“You are so not growing a beard,” she replied quickly, snatching the helmet from him and placing it back on his head. “You can't risk being recognized. You're just lucky there's no Mylar suit I can make you wear.”
Waggling her brows, she stepped back to get a good look at him. “Though you'd look pretty hot in one.”
“Och, I'm hot enough as it is,” he grumbled.
Turning serious, she mused. “Just a vest and helmet… Do you think it'll be enough of a disguise?” Haley studied hisface. The helmet's brim cast his features in shadow, but not so much as to hamper vision or movement.
“They all think me killed. If anything, soldiers will think they've seen a wraith. And anyhow, men well know that I'd not be caught dead battling in armor, so, aye leannan. This should be quite enough.” He glanced down, stomping his feet to get used to the feel of trousers and boots. “But what on earth drove you to choose red plaid for my trews?”
He glanced up, catching her as she roved an assessing lookup his body.
“What?” he asked, smiling wickedly. “I see the lightning in those stormy eyes, woman. Don't tell me you've an itch for me to scratch now that I'm trussed in a couple stone of steel.”
“Just admiring you, my mysterious knight.”
His dramatic glower elicited a laugh from her.
“Och… ” he grumbled, shaking his head, unable to come up with a witty enough reply.
Often did he muse that perhaps he really had died that day, and spent the past months in his own private heaven, waking to the sight of Haley in his bed every morning, and making love to her every night.
MacColla had agreed with her that he should lay low for a while. But lately he'd grown anxious. The time had come for him to return to battle.
He'd expected Haley to protest, but it was as if she'd expected the day. She met the idea ready with fully realized notions of his armor, as well as a tally of possible battles he could plunge into anonymously.
“You say this Stirling is a pivotal fight?” he asked, nestling the helmet into place.
“Well, it's one of the few Campbell battles I can recall.” she said. “Stirling Castle flew the king's colors, but they fell to Campbell and the Covenanters. It was devastating. Campbell and General Leslie had thousands of soldiers posted on the outskirts of Stirling. The few hundred men of Stirling Castle had no idea what was coming and were no match for them.”
“But if I strike Campbell before he has a chance to mobilize his men… ”
“Exactly,” she said, smiling. “The only thing is, we need to find him first. He'd not be one to camp with the soldiers, would he?”
“Och, that's an easy one, leannan. Campbell has a town residence, at Deer Park.” MacColla turned to let her adjust the leather straps at his side. “The Covenanter officers would likely be near to hand. They'd also not care to camp with the foot soldiers. I say we gather ourselves some Royalists and charge the Park gates.”
“We'll need to get the message to Munro,” she said, referring to the Highlander who led the Royalists. “A little bird told him to ready his men and wait for word.”
“Very fine, my wee birdie.” Grinning, MacColla rolled and flexed his shoulders against the hard armor plates. “Now let's join Campbell for his supper.”
She sat on a modest wooded hill, thinking of the man she'd chosen to spend her life with. And of the life she'd left behind.
Haley let the familiar bittersweet feelings sweep her, remembering those loved ones she'd left in Boston. She'd never meet her brothers' children. She'd miss watching her parents enjoy their golden years. And then she wouldn't be there when they needed help in their old age.
She could only hope they had gotten her letter saying good-bye. Would get her letter.
Haley's mind drifted as she waited, and her eyes roved the panorama below. Hers was the perfect vantage point, overlooking the patch of emerald glen, nestled in the center of Deer Park, which would likely be the center of the fighting.
MacColla was set to besiege what forces Campbell had at his side in Stirling. And he couldn't seem happier.
She had to smile in spite of herself, wondering why she couldn't have fallen in love with some nice seventeenth-century man of the cloth, but then again, parsons weren't her thing.
She felt a warm tingling in her chest remembering t he sight of him suited up for battle. He looked fierce before, but it was nothing compared to him in an armored breastplate and helmet.
That expanse of dully glimmering metal across his chest emphasized his tremendous size, and the brim of his helmet cast his face in shadow, darkening his handsome features into a character even more threatening than MacColla had been already.
She sighed. No parson indeed.
And he was off to battle again. There was no opposing it. All she could do was ensure his weapons and armor were sound, and hope for the best.
Her eyes traced the path of the River Forth, shimmering in the distance, meandering in wide loops through the countryside. The late afternoon cast everything in a cool, iron gray light, as though the sun had gone but not set.
