"Alright." She swatted him with her dress, trying to appear impatient. "Enough sweet talk."
Magda began to dress, watching from the corner of her eye as he flicked out the length of his plaid and slowly wound it round himself.
"Our Tom, reemerged at long last. " James limped to a basin by the bedside and scrubbed water on his face. "Have you seen him then?"
At her nod, he continued, "It remains to be seen under what capacity my friend has decided to present himself. Hogmanay has passed, or I'd have wagered he'd some sort of holiday dramatique planned for us."
"No," Magda smiled, amused by the notion of portly Tom in any sort of theatrical endeavor. She brushed out the length of her hair. There was no way she could ever recreate the elaborate style perpetrated upon her by one of the Cameron maids, so down it would have to be. "He claims to have some news, though he wouldn't tell any of us till you returned."
"News, eh?" James made his way to the door. "Well, we'd best go down for dinner where we can hear it, aye?" His gaze roved down her body. "I find I'm suddenly quite famished."
He winked, and she was surprised to find that he was still able to make her cheeks flush red.
"Aye, good man," Tom bellowed, already well into his third glass of brandy. "March south, I tell you. You'll receive a hero's greeting."
Will Rollo was with them, expansive at the thought of traveling once more. "I've heard murmurs that Charles has regained control over Parliament."
"Och"—Ewen glowered—"whose murmurs?" Ignoring the young laird, Tom continued, "I'm told the Lowlands want to rally for you, James. You see"—he leaned in conspiratorially—"after chasing you to Oxford and back, I traveled for a fortnight in the border towns."
"Forsaking your dramatic career for one as a spy, is it? " James laughed.
"And why not?" Tom beamed proudly. "I had the honor of supping at Traquair House, in Peebles, where I met a number of prominent noblemen." His cheeks flushed crimson with his excitement. "The south is near filled with recruits anxious to take the bit and join you."
"Aye, James," MacColla chimed in, emphasizing his point by waving the dinner knife in his hand. "I expect your men have the right of it. Place your humility elsewhere." He took a bite of roast venison and spoke as he chewed. "We've trounced the Covenanters up and down these Highlands. No false modesty about it."
Magda looked down to saw at the hunk of meat on her own plate, biting her lip not to smile. MacColla's broad personality and manners ranged from startling to amusing. He caught her eye, and gesturing again with his knife, gave her an exaggerated wink.
"'Tis not false modesty, my friend." James pushed his plate away. "'Tis merely good sense. I question all intelligence." He picked up his drink. The leaded glass was thick with a slight taper to it, and it felt good and solid in his hand. Swirling his brandy, he eyed the thin ropes of tawny liquid left in its wake. "Most particularly those reports with such grand estimations of yours truly."
"And will you ride south with us?" Ewen asked of Tom, still wary of his enthusiasm. "I didn't see your face when we slept with the snow for a pillow, or ate rabbit tasting of winter's freeze."
Tom flushed to be called out so, and sat tall in his seat, inadvertently creating a gap between his breeches and the vest that strained over his belly.
"Easy, Cameron," MacColla laughed.
"Have another, lad," James said, reaching over to refill Ewen's glass. "It will serve you well."
"I ken you're like his family," Ewen told Tom. Then the young laird turned to James and added, "But how can you be certain you'll be greeted a hero with the word of just one "—
"Och, enough." James slammed his hand on the table. "I'll not scour the country in search of accolades. But I do see the wisdom of a southern campaign. And I will continue to rely on Tom for his assistance." James looked to his friend. "If you're willing, aye? I know you're no soldier, but I am in want of a trustworthy spy."
"It's high time for another adventure." Tom raised his glass to James. "I'd not miss the fetes in your honor, my dear Marquis."
"I remain ever at your side as well," Rollo said gravely.
"And what of you, MacColla?" Ewen asked. His brandy still sat untouched before him. "Do you still march with us?" "No," MacColla replied nonchalantly, picking at the meat in his teeth. "I head west, not south."
Startled, James put his glass down hard. "This is unexpected, Alasdair."
"Oho! My Christian name," MacColla laughed. "I must be in your poor graces." He pushed back his chair, the wood screeching loud against the stone -flagged floor. "Aye, James, 'tis true." He kicked his crossed ankles onto the table with a small nod to Magda as if to beg pardon.
