James's laugh was a low and sultry rumble. "You, hen, are a delight indeed." Clapping his hands to his thighs, he pulled back from Magda, seeming not to notice the embarrassment and fury waging battle on her face.
"I'll send word for Lonan," he said. "I'm still unable to fathom what's transpired here, but a lengthy chat with the good Brother is in order." He added sternly, "I'd know what dark arts he's about, and why he's chosen to play at them under my roof."
He rose to leave. Still reeling from their exchange, Magda stopped him. "James," she said through clenched teeth. "Aye?"
"Will you please no longer refer to me as a barnyard animal? I have a name, and it's Magda. Or Magdalen, if you prefer," she heard herself amend, cursing her habit of resorting to politeness in even the most extreme of circumstances.
He flashed her a rakish grin and countered, "I'll consider myself advised, hen."
"I tell you, good man, this is different." There was a muffled sound of dulled steel as James pulled his sword from its scabbard. "I am completely and utterly charmed." Elbows at his waist, James held his practice sword poised in an easy stance, bobbing lightly on the balls of his feet.
"Aye," Tom teased, "I've heard similar words fall from that mouth of yours before." Taking his time to fit each finger into an elaborate pair of leather gauntlets, he warned. "You'll have scandal at your door if you install a mystery lass in your bed."
"She's not in my bed," James said dismissively. "Now, place that sword in your hand. You've delayed this moment long enough."
"You know I prefer my pistol to all other weapons."
"Aye, and your enemy prefers you out of gunpowder, standing dumbly with an unseasoned blade in hand. Now," James commanded, "spar."
Tom swept his blunted practice sword out, striking a tentative blow. Flicking his blade to the side, James easily deflected the other man's strike.
"You must tell me who she is if I'm to leave you be. You've found an exotic princess from a foreign shore, perhaps?" "No princesses, sorry to disappoint." James swung his broadsword around slowly, giving his friend the chance for an easy block. "That's the way," he encouraged.
"Tom," he added in a grave whisper, "she claims to be from the future."
"Oh, James!" Tom shouted, seized by laughter. The point of his blade dropped to the dirt. "That's rich!"
A light film of sweat already coated Tom's brow. He tugged at his collar to help catch his breath. "I think, my friend, you've been ensorcelled by a bonny lass with an eye to becoming a marquise."
"This is no jest," James said flatly. "I saw… the wonders she has…"
He was cut short by another sudden hoot of Tom's laughter. "She's flashed her wonders already? I told you, a clever marquis hunter "—
"Hold your tongue," James snapped. "And raise that blade to me or I vow I'll end this lesson and give you some true sparring. Now listen, man." They slowly circled each other, heavy broadswords held in both hands, their blades touching lightly. "She had on her person objects that defy reason."
James twirled his blade overhead and slashed downward, forcing Tom to raise his sword high in a block above his head.
"She wore a miniature clock on her wrist, lit from within yet not hot to the touch, capable of making a sound fit to puncture your ears."
Tom's face was a fixed, blank mask as he parried James's increasingly aggressive volley of sword thrusts.
"And a fire that she kept in her pocket. Aye, man," he asserted in answer to the skeptical look that Tom managed over his blade. "A small bonny thing, like a jewel, cool in the fingers, that builds a flame with the turning of a wheel."
"Keep your guard up!" James shouted abruptly. "That's it, thrust, thrust!"
Short of breath, Tom sputtered, "Is this a scheme to back out of your quarrel with the king?"
"You'll not jest so." James drove at his friend from the side, bringing his sword down with a crash onto Tom's quivering blade just at eye level. "Ever."
"Careful, James," he yelped. "Mind the face!"
"I 'd no sooner misjudge my blade's mark than unintentionally cut mine own hand off." James's sword dipped up and down in an effortless feint.
"My feelings are unchanged, Tom. My intentions regarding our king remain deadly serious. I'd sooner not battle Charles, but if he'll not abide the sensible thoughts of sensible men, I see no other choice."
James punctuated his last thought with a strong thrust of his sword, and Tom skittered backward.
"I'm a thespian, not a soldier," Tom panted, holding his blade in a defensive posture. "So please just have a care."
"I thought you were a philosopher," James quipped.
"Ah. that was last year."
"Not so much hopping, Thomas. You'll tire. Your advantage is size."
