Sword of the Highlands

Page 2


She'd been amazed the first time she visited the employees -only area. Dozens of rooms lined the bowels of the museum. A number of them housed mismatched sculptures like a millionaire's garage sale, while others felt like bank vaults, with temperature-controlled facilities housing drawer after drawer of prints and drawings. Her favorite, though, was the painting storage, where hundreds of priceless works hung on panels that she could flip through, much like browsing posters in the museum shop. •"Thanks, kid."
Walter's voice startled Magda and she smiled at herself. She always had a tendency to get a bit fanciful whenever she was among so much art. The empty rooms and dim lights only intensified it.
"No problem," she said, realizing that it was true. Now that she was there, it really wasn't a problem. Magda was actually quite curious about the paintings that would drive Walter to call her for such a fast and loose cleanup job for a ready-to-go exhibit.
"They're in here." He rattled through the dozens of keys hanging from his belt. It was yet another surprise for a curator. Generally a tweedy set, they weren't inclined to janitorial-grade key chains. "They arrived by courier late last night, anonymous bequeathal. All Scottish pieces, which is unusual."
Walter fumbled along the wall for the light, continuing, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn what their provenance is, they're a perfect fit for the exhibit. We've got Flemish paintings coming out of our ears, but we're short on Britain. I even see some Scottish Highlands here, which is unheard of for this time period."
The lights flickered on and Magda drew in her breath. The table was cluttered with dozens of miniature landscapes, each bearing some romantic vista on a small scale: seascapes under bright blue- saturated skies, idyllic farmlands dotted with sheep, storm-clouded castles, purple heather-tangled moors, and emerald green rain -drenched glens.
"Don't have a cardiac, kid. I don't want you to clean the lot
of them. There are just two that I have to have. The rest is gravy.
"Besides," he added, picking up one of the small paintings, "they look like they were restored not too long ago." He held the piece horizontally up to his eyes, shifting it under the light, scanning the surface for imperfections. "You should get these under the UV, see what's what. Otherwise, they should tidy right up with a superficial cleaning."
But Magda wasn't listening. Nor had it been the number of paintings that had made her gasp. It was the portrait that held her attention, looming so incongruously alive among the pool of formal landscapes. Leaning askew against the rear wall was a life -sized painting of a man, pictured from the waist up, against a background of dense, impermeable black. Only the man's face was illuminated with color, and his features seemed to emerge from the darkness. White paint slashed dramatically across his left breast, as if he'd been lit from below, a candle's flicker cutting through the shadows, turning his suit of armor into a dull gray.
He was handsome, but not too perfect. His features were fine, except for his nose, which was just a fraction too large and gave his face a strong, masculine appearance. Brown hair hung in loose waves to his shoulders, making him appear somewhat more disheveled than these sorts of portraits usually depicted, as if the painter had just caught his subject in mid action. His black eyes stared, and they were painted with such vitality the man seemed about to break into a wicked grin, charisma pinning him to the surface of the canvas like a magnet.
"You hungry or something?"
Magda jumped, and looked at Walter as if seeing him for the first time. "Huh?"
"You really are an absent minded professor, kid." He nodded toward the loaf of bread crushed under her arm. "You on an all-carb kick or something?"
"This?" Magda looked down and seemed to come back to earth. "Oh, yeah, we're so short on time, I thought I'd bring out one of my favorite cheats."
"You're on a diet?"
"What? No. of course not. It's a trick I use, for the painting. Dough can clean better than any solvent. You just wad it up, and "—
"Okay, whatever, I get the picture. Now just get to work. And get your eyes off Mister Universe over there. You're only interested in these two." Walter pointed to a small matched pair of landscapes depicting the same Highland glen at different times of day. "You don't see that kind of thing a lot, at least not before the Impressionists came along."
"Walter, wait." Magda stopped her boss just as he was walking out the door. "Who is that guy anyway?" she asked, staring again at the portrait.
He huffed an exasperated sigh. "I take it you're not going to concentrate until you know, huh?"
"Hm?" She looked at him distractedly. "What was that?" "Mag," he grumbled, shaking his head. "The things I do for you." Putting his briefcase down, Walter shuffled through a stack of papers. "Aha. That is…" He took out a small, yellowed note card and read. "James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose."
"They had marquis in Scotland?"
