Dread spiked through James's belly as he thought of the hundreds of clansmen MacColla had put in his charge. He couldn't bear to tally the number of MacDonald men he'd lost that morning.
"Only those who ran fast enough could avoid capture," the young scout said. "We need to go from here, and now."
"No," James said. But then he looked down the line of men. a couple hundred at most, many unarmed and still half naked from their sleep. Irish and Highlanders most of them, and they dug through the dirt now, gathering stones and ready to fight.
"Aye," he muttered then, and eased his forehead into his hand. So many men lost, and all because he'd been blinded by such a string of victories. He thought of Rollo and wondered whether his friend lived or died.
Inhaling sharply, he whipped his head up to look at the MacDonald. "Selkirk! How stands Selkirk?"
"I've come from there. Covenanters are rousing every innkeeper and publican in the town, searching for Royalist officers."
"How do you fare in the woods, lad?"
"I cut my teeth sneaking through trees to escape blackguards like these Covenanters," the boy said, puffing his chest.
"I'm away to Selkirk." James jumped up and leaned one foot along the side of the low ridge. "Can you lead these men to safety?"
"Me?" Doubt muddled the boy's features. "Aye." He hesitated. "I can lead them. But"—he eyed James impatiently palming the hilt of his sword—"You cannot go, sir. Covenanter soldiers even now wend through the town looking for you."
James ignored the comment. "Don't fear, lad. You're fleet, a mere couple hundred men." He flashed the young man a smile. "You can fly from here."
He stared dumbly at James.
"You can lead these men through to safety," he nodded firmly, clapping the MacDonald on his shoulder. "You'll do it, lad. And now."
James vaulted over the rise and ran into the mist.
He'd found a horse and raced it to Selkirk, abandoning the animal just outside the town's limits. Shouts and gunfire came only intermittently now, and James dreaded what carnage he'd find in the streets. No battle was lost that still raged, but silence portended only one thing.
He heard men approaching and ducked into the shadows between two buildings. James clung close to the wall, and the gray stone cooled his sweat-soaked shirt, gradually steadying his heart, which still pounded from his flight out of Philiphaugh. The sounds of the men's conversation amplified as they grew near, and then gradually faded away.
James spent a moment trying to orient himself, pinpointing in his mind where he stood in relation to the room he'd let the previous night. Gunfire cracked close, followed by more distant reports. Seconds passed, and shots erupted once more, and again they'd come from two different origins. It would be a volley, James thought, between two groups of men, and a volley meant some of his officers were still alive. Looking right and left, he eased from his hiding spot and jogged toward the sound of musket fire. He slipped his hand into his sword's basket and wrapped his fingers around the grip. He may not have a musket to hand, he thought, but his sword would be all he needed.
He had to double back twice among the winding alleys of Selkirk, but he found them in short order. And he'd been correct in his assumption. A firefight raged between two knots of men, with a cluster of three of his Royalists holding their own against a like number of Covenanter soldiers.
James thought he'd need the element of surprise, some agility, and a tremendous amount of luck if he were to best three armed men. Their muskets would be impotent at close range, and it was how he would make his initial charge that James wondered at now. If he could get at the enemy between shots, he might have a chance. But with Parliament's sympathies and funds flowing to the Covenanter cause, the enemy's red-coated soldiers used paper cartridges instead of powder horns, enabling them to get off three, perhaps four shots in a minute. James estimated that would give him no more than fifteen seconds to strike.
The gunshots from his Royalists seemed to thin, and James thought he needed to act now before they ran out of ammunition.
"Blast it all," James muttered. When he saw the building, he knew what he had to do.
The wooden structure sat just to the side of the Covenanter soldiers. With its two stories and gabled roof, it was unremarkable, but for one element: a single -story entryway protruded from its facade like a low- slung building in miniature, complete with its own peaked roof.
He scowled, preparing his body for a drop from such a height. "Blast it to hell," he repeated in a resigned whisper, as he snuck around to the back.
Giving silent thanks that he'd taken to wearing his tartan to battle, he began to scale the rear of the building, his powerful legs free to stretch and reach with ease. A brick chimney flanked by two small windows on each floor made finding handholds simple, and James was soon pulling himself onto the roof.
