"So I see." James laughed. "Though I'll wager your luck was another's misfortune," he added, referring to the owners who'd presumably been killed in the battle.
The four men soon found themselves on a hilltop overlooking Peebles. It was a small burgh, whose buildings sprang up from the midst of a lush meadow as if cupped in a great, green palm.
"And this Neil MacLeod is a friend of yours?" James asked the southern nobleman as they studied the distant estate. "Of true friends, I have few," Douglas said as he eyed Traquair House. It was a large manse on the outskirts of town, nestled in an idyllic spot among trees and the gentle curve of the River Tweed. "The MacLeod is an acquaintance, and a Highlander at that. I've no cause to doubt his allegiance."
"A Lowlander with Highland acquaintances, I imagine you don't count many among your allies." Ogilvy edged closer to the rise, as if the extra inches could help him discern friend from foe. His hair had come loose, and he held the dirty blond mass of it back from his forehead with a blood- crusted hand. "The Laird of Assynt is housed in Peebles?" He rolled on his side to face the other men. "What's a MacLeod laird doing in a border town?"
"A skeptic, eh?" Crawford had been eager to find safe harbor, and spoke in favor of approaching Traquair House. "Aye," Ogilvy said incredulously, "as would you be if you'd had your home burned to the ground by just such a man keeping strange friends in stranger places."
"What takes him so far south?" James asked, ever on guard.
"When last we met, he claimed to be rallying men for you, James," Douglas replied.
"But why at Traquair House? The Earl of Traquair is a Stewart, and I've yet to glean his true allegiance." He looked up from the valley to the Lowland nobleman. The resounding defeat at PhiIiphaugh had the smell of a trap, and it had nagged at James since. He would trust nobody until he could make sense of what treachery might be at work. "Are you certain of his hospitality?"
"Aye," Douglas replied, "he encouraged me and mine to partake of Traquair hospitality anytime."
"Truly, James." Crawford stood and adjusted his breeches and jacket. "The sun sets quickly now and I'd rather not spend one more night under the stars. I'm not so romantic a soul as you."
It became clear just how vast the mansion was when seen from up close. Its whitewashed stone was an imposing sight, glowing ghostly in the twilight. The facade was riddled with small square windows that emphasized the house's stout profile.
The MacLeod was a dour man of middle age, and though clearly he'd once been muscular, the skin had already begun to hang slack on his cheeks.
"My friend the Marquis of Douglas assures me we've your hospitality," James said. "I'm afraid we need to avail ourselves of it, despite the late hour."
"Och, what do you take me for?" MacLeod snarled, but it was unclear whether it was truly gruff good humor or something else that tempered his voice.
"You," he said to James, through lips that peeled into a smile that didn't quite meet his eyes. "No day passes that I'm not subjected to some tale of your victories. I'd hear tell from your own mouth, Graham. I'd also hear news of Philiphaugh. It seems you were routed without the MacColla to stand with you."
"Routed we were," James ventured in an even voice, "but not for want of MacColla, extraordinary soldier though he may be. Leslie discovered our position." The good humor that usually animated his face hardened, and James's black eyes Hashed a warning. "Almost as though he'd expected us."
MacLeod laughed then, a spiritless utterance that chilled him. "Come Graham, we've made a poor start of it. Food and whisky will set us to rights. But you men," he said to James's companions, "you must be weary from your travels. A maid will settle you in rooms for the night." "Where, pray tell, is our host?" Ogilvy asked, not budging. "Aye," James added, "I've long wanted to meet the Earl of Traquair. I've a question to put to him."
"He's gone away," MacLeod said simply. Two maids appeared to hustle the others to their rooms for the night. Ogilvy seemed hesitant to leave, but James dismissed his men with a shrug.
"That's unfortunate," James said. "You see, Cromwell and his Parliament, and Campbell and his Covenanters all wish to overthrow the king."
He followed the MacLeod, who strode without pause toward the mansion's great room. "And yet," James continued, "Parliament accuses our host of being for the king, while the Royalists believe he's an enemy."
James stopped just inside the doorway. Though his tone was cavalier, his words were dangerous. "I'd hear it from the man's own mouth where his allegiance lies. And that of his friends," he added, his eyes glittering.
