Sword of the Highlands

Page 17


"Aye, he seems to favor that one."
The drawings became even more rudimentary until, on the last page, all that remained was a circle, with a crudely rendered female figure at its center.
Greek symbols dotted the shape, and underneath Brother Lonan had written a single phrase.
"As many points on a single wheel, Time abides."
* * *
James silently damned Lonan. He needed to help Magda back to her own time, and the brother alone held the key. Though his notebooks had been intriguing, they were useless without their author.
His country was on the brink of war. It was a dangerous place for any woman, not to mention a foreign lass with no notion of how to survive. Magda had no friends, no family. Nobody but him to rely on, and he was off to a battle from which he might not return.
He'd been letting himself get too comfortable with her, increasingly finding himself looking forward to talking to her, and to the challenge of goading a smile onto that bonny face of hers. Now he feared he was getting too close, and felt the need to send her back to her own time with sudden urgency. When he was by her side, the sensation of some epic change glimmered vague on the edges of his mind, some unrealized potential that was just within his grasp. And the feeling scared him.
He would not cast Magda out to face the Fates alone. No, he would keep her close until he could see her ushered
home to safety. And not just for her own protection, but for his own good as well.
He could not forget his duty to his country. He had pressing responsibilities, his own world and his own time, going to hell on the throne of Charles. He needed to focus on Aberdeen. Then afterward he'd return to his home by the sea, and his golf and books and other pursuits. He might even finally let his family find him a decent match among the fine flowers of Montrose.
James would remember what he was about. And that was not a wayward lass from a distant land.
* * *
"These… what do they call themselves now?"
"I know not, Your Highness." The painter stepped back to admire his work. Never had he met a person so besotted with their image as this king of England. In fact, the whole of the English court kept him busy with their commissions, and he'd not enjoyed an idle day since his arrival from Antwerp.
"Flemish you may be," King Charles scolded, "but you are in my court now, and best you begin following the goings-on. I talk of the Covenanters, man. I call them spoiled whelps in the midst of a tantrum." The king waved his hand impatiently. "Parliament chafes under my reign, these Lowland nobles buzz about like flies. They are all children, the lot of them."
Charles once again fluffed the lace at his collar. "Tell me Anthony, what does a good father do when a child has a tantrum?"
The court painter Van Dyck remained silent, merely continuing to look from subject to canvas and back again. He was used to the king's outbursts, and knew his questions were merely rhetorical. The man seemed to use the time he sat for his portrait as an opportunity to think aloud, working through the growing conflicts: with the Church, with Scotland, with Parliament. Charles seemed to be having a run of missteps that was slowly tripping up the whole of his kingdom.
"A good father ignores the tantrum, Anthony. But when pressed"—Charles shifted out of his pose to face the painter directly—"when pressed, the father has no choice but to discipline the child."
He shifted back into his pose, chest puffed and back arched to elongate his short stature as much as possible. "Aberdeen shall be my test. My children fight all around me, but I shall be the good fathe r and step back. To see what happens in Aberdeen will tell us which way the wind blows."
Chapter 12
"You cannot be serious, lad." Napier slammed his cup down on the crude wooden table before him.
"Ah! If you could but stand up to my dear sister in this way "—
"You'll not be impudent with me, James. A mere in -law I may be. but I am still a man of knowledge and reason." James tried—and failed—to suppress a smile as he studied his brother-in-law. The first Lord Napier was lean where Margaret was plump, somber and stoic to her animated sentimentality. Not a hair was out of place on his thinning pate. The man was precise comportment in contrast to his wife's bluster, and the poor sot loved Margaret more than life itself.
"I'll not know why you insist on your present course of action," Napier continued. "The town officers have denied you support, so now you're after Aberdeen like a pup worrying a rag. Don't you see?" He lowered his voice. He'd installed himself in a crofter's cottage not far outside Aberdeen, and it would do no good for the wrong ears to overhear. "The townspeople are merely the pot our king has placed over the fire so that he might better test the heat without risk to his own flesh."
"You've changed topic, dearest brother-in-law."
"Och, James, the topic? My topic is your folly. Your lass needs to return to Montrose. I could ferry her back tomorrow, safe into Margaret's care."
"You'll not fight with us?" James cocked his brows encouragingly, but his brother-in-law remained as stolid as ever.