He inched along on his belly, both to elude notice and to avoid slipping from its sharply angled slope. James edged as close as he dared, and peeked down to the top of the small entry hall below. It would be a single -story drop to its roof. Then, if he managed not to slide from its sharp peak, it would be another single-story leap to the ground. Where he'd take on three armed soldiers with naught but his blade at his side.
He cursed once more under his breath.
The Covenanters shot and reloaded and shot again, and began to work their way slowly forward as their relentless attack was answered less frequently by the Royalists. James could see his men in the distance, and their frantic gestures made plain their alarming lack of ammunition.
The Royalists spotted him then, and their eyes all went to James's rooftop. But the Covenanters had closed in enough to notice their enemies' focus shifting upward.
"Dammit lads," James swore.
A Covenant soldier in a red coat turned to track the direction of their gazes, and spotting James, swung his musket to put him in his sights.
"Blast it," James cried as he leapt. He twisted to the side at the last moment to avoid getting rammed between his legs, but the rooftop below clipped him sharp on the hip instead. He immediately began to slide to the ground, clawing at a thin, spindled pinnacle to slow his fall.
The musket blast was loud at close range, and a hole exploded behind him as a bullet bit into the top of the gable.
The lip of the roof scraped hard along his lower back, and he grabbed it, managing to right his legs under him for the rest of his drop.
His feet hit the ground, the collision spearing pain up his calves, and James immediately bent to a crouch to absorb the rest of the impact. He rolled to the dirt at the sound of a cocking musket, and two more shots split the air almost immediately. James sprang to his feet and rushed the Covenanters, counting silently in his head the time it would take them to reload.
His sword was unsheathed and found flesh the moment he reached them, leaving two men remaining. One of his enemies had jogged out of view, and James could hear the tear and scrape as he reloaded his gun. The other stood not five feet from him, his loaded musket pointing at James's chest. The Covenanter's hand trembled as he swept it along the top of his weapon, pulling it to full cock.
The three Royalists James had come to save ran up from behind. The Covenanter turned his head in surprise, inadvertently tilting his musket up a fraction, giving James enough of a window to close the distance with a leap and cleave his broadsword high into the man's torso.
"Thank you, gentlemen," James said, a little out of breath. "That was a bit tight, aye?"
A crash sounded in the alley as the remaining Covenanter ducked behind a cart for cover. One of the Royalists flashed James a crooked smile, and pointing from himself to the cart, indicated that he would create a diversion. The man was tall and blond, and looked as if he was enjoying himself in his exaggeratedly loud approach to the hidden Covenanter.
James slunk around from behind just as he heard the scrape of a gun's hammer. The Covenanter rose, taking aim at the man in front of him. James swung his blade, a single, forceful strike, and his enemy fell, never knowing what hit him.
"And I thank you… James Graham, if I'm not mistaken." The blond man gave James another lopsided smile, a single dimple creasing his tanned face.
"Aye, you've the right of it," James replied. "And you gentlemen would be… ?"
"Jamie Ogilvy, second earl of the House of Airlie," the blond said, "and a pleasure it is to meet one who's felled so many Campbells."
"Ah," James replied. "The earl is your father?"
"Aye, I'm his eldest."
"Then you've my sympathies, good man," James said somberly. Magda had told him of the atrocities she'd witnessed when Campbell razed the Ogilvy estate, burning the House of Airlie to the ground.
"The kindness is appreciated, Graham, but what I'd most like is vengeance."
"Aye, we're not done yet." James looked around uneasily. "Though we should flee from this place if we're to live to fight again."
He turned to the other men. and they introduced themselves in quick succession: one was a Scotsman with the name Crawford, and the other was the Marquis of Douglas, the only southern noble to join them on the field.
They'd been scouring Selkirk for survivors when they were taken by surprise by the handful of Covenanters.
The four men ran in silence from the town, hugging close to buildings to take cover whenever they heard voices. They spoke little as they moved swiftly out into the countryside, sparing their breath for the hard travel.
They'd gone for hours on foot, tracing a path along the banks of the Tweed, when Ogilvy stopped suddenly, his voice breaking the silence. "My luck's not left me yet." He cracked another of his cockeyed grins that made it look as if his mouth were too lazy to curve up on both of its sides. "Oh, you're lucky, is it?" James looked with amusement at his companion.
"See for yourself." He nodded toward two saddled ponies grazing well north of Philiphaugh.