Distant movement caught his eye. Four Parliamentary cavalrymen emerged, not far from where she'd taken cover.
Four men, he thought distantly, hoping there wasn't some other force at work that had already set destiny's top to spinning. She'd said five.
The men posed their challenge. MacColla knew: If this same scenario presented itself for him to live and relive in some mad eternity, he'd always ever make the same choice. And he slashed and spun, cutting the horsemen one by one.
He heard the click of the cocking pistol at his back. Pistol.
“If you'd be so kind as to hand over your blade.”
MacColla stilled. He knew the man who was left standing. He'd sized him up at once. Standard-issue honor, with boots shined and brass polished. This particular soldier didn't frighten him.
It was the mysterious fifth man who made MacColla wary, the one he predicted would appear from behind.
“'Twill be a tale for my children's children to tell,” the soldier crowed. “How their Grandfather O'Grady offered the great MacColla quarter.” He paused and released his prisoner's arm. Reaching to the scabbard at MacColla's back, the man issued a stern rebuke, “I asked for your blade, man.”
MacColla heard a rustle, and knew.
“I'll avail myself of your prisoner, O'Grady.” a voice said.
There's the bastard.
He needed to act fast. Though Haley couldn't tell him how much time he'd have, she'd described this scenario, these men in these very poses, and he reckoned it best not to tease the situation out too long.
O'Grady seemed a decent enough sort. He'd offered MacColla quarter, and MacColla felt compelled to do the same.
“Sorry, lad,” he muttered. Seizing his captor's hand where it reached for the hilt at MacColla's back, he elbowed the soldier hard in the gut. “You've been an honorable enemy.” O'Grady doubled over, and MacColla followed with a swift blow to the back of his head, knocking him out cold.
He spun, his claymore extended, to face his would -be killer.
The man was disappointingly ordinary, with an unremarkable face, riding an unremarkable horse.
The musket in his grip gave pause enough, though, and MacColla watched as his hand twitched supporting the long barrel.
Shaking his head, the man smiled slowly, and slid a hand to cock his weapon.
A loud shot cracked behind him, and MacColla flinched despite himself, so ready was he to face this man's bullet.
Haley. The lass must've emerged from her hideout. And though her shot went wide, it was enough to spook the man's horse.
The beast reared just as the man fired, and his bullet skewed high off the mark.
Cursing, the man scanned the land behind MacColla, reaching to the powder flask at his belt. Thinking better of it, he threw his musket to the ground, jumped from the skittish horse, and stalked to MacColla.
Who stood still as granite, waiting.
“I'd know the name of the man who'd shoot me in the back,” MacColla snarled.
“Purdon,” he replied cavalierly, unsheathing the sword from his side. The two men began to circle each other. “Major Nicholas Purdon.”
He carried a cavalry saber. A strange, foreign thing, likely brought back from the warring on the Continent. Though an elegant weapon, the ridged steel was no less sturdy for its slight curve.
Still, MacColla taunted, “That's a pretty wee sword you have there, Purdon.” He stretched his claymore out further and grinned at the sound of his joints popping. “Shall I slice your belly or take your head, do you think?”
“Such coarseness. You surprise me, Alexander MacDonald.” Purdon tilted his head in mock contemplation. “Head or belly? You offer me two evils and no choice.”
“You'll call me by my Scottish name,” he growled. He repeated Purdon's words in the Gaelic and smiled. “Da dhiù gun aon roghainn.” MacColla took two broad and confident strides toward him. “Two evils, no choice indeed. And so I'll do the choosing for you.”
He swung his claymore down, the thick steel slamming onto Purdon's saber with a resonant clang.
Curved cavalry blades weren't made for thrusting, and Purdon slashed and slashed again, his strikes no match for
“Head, I think,” MacColla said calmly, slashing his own blade down hard. The claymore's power was in its swing, and MacColla went at the man mercilessly. Down at his head, up from his legs, down at his head . Each strike was met with a block from his opponent, forced to support his blade with two hands to withstand MacColla's onslaught.
A sideswipe at Purdon's belly nicked flesh, and Purdon gasped. Stumbled back.
MacColla went at him with renewed force, luring him into a diagonal rhythm. Slashing up and down at angles. Up and down.
Until with a final grunt. MacColla changed his pattern, swiping a sudden and final strike from the side, severing Purdon's head from his body.
