The guard, though, clearly relied on a fair amount of street fighting experience. He tore away from James's grasp and swooped back in to butt him hard on the head.
James grunted as a flare of white light momentarily filled his line of sight. He'd heard his nose crunch, and the iron tang of blood filled his mouth and impaired his breathing. He stumbled backward, tripping over the other man, still out cold on the floor. James purposely tumbled then, immediately pawing at the nobleman's side until he felt the ornamental scabbard at the man's waist.
The smallsword was a pleasant little weapon, shorter than a rapier, and James couldn't help the smile that spread over his face at the feel of its featherlight weight in his hand. A new fashion from France, such swords were more like jewelry than weaponry for a man, with their slender blades and decorative pommels and crossguards.
Bounding to his feet, he gave it an experimental whip through the air, and laughed then at the joy of wielding a blade that could dip and alight like a bird in flight.
The guard dove toward him, and James ducked back easily. He'd seen the hesitation flicker across the man's features at the sound of his laugh. "You could run, aye?" James told him, taking advantage of the man's uncertainty. Unlike his broadsword, this weapon lacked a cutting edge, its needle -thin outline made for thrusting alone. And, as the man shook his head, thrust James did, hopping forward and forward again to plunge the sword easily into the man's torso. Gasping a curse, the guard lurched backward, and clutched at his wound. He pulled his hand s away and stared with disbelief at the blood covering them. James dragged a sleeve across his face to wipe his own blood from beneath his injured nose. He counted himself lucky that his opponent was a simple turnkey and not a part of the city guard. Though this man clearly wasn't armed as a soldier would be, he did carry a dagger, which appeared now in his bloodied hand.
The guard rushed at him and then stopped short, seeing
James's poised sword stance and the calm that smoothed his face. Sneering, the man bobbed his hand a few times then tossed up his knife, grabbing the flat of the blade in his palm. Planting a short step forward, he threw.
A clipped grunt escaped James as the dagger stabbed the dense muscle of his thigh. He was calm as he removed the blade and slung it back in a single swift motion.
Squinting, James picked up the torch and limped down the tunnel. The sound of the guard hitting the floor echoed along the stone passageway, his own dagger plunged in his throat.
The ground was cold on his bare feet, which slapped quietly as James jogged through the passage beneath the Tolbooth. Dozens of chambers and tight tunnels spurred from his path, but spying the footprints shuffled into the top layer of loose, dry dirt, he stuck to the original passageway and eventually spotted a narrow staircase cut into the stone.
James scaled it quickly, thinking he could always double back if need be. He came to a landing, and braced the flat of his hand on the door there. The cold, corroded iron muted all sound, and James thought he was as likely to find safe haven as a crowded guardroom on the other side. He startled when the door began to budge, and dove quickly back down the stairs. He flung the torch down the tunnel. It clattered and rolled to a stop, and James hoped it landed far enough away to conceal its light.
He plugged his fingers in his ears at the shriek of rust dragging along stone. A sliver of light cut down the stairs as the door opened. Motes of dust, dirt, and the powder of ancient metal whirled in angry currents, disturbed by the sudden movement. James tucked himself close along the stone wall and waited, tracing his palm expectantly along the thin bracket of steel that comprised his sword's elegant hand guard. A draft of fresh air carried muted voices down to him, and James mused he'd never thought Edinburgh had ever smelled so sweet.
The door screeched again, not as loudly this time, and James sensed it closing, shutting him off once again from the world. He knew he had but a moment to act. Bounding back up the stairs, James fled into the late afternoon light, a grin on his face at the terrified shouts of laborers who'd thought a wraith had just escaped the tombs to cross their path. A ghost indeed, he thought, and ran to the one place nobody would find him.
But James didn't see the man rise from the steps of the neighboring Bellhouse to follow, intent drawing the stranger's face into tight lines and hastening his stride.
The Scottish could be a suspicious lot, and James knew that, come night, the only folk to be found in the graveyard off Greyfriars Kirk would be grave robbers. The Royal College of Surgeons was expanding, and with the increased demand for bodies, resurrection was a fast -growing trade.
It was late afternoon, and the sun struck Greyfriars Kirkyard at a sharp angle. White light illuminated tombs and trees from the side, making them appear more vivid, somehow beyond real. Long black shadows tapered from the bases of elaborate tombstones like specters emerging for the night.
Tall, tightly packed walls of tombstones closed in on either side of him, gray, elaborately carved monuments covered with macabre images of ill-shaped skulls and ominous epitaphs extolling the lives of brave husbands and loving wives. Oversized family vaults studded the graveyard, looming like small haunted dwellings frozen in time, the years moldering and blackening their names and their detail.
