Darkness, the susurration of heavy breaths, and the stench of fear emanating from unwashed bodies greeted Jamie as he opened his eyes.
Every bone in his body hurt. It was impossible not to, the way he’d folded himself in the corner next to the door, trying to sleep with his back on the cold stone and his head propped on folded arms supported by his knees.
He was the biggest man in the room and there was not much space, to begin with. It must have been a servant’s room, back when La Force was a house and not a prison. More people had unceremoniously thrown in the cell the previous day, and now they all huddled into the small room apprehending the massive public execution. Anticipating the end with frightened faces and heavy hearts.
In the silence, he heard Madam Desmond sniffing. Her shrieks had been the loudest when the tall guard pushed the young blonde woman into the cell the day before. She was asking for mercy, begging the guards to let her go back to her children. Her cries fell on deaf ears. The guard didn’t seem to care that her husband was dead and the little ones would die of famine. The woman’s sobs had now morphed into quiet tears that never stopped rolling down her cheeks, intermittent with whispers of, “My little boys, my babes.” Every time she fell asleep she woke up with a startle and looked around in panic. The realisation that the cell was her real life and not a nightmare made her tears fall anew.
It pained Jamie to see the woman as helpless as he was, and yet, there was nothing he could do to protect her or her children. They were all bound to the same fate and on his own part, he had prayed it would come sooner than later. The Lord had heard him – a few more hours and everything would be over.
For a moment he wished he had children as well, if only to leave something of him behind when he’d be gone. But then he thought of the terror in the eyes of the little lad in Comte St. Germain’s manor and decided he wouldn’t want to bring another soul to live the cruelty of his world.
War was man’s most inhumane creation.
Jamie had considered dying for the revolution but he never thought it would be like this. He imagined a death honouring his beliefs and ideals, not one with the stain of the spy and betrayer to taint his name. He’d fall on swords and pikes if need be but he’d never fathomed the touch of the rope to be the last one he’d feel. He had imagined a bullet, ripping through his body. Blood running from the open wound, his hands on it, a red badge for the revolution. An honourable death.
But honour in the revolution was like a shining gem in moving sand – no matter how much you reached for it, there was always the chance to see it slipping between your fingers. One wrong move, one step in the wrong direction and you were painted as the coward. The betrayer, the spy.
The thought left a bitter taste in Jamie’s mouth. He tried to swallow it, tried to remember every single piece of information he’d provided the past months but the image of his body hanging limb in front of everyone to see was so strong that it consumed every encouraging thought. That was the revolution, he tried to convince himself. Purpose and valour mingled with atrocities.
He brushed his greasy hair off his forehead and fixed his eyes at the little window, the only opening to the world outside. He wished it would rain during the hanging. He wanted to feel the drops against his face, to close his eyes and pretend he was still a wee lad, racing with Jenny and Ian from the fields to the house at Lallybroch, the hills soft and green beneath his heels.
But Jamie knew that he wouldn’t close his eyes that final moment, not even for the image of Scotland. Not even for the image of a beloved face. He’d try to find Murtagh in the crowd and he’d look him in the eye, be the man his father taught him to be.
He wished Claire would grant him the favour he’d asked. He couldn’t imagine her being there, seeing him die. He wondered whether his last breath would sound like her name.
It was only the day before that she came to visit with Murtagh, but the hours lingered in that cell, making each day longer, endless.
He was glad she’d come. To see her face, to touch her and taste her lips was freedom enough. He’d made his godfather promise that he’d take care of Claire as though she was Jamie’s lawfully wedded wife. And when he’d told him that Claire was family, the old man nodded in agreement. With a few words to send his love to Jenny, Ian and the children, he clasped his godfather’s hand between his own and took his leave of him in silence.
That had been all. Nothing else to settle.
Thoughts of Claire came unbidden and he closed his eyes again, imagining that he could feel her beneath his fingers, could see the countless hues of brown, auburn and gold her hair took under the sun. He fell asleep again.
A hissed whisper woke him up. Someone calling his name, his first name. Alerted, he almost jumped up before a hand on his chest stopped him. The rest of the prisoners stirred, too.
“It’s me,” he heard her say. “Claire.” And felt the happier and most miserable man on earth. He wanted to kiss her and he wanted to fight with her for coming back.
“You shouldna be here,” he said, but gripped the hand on his chest and pushed it against his body as though to imprint her touch on his skin. To keep something of her once she would be gone. A moment later, horror gripped his innards, overwhelming him.
Why was she in the cell?
“Why,” he croaked. “Why are ye in here, Claire? What did ye do?” He sounded more angry than afraid and her free hand moved to his mouth to silence him.
