She didn't doubt any of that. Nor did she doubt that he'd get himself killed with these crusades of his. Just like her brother had. She couldn't endure that sort of pain again. She wouldn't endure it.
Summer was almost past, and MacColla had kept his word, leaving James a few hundred men of Clan MacDonald to stand at his back. Rollo and Ewen rode with him, but he'd sent Magda with Tom back to Montrose.
It had been hard parting as they did. There had been something in her look that he'd not seen before. Defiance flashed in her eyes on the day they left, replacing her usual desire to satisfy, appease, accommodate. He found he loved her all the more for it. He would prove to her that he wasn't just any man. Magda deserved an extraordinary life, and that is what he would give her. But turmoil and uncertainty reigned in his country, and his first priority was to ease Scotland into peace.
They marched south, not for battle, but merely to supplement their forces. He would return safe, and spend the rest of his life proving his love to her. He'd not let an army of nannies raise his children as he'd been raised. He'd be by his wife's side, reminding her every day, for the rest of his days, that she was his.
"What was that about?" Rollo trotted his horse up to James's side. He'd started to wave at a woman peeking from a cottage window, but when their eyes met, the woman simply began calling frantically to her children to herd them inside.
Though they'd run into many friendly faces on the road, an equal number got skittish at the sight of them, as if the mounted throng were the angel of death itself, sweeping over the country, looking for a place to land. James had been chilled to see that the majority of those he'd seen had been women and children, compared to so few men.
But despite the occasionally wary greeting, most of the Royalists traveled merrily along, buoyed by pleasant weather and their leisurely pace. The terrain became easier as they approached the Scottish borders, and the hard Highland crags smoothed into the gentle rolls of the Lowlands.
"Aye," James replied, "the country's on edge, and why not? Nobody knows who marches for whom, or where the wind will blow tomorrow." He pitched his voice louder to be heard over the men as they broke into a rou sing pub song, and Rollo spared a smile for him.
There had been much singing as they went, with the men crooning out ballads and battle chants, or the piper playing in time to the gait of the horses. James and Rollo laughed now, upon hearing the latest tune.
He left his lady with gentlemen,
And he kissed the lass in the stable.
Are you wi' bairn, my chicken?
Are you wi' bairn, my chicken?
If I am not, I hope to be,
E'er the green leaves be shaken.
"What say you, Rollo?" James grinned. "When songs of battle turn to songs of bairns, I think it time to rest for the night."
James read the relief clear on his friend's face. Rollo's great upper body strength and custom saddle did much to mitigate the pain of such long marches, but at the end of a day's ride, James could always spot the agony writ in the furrow at Rollo's brow and in the lines that bracketed his mouth.
"Men!" he called. "Draw rein! We camp here."
"You'll camp here at Philiphaugh," James told him. He looked around at the smooth stretch of moor. The River Ettrick glared white in the late afternoon sun, drawing a ragged line that rent the lush swath of green in two. "There's room enough for the cavalry and the Irish as well." "What of you?" Rollo asked.
"I'll quarter at Selkirk, just across the river. 'Tis but a wee burgh but should be large enough to find most officers a roof for their head."
Tents appeared, studding the moor like spring shoots, and the black smoke and charred smell of cook fires soon choked the air. His men seemed relaxed, unhurriedly setting up camp, squatting to chat, sharing pulls from flasks. James and the other officers gradually left Philiphaugh, crossing the river to find beds in Selkirk.
Padraic O'Shaughnessy lay down for the night. He and his Irish brothers had mocked the Scottish tartan, but withstanding such extensive marching and camping, he finally understood why the Scots had such a peculiar attachment to their plaids. His saddle blanket was but a trifle when compared to the yards of wool the Highlanders rolled into every night.
He'd quartered his battle -scarred pony at Philiphaugh like the rest of the cavalry, but joined a dozen of his countrymen to camp the night in a copse away from the river. Imagining the air to rise cooler by the water, he welcomed the shelter the woods provided.
There was a small snap, and his head shot up. Heart pounding, his eyes searched blindly in the darkness until, eventually, the silence convinced him that what he'd heard was just a breeze in the trees. Or one from his group had been settling for the night. Or that perhaps he'd even imagined such a sound.
Padraic pulled the gray wool up over his shoulders, exposing a stretch of muddy boot cradled in the leaves. Tucking his arm under his head, he shut his eyes to rest.
