Chapter 1: Nigh the Ness
June 11th, 1743.
Ye are blood of my blood, bone of my bone.
I give ye my body, that we two might be one.
Jamie lay next to me on the bed, sound asleep. His arm was draped protectively over me and I had no wish to move it. I’d shifted and adjusted my position on the pillows enough to know he wouldn’t wake if I did, but the reassuring weight of it anchored me in the tumultuous sea of my emotions.
I rolled onto my side and curved myself into him, as much for warmth as for his calming presence. He pulled me closer out of pure instinct and sighed deeply. I lay there as I tried desperately to match my breathing to his, to fall asleep wrapped in his embrace before my brain could digest what I had just done.
Too late, my heart whispered.
June 18th, 1743.
A gentle breeze lapped the waters of Loch Ness against the shore. It had been a warm day, by Scottish standards, and hours of hard travel left me flushed, tired, and cross. I had seized the opportunity to wander a little ways from camp as soon I possibly could.
I sighed with unabashed relief as I perched on a wide, flat boulder that jutted out into the water and dipped my toes in. Traveling overland by horse with a dozen men was a cacophonous, pungent endeavor and moments of solitude like these were hard to come by.
If I saw another human being in the next ten minutes, I just might scream.
My eyes burned with fatigue as I slid them shut and tipped my head backwards, letting the breeze cool my face. The setting sun taunted me; boasting that night was close at hand, when I knew it would be hours before I could sleep.
I hadn’t slept well the night before and whether my insomnia was due to sleeping on the hard ground or my new bedmate, I wasn’t sure. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I thought of lying in bed with Jamie. The fact that we hadn’t really even had a bed the last two nights only fueled the unquenchable flames of desire within him.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to him in turn. I was, and for more than just his looks.
He was one of those people whose soul was just as beautiful, if not more so, than their outward appearance. There was something about him that quietly undid all the protective barriers I had built around myself since arriving here. They came down without hesitation whenever I was with him.
A small splashing noise brought me out of my thoughts and I opened my eyes, looking for the telltale ripples of a jumping fish.
What I saw instead were two giant, amber eyes staring up at me. They bulged out from a long, flat head, which now began to emerge from the water.
A waterhorse. A kelpie. The Loch Ness Monster. A plesiosaur.
Whatever the hell you wanted to call it, it was within touching distance of my feet.
I could have pulled away, but I didn’t. I sat there frozen as a statue and watched it inch closer to me. The initial shock wearing off, I found I wasn’t afraid of it, but felt a strange sort of camaraderie instead. We were both creatures adrift in a time completely different than our own.
It seemed to hover, almost as if it was waiting for a cue from me. I moved my foot slowly towards it and held it still. The beast moved in kind, brushing against the tips of my toes. It was surprisingly warm, more like a crocodile than a snake in texture.
“Goodbye,” I whispered as a short puff of steam rose from its nostrils and it sank back beneath the water, disappearing from view.
Pulling my feet out of the water and drying them on my hem, I caught sight of movement further up the shore. It was one of Dougal’s men. Peter, I thought his name was. He stood trembling with his eyes fixated on the spot where the creature had just been.
“Are you alright?” I asked, noticing he had dropped the bucket he had brought to fetch water with. I stood and started walking towards him until I realized he was backing away from me, arms held up in defense. “What are you doing?”
He flung himself face first onto the ground at my feet, begging at the top of his lungs, “Have mercy, Lady!”
I quickly scanned the tree line, hoping no one had heard this embarrassing outburst. “Stop it,” I hissed and nudged his shoulder with my foot.
The man jerked as if I had kicked him, reeling backwards and hastily crossing himself before fleeing back into the trees.
I stared after him, dumbfounded.
What in hell was that all about?
“Jamie?” I asked as I crawled under the plaid beside him.
His breath tickled my neck as he buried his nose in my hair, “Aye?”
“Do you believe there’s really a giant beast living in Loch Ness?”
I felt him chuckle as he replied, “I’ll no’ be sayin’ tha’ I dinna a stone’s throw away from the loch itself, aye? I may no’ be as steeped in the auld ways as some, Sassenach, but I’m no’ daft.”