"Yeah, I guess so." He saw from her expression that she wasn't going to let him go without more information so, scanning the paper, Walter enumerated the pertinent facts to Magda. "Let's see… seventeenth -century nobleman… Scottish… started some group called the Covenanters… something about the king and religion… ah…" Walter was silent for a moment.
"What?" she asked impatiently. "Ah what, Walter?"
"Looks like the guy switched sides… led a bunch of Highlanders to battle… that must've been a sight, huh?" Magda glared.
"Okay, let's see… ech." He finished quickly, "Captured, imprisoned, and hanged in Edinburgh."
"That's hideous!" Magda exclaimed.
Walter looked up at her. "Yeah, I'd say. So much for your Mister Universe. Glad you don't live in seventeenth -century Scotland, huh?" Closing his briefcase, Walter demanded. "Now, take your Wonder bread, or whatever that is , and clean my paintings."
The door whispered shut behind him.
Chapter 2
"But what of Yvette?" Tom tugged at his coat, clinging tight from perspiration, and shuffled quickly to keep up with his companion's long strides. "She was a lovely, porcelain-complected lass."
"Aye," James agreed merrily. He eyed his friend's state and slowed down. "A lovely lass indeed, were I in want of a wife."
"And ze French accent, James, ooh la la!" Tom patted at his flushed cheeks with a handkerchief. "Would that I had family eager to find me a titled young maiden. Och. man," he added, "slow… down."
James Graham came to an abrupt halt along the edge of Parliament Square. In a habitual gesture, he flipped the hem of his overcoat to reveal fully the basket hilt of the broadsword at his side. He stood taller than most, and the morning sun cast sharp shadows on his face as his eyes roved over the mob that was rapidly forming.
"And with that French coat on your back"—Tom, chest heaving, caught up to James's side—"how could you not want a bonny French bride?"
"If you're so enamored, you should wed her yourself." A mischievous light danced in James's eyes as he focused on his friend. "Yvette is a blooming flower, but I'm not yet done smelling the roses, aye?"
"James!" he howled. "You scoundrel!"
"You find me indelicate?" James beamed, and the force of his presence crackled through his open, handsome features. "Just wait until you hear what I've to say to the king's man."
He abruptly pushed into the growing mob, now chanting and shrieking its fury. It had become a single shuddering organism. crushing in on the center of the square, drowning the blare of royal trumpets that began to trill over the din.
Tom's hand caught at his friend's sleeve. "Mind your words, James," he warned. "This isn't your parlor and these are not your friends. Speak the wrong words to unsympathetic ears and you seal your fate."
"I'm but a Scotsman." James was suddenly serious, his intensity like a flash fire. "And my Scottish king has fashioned himself England's king. So tell me, Tom"—his blithe expression hardened to match the vehemence of his words—"to whom do I give my loyalty when my ruler sits on a fat London throne and changes the religion of Scotland?" "Oyez, oyez," the town crier shouted, ringing his bell from a platform atop the Mercat Cross. Clapping his hand onto his feathered tricorn hat, the man leaned over the elaborate stone parapet, visibly relieved to be so high above the throngs pressing in around its stepped base.
The Mercat Cross was a hub of merchant activity halfway down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, and was named for the pillared cross jutting high above the structure. The main attraction was its scalloped balcony resting atop a stout, two-story octagonal tower, from which royal proclamations were made and royal enemies executed.
The crier leaned back, and with one last clang of his brass bell, intoned in a mannered and resonant voice, "Charles, by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith…"
The crowd's anger kindled anew, and over outraged shouts, he persisted, "Hereby proclaims supreme the new Book of Common Prayer. His Majesty decrees the Church of Scotland will minister from this book alone, to the exclusion of all others. Henceforth, no prayer shall be said without royal sanction."
With a final peal of his bell, he announced, "Clergy found in defiance will be punished for high treason. As decreed by His Majesty King Charles the First, on this day, February twentieth, in the year of our Lo rd, sixteen hundred and thirty-eight."
The crowd raged, pelting the crier with rotten vegetables and shouting "Popery!"
James kicked over a nearby barrel. The velvet of his brandy-colored overcoat couldn't conceal the flex of his lean muscles, and the fabric pulled tight at his biceps and shoulders as he leapt nimbly atop it. He unsheathed his sword and rapped the base of the Mercat Cross.