Before the guard could act, the two men disappeared through the hole James had made in the tent.
Dawn was beginning to lighten the sky to a slate gray, and the morning air was crisp, with the clean smell of snow to it. The sounds of Campbell's men rousing from sleep followed them as James and Ewen snaked their way around tents, racing from the Covenanter encampment. There were shouts at their backs now. Spying a large rise, James dashed around the base to the left and then shot uphill. The trail was littered with large rocks, and while Ewen plowed a straight line, muscular legs pumping up and over rocks, James raced ahead, vaulting an uneven path up, springing from rock to rock as he crested the rise. He fell to kneel behind a gray and white mottled boulder. Straining, he could hear his Royalist troops on their descent from a brae not two hundred yards away.
Ewen appeared, collapsing beside him, and both men laughed quietly.
"We wait but a moment," James said, "then will join MacColla as the river meets the sea."
"Aye, a wave to crash over Campbell's wee picnic."
"You're bleeding, lad." James turned Ewen's head hard to the side to study his wound.
"Och, just a scratch." Ewen flinched back. "Though I thank you for arriving when you did."
"The pleasure's mine, Cameron. You owe me an ear."
James cocked his head to listen to the approaching fighters. "The sea is upon us." Their eyes met in broad smiles. "And now we shall exact our revenge."
"Aye, Graham. We shall indeed."
She felt trapped, anxious to get out of there. The Cameron library, though amazing, only went so far to break up the monotony of Magda's daily life at the castle. The first weeks had been a wondrous peek back in time. Robert had been a mixture of politely unobtrusive and oddly amusing as he'd shared history and lore about Scotland and the various clans. But she couldn't monopolize him all day, and Magda found she wasn't really expected to do anything other than appear for meals. Since she was interested in neither gossip nor needlework, she thought she'd go crazy from boredom.
Magda traced her fingers along stacks of yellowed manuscripts and the leather spines of books, looking in vain for something that would be a quick, fun read. Somehow Caesar's Commentaries and Sir Walter Raleigh 's
History of the World didn't do it for her, despite the fact that James had told her they were among his favorites. She picked up Quintus Curtius's History of Alexander the Great, but wasn't very optimistic.
"Pardon?" a voice said at her back.
She startled, and turned to see the maid Kat standing there. She couldn't have been much older than Magda, yet hard work was already ravaging her, clear to see in her red, cracked hands and the number of wiry white strands that already marbled her tightly wound bun.
"My apologies, mum." Looking suddenly stricken, Kat bobbed a quick curtsy, and the cups on her tray clinked precariously.
"Oh, not at all." Magda rushed to push aside books, clearing a space for the tea. "This looks lovely."
And it did. The tray held a number of delicate pieces of china and silver. Cups and saucers, a small pitcher of milk, miniature spoons. Magda had her eye on a plate of shortbread sprinkled with thick granules of sugar, a sight which more than made up for the beige skin she spied floating atop the milk. The picture was completed by the yellow crocheted cozy that topped the teapot.
"Will that be all?" Clutching a handful of her dirt-colored linen skirt in one hand. Kat began to edge out the door. "Yes." Magda pulled off the tea cozy, then paused and ventured, "I mean, no." Folding and smoothing it slowly onto the tray, she asked, "Are there any other rooms, do you think, that I might be interested in seeing?"
Kat looked at her doubtfully, and Magda rushed, "I mean, I saw that there was another wing to the house, but that seemed a little scary. Well, what I mean is, is there maybe a den or someplace else you know about?"
"Oh, aye." Kat nodded, finally understanding. "I don't know of dens, but the women all gather in the common room for needlework." She added brightly. "Would you like me to bring your tea there?"
"Oh, no," Magda said, deflated. "Never mind then."
"Ah." A slow smile brightened the woman's plump face. "I think I ken your mind, lass. And no, there's not much else than these rooms you've seen. But have you walked the lands around Tor?"
The idea was a revelation to Magda. It wasn't like she'd been a prisoner at the castle, yet somehow it hadn't occurred to her to go outside for a walk. A simple walk.
The look of wonder that crossed her face encouraged Kat to continue. "Aye, Lochaber can be quite bonny this time of the season. With snow on the mountains, there's a wee bite in the air, but naught too much for a brisk walk to take care of."
After borrowing thick, woolen stockings and an additional shawl, Magda was on her way. She'd walked for some time, crossing a glen hard with frost, then on to the low hills, picking her way along the red and yellowish green tangles of coarse grasses. At first the bitter air was a shock to her lungs and the cold stung her cheeks red, but once Magda started moving, the feel of her muscles working and her blood pumping invigorated her.
