"Rest your legs awhile. You've given your body a good scare. Milk, lass?"
Magda shook her head. "Good!" the woman hooted. "I've none." Chuckling to herself, she brought Magda's tea and pulled the stool by the fire. "Och," she said, easing down,
"I've had neither goat nor cow for years now."
"Please," Magda said, gesturing to the rocker, "you sit here."
"No, lass, no," she said dismissively. "My old rump knows this stool like I kent the cup of my husband's hand." She cackled again, fishing in her deep skirt pockets for her pipe.
"You'd be the one staying with the Camerons then. Magda. Have I the right of it?"
"I… yes." She smiled. Between the tea and the warm peat fire at her shoulder, Magda was warmed through, feeling oddly comfortable and affable with the strange woman. "How did you know?"
"I'm Gormshuil, lass." She held her gaze for a moment. "Aye, I suppose you'd not ken me. The years pass, and bones and names fade to dust." Leaning over, Gormshuil pulled a thin stick from beside the hearthstone, lit it, then held the wavering flame to her pipe. She gave a few encouraging puffs and added, "The laird asked about you. Rather, the laird's grandda did ask. The generations do pass, aye?" she muttered, sucking at her pipe.
"He asked if it were right to keep you under his roof. 'And why not,' I said. Och, the old man sometimes calls on me just to hear himself talk." She looked in the bowl of her pipe, then tapped the side hard. "But in return for my ears and words, the Camerons supply what I find wanting, which is not much these days." She pulled the pipe from her mouth and sipped her tea. "Not much at all." She gestured to the items in her hands and gave Magda a near toothless smile.
"But you, lass." Gormshuil rose from her stool and studied the clumps of herbs hanging along the far wall. "I ken what you're wanting. I can see the pain on your face. Writ clear around your mouth, aye? Sometimes muscle can scream louder than bone. I've something for it."
She took a dried plant from its hook. "This will help if the ache from your wrist robs your sleep. Crush the leaves in hot water, but not too much, mind. Or you'll sleep like the dead. Wouldn't want the Camerons to think I've killed you, aye?" She laughed and gestured for Magda to take the plant.
It was an angry, foreign-looking thing. The thick stem and spiked leaves gave it the appearance of a great weed, its once vibrant green leaves and yellow flowers faded to ghosts of their former color.
"Eh," Gormshuil spat, "don't fret lass. 'Tis just the henbane. It won't kill you. Stronger than wine, aye, but still weaker than the poppy. Take it, take it."
Magda took it into her hands. From the look of it, she'd expected something light as air, and was surprised at its heft. Unlike dried flowers that seemed fragile as parchment in hand, this dried herb felt solid, its leaves prickling the sensitive skin of her palms.
"It grows in the muck off Tor Castle. A wonder, aye? And it smells like the dung it grows in."
Before she could dodge her, Gormshuil grabbed her hands roughly and shoved the plant under Magda's nose. A stink like rotten eggs filled her sinuses, and nausea rolled through her.
The old woman merely hooted. "Well, girl, I see you're no healer. Here." She stole the plant from Magda's hand and returned it to its hook. Muttering, she knelt to rifle through her trunk, and Magda wished she were brave enough to look over the woman's shoulder to see just what was crinkling and clanking around in the old chest.
"Ah!" Gormshuil held up a small bottle, and the firelight illuminated a small measure of greenish liquid. Removing its stopper, she held it up to her nose then barked a laugh. "You shan't smell this one unless you really want to sick up, lass. 'Tis the same henbane, but this one's mixed with whisky, and the easier to swallow for it."
She offered it to Magda. "Hold your nose and just one drink, mind. Dare take more than a sip and you'll have the look of the dead to you. Who knows, aye? You may find some other need of it than just the pain in your wrist." Magda somehow doubted that, and afraid to do otherwise, took the bottle from Gormshuil's hand.
His men were all screaming now, howls and screeches like berserkers of old. James and Ewen sprang from behind the boulder and ran to join them, a wall of Royalists cascading down upon the Covenanter camp. James roared to his men to attack, while Ewen shouted over and over the Cameron war cry, " Chlanna nan con thigibh a so's gheibh sibh feoil." A call to his men to come and get flesh. And all the Royalists responded with renewed fury, barreling down on their enemy from above.
Many of Campbell's men had a startled, wild-eyed look to them as they struggled in vain to load muskets with cold and sleepy fingers. The whoosh and slash of Royalist blades came too quickly, and the first wave cut through a swath of Covenanters before they could finish loading their weapons.