"Thai's not what Fin told." Brows furrowed with exertion, Tom swung his blade around, and James easily ducked back to avoid it.
"Come man, thrust! Throw your weight into it." Taking his heavy sword into one hand, James canted his body to the side and propelled himself forward, the long, lean muscles of his legs stretching into a wide V. "Attend the left side!" he shouted, and back utterly straight, breath coming as easily as if he'd just risen from bed, James slapped his sword lightly onto his friend's side.
"Och, man, I've just killed you." James stuck his blade into the ground and leaned into the hilt. "When I take my weapon by a single hand, what is it I've lost?"
"Not the battle, surely," Tom huffed, gratefully resheathing the blade at his hip.
Ignoring his jibe, James explained, "Placing my sword in a single hand, I have the advantage of reaching you from a great distance. But, in so doing, I lose strength and speed. Yours was an opportunity lost."
"Aye, James, once again you've bested me. I hope you're well pleased."
"What would please me is if you'd put your back into it. I'll not be able to mind you on the battlefield."
"And you'll thankfully not have the need to," Tom replied quickly. "I'm eager to be a font of wise counsel, but when it comes to the fighting, I prefer taking refuge in the outer ranks." Pausing, he retrieved a small square of linen from his pocket with which to wipe his eyes. "So you sincerely intend on going to battle over this?"
"We've signatures plenty on the Covenant, and the University at Aberdeen will surely provide us with even more," James said.
referring to the manifesto they'd drawn up with a group of like- minded men. With it, they hoped to rally support—and signatures—throughout Scotland in an effort to protect their country's religious freedoms. "King Charles cannot, will not, ignore the reason of so many of his countrymen." The king had married a Catholic, and Scotsmen viewed his new prayer book as but the first of many offenses. As crosses and chalices of gold began to adorn more altars, many feared the integrity of their own kirks were in danger. "What if you find Aberdeen lacking in sensible men? And," Tom asked, his voice treacherously low, "what if you find that your Scottish king now listens only to his English countrymen?"
"Aye," James responded gravely, "that is when you and I will talk of battles."
He knew he'd puzzled his friend with his talk of Magda, but James couldn't spare it a second thought. Tom, rightly, had steered them back to discussion of the king and their Covenant. Tom had not believed him and his story of Magda, likely never would believe him. And that was oddly acceptable to James.
He swirled his port, the liquid shimmering off the faceted crystal of his glass like a dark purple jewel. His hair was still damp from bathwater as scalding as he could bear. Stretching his legs out from the folds of his thick robe, he savored the languid feel of worked muscles beneath hot skin.
He knew the lass was special. Had known it the moment he'd seen her, leggy and spooked like some gorgeous chestnut filly. Her explanations defied reason, but so too did her strange and wonderful treasures. She claimed to be from the future, and he found he believed her. Enough, at least, to have had that devilish portrait stored away for everyone's protection, despite the fact that her repeated touching of the thing had been futile.
The situation was a test for any true romantic, and James was nothing if not that. Poetic words and deeds inspired him, drove him, and James challenged himself as to why her extraordinary tale should not be so.
Besides, she was different from anyone he'd ever known. Other people rarely caught James off his guard; for another person to astonish him so was a rare joy. Indeed, with her charmingly tentative poise, she was a refreshing contrast to the usual society women. Rather than fill the air with empty chatter, Magda gave word to economically chosen remarks through lips full and swollen as if just kissed, and James found he'd likely believe her if she claimed to be Mary Queen of Scots returned from beyond to seek her vengeance.
He saw clear the tempest that lay dormant in her eyes, shimmering like lightning on the horizon, giving lie to her studied outward calm. James was sorely tempted to be the man who'd set spark to flint, releasing Magda from her precise and tightly coiled exterior.
Contrary to Tom's cautioning against ambitious lasses in search of titled husbands, Magda seemed unimpressed by the luxury of her surroundings. Most other unmarried women of his acquaintance ingratiated themselves to James, cooing over his clothes, estate, furnishings—even his bloody horse wasn't above notice. Although not a vain man, James couldn't help but be aware that his affable nature and pleasant looks had opened many a door—not to mention a few petticoats—for him. But the things that elicited fawning titters from her female peers instead set Magda's eyes to a slow burn: a playful pat on the rump, a flirtatious word, or a prolonged glance drew that pretty jaw of hers into an ill-tempered pique that drove James to distraction.