I knew this to be true. Even though Jamie, his uncle Dougal, the lawyer Ned Gowan, and his godfather Murtagh were all well learned, they had a certain measure of reverence for the supernatural folklore of the Highlands. They’d show you that they found such things ridiculous, with scoffs and raised brows, but wouldn’t speak a word against the old-fashioned traditions and stories.
“Why? Ye didna see one, did ye?” Jamie asked in jest, the cheeky grin evident in his voice.
I couldn’t have asked for a better lead in if I’d tried.
“Actually, I did.”
Jamie was silent a moment before he rolled me over to face him. “Ye saw the beast?”
“Umhmm,” I nodded, trying not to laugh at his incredulous expression. “I even touched it.”
“I touched it with my foot,” I brushed the toes of my right foot along Jamie’s leg, making him jump.
“Ye didna,” he shook his head in disbelief.
I did laugh then. “Jamie, why would I tell you I saw a supposedly mythological beast if I hadn’t?”
“Oh, aye, I didna mean to say ye were lyin’, Sassenach,” he was quick to add as he mulled the idea over, “‘Tis just tha’ I dinna ken anyone who has seen the beast himself.”
“Well, now you know someone who’s seen it for herself,” I quipped and poked him in the ribs.
“They say ‘tis good luck to see it.” He grinned as he caught hold of my hand, his gaze growing distant, “Wha’ was tha’ auld rhyme Jenny used to sing? ‘I gave my laddie a kiss nigh the Ness an’ now a gift from the beast we’ve been blessed’?”
“You know, that doesn’t really rhyme,” I commented, not able to stop myself from laughing.
“Oh, aye, I ken it doesna rhyme, Sassenach…” He pulled me closer, his lips hovering just above mine. “But ye canna be lettin’ the verse go unheeded, can ye?”
“Mmhmm,” I murmured, tasting the hint of whisky on his lips as I kissed him, “It would be shame to see the beast and not ‘give my laddie a kiss nigh the Ness.’ I’d better make it two, just to be sure.”
Chapter 2: Leap of Faith
Claire and Jamie escape Fort William and return to Leoch... where Claire realizes she's pregnant.
June 25th, 1743; Fort William, Scotland.
“I’ll thank ye to take yer hands off my wife,” Jamie’s voice was low and even as he crouched in the window, pointing his pistol at Randall’s head.
The words sent shivers down my spine, congregating to form a warm flame of hope in the pit of my stomach.
He came, my heart thundered.
Of course he came, you bloody fool, my head tried to reason, you’re his wife.
I’m his wife… Jamie had married me to keep me out of the villainous hands of Black Jack Randall, and yet, at my first opportunity, I managed to run headlong into them. He had every right to wash his hands of me and leave me to my own devices.
But he hadn’t.
Instead, he took his life in his hands and broke into a heavily fortified British stronghold to save me. I shuddered to think what they would do to him if his plan failed, let alone what they’d do to me.
“What did you say?” he asked incredulously, sliding his hand across the table for the dagger that lay beside my head. His eyes were fixed on the weapon as he curled his fingers around it. Now with it in hand, he turned and caught sight of Jamie. “Lord help us, it’s the young Scottish wildcat himself!”
Not only had Jamie risked life and limb to rescue me, but he now stood before the very man who had flogged him within inches of death. The man who had single-handedly taken away everything Jamie held dear. His father, his freedom, his home.
All to save me.
“She’s your wife you say?” He looked me up and down like a slab of meat at market. “Quite the tasty wench she is, unlike your sister.”
Jamie shifted his weight uneasily on the windowsill. He was still poised to strike, as deadly as a venomous snake. I felt cold steel against my throat, the blade lightly touching the skin above my clavicle. “Maybe you’d better toss that pistol over here… unless you’re tired of married life,” the monster shrugged indifferently.
Jamie seemed to consider this a moment, then let out a despairing sigh and slid the pistol into the room. It skittered across the floor, bumping into Randall’s boots with a dull thud.
What the hell was he doing?
Randall smiled. A slow, sinister movement that made me writhe in loathing as he bent to pick up the gun. “Well, that’s a bit better.”
Trading the blade for the barrel of a pistol, he placed it against my temple as his free hand dropped to his crotch.
“I was engaged when you arrived, my dear fellow,” He commented blithely as he hurriedly unlaced himself. “You’ll forgive me if I get on with what I was doing before I attend to you.”