A wall of trees spiked along the horizon, and as she drew gradually closer she could hear a river rushing in the distance . Wary of getting lost, Magda had merely skirted the edge of the forest, until she spied an old drover's track. The path was thin, but etched deep through the trees, attesting to many years and hundreds of hooves being led from home to pasture and back again.
Hesitantly, she stepped onto the path, venturing in a few yards, and it took her breath away. To see the woods from a distance was one thing, but to be immersed in its hush was quite another. Scots pines were all around, and though their evergreen needles were similar to those of their American counterparts, they seemed somehow more ancient, with huge swells of roots that wrapped down and around each other to clutch at the ground like great claws, and gnarled trunks silver with frost and lichen. Birch trees studded the forest at random. Leafless in winter, they rose like skeletons from the loamy ground, bony limbs scratching among the pines like primeval ghosts of the forest.
Magda walked on, captivated, careful to stick to the trail. The rush of the river was louder now, and taking her eyes from the path, she looked around to see if she could pinpoint its origin. Her foot was stopped short and the air suddenly rushed around her as she fell to the ground, tripped by a root meandering across the path like a great snake. She felt the pain sear up her arm like fire crackling along a fuse, and with it came the immediate bone - deep knowledge that she'd done something very wrong to her right wrist.
Arm clenched at her side, Magda shifted to sit against one of the trees along the trail. She breathed slowly, and when the pain subsided into a dull throb, she opened her eyes again and studied her already swollen wrist. She'd instinctively broken her fall with her hand, which she clenched and unclenched now, as acute pain was gradually replaced by panic over whether or not it was broken and how, exactly, she would deal with that.
Gingerly, she touched the bones along her wrist and forearm and was relieved to find everything seemingly intact. The pain, though, was an angry pulse in her arm and hand and she thought if a sprain was this painful, she couldn't imagine how excruciating a broken bone would be. Magda leaned back, and willing the throbbing to subside a little, simply focused on the feel of cold air on her face an d the dappled sunlight as it shifted through the leaves overhead, brightening to orange then dark again on her closed eyes.
"Losh, but didn't I think a wolf got you, lass."
Magda's eyes shot open and before her stood an old woman, grinning through the smoke of a pipe which she clenched between her teeth. Her wiry body seemed to stand straight and strong, despite the roughly carved walking stick that she gripped in her bony hand.
"Well, what's the keening about, then?" She hobbled closer, and Magda saw for the first time that the woman's eyes were a disconcerting shade of white blue. "I was sitting for my tea when I heard you howl like some injured beast." She tapped and nudged her stick against the thick root bisecting the path. "I'd half a mind thinking mayhap I'd find my dinner here, slain and waiting for me." She cackled, stabbing her cane into the ground for emphasis, pipe bobbing up and down in her mouth.
"Well, get up with you. The cold will seep into your bones and dull you to no good, and then a wolf will come for you. Come on," she said impatiently, whacking the stick against the tree above Magda's head. "Up now. No lass ever died from a staved wrist, aye?"
The old woman clearly expected Magda to follow her. Though relying heavily on her stick, she was already trekking off the trail and through the trees. Magda felt only a moment's worry before curiosity won out, and quickly caught up and stayed close behind the woman, eyeing the frizzy white braid hanging long at her back as they picked their way through the woods.
Her cottage was tucked in a small clearing surrounded by trees on all sides. Shadows fell long in the woods, and the house was cut neatly in two by sunlight and shade, one half luminous whitewash, the other a dingy gray. A chimney rose along the side, the old, roughly mortared stones charred deep black from soot at the top. A tendril of smoke spoke to a warming fire within.
Magda followed her into the shadowy interior, as much for the promise of that fire now, as to satisfy her curiosity. The re was only the single rectangular room, and the slimness of the lone wooden cot sidled in the corner attested to but one occupant. The clumps of dried herbs and flowers hanging along the far wall were as close as the cottage got to decoration. A tea service in a rosebud china pattern was jarringly out of place sitting atop a thick butcher-block table in the center of the room. Otherwise, the woman lived simply, with a few cast-iron pots hanging from hooks, a crude wooden trunk, and a rocker by the hearth.
She pulled a stool from under the table and sat, a little sigh of ecstasy escaping her. Her hands trembled as she wrapped them around the teapot to test its warmth. The old woman shot Magda a gratified smile, and pouring the tea, shooed her over to sit by the fire.