"I'd not question a man's loyalties when he's not here to speak for his own self," MacLeod said flatly. He turned and glared at James. "But you're here, are you not?" Another humorless smile split his face. "You're brought under this roof, so mayhap there's your answer, aye?"
They entered the room, cavernous and empty but for a long table and chairs. Night had fallen, and shadows clung to the fabric-draped walls, untouched by the candlelight that studded the table. Curtains in an indiscernible dark color bracketed a panel of windows whose dull, glassy eyes stared blindly into the blackness outside.
A fire burned low in the hearth, fronted by an enormous mastiff, his languorous pose belying the thick knots of muscle poised under fur and ready to pounce.
"Please," MacLeod said, pulling a chair from the table for his guest.
James sat warily, not taking his eye from the laird whose inscrutable ways had him at his guard. Two glasses waited for them on the table, thick leaded goblets each bearing a dram of whisky.
"To the king." MacLeod raised his in a toast.
"Aye," James said, "to Charles."
The wrong smell of it in his sinuses registered too late. No sooner had James placed his glass back on the table than he felt the effects. Buzzing came loud in his ears, and seeing MacLeod's expectant gaze, he knew.
"What treachery is this?" Clinging to the arms of his chair,
James forced himself to stay upright. "Bastard, you've poisoned me."
"Not poison, no," MacLeod said.
"We don't want you dead, Graham." The voice came from the shadows. James heard the clicking heels approach at his back, though his body was unable to turn and see. "I'd not rob my fine countrymen from such a sight as your death. The execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, would-be champion to his king and country? No, that shall be performed for a crowd of thousands. I'd not covet it for myself alone."
"Campbell," James bit out the name with disgust. "I'd know your snake's hiss anywhere. So you"—he managed to cant his head and catch the eye of the MacLeod—"you've played me false, is it? Is that how the wind blows here in the Lowlands?"
Campbell chuckled, the candlelight glistening on the damp of his thin lips. Elaborately settling and tucking his brocaded waistcoat, he sat by James's side.
James began to tremble violently, and the effort to remain seated took all his will. Numbness crept up his legs and deadened his hands, still clinging to the arms of his chair like lifeless claws.
"But"—James shuddered a deep inhale—"you're a Highlander. Why sully yourself with this… pig?"
"Oh, he has twenty-five thousand reasons to do so," Campbell answered for the laird.
"Aye," MacLeod added, "the bounty on your head is too great to ignore. For twenty-five thousand pounds you'd sell your own sister, I wager."
"Then…" James struggled, "you… wager wrongly."
"Och," MacLeod spat, "'twasn't just the reward. You've associated with too many Catholics for my tastes."
"I fight… with papist and Protestant alike." Head quivering,
James's words were loosely formed now, spoken through lips nearly frozen with paralysis. "B -bigger than religion. For king. F-for country."
"King," Campbell said with a wave of his hand. "Your King Charles has fled. Parliament now wants his head for treason, so he's disappeared, some say to the Isle of Man." Campbell took a small snuffbox from his pocket. It was crafted from horn, and the candlelight warmed the golden brown colors of its lid.
"It seems they've grown tired of him. Perhaps it's that he was born in Scotland." Campbell took a pinch of the powder and sniffed. "But Charles seems to have forgotten he's been sitting on an English throne these past years."
"No court…" James began. "None can try a king."
"Really?" Campbell absentmindedly picked the dark residue from under his thumbnail. "You must inform Parliament of that en route to Mercat Cross for your hanging."
James only gaped now, his body rigid but for the faint in and out of his breath.
"Oh yes," Campbell smiled. "Parliament has taken over, under the hand of Cromwell."
James sat like a statue beside him. Campbell caught his eyes and held them. "So you see, Graham, there is no one to protect you now."
Magda tore frantically through the trunk, and was dismayed to see that it was filled with yet another pile of old clothes. Mildew and dust hung in the room, tightening her lungs. She dropped back to sit, wiping the damp from her brow.
She'd ridden back to Montrose in silence. James's uncertain destiny made her sick with fear. He seemed so intent on saving the world, just as her brother had. And Magda was terrified that, as it had for Peter, the day would come when James, with some gesture both foolish and grand, would get himself killed. She would lose him like she'd lost Peter. She'd barely survived her brother's death. Magda couldn't bear to go through such darkness and despair again.