“Not now. We’re lucky you were sleeping here, so close to the door. Follow me.”
She took his hand and led him out the door as though he was a visitor in her house. Jamie barely had time to glance back, his eyes finding the pale face near the window, illuminated by the moon. Madam Desmond looked at him with wide eyes and mouth open, as though she couldn’t decide whether to speak her mind or not.
She didn’t get much of a chance. The next moment Claire closed the cell door behind them with a heavy sigh. They were now standing in the gloomy corridor, the guard and his lantern nowhere to be found.
“What have you done?” he whispered, half in distress and half in awe.
Claire fished a bunch of keys out of her skirts and locked the door. “This isn’t a one-man show,” she breathed, gaze fixed on the lock. “We need to rush.”
She grabbed Jamie’s hand, the other one following suit, courtesy of the iron manacles he was wearing. Claire didn’t seem to mind. “I’ll explain once we’re out of here.”
“Claire.” He pulled back. “Open that door, let me go back in there, and ran away from this place as fast as you can.”
“What?” he asked in that English accent that he’d never expected to love.
“Let me go back in there. Lass…” He sighed and tried to find the words that would make her understand. “There is no way out of here, ken? We’ll get caught. You’ll get caught and they will kill ye for that, mo nighean donn.”
She was silent for a long moment and then said, “Do you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you, Claire, you just need to understand –”
“Do you trust me with your heart?” She sounded determined and furious in equal amounts. But there was pain there, too. Hurt. “Do you trust me with your life?”
Jamie pulled her to him, the need to feel her moving his manacled hands. “I do. You know I do. I trust you with everything I am.”
“Good. Then we’re going. The other option, in case you’re interested, is opening this door again so both of us can walk in.”
He didn’t have a chance to reply. With one hand feeling the wall and the other clasping Jamie’s so hard he thought it’d go numb, Claire led him away. Less than ten steps down the corridor, she stopped.
“What –” Jamie started asking, but she hushed him. He pushed his back against the wall, face turned to her, straining to see what she was doing. He heard her fumbling with something until she opened a door he didn’t even know was there, and pushed him inside.
Instead of joining him in the room, Claire walked back to his cell. Light steps were heard in the corridor and a soft whisper followed them. Jamie narrowed his eyes but all he could see was pitched black darkness.
Claire scurried back to him as though she had counted every step it would take to reach him again. She closed the door of the room behind her and leaned against the stone wall. Her breaths came fast and when he reached for her hand he found it turned into a fist.
“Who was there?” he asked with a frown, even though she couldn’t see him. “Where are we?”
“A passage for servants,” she replied, deliberately avoiding his first question. “Good thing this prison was once a rich man’s house, isn’t it?” she added, and even though there was the hint of a smile in her voice he could still feel her unease. There was a moment of silence. “Now we need to get out.”She huffed. “Simple as that.” She started moving away from the door, feeling the wall with a hand.
“Ah, I didna ken it was that simple, Sassenach,” he found the courage to joke. “Otherwise I would have found my way home sooner.”
“Say that again?” she asked.
“I would come home sooner.”
“Not that. Sassenach. You know, when I left this place last time, I thought I’d never hear you call me that.”
“Sassenach, Sassenach, Sassenach,” he repeated. Jamie ran his hands up her arms, traced the soft skin of her long neck and finally cupped her face. He kissed her then, a kiss as soft as it was desperate. “I thought I’d never get the chance to do that again,” he said, sounding as breathless as he was.
Claire kissed him back but before he could get lost in her again, she pulled out of his arms. “We need to go. There is no time.”
This corridor was narrower than the main one. Claire lit a candle she carried with her and started a brisk walk, with Jamie trailing behind her. Their shadows danced primitive dances on the walls.
They winded their way to the first flight of stairs keeping their steps light, untraceable. Thoughts of freedom and the possibility of getting caught and returning to that cell with Claire fought in Jamie’s mind, making his heart race in his chest.
He had no other option but to follow her now, and he knew if they ended up safe and sound he’d follow her anywhere, always. This lass with the riot of curls, feelings and opinions. This brave, brilliant lass who shone her way through the darkness.
They didn’t encounter anyone in their way to the ground floor but stopped more than once for Claire to refer to the piece of paper she kept in her pocket. To Jamie’s surprise, less than ten minutes later they found themselves in what must have once been the laundry room. He smiled at the realization – open access to the yard.
They had made it. No locked doors, no keys, no guards. Well, almost no guards. They would still have to somehow tackle the ones at the front entrance.
