide down the scree of the lower foothills, but the thin blanket of snow actually muted James's descent. He sent silent good wishes up the mountain to MacColla. Campbell's encampment was vast, its thousands of men well fed and well rested. The
Royalists, however, enjoyed but a few hours, rest after their thirty-six-hour trek across the mountains, fueled by melted snow and what small provisions they carried on their persons.
He spotted what was clearly the Campbell's tent, and knew at once what had drawn Ewen to such an audacious attack. It was larger than the others, and it lay in the midst of the encampment, like a queen bee in her hive. It was Campbell's own cowardice, James thought, to safeguard himself so.
Dark shadows flickered along its walls, which glowed amber from the oil lamps burning within. James easily made his way among the sea of tents, taking cover in a swath of black shadow outside Campbell's shelter. Somebody was speaking, and he leaned in closer to make sense of the words.
"I know Graham is not a ghost who simply disappeared into the mist. You will tell me where he and his Royalist pigs have spirited off to."
James heard a sharp crack, followed by the scuffling of feet. The re was a grunt—he thought it might be the Campbell—then a series of dull, wet -sounding smacks. "You'll not test me, Cameron." Campbell sounded winded. "I'll beat you like the hound you claim to be." Another crack. "Now you'll tell me where they make their attack." There was a shuffling, then the sound of heavy breathing. "I'll wipe that smile from your face," Campbell snarled, and James heard the sound of steel on stone.
"I like my blade sharp, the better to cut your "—
It was all James needed to hear. He regretted the absence of a plan, but thought the Cameron could use his assistance just then.
His sword was in his hand. A lifetime of practice lightened the steel, making it an extension of his arm. His grasp was firm and the leather grip familiar in his palm as his fingers nestled in the soft quilted maroon cloth that lined the basket. Basket hilts bearing elaborate filigree work were becoming the fashion, but James had chosen simplicity instead, a thick steel lattice sturdy enough to protect his hand from his opponent's blade.
The deadly sharp metal cut easily through the tent with a mere sigh of fabric to betray it. James leapt in, simply appearing at Campbell's side. The man had a small dagger to Ewen's ear, and blood bloomed like a rose tucked there, with a thick rope of crimson already oozing down his neck. His black hair was slicked with sweat. The young laird beamed at James, the wide smile unsettling on his bloodied and bruised face.
Campbell swung around at once, striking broadly at James, blade swishing close to his torso.
"I think not, Campbell." James bounded backward. "Though that's some bonny footwork. Impressive for a man of your… stature."
James circled his enemy. "I will just… relieve you of this," he finished quickly, swatting the knife from C ampbell's hand with his broadsword.
"Funny," James said as he kicked the blade across the ground. "I'd have taken you for more of a garrote man." He moved quickly to Ewen's side. "Something more subtle than cutlery. Now I shall just avail myself of my frie nd here "—
Despite his heft, the Campbell managed to dart to the edge of the tent, pulling a pistol from atop his cot. Tearing open a paper cartridge of powder with his teeth, he began to load his gun.
As Ewen struggled to free his hands from their ties behind his back, James was there in an instant, severing his bonds with a single flick of his blade, as though the laird had been bound by mere ribbon.
A loud click reverberated through the tent. Campbell had cocked his pistol. James sprung across the room, l anding the point of his sword on the quivering flesh of Campbell's neck, just as he'd taken aim at James's chest. The moment hung in time as they stood, poised to kill, caught in a stalemate.
The Cameron was a blur of red and green plaid, slamming into Campbell from the side. The men hit the ground hard, Campbell emitting a clipped grunt, his pistol discharging with a deafening bang.
Campbell's guard pushed his way into the tent. "What—?" "Come. Lochiel." James pulled Ewen to standing. "We've no time now."