Sword of the Highlands

Page 22


Abandoning Magda to Napier's care had been a blow, but he'd seen no other choice. Though he hoped he'd ensured her safety by leaving her, it did nothing to ease the torture of separation. Traitorous thoughts had flickered, taunting him. Perhaps Napier won't find Lonan. Perhaps she'll choose to stay. Perhaps, when this madness is through, shell be in Mont rose. Waiting.
He pushed such notions from his mind. They were too painful. He needed to focus on the task at hand. If James couldn't have Magda in his life, he'd sacrifice his life to his cause.
Seeing Will Rollo again had done much to take the edge off his melancholy, but it was something about the rhythm of the tides that reminded him of his true calling. That pounding of wave on rock was as much a part of him as it was a part of Scotland. And it was for Scotland that he rode now, to pursue what was best for his beloved country.
"I will hear news of Montrose," James said, nudging his horse into a brisk walk. "I find I've yearned for the sea." Rollo appeared beside him, staring sternly at the road ahead. "As Margaret tells it, you've been yearning for something considerably more feminine these past days." Astonished, James swung his head to look at his friend, whose mouth was still set in a grim line. "You devil!" Standing in his stirrups, he leaned back to clap Rollo's horse hard on the rump.
And even Rollo spared a laugh when both horses broke into a gallop, as the two friends rode south to parley with the king.
* * *
"The spires of Oxford!" James shouted, pointing across a tangled field to distant towers that rose to elegant points on the horizon.
"It's been a fortnight of hard riding," Rollo said dourly, leaning to massage his legs. "I was beginning to doub t their existence."
"Such a lack of faith." James tsked, pulling his mount up to ride shoulder to shoulder. "A fortnight is superb time for such a distance."
"Now we just need to cross these mucky fields," Rollo grumbled. "Another fine pasture of sheep dung. I weary of the sheep dung, James."
"Don't sound so fashed. I promise to find us a good pub upon our arrival."
"Well at least, miraculously, there's no rain to greet us. Merely gray spires in a gray sky."
"There's the spirit," James said sarcastically.
Wary of the uneven meadow, they kept their mounts to a tentative trot. The meadow was rutted and muddy from winter's melted snows, and it would do no good to lame a horse so close to their journey's end.
A short ride brought them to Oxford proper, and the men looked around in disbelief as they walked their horses slowly down Broad Street. Gone from Oxford was any sense of scholarly atmosphere, nor was there much indication that it had ever functioned as a university at all. Soldiers roamed the streets as far as the eye could see, and the town seemed to James a tinderbox of bored men anxious for battle.
"We'll find ourselves a pay house and settle in."
"Aye," Rollo replied, "if the town is taking civilians." He looked around warily. "King's men as far as the eye can see. If I hadn't called myself a Royalist before, I shall now."
* * *
"These infernal Puritans. So hostile!" The king distractedly held a small gilded looking glass above his head to study the fall of his hair atop his broad lace collar. "I have e nough to concern me here in England without Scottish noblemen stirring the pot."
"Your Majesty?" The painter gestured, gently reminding him to return to his former pose.
"Yes, yes." Charles nodded impatiently. Settling back into position, the king canted his head slightly to keep one eye on the man pacing the room. Colonel Sibbald was an old soldier, and just the sort he'd need to subdue the Covenanters. The king had thought the militia in Aberdeen could put a neat stop to Campbell and Graham, and had been surprised when the city fell. The Covenanters had relied on more than might that day; Graham led them, and exercised military tactics more refined than Charles had expected.
But word had it there was now dissention between him and the Campbell. If Charles could convince Graham to leave the Covenanters and join his Royalists, it might give him hope of quelling this uprising once and for all.
"So this Graham comes for an audience?"
"If it pleases Your Majesty," the colonel replied, surreptitiously pouring his third glass of brandy.
"I'm told he's a confident sort." Charles scowled. "Perhaps a bit overconfident, I say."
Sibbald shrugged. "Might I remind Your Majesty that you snubbed him at your first and only meeting? I recommend a more politic reception this time round." He tossed back his drink and placed the empty snifter on a tray. "The Marquis of Montrose could be a real asset to your cause." "Perhaps I should side with the Campbell instead." The king glared a moment at the colonel, who stood almost a foot taller than the diminutive monarch.