The elegant steeple of St. Giles Cathedral hovered in the distance, putting him in mind of Brother Lonan. He thought of Rollo too, wondering if he lived or died. That Rollo might be out there somewhere at that very moment, in the borderlands not too far away, struck him. But whether he suffered, thrived, or had already breathed his last, James had no way to know.
He let his mind turn to Magda then. Clever, beautiful, surprising Magda. Since they'd met, she'd flourished, like an elegant heron, once stiff and straight, who'd spread her wings to reveal the startlingly spectacular plumage beneath. It had taken a special kind of courage to snub her nose at danger, sneaking into the Tolbooth to administer him poison, of all things.
And it had taken love too. For surely that is the only thing that could fuel such recklessness. Just as he loved her. His chest swelled with it. It expanded him, ennobled him, somehow made him more than just a man.
"Graham." The voice behind him was furtive hush.
The smallsword was in his hand before he'd finished turning about. The blade may have been intended for decoration, but it made a pretty hum as it cut through the crisp autumn air. The terror on the man's face stopped James's hand short, and he halted the sword to touch a light kiss on the stranger's right ear.
"State your business, man." Pent-up energy hummed along James's veins, his body still coiled from his ordeal of the past days. "How is it you know my name?"
"I -I…" he stammered. James eased away his blade realizing the man in front of him was a half-wit. A quick scan and blackened nails, filthy bare feet, and the dirty knees of his trousers hanging loose betrayed his status as a simple workman.
"Easy, lad." James resheathed his sword. His relaxed posture was intended to put the stranger at ease, but
James scanned the graveyard all the while, looking for signs of movement or telltale shadows peeking from behind the towering tombstones.
"Mag- da—" the man began, his tongue thick in his mouth. "What of Magda?" Panic shot through James, and he fought to keep a calm stance. "You've time. Say it, man. Who has brought you here?"
The man clapped a hand to his pocket, and James pulled his own hand back to rest once again on his sword hilt.
"M -Magda says Graham comes with me." He pulled something out of his pocket and thrust it toward James. The button James had given her so long ago once again rested cool in his palm. Sunlight shimmered along the delicate gold filigree and made the blue enamel glow luminous.
"She says give Graham the button and Graham comes with me."
"So I shall," James told him, shaking his head at his wife's keen mind. Long stripped of his sporran, he tucked the button in his shirtsleeve. He gave the man a reassuring clap on the shoulder. "Graham comes with you, lad."
The man led him down the path at an aggravatingly slow pace. Irregularly paved stones wended through grass that was an eerily vivid green against the colorless kirkyard. They reached an alley, and James spotted the coach waiting at its end, just at the intersection of Grassmarket. The carriage was backlit by the sun, lower now in the sky. Flares of white sunlight streaked across the black painted exterior, casting sinister shadows of carriage and horse along the alleyway. He saw her then, stepping out. She was lit brilliantly from behind, setting off warm, bright streaks in her hair. A breeze swept down the passageway, sweeping the long russet locks up to dance like flames on the wind. As he approached, her features emerged from shadow. The slight curl to her lips belied the intensity in her eyes. She looked happy to see him, but relieved too, and not yet certain they were out of danger.
James leaned in to kiss her. and she gave the slightest shake to her head. Turning, Magda climbed back in the carriage. Blood pounding in his chest, he watched her. Took in the curve of her hip and the slight shift of muscle as she alighted.
James was quick behind her, pressing his body along hers, urging her in, and kissing the words from her mouth as the coach door slammed shut.
Magda shut her eyes and inhaled, soothed by the distant ebb and flow of the waves. James had insisted they open the balcony door while they took their tea, despite the shocked protestations of his sister. The third-floor sitting room was small, but with charming furniture and a door that opened to a view of the sea, it was one of Magda's favorite places. Though the journey back to Montrose had been harrowing, and nice as it was to be safe for the moment with a roof over their heads, they'd gotten accustomed to feeling the air fresh on their faces.
Tom had arranged the carriage out of Edinburgh, but they could only afford to let it for the day. It had been enough, though, to hide James as he quickly changed his clothes, and they'd gotten outside the walls of Edinburgh disguised as a wealthy family. From there, they convinced a Queensferry fisherman to take them out from the Firth of Forth to sail directly into Montrose harbor. Magda had breathed a sigh of relief when they finally arrived at his home late the following night.