I felt my skirts lift as a fierce battle cry sounded from my husband.
Randall turned on him, aimed, and fired in one fluid movement as a scream caught in my throat. Where there should have been a deafening combustion, an empty click sounded in it’s place. Jamie seized this opportunity to knock Randall completely unconscious and pulled me into his arms.
He held me close for a moment before hastily freeing my bound hands.
“You bluffed your way in here with nothing but an empty pistol?” I exclaimed as he pulled me to the open window.
Stepping onto the wide ledge, he remarked, “If it were loaded, I’d ha’ just shot him in the first place, aye?”
He reached down to help me up beside him, whistling out the window as he did so. I peered down at the ground, some eight feet below us, and wondered what on earth his plan was.
“We jump together, aye?” Jamie’s eyes were urgent, yet calm.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, you have got to be kidding me.
“Ready? One… tw-”
Squeezing his hand in panic, I screeched, “Wait! Do we jump on three or is it one - two - three - jump?”
It wasn’t my intention to stall, I could hear footsteps in the passageway outside the door, but I didn’t want to be pulled out of the window if I jumped late or have my arm yanked from its socket if I jumped early.
“Jump now!” Jamie commanded as the door flung open behind us.
July 2nd, 1743; MacKenzie Lands, Scotland.
The sun was low in the sky when I began to recognize the terrain around me. We’d make it to Leoch by nightfall as planned, but we had a considerable distance to go before then.
I swallowed hard against the rising feeling of nausea.
My feelings were decidedly mixed on the subject of returning to Leoch. On the one hand, I rejoiced at the prospect of a clean bed and a chance to get rid of the layers of grime I had accumulated, but, on the other hand, I had left Leoch with an opportunity to return home and was now returning with a husband and dashed hopes.
Not to mention having to field the myriad of well wishes and unspoken questions from the castle residents.
My stomach continued to roll as I tried to quiet my tumultuous thoughts and concentrate on the road in front of me.
Jamie’s back was broad and straight, just ahead. The hair at the nape of his neck was damp with sweat and curled into tight ringlets from the moisture. He shifted in the saddle and this unexpected movement made the world around me spin.
I didn’t have time to dismount, but had the presence of mind to lean to the left as I lost the contents of my stomach.
Still bent over, I heard Angus, who had been riding directly behind me, bring his horse next to mine and felt him grab hold of the reigns. Jamie appeared out of nowhere and placed a cool hand on my cheek. He murmured something in Gaelic as he lifted me into his arms and carried me to a sheltered spot beside the road. Setting me down gently in the grass, he continued to speak in this low, comforting tone as I heaved again and again.
My whole body trembled and the back of my throat burned with stomach acid when I was finally done. I slid my eyes shut, trying to breathe deeply, as I sat back against Jamie.
I felt him lay a handkerchief across my open palm as he asked, “Are ye alright, Sassenach?”
Cracking one eye partially open, I glared up at him.
No, I bloody wasn’t alright.
I opened both eyes and was about to let him know exactly what I was feeling, when I realized he was as white as a ghost and shaking just as much as I was. My heart skipped a beat at the deep concern I found in his blue eyes.
“I think so,” I murmured instead.
Relief washed over his face as he squeezed my hand.
My stomach churned yet again as we passed thru the stone archway and came to a stop inside the courtyard at Leoch. Jamie slid from the saddle behind me and guided me down after him. Knees buckling as soon as my feet hit the cobblestones, I desperately grabbed onto his arm.
He scooped me up unceremoniously and headed towards the stone stairs that led to the sleeping chambers.
Mrs Fitz intercepted us before we made it to the first step, asking in alarm, “Why, whatever’s the matter wi’ the poor child? Has she had an accident o’ some sort?”
“Nae, she’s only married me,” he assured her with a grin, “though if ye care to call it an accident, ye may.”
With that, he pushed his way thru the throng of people who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere at our arrival. He answered their questions as best he could with a word or two, but didn’t stop to explain. The faces that swarmed in front of me seemed to receive the news favorably with warm smiles and well wishes.
We came to a sudden halt and I very nearly lost my cookies as I realized I was face to face with none other than Colum MacKenzie.
“Wha–” he began, but was cut off by Mrs Fitz’s giddy voice.