"We've found them, General."
"'Nicely done, lad." Alexander Leslie smiled, revealing a row of small, square teeth. "Where?"
"At Philiphaugh, and the woods surrounding."
"So close?" Leslie smoothed a drop of whisky from his moustache and stoppered his flask. "The Fates smile upon us."
"Aye, and our spy at Selkirk claims Royalist officers are scattered through the burgh like bits of chaff on the wind." "Ah." Leslie stroked his beard into a point. "An unexpected boon. Officers and their men separated by a river?" He barked a sharp laugh. "A foolish thing indeed to separate the beast from its head."
Leslie stood and stretched, turning each foot in small circles. He needed his wits sharp. The hour was late, but if they were to keep the element of surprise, they'd need to strike early. There would be little rest that night, but the gold he'd get in trade for Montrose's head would buy drink that would put to shame the horse piss he was currently forced to swill.
"Have all six cavalry regiments at the ready." Leslie's eyes narrowed, and his hatred and longing for retribution seeped into his features, transforming him from a merely small and crooked man into a devil.
"Rally the men," he said. "We blaze like the sun's fire at the dawn."
"I'd not expected to see you so early." Rollo pulled up short at the sight of James. His silhouette was black and featureless as it emerged from the fog, a startling presence among the still-slumbering camp. Cold had stolen in during the night, and air bearing the chill threat of autumn collided with ground still warm from the summer sun, enshrouding Philiphaugh with mist.
"I'd hoped to see the men readied for another day of travel." James said, "but we'll not cover any ground this morning until the fog clears." He reined in close to Rollo's side, and each man could finally discern the features of the other. "You'd be in a rush to get back to that woman of yours, I suppose." An uncharacteristically open smile warmed Rollo's face.
"Indeed, my friend," James chuckled, "though I'll admit "— There was a sharp popping, discordant in the still of the morning. In that instant between perceiving and knowing, James wondered if he hadn't heard a thunderclap. Time slowed as he turned to Rollo, the specter of a smile still clinging to James's face. His friend slowly crumpled and slid, as if deflating. The sight of scarlet seeping through the blue of Rollo's coat roused James to himself, a jolt of fury and energy suffusing him like lighting to the thunder that had just sounded.
Rollo hit the ground, and his horse, spooked, reared then bolted through the mist to disappear.
It was in that instant the chaos began.
Gunfire erupted, red flares flashing in the mist that was quickly blackening from the smoke of musket fire. James was blind to his enemy, but the noise pressed on him as if it rode on the fog, and he knew that they surrounded him. Startled screams tore through the camp, followed by wordless exhales and the dull sounds of bullets finding flesh, layering notes of terror to the gunfire's booming orchestra.
Tents popped and burst like living things as Campbell's Covenanter muskets found soldiers who would never wake from that night's sleep. Some of James's men managed to spring from other tents, racing to find family members they'd left encamped on the outskirts of Philiphaugh, which now raged with gunfire, flames, and shrieks.
"You!" James called to an older cavalryman whose sure hands were buckling his sword at his side. "Sort this man to rights," he said, gesturing to Rollo lying still. Blood pooled black in the grass around him and James couldn't bear to know at that moment whether his friend lived or died.
The old soldier knelt at Rollo's side, and James's—eyes went to the camp, his gaze sweeping over the bedlam. Men raced like ants all over, their senior officers nowhere in sight. "Form a line!" James shouted.
The grim thought struck him that most of the officers had bedded at Selkirk and weren't there to give orders.
"Men!" he cried again. "Form your line!"
Many finally came to themselves and rallied. "To me!" James called. Retreating slightly, he raced them in the direction of Selkirk, entrenching behind a low knoll that rose like a knobby spine close to the bank of the river.
And then, as if they'd stumbled into the eye of the storm, the sounds of battle faded away and an eerie stillness fell around them. Some of his soldiers made as if to stand but froze at a look and a gesture from James. Stillness in battle could mean but few things.
There was a single shot from faraway, and James shut his eyes. Then another shot. And another. A chill crept along his skin. They heard another lone shot, as Campbell's men killed their prisoners one by one.
"It's done for, Graham. They've four thousand horses if they've a one." The voice behind him was ragged. James turned to see a MacDonald clansman squatting grimly behind him. The lad was still a teen yet, with a single smear of crimson marring his features where he'd used a bloody hand to wipe the sweat from his brow.