She made out a wave of men, rushing in the far distance.
It had begun, then.
Haley tensed. Squinting her eyes, she tried to make sense of what she saw.
They had gathered only a few hundred Royalists to join the fight. But it would be enough to face the meager and disjointed forces Campbell had to hand.
A shiver crept up her spine to think of the thousands of enemy Covenanters who, even now, were posted somewhere outside Stirling.
Their few hundred Royalists had to be enough to splinter Campbell's leadership and abort his planned attack on Stirling Castle.
And it appeared they'd be successful. Tartan -clad soldiers hewed through knots of men as effortlessly as a farmer might clear a tract of grassland with a reaping hook.
She spotted a lone horseman peeling away from the rest, skirting far from the fighting. He galloped toward hen in the direction of what she imagined was Stirling Bridge.
A portly man. The rich sherry color of his coat betrayed its finery.
Campbell. Making a cowardly escape. Why was she not surprised?
Distant shooting called her attention back to the battle.
The men were dispersing now. She could tell from the Gaelic whoops and all that plaid that the Royalists had triumphed.
That MacColla had triumphed.
Movement along a lower ridge caught her eye. Haley bristled. How had she not noticed before? She hadn't been the only person watching the battle.
A cloaked figure roamed the hillside. It looked like a woman, with a stave in her hand. A gust of wind blew back her hood and long hair spilled out, a striking red against the white mantle on her back.
Haley blinked hard and looked again. The witch was gone.
Twenty-Five Years Later
MacColla leaned easily against the wall, studying the room around him. People clapped and stomped in time to the music. Flickering torchlight exaggerated their smiles, their movements. The smell of fresh ale and stew filled the air. It was a good night.
He looked down at his wife by his side. Haley was past fifty now, but she was as gorgeous and formidable a creature as she'd been on the day they met. He smiled at the memory of her feral leap from Campbell's castle into the night.
“I may never have seen the full of my clan lands restored,” he told her, hugging her close, “but I've seen you dance with our son at his wedding, and that's a rare privilege indeed.”
He pulled her tight to him and planted an exuberant kiss on that lovely mouth. The kiss softened. Deepened.
MacColla marveled how, with a single kiss, she was still able to make him crave her with the keenness of a lad.
He brought his hand to stroke tenderly down her neck, desperate to edge his touch just a little lower. He'd been enjoying the company of his friends just a moment before, but now all he wanted was for everyone to be gone from there so he could ravage his wife in peace.
“Hands off my mother, old man.” He felt his wife's mouth smile under his. Felt his son clap him hard on his shoulder. “Come on now. Coll had his dance with mum and now it's my turn.”
MacColla pulled reluctantly from his wife, trying his best to scowl at his youngest, but failing. It was those damned gray eyes. Both their sons were handsome, but Archie had inherited his mother's eyes, and it made it impossible to argue with the boy.
“Shall we, Archibald?” Haley formally raised her hand for their son to take.
She looked back to give him a wink as Arch escorted her onto the floor.
MacColla watched them dance. He spotted Coll on the floor too, taking a turn with his bonny new bride. He knew his wife missed her family desperately, and her brothers especially. He knew it didn't take away her pain, but he'd been happy to give her two of her own boys.
He studied them. Their sons might have their mother's looks, but he also saw himself in them, saw what he'd taught them about honor and strength and courage, and it made MacColla's chest swell with such joyful pride.
A father and his sons.
He may not have gotten Campbell, but MacColla's legacy was so much greater than that.
Which isn't to say he hadn't relished Campbell's demise. The man's power vanished along with his money, and twelve years had passed since his beheading.
MacColla brought his tankard to his lips and drank deep to the memory of it.
He thought again of sons and fathers. At the end of his life, Campbell's fear of his own son had grown so great, he'd sequestered himself in his own castle.
Until he was put in the Tower and sentenced to death by Charles II. His crime had been agitating against King Charles I. A son meting justice for his father.
Jean caught MacColla's eye from across the room. His sister looked an old woman now, her black hair faded white, but she still held tight to her Scrymgeour's hand, sitting as attentively by her side as he ever did.
Though MacColla and Haley had chosen to raise their children in relative seclusion in Ireland. Jean's daughters had spent summers playing with his sons, and it pleased him.