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She was preparing herself. Getting ready for what she knew she needed to do.

He ended the kiss, and with a whispered “I love you, leannan,” MacColla left Haley to face what might come.

Alone.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The lass had been wrong. God love her, but Haley had been dead wrong. His laugh rumbled in his chest, roughened by his panting breath. The battle raged. And he triumphed.

It was a rout.

MacColla led the left side, and Taaffe the right. Though they fought on the same hill, the two flanks weren't within each other's sight.

Those of his men who had muskets had fired off a shot and then tossed away their firearms to fall on the enemy with dirk and sword.

MacColla's lips peeled into a satisfied smile. Haley told him such a thing was called a “Highland Charge,” that MacColla himself had invented the strategy. It amused him greatly, for all knew the Irish had masterminded such tactics long ago. They'd fire off their arrows, toss down their bows, then barrel down in a wild onslaught like a troop of madmen.

Another round of cries erupted around him, as the men all shouted, “For God and Saint Patrick!” MacColla spun to see a fresh wave of Parliamentary foot soldiers attempting to break their left flank.

He attacked with his two-handed claymore, keeping his targe slung on his back for a modicum of protection from the rear.

It wasn't the best weapon for close hand-to-hand work, but he preferred it just the same. Somewhere in the back of his mind a memory flickered, Haley telling of his legend and how he'd used that very sword to behead so many men at once.

He'd a mind to try such a trick, if they'd only slow a bit and stand still for his blade. He laughed as he swung, and was gratified to see a knot of men turn tail at the sight.

A commotion sounded loud in MacColla's ear. He sensed a rustling. Felt a body at his back.

With a swift downward slash to an enemy collarbone, MacColla finished off the man before him and pivoted to face the disturbance behind.

Just in time to see a young man swing his targe to block anenemy thrust to MacColla's back.

The lad seemed to have the situation in hand so MacColla decided to let him finish it, watching as he thrust his dirk up into the enemy's gut, twisting hard with his arm until the man fell to his knees.

“I thank you,” MacColla panted, eyeing the misshapen plaid wool on his comrade's head.

Another knot of Parliament soldiers raced toward them, and the two men spun as one, positioning themselves back-to-back against the enemy.

“What have you got on your head, lad?” MacColla swung his claymore out into a ready posture.

“I've no helmet.” The boy grunted as he deflected a blade with his targe, following it with a few quick slashes from his dirk. “I'm a tinker, aye?”

“Tinker?” he panted, finishing the men before him. “What has that to do with anything?” He turned to watch the lad neatly dispatch the last of the Parliamentarians.

Smiling wide, the young man pulled the thing from his head, revealing a frying pan snugged tightly in the fabric of his bonnet. “I fancied a helmet, so I fashioned one from an old cookpot I had about.”

“Indeed.” MacColla laughed, clapping him hard on the shoulder. “What's your name, tinker?”

“Robertson.”

“And how many have you killed today, Robertson?”

“Nineteen.”

“By Mary,” MacColla muttered, shaking his head in awe. “I've killed only twenty-one myself. 'Tis a pity not all of my soldiers are tradesmen.”

Still chuckling, MacColla surveyed the hill. Their work was nearly done. Many of their enemy lay dead, and an increasing number had turned and fled.

“Shall we, tinker?” he asked, gesturing down the hill.

“Oh, aye, sir.” The boy took off, waggling his dirk in the air, barreling downhill and hollering, “For God and Saint Patrick!”

MacColla loped behind him, a smile broad on his face, to chase their enemy nearly one league from Knocknanuss.

“I've not traveled all this way,” Campbell warned, “weathering the tides, braving this land of papists and savages” – he turned and pinned Purdon with a glare ”only to see you fail.”

Sensing his rider's excitement, Campbell's horse pranced beneath him. He patted the beast's neck to calm him, but the horse only took the bit in his mouth, fighting for his head.

“No, sir,” the major replied at once. “The business at Skipness, with the eldest MacDonald, that was ”- “I'm not interested in your excuses,” Campbell snapped. “You'd do well to remember whose coin fills your coffers. It's well enough you killed MacColla's brother. But now you'll kill MacColla.”

Studying the valley in the distance, he continued in a snarl, “The bastard has routed us. The sod is soaked with blood and filth of our Parliamentary soliders. Green hills,

Purdon.” Campbell swept his hand before him. “Look you on these green hills kicked to bloody, muddy divots.”