“And now the hard part,” Claire whispered, making an eyebrow rise high on Jamie’s forehead.
“Now comes the hard part?” he inquired incredulously, hidden behind the wall next to her.
“We have to reach that wall there,” she gestured. “And climb it without being seen.” She started to unfurl a rope that was twisted around her waist. He hadn’t noticed it before.
“Christ, woman,” Jamie breathed and was rewarded with her smile shining under the silver moonlight.
“Murtagh is waiting on the other side. We just need to wait a bit more.” Her gaze darted around the yard. She narrowed her eyes trying to spot anything close to the building’s walls.
“Why?” he asked, following her gaze.
He didn’t have the chance to get a response when something crashed forcefully into his legs. “Milord!”
Not something – someone. Jamie searched for Claire in the dark, his eyes wider than ever.
“I know,” she said, remorsefully. “I didn’t want him here more than you do, but we needed the little rascal to get you out.”
Fergus was now hugging Claire, who had dropped on her knees to take him into her arms. “Mon chou,” she whispered, patting his head. “Are you alright?”
“Oui!” Fergus said with a wide grin. “Returned the keys, too, and the guard didn’t even realise they were gone.”
Jamie’s eyes darted between the two people smiling at each other. The keys. The light steps in the corridor. He wanted to ask how but Claire bet him to it, already replying to his question.
“Did I ever tell you that Fergus used to take advantage of his light hands and feet before I met him? To… lighten people from the heavy burdens in their pockets?”
“I was the best pickpocket,” Fergus bragged, beaming. “But Milady didn’t like it and she made me swear never to do that again. Until today.”
“Right. And no more of that ever again,” Claire said, wagging a finger at the boy.
“Oui,” he agreed, without much enthusiasm.
“We need to go. Monsieur Forez can only distract the guard with studying the prisoners’ list so much.”
Jamie had no idea who this man was and why he had helped Claire but he thanked him in silence and prayed to give them a bit more time.
“Any guards in the way, Fergus?”
“Oui, Milady. One on our left.”
Claire’s voice was tight when she spoke again. “Jamie, can you…”
“Make sure he won’t raise an alarm? Aye. Give me two minutes, Sassenach.”
The man was standing a few feet away with his back to them. He was short and thin and had his eyes fixed at the front gate. Jamie moved silently in the shadows until he came behind him. With an efficient blow on the guard’s head, he drove him senseless before the man could shout his surprise.
“Well, that was efficient,” Claire murmured once he was back and they moved to the prison walls.
Fergus went up first. They didn’t even use the rope. Jamie grabbed the boy from his waist and hoisted him up until his hands gripped the top of the stone wall. He climbed up and the muffled grunt heard a moment later signalled that his feet found the ground on the other side.
“You first,” Claire instructed, not looking at him.
“Not a chance, lass. I’ll see ye out of here before I even try climbing this wall."
Claire fixed her eyes on him ready to argue her point but she must have seen his determination painted on his features because she quickly signed in defeat.
They threw the rope and waited until someone tugged at it from the other side.
"Go now.” She didn’t. “Claire,” he urged. “I’ll follow the moment your feet touch the ground.”
They didn’t kiss. A kiss would mean goodbye. Claire reached for the rope and started climbing up the wall. Once on the top, she turned around and slowly climbed down while Jamie held the rope from his side.
He was alone again, with heightened senses and his pulse beating so hard he could hear it in his ears. He turned around, searching for guards, for an alarm, for people rushing in his direction.
Two tugs at the rope brought him out of his panicked state. He grabbed the rope and climbed up the wall in mere seconds. Not even thinking of trying to descend slowly, he jumped as soon as he saw that nobody was standing on the ground beneath him.
“That was so foolish,” Claire said when she came next to him. “You could have strained your ankle.”
Jamie broke into a smile and pulled her into him, claiming her lips. He felt her smile merging with his. Twin smiles – wide, bright, joyful.
A heavy hand rested on his shoulder and he turned around only to be engulfed in another set of arms, this of his grandfather. Jamie realised that he was crying but didn’t bother brushing his tears away.
They walked briskly into the night, heading neither to St Antoine nor at his uncle’s home.
He thought of asking where they were going but soon realised that he didn’t care. He was free again, with Claire, and Fergus, and Murtagh, and there was nothing more in the world he might need.
They had gotten him out and he trusted them to take him wherever they planned to.
There was no talking or slowing down until they reached an old neighbourhood along the Seine, the houses lavish and beautiful but less sumptuous than those close to Champs-Élysées.
Jamie froze midstep.
There was no one else waiting for them in front of the carriage, but Frank Randall himself.