His breath tickled her ear. "So shall we?" He nuzzled past her wind-tangled hair to kiss at her neck. "Go be…" He bit lightly at her shoulder. "Unhampered?"
"That sounds perfect," she purred. "No gunfire?"
"Nary a sword in sight, hen."
James knew of an abandoned farmhouse and gave her the option of a roof overhead, but Magda actually wanted to sleep outdoors. All of the camping they'd done, and she hadn't yet truly felt the joy of what it was to lay next to him, naked under a bowl of stars, without the fear of soldiers coming for them in the night.
They headed for the highest point on the island, setting up camp on a carpet of lush grass on the lee side of what
James told her was the Sgurr pitchstone, an enormous black rock formation that jutted violently from the isle's soft green flesh like a broken bone.
Winter was well past, and the sun was setting much later now. By the time James settled them with a tent and small fire, it was late afternoon. A shelf of clouds hung low in the sky, breaking clear just along the horizon so that a thin band of white glowed luminous, gilding the sea in the distance.
"This would be a wonderful place for a house." She sighed contentedly.
"No, hen, this would be a miserable place for a house." The cool of the evening approached fast now, and he snuggled closer to Magda to share his heat.
She shot him an indignant look, and with a devilish smile in his eyes, he stole a kiss at her cheek.
"But why?" she asked. Magda sat forward, studying the lay of the land in earnest. "That huge rock blocks the wind. And there were those pretty yellow daisies all around. They're a little overgrown, but you could probably cut them back and transplant them to a little garden. It would be pretty."
"'Tis ragwort, and very poisonous indeed." Chuckling, he shook her shoulder gently, teasing. "I'm told you once tried to poison a platoon of soldiers with spindle berries too." "Well, I didn't plan on eating the flowers, James," she grumbled. His bark of laughter in response made Magda smile despite herself.
"Come, hen." Sliding his hand to her neck, he gently smoothed errant hairs from inside her collar and then rubbed his hand down her back. "Time to rest."
"It's not even night yet," she proteste d. "And I'm hungry." "Aye," he said, as he wound his arm tight around her waist. James kissed his way along her shoulder. "I'm hungry too."
Nibbling at her ear, he whispered, "There will be time to fill our bellies later."
She gently tugged his arm from he r waist, and lacing her fingers in his, clasped his hand and tucked it between them.
"I… do you mind if we just sit for now?" She searched his face. "I know it's supposed to be our special getaway and everything."
"Of course, lass." He tenderly cupped her cheek. "Is there something troubling you?"
"No, I… I just want to lie with you tonight."
He stroked his fingers lightly along her skin, silently considering her face. "As you wish, my love." He kissed each cheek, and then touched his forehead to hers. "Now , shall I muster some food on this homestead of yours?"
"Yes, please," she said with a light heart.
Their bodies tangled close that night, stretched on the soft ground with his tartan to warm them, his hand smoothing through her hair until their breathing slowed to a deep, dreamless sleep.
They walked along the beach the next morning, and Magda giggled like a child, running and stomping and dragging her feet to hear the sand hum at her touch.
"I've heard of singing sand," she said, "but I had no ide a." She plopped down. The sand was dry, yet still firm with the memory of the sea. Magda rubbed her fingers through the soft, beige powder, eliciting eerie tonal sounds like whale song.
"This is beautiful," she beamed. "Thank you for taking me here."
"Och, hen, you're the one who's beautiful." He kissed the top of her head, then dropped to sit beside her.
"See there"—he pointed to an island rising black from the water, its evenly undulating hills suggesting the humpback of some great sea creature floating along the horizon—"That's the Isle of Rum."
"Ooh, that sounds like a fun one."
"Indeed," he smiled and raised a brow. "And just there, you can see Skye." He gestured to a faraway island, a ghostly gray in the far distance.
They sat in amicable silence for some time. Sea birds cawed and swooped overhead, making quick dips, then bombing into the water for food. A thin halo of foam hissed and sighed lightly against the small black rocks and smooth sand of the shore.
"I think it's time, hen," he told her in a grave voice.
Fear at once prickled up Magda's back. These sorts of pronouncements from James were usually followed by random and dangerous military missions. "For… ?"
"For putting a bairn in your belly. I ken you've been counting the days," he continued. "That's what last night was about, if I've the right of it?"