The sun rose bright that day, and light cut over the edge of the mountains to cast long shadows below. Chaos ruled as the mobs of men drove into each other, the sounds of men fighting for their lives and the noise of swords finding shield and flesh thundered through the valley.
James quickly lost sight of Ewen, his attention focused only on whatever man was unlucky enough to stand in his path. He didn't carry a shield like many of the others, relying instead on his agility as its own weapon, and he carved his way forward, ducking and diving away from any sword that sought him.
A surge of screams and guttural cries sounded from the side, and James looked quickly to see his pikemen hacking brutally into the Covenanters' left flank. MacColla led the charge. Standing head and shoulders above many of the others, he worked his sword furiously, his thick, black brows furrowed in rage.
They were decimating Campbell's troops from the front and side now, and what was once a solid block of men shattered like glass into a thousand skittering pieces. James's eye flicked to a familiar bit of plaid. He saw Sibbald from behind, the colonel's wiry frame and balding head of gray brown hair easily recognizable. The man stumbled, and James rushed forward to catch him at his side. He had a lethal gash across his chest and another low on his belly. Pulling him away from the worst of the melee, James tore off his coat and quickly retrieved the flask from his vest. The colonel nodded eagerly and eased to the ground.
James hoped it hadn't been the drink that had blunted Sibbald's wits and opened him to injury. But it's drink he would have, James thought, as the man breathed his last . "Graham!"
He heard his name as he knelt to tip the flask to Sibbald's lips, and looked up to see the bard Iain gesturing wildly. Then James heard the hum of steel. He thrust the colonel to the ground, and was rolling even before he saw the blade coming at him. He leapt to his feet, sword in hand, and found himself face-to-face with a young Campbell clansman. Junior even to Ewen, the boy appeared no older than thirteen.
"Och, lad," James growled. "You've years yet." He inclined his head to the hills. "Go, and none will be the wiser." Confusion and fear warred on the boy's face. The smears of mud on his cheeks and tangled mop of light blond hair made him seem even younger than his years.
"Come now, lad. Off with you." James gestured with his sword away from the battle. "You're young yet. You've years of lassies and adventure ahead of you. There will be time enough for fighting."
The boy bared his teeth into a scowl and rushed at James, his broadsword flailing wildly.
"Och, you lads." James grimaced, dodging the boy's thrusts, holding his own sword still in his hand. "It's not cowardice. Go now, boy, into the hills, and none will know." The sword teetered heavily in the boy's grip, and he waved and twirled it, terror making him blind.
The youngster managed to nick him, and James looked down to see his calf bleeding. His face darkened. "I beg you, lad." James feinted, and then slapped the flat of his blade onto the boy's thigh. "I'll not fight you."
The boy redoubled his efforts, swinging with abandon. James hopped forward as if to thrust. "I'm sure you've a mother who'd rather see some bonny new grandbabes borne home than your lifeless body." He hopped forward again, edging the young Campbell backward toward the mountains. "So off with you now." He swooped his blade overhead to slap at the boy's shoulder. "The hills beckon. Truly. I don't find the killing of lads to be an honorable pursuit."
The boy pressed again and managed to get close, striking awkwardly at James's belly. He wrenched his sword down just in time to stop the boy's blade. The clash of metal reverberated up his arm as the young Campbell's sword grazed along his, stopping short with a clang at the steel basket of James's sword.
"I beg you, lad. We can pass the day right here, but I'll not fight you in earnest."
The boy swung his arm down at an angle, and James brought his blade up hard to block the blow. But the boy had feinted. His sword doubled back to strike at James from the other side, and the only thing left to stop James's blade was the boy's torso. James tried to pull back at the last moment, but it was too late to stop his momentum. The boy let out a wordless gasp.
"No!" James cried.
The young Campbell's sword clattered to the ground, and he looked at his waist, momentarily confused.
"Oh no, lad." James quickly re sheathed his sword and caught the adolescent as he fell. "Oh, lad, I begged you." James knew at once the wound was fatal, and painful as well.
"You're a braw fighter." James held him tightly, as if he could staunch the wound with his grip alone. "A braw fighter. You've brought great honor to—"
A long, wheezy exhale deflated the boy's body. "Forgive me." Tears spilled down James's cheeks. "Oh lad, forgive me."
By the time he returned to Sibbald, the old colonel also lay dead, spilt flask clenched in his hand, the snow around it stained deep amber.