"'Twas a fight against the Campbell that I reckoned on, not a fight for the king, and that is the fight I shall continue to wage. I'll leave you some number of MacDonald swords, but I take the rest of my men west. To head south with you would be to put Clan Campbell at my back, and I'll not be sated until the Highland sod is manured with the blood of all Campbells."
James was silent for a moment, holding MacColla's gaze. "So, my friend," he finally said, "farewell it shall be." James raised his glass, and with a wistful smile added, "But first we drink together, to the destruction of an old enemy." "Aye." A huge smile split MacColla's face, and he downed his brandy in one gulp.
"And let's not forget James," Tom said. "To James, whose military prowess and superlative leadership dogged the Covenanters hither and yon throughout bonny Scotland." "Are you quite done, man?" Ewen glowered, holding his brandy impatiently.
"And may he finally reap the fruits of his battle cunning," Rollo chimed in, over James's amused protests.
Even Ewen laughed then, the men suddenly giddy with drink and triumph.
Then James looked to Magda. She'd been sitting silently, turning the glass around and around on the table in front of her. She returned his gaze, anxiety chilling her green eyes, and the smile bled from his face.
"If your troops cannot win this war "—
"'Tis your leadership we enjoyed at Inverlochy," Alexander Leslie snapped, straining for indifference in his voice. " Our troops would have fared much better had you not stubbornly rushed them through the snow in cloaks and cavalry boots."
Perspiration beaded above Campbell's lip, which trembled in anger. He'd summoned the general to Campbell's primary seat at Inveraray Castle and was anxious to get the man from his sight as quickly as possible. Leslie had been much aggrieved that so many of his soldiers had been killed, and had since tried Campbell to no end.
"Silence," Campbell hissed. "Or your treasonous words will cause that over proud head of yours to be severed from its body."
Steeling himself, he retrieved a handkerchief from his sleeve and dabbed at his brow. "If the troops you trained are unable to best the Marquis of Montrose, then I'll simply put a price on his head. Surely those"—distaste puckered Campbell's features—"Highlanders are as capable of treachery as they are of savagery."
Forcing the general to wait in attentive silence, Campbell meticulously folded the square of cloth and tucked it away. "Every man can be bought, Leslie. Find one who will deliver me James Graham."
"As I recall," James said with a tease in his voice, "you claimed you dreamt of going on holiday to a warm isle and no horse riding." He kicked his mount into a trot. Loch Eil was already at their backs and it wasn't a long ride now to Loch Ailort where they'd hire a boat, and propelled by the spring tides, head into the Sound of Arisaig to their destination.
"Yeah," Magda said, quickly catching up. "But this pony counts as a horse, James. You know what I meant."
"Oh, aye." He leaned far over the saddle and gave a squeeze to her thigh. "But some riding is necessary, aye? I'll not have you walking."
"But on a pony?"
"I'd not entrust my horse to some ferryman," James laughed. "'Tis but a short ride. And I am producing your requested isle."
"Yeah, but I had something more like Hawaii in mind."
"Ha—where?" James stood in his stirrups, eyeing the horizon. The spectacular edge of Scotland was visible in the distance, a glare of white on water with crags beyond, as Loch Ailort snaked its way out to the open sea. "As for the warmth," he added, "well, we've waited till spring and cannot wait any longer. The men are fully rested and we must be on our way. I'd not try Cameron hospitality any longer."
Magda was greatly relieved to feel the sand at her feet when they finally landed on the Isle of Eigg. James and the captain had gotten out, dragging the boat some ways through the shallows to shore. It hadn't been much more than a dinghy, and the trip would've been an anxious affair even if she hadn't had the nagging fear of water to contend with. James had made the mistake of telling her whales could often be seen this time of year, and Magda spent much of their crossing envisioning scenarios whereby they were flipped into the sea by a gargantuan, breeching marine mammal.
Once her heart returned to its normal rate, though, Magda looked around and was delighted. It was as if a comb had been dragged through a painter's palette, swirling together but not quite mixing basic shades of blue and beige and brown and red and green, the colors of ocean giving way to sand, beach grasses to mud, then onto the turf that stretched into an impossible shade of emerald in the distance.
"Charming, eh?" James came up from behind to wrap his arms tightly around her. The sound of gentle waves slapping at the retreating boat already faded in the distance. "Less than one hundred souls live here. We can go about unhampered."