He rubbed the pistol at his side. Time to die, MacColla. Would that he could kill his enemy with his own hands. But Campbell dare not insert himself into such a melee. Although Taaffe was a disaster of a general, he had seven thousand foot soldiers in his command.

“You are my sword now, Major.” He turned again to face Purdon standing eagerly by his side. “And you'll not fail me again.”

Campbell didn't let the young officer respond before declaring. “MacColla roves far afield, harrying our Parliamentary footmen.”

He rubbed the wooden stock of his gun, cool in his palm. “The loss of our footmen was a necessary one. Like cutting off a putrid limb to save the body.” He shielded his eyes and looked far in the distance, as if he could spot his enemy from where he stood. “Our Parliamentary cavalrymen will surprise Taaffe, while MacColla's attention lies elsewhere.”

“Our cavalry is posted on the enemy's reverse slope,” Purdon said, swelling with anticipation. “Taaffe's Irish footmen stand like babes with those long shirts tied between their legs. When they see our horses crest Knocknanuss Hill… ”

“Aye.” Campbell chuckled. “Would that I could see Taaffe's face when a wall of horseflesh comes at him from above.

He'll not see the killing blade until it presses upon his throat.”

He smiled broadly. This was the moment he'd waited for. He was about to conquer the last of the MacDonalds. He'd slaughtered two brothers, captured and killed the father.

And MacColla would be the next to die.

He rubbed the thin skin of his cheeks, deep in thought.

“And one more thing, Purdon?”

“Sir?”

“Be certain you kill his woman.” Shaking his head, he added, “It's a pity I'll not have a chance to slay her before MacColla's own eyes.”

“A pleasure, Lord Campbell,” he replied, finally relaxing his features into a smile.

A distant horn sounded.

“It's time.” Campbell rubbed his thigh. His desire to watch MacColla die was so great, he almost wished he were a fighting man. “Do not engage in the battle. You have other quarry.”

Purdon gathered his reins in one hand, and his horse sidestepped anxiously.

“MacColla's forces will be in disarray. He'll likely be separated from his men, standing behind them. Waiting as they do what they will, he'd be standing alone, or close to it, between them and Knocknanuss Hill.” Campbell chuckled once more. “He'll think the battle won.”

He shot one final commanding look at the major. “Find him, Purdon. Find MacColla and show him otherwise.”

The major nodded and took off like a shot, standing high in his saddle as he cantered downhill, and toward MacColla.

“What do you mean he's not there?” MacColla raked his hand through his hair. He looked across the valley, scanning thickets of trees and the gentle rise of a hill beyond, as if he could spy the missing soldier from where he stood.

“Aye, sir.” The young messenger fidgeted before him, crushing an already tattered bonnet in his hands. “We've scouts out seeking knowledge of Taaffe's whereabouts.”

“Go back yourself,” MacColla growled. He didn't understand how his counterpart could've just disappeared. The fault had to lie with the messenger. “This isn't the most challenging of tasks, boy. Taaffe will be with his men.”

“But… ” The young man looked down, unable to sustain MacColla's intense eye contact.

“Speak. And look at me as you do so.”

“Aye, sir.” His voice trembled. “Taaffe is not with his men. And… his men aren't there either. Not really. Parliament horses cover the hill. The men seem… well, they've retreated, sir.”

“Good Christ;” MacColla exhaled sharply. “Am I the only man who kens how to fight?” He studied the young man before him. “Go back. Find Taaffe. He needs to know we've beaten the Parliamentary foot. What is he thinking to retreat?”

The messenger merely stood frozen, watching him.

“Now!” he shouted, and the young man raced off.

MacColla took a moment, using his plaid to wipe dried blood off the backs of his hands and from between his fingers. The messenger had said horses. The Parliamentary army must've attacked with the full brunt of their horse. He could only imagine Taaffe had seen the lot of them and panicked.

MacColla grumbled. He couldn't believe the rich lord had squandered such a commanding victory in such a cowardly way.

He sensed movement and spun in time to see a knot of horses burst through a tangle of woods not one furlong off.

“Damn.” He turned to face them full-on, quickly assessing.

Four Parliament soldiers galloped straight tor him.

Four men to his one.

The old proverb came to MacColla unbidden. One magpie's joy, two's grief, three's a marriage, four's a death.