She nodded. Magda had been counting the days, doing what she could to avoid a pregnancy. "But how did you know?"
"Och, I'm with you every night lass, I can count too."
"A bairn," she said. The word was foreign on her tongue. Magda went quiet. That they would begin having babies as soon as possible would be the obvious assumption, and yet it was something she hadn't fully considered. She felt uncertain. Magda realized she had an idea of herself that she'd grown up with, a particular understanding of who she was that was etched at her core. She'd defined herself by her childhood, her home, and even her parents. To consider motherhood somehow set all of those elements into strong relief.
"I… I just need to think. But I do love you, James."
"And I you, lass." He laid her back gently, taking her hands in his, holding them in the cool sand over her head. "And I you."
They passed the rest of the morning with slow, hushed kisses to the sound of the surf.
"They'll greet me as a hero, hen."
"Don't hen me," Magda snapped. The day had come for James and his men to leave the Camerons and head south, to a fate Magda refused to contemplate. He said he wanted to have a child, and she'd let herself see that as a sign they could finally settle down. Make a life together. She'd though it meant an end to his campaigning—A sign that he'd escaped an unthinkable end on the gallows.
He gave an easy laugh and cupped her chin for a kiss.
She pulled her head back to look at him, her eyes sharp on his. "Really, James." Is this it, finally? The moment he'll need her help, and she'll be too far away? Just like Peter. "Don't go. Please. Or, if you go, take me with you. But you can't just leave me here."
"I shall return to you, scores of Lowlanders at my back, to quell this turmoil once and for all." He took her face in both hands and refused to let her go. "Truly, Magda," he said in a whisper, "it's but a momentary parting. I know you think there's some gruesome fate I'm to meet, but I tell you that is not the case."
"You can't know that."
"I have it on good word that all is lost for the Campbell and his Covenanters. All are ready to rise and march for me." "But you can't just leave me." Her helplessness was turning to anger. Would their lives together always be this? Always goodbye? Would he still be rushing off to danger when they had children together? Rushing off to save the world? Just like Peter.
"Oho, pretty lass," he said playfully. "But I can." Her glare in response tempered the humor in his tone.
"Truly, Magda," he added seriously. "Regardless of my destiny, it is far safer for you in my family's care. You simply cannot march about the country with me and scores of fighting men."
"What if you get killed? No, really," she added bluntly, seeing the cavalier flash in his eyes. "What if this is the time? And you die? And I… what? I languish the rest of my days with a bunch of strangers, hundreds of years before my birth?"
Fear had been a constant drone, vibrating through Magda's every cell since she'd arrived. She was utterly exhausted from it, and she finally felt herself snap.
"I tell you, hen, I will not "—
"Or… okay… say you don't die this time." She pulled away from him and stepped back. "Is this what I have to look forward to? To you gallivanting off at every opportunity, leaving me to sit around and… what? Sit with the other women all day while I worry I'll never see you again? Should I be like…" She pitched her voice to a low hiss. "Should I be like Margaret? Napier is with you more often that he's with her. Is that what you'd have for me?"
"I'd not—" he tried to interrupt.
"I can't have your baby, James." Her voice was flat. Her feelings had ravaged through her, laying waste, leaving Magda feeling utterly empty. James might be her world, but without him this place never would be, and somehow it'd been the question of getting pregnant that had shed a harsh light on it all. Magda couldn't be abandoned there, couldn't envision bringing a child into a place so alien. Not if she might have to do it alone.
"I can't have your baby in some filthy bed with some leech-using doctor, and then sit around for the rest of my life having more babies and watching them play while I spend my days hoping and praying that you return ho me alive. I can't bear anymore loss, James."
"That will not be your life," he said evenly. His voice was steely, his body rigid. "You have my word. But for now, Magda, I must go. Just this once more. The wheels turn, plans are set in motion, and I cannot simply run from it all." He stepped toward her, and she flinched back to avoid his touch. Hurt flickered across his features, but he pressed on. "No man can know his own fate. But even if he could, my country's destiny is larger than my own. That is what I need to attend, at this moment, above all else. But you have my promise, I shall do all in my power to return to you. And I will be a good husband, here, with you. And I will put that bairn in your belly," he said, and Magda finally let him take her in his arms.