"You know I'll not, James."
Napier let the statement hang before continuing, "I love you as my own blood, but I must speak with candor. I've been following the news from Edinburgh. As the days pass, it seems your Covenanters are becoming more like a gang of selfish and despotic nobles who've spied their chance to seize power."
"How could that be when they've asked that I lead? You ken me well, Napier." Opening his arms, James raised his brows in mock innocence. "Am I so tyrannical?
"Truly, brother," James continued in graver tones, "the king threatens to dictate the Church of Scotland. I'll not sit idly by."
Napier thoughtfully stroked the thin flesh of his cheeks. "You claim Charles has overstepped where the Kirk is concerned, but you need to see with your eyes, James, beyond the appearance of a thing, to its true nature."
"My elder you may be," James snapped, "but you'll not patronize me. I indeed see the truth of what I fight for. I'm driven to battle for a principle, honor-bound to ensure Scotland's religious freedoms are protected. It is that honor that will find us victorious."
"Then at least let me take Magdalen. I fear she's a distraction, and distractions kill, lad."
"I said no, Napier. Believe me. I would that she were home—away to her own home." He stood abruptly, curling his hands into fists then dropping them loose to his sides. "But until that time, I'll not cast her to the winds. These are dangerous times. She was sent to me and shall remain under my care."
"Sent by whom? Och," Napier grumbled when met with James's silence, "I wish you weren't so mysterious about this whole business."
"You must trust me on this. The lass has none but me to turn to. I'll not send her off until I have more of an… understanding of her situation. She can bide with you we ll outside Aberdeen while I fight."
"She can bide with me in Montrose."
"I'd keep her close to me." James slammed his open palms onto the table in front of him, leaning close to his brother-in-law. "And that is the end of the matter."
Napier stood to face him. "Who knows how many troops Charles might be marching toward us even now?" He pleaded, "You've no reckoning of the fight that could lay ahead."
"Magda stays," James said with finality. "Whatever my thoughts on the lass, I'll not leave her."
* * *
"We march on the morrow," James announced, settling himself next to Magda on the grassy riverbank. "Our troops are rallied well beyond the Brig o' Dee under a General Leslie." He nodded toward the bridge in the distance, whose low, stout arches spanned the River Dee.
"We have some men of high birth, and a goodly number of swords-for- hire. but I doubt we'll need to resort to such gross tactics."
"You act like you're excited about this," Magda grumbled. She didn't relish watching him march into the sunset, nor did she want to be shuttled back to Montrose either. Fate had sent her to James, and somehow she'd come to trust him. Despite the close proximity of battle, she'd stay with him as he'd asked. At least until they could find Lonan, and a way back to her own world.
"A chance to trade doublet for armor? Aye, I am excited.
But," he said, swooping up onto his knees, "I'd take a charm for the fight."
Magda gasped at his suddenly unsheathed broadsword. "Goodness, that's some weapon."
"Aye, indeed it is." His wicked wink brought an indignant blush to her cheeks.
Balancing it on his forearm, James held the sword aloft. Sunlight glinted sharply off the blade, a couple inches wide at the base and tapered to a deadly sharp point.
"'Twas a gift from my father. He'd wanted to gild the basket," he said, referring to the thick filigree work that protected the hilt and ultimately would guard the swordsman's hand, "but I prefer the look of raw steel." James moved so quickly, she didn't have time to protest. One swift flick of his sword, and a small strip of Magda's hem fluttered between his fingers.
"For luck, aye?" James deftly tied the light blue strip of silk into a knot and pinned it to his bonnet. "You'd not deny the warrior a wee talisman, would you?"
He smiled and reached out to gently pinch her chin. "Don't look so dire, hen. You'll keep safe with Margaret's husband while I fight."
"So that's it then?"
If only she'd listened to Walter more. Magda remembered that day at the museum when he'd told her of the horrible fate that James Graham had met.
Would meet.
Was this that moment? Would this next fight bring his death?
She stared sullenly at the river, concentrating on its noisy rush, willing the pounding of water over rock to deafen her to the thoughts in her head.
Tears stung her eyes as renegade memories crept in to stab her unexpectedly, and Magda wondered if she'd ever be able to look at the water the same way. Or if Peter's death had ruined her forever.