“May you rot, bastard,” he said, using Purdon's coat to wipe the blood from his blade.
Haley caught up to him not long after the Parliamentary soldier fell. She was frantic, but that didn't prevent MacColla from swooping her up in an elated kiss.
“We did it, leannan.”
“You did it,” she said, smiling and panting. She scanned the valley nervously. “But now we have to get out of here.
Rollo should be coming along soon… ” she muttered, then decided, “but I don't think we can wait.”
She'd watched the familiar scenario play out, with a blessedly different ending. And she'd held her breath all the while. “There could be any number of other men approaching. It's anyone's guess what could happen next.”
“Aye. I'm of the same mind.” He gave a firm nod. Cupping her chin, he gave her one last, long look. “I've no care for my own self, but I'd have your pretty hide up and away from this place.”
He turned at once to coo and beckon to Purdon's horse, trying to gather the skittish mare.
“Wait,” she said suddenly. She stopped short, looking at the dead man's head with disgust. “I have an idea.”
“But I'm a fair spot taller than this lout was.” MacColla circled round Purdon's dead body, eyeing him with disdain.
“Yeah, well… ” Haley shrugged. “He's even shorter now.”
MacColla's laugh boomed, and s he flinched, automatically shifting her gaze to survey the horizon. She spared him an edgy smile, but was anxious to get out of there. They'd already lost too many minutes while she tried to convince him of her plan.
“Seriously, MacColla.” She extended he r hand, gesturing once more that he hand over his claymore. “People see what they want to see. If everyone thinks you're dead, it'll give us options.”
“Options?” He scowled. “Well, lass, I opt not to leave my sword.”
“We'll get you a new one. We can't stage your death without leaving that particular sword behind” she said, pointing emphatically to the claymore in his hand. The ring at the base of the pommel and its simple, unadorned design had a whiff of Irish to it. But the sheer size pinpointed MacColla as its owner.
“I want Campbell's neck in my hands,” he groused, flexing his fingers. “Not options.”
“You can't chase Campbell,” she said flatly. “Don't you see? You're supposed to be dead. We can't change the course of history.”
“And why not?” He shrugged. “We just did, aye?”
“Well, for one thing… ” Haley thought about it. For one thing, you could get yourself killed again.
“I'm Irish,” she said suddenly. “What if something we do impacts my family line?” She flashed to all the sci-fi movie cliches of people blipping out of existence. “I'd never be born.”
That gave him pause. He opened his mouth to speak, then promptly shut it again.
Haley hated not giving him a choice. She knew what it meant to him to conquer Campbell. She also knew he'd not be able to sit still for long, and this would only be the first time they'd have this argument.
She had another idea. Brightening, she said, “Listen, you can still battle the Campbell.”
He looked at her, interest piqued.
“Your actions will be so much more devastating if Campbell thinks you're dead.”
“What are you saying?”
She gestured again for his sword, and he finally relinquished it.
“I'm saying an anonymous enemy is the most dangerous one.” Haley knelt to wrap Purdon's hand around the hilt of MacColla's claymore, but froze, grimacing.
He gently shifted her aside to finish the work for her. “You'll want to turn around, lass. If I plant my sword” – he began to strip the man of his uniformboots and breeches – “I'll need to plant my plaid as well.”
Turning, she continued enthusiastically. “Think how easily, and how deeply, you could penetrate Campbell lands. The great MacColla is dead. What have they to fear?”
She looked over her shoulder, assessing him. “You'd need to be disguised though. You're too recognizable. Too great a hero.”
“Och, leannan.” he grumbled playfully, tying his enormous shirt between his legs.
He squeezed her bottom as he swung her up onto Purdon's horse. “Now you're just trying to flatter me.”
Stirling, Scotland, one year later
“A dark knight, you say?” MacColla chafed under the armor. Haley insisted he wear it, though he had no idea how any man could move and fight freely in such a contraption.
“Yeah, sort of like a Gaelic Bruce Wayne.”
“Nevermind,” she said, and wriggled his steel helmet into place. “Hey, at least I didn't make you get a visor.”
“Armor is for cowards, leannan.” He pulled the helmet back off, raking his fingers through his hair. He despised the hot, constrained feel of the thing. “Can't I just grow a beard?”