"Have a care, Your Majesty." The colonel adjusted his waistcoat, clearly uncomfortable in the formal dress appropriate for a royal audience. "Rumor is, his men have taken to calling him King Campbell."
Charles huffed, and turned to take out his aggravation on his court painter. "You." He stabbed his finger toward the man. "I desire a mythological theme, something grand, and I'd not be distracted this time by sylphs and those chubby-cheeked babes you so favor."
"But of course, Your Majesty," Van Dyck deferred, "you will be as Apollo himself, virile, and fresh from the hunt."
"Your Majesty," the colonel interrupted, ignoring the insolent stare from the court painter. "If you can make peace with Graham and somehow convince him to fight for you, he will need men to lead. I fear the English are not much in the mood for war."
"Well, Sibbald, we'll just commission them."
"The gentry haven't been commissioned into service in decades. With respect, sir, I fear that could be a treacherous course of action. Many Englishmen already agitate against you."
Charles waved his hand testily. "I've made arrangements." He rose from his carved mahogany seat. "A thousand head of Irishmen are come to assist me."
"It will be seen as a Catholic conspiracy." Astonishment tinged Sibbald's voice. Returning to the tray, the old colonel tried to exact a final drop from his empty glass.
"What would you have me do otherwise?" Charles asked. "The Kirk and nobles rebel, and the only men at my back are professional soldiers like you, a handful of Irish, and whatever help my dearest queen might procure from abroad."
He caught Van Dyck's stare, as the painter waited expectantly for the king to reassume his position. Charles's cheeks blotched red with impatience. "I'm done for now." He shooed the painter away angrily. "Leave us."
The artist bowed silently, and hastily gathered his paints into a box. leaving his easel where it stood in the king's private chamber.
"Once again. I encourage you to listen to the Marquis of Montrose," the colonel said. "He will, of course, expect you to make concessions on your religious mandates, but with Parliament splintering the south and the Covenanters raging in the north, the question of religious freedoms seems to be the least of your concerns at the moment." Sibbald wandered to the abandoned easel and examined the half-painted portrait of the king, seated atop a great white stallion, his stubby legs elongated under a gleaming sheath of imaginary armor, tiny frame now towering over all he surveyed. Concealing a smirk, the colonel quickly added, "I knew James at the military college at Angers. I have every confidence in him. The marquis was a gentleman, and seemed a bright enough sort."
"Bright enough to beat his peers at their own game?"
"Aye, Your Majesty, we can hope."
* * *
A night in Oxford hadn't done much to compose James and Rollo. They'd discovered pub curfews were now nine o'clock, liquor sales being directly related to late - night brawling within the ranks. They had found a small rooming house near New College, which, they'd been told, now functioned as the king's main magazine, housing all military provisions and artillery.
"Good Lord," James exclaimed, retrieving a small handkerchief from his pocket. "Do I smell cattle?"
They had entered the main gates of Christ Church. Though he had a cane crafted specifically for him, Rollo's progress was slow, and James strolled leisurely at his side.
Distant lowing echoed off the staid stone buildings that enclosed the courtyard in a vast square. "I hear them as well," Rollo said.
"Good sir," James called, flagging down a young soldier. "If you would please be so kind as to enlighten us, pray tell, what are livestock doing in Christ Church?"
Though tall, the soldier was a rangy lad, and James guessed he'd not yet even reached his full height. "We've need of something to eat, aye?" the boy said.
"Yes," James concealed a smile, "but of course you do." "They've filled the church with cows," Rollo marveled under his breath.
"Royalist cows, surely." James smirked, bemused by Oxford's bizarre transformation. "Let's find Charles.
Perhaps he's tending turnips in the cloisters. They'll have want of a royal side dish."
"Caution," Rollo laughed softly, looking around quickly to ensure nobody had overheard. "Or it'll be your head on a platter for dessert."
There wasn't a cow to be heard or smelled in Charles's temporary court, though, which they eventually found installed, with royal extravagance, in St. Frideswide's Priory.
"You may enter," a footman said, soon after James and Rollo's arrival had been announced.
"So quickly?" Rollo asked under his breath, brows raised. "Perhaps he will look me in the eye this time."
"Why, James Graham," Charles said as they entered the library, which had been fashioned into an impromptu royal sitting room. He reached his hand out, offering his ring for a kiss. "To what do I owe this surprising honor? Last I knew, you were routing my people in Aberdeen, under the banner of your Covenant."