“They’re married! Ye can give them yer blessin’, sir, while I ready their room.”
With that announcement made, she pushed her way thru the crowd, leaving a considerable gap in her wake and giving me a perfect view of Laoghaire’s ashen face.
I flopped face down onto the bed after removing a layer or two of grime.
Every inch of my body ached, every muscle complaining in unison over their misuse. My legs, my arms, my back, my abs, my breasts… although why those decided to chime in, I had no idea.
I vaguely remembered that my monthly should be starting any day now and shrugged the thought off, not wanting to mentally speculate as to how Jamie would react to my courses.
My pride smarted painfully as I thought of my husband and I rolled over, glaring at the bed curtains above me. Jamie hadn’t wasted any time in our room, but left as soon as he was sure I wasn’t going to vomit again. The image of Laoghaire’s stricken face came to view and I knew he had gone to comfort her.
Was this the life that lay before me, spending my days receiving the pity of the castle as the Sassenach wench who couldn’t satisfy her husband?
“Leave then, if that’s wha’ ye think of me.” Jamie face was livid as he threw his hand towards the door, “Leave! I’ll no’ hinder ye.”
My pulse slowed as I realized that he meant it.
If I chose to leave, he would let me go.
I weighed this option carefully for a moment before responding.
“No. I don’t run away from things.”
“I dinna either, Sassenach.” Jamie ran a hand thru his hair as he absorbed my decision.
This was true. He didn’t run. Away, that is. When confronted with his primal fight or flight mechanism, Jamie choose to fight again and again, which usually sent him running headlong into things.
“Wha’ is it then? Why are ye doin’ this?” He asked, his brow furrowed in confusion, “‘Tis no’ a question of proof, but whether ye believe me or no’. Do ye? Do ye believe me when I tell ye there is nothing between tha’ girl and me?”
He had told me so when we married, I had believed him then.
Did I believe him now?
Taking a deep breath, I answered, “Yes, I believe you, but it isn’t that. I mean, not all of it.”
Jamie stared at me blankly, blinking in complete confusion.
Could he really be so daft?
“When we got back you couldn’t wait to tell Colum you’d married, just so you could collect your share of the rents!” I spelled it out for him.
He gaped at me in astonishment, then tipped his head back and laughed. “Money?! Tha’s what this is about?”
“I do have a small bit of pride left, you know,” I muttered crossly.
Jamie grinned at me from the other side of the room, “Sassenach, my share of the rents couldna even buy a half of a cow, should I want one.”
“Oh.” I commented rather lamely, feeling very much like a fool. “What did you want, then?”
His eyes softened as he reached into his sporran and walked slowly towards me. He uncurled his fingers to reveal a silver ring, intricately engraved.
“A wedding ring,” Jamie’s voice was hushed, a stark contrast to the shouting match we had just finished.
He left to buy you a wedding ring and you accuse him of infidelity.
“Will ye wear it, Claire?” Jamie asked, “Or do ye wish to live apart?”
July 6th, 1743; Claire’s Surgery at Castle Leoch.
My dungeon of a surgery had found another use while I was away, but Mrs Fitz seemed eager for me to return to my duties and cheerfully gave me back my space. She and her small regiment of young women had just finished toting the last of the impedimenta away, leaving me in blissful solitude. The bustle of the kitchens could be heard thru the open doorway and I moved to shut it.
This done, I plodded back to my work table and sat down heavily on the stool.
Why was I so tired?
Traveling about the Scottish Highlands had certainly been taxing to an extent, but we’d returned to Leoch four days ago and I’d had ample time to catch up on sleep. Even if I hadn’t, I was used to operating on minimal sleep for days at a time. I thought I might even thrive on it. A few hours here and there were more than enough to carry me thru the day.
Propping my head in my hands, I slid my eyes shut and tried to pinpoint the cause.
Maybe I had misdiagnosed my nervous stomach.
I hadn’t been ill enough for it to have been full-on food poisoning and no one else fell ill. Even if something I ate had caused the stomach upset four days ago, it would be long out of my system by now.
I mentally shook my head; it wasn’t that.
I certainly could have contracted a virus from the many people I came into contact with in the last week. The flu would explain the vomiting, as well as my residual lack of energy, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the overwhelming feeling of fatigue had started before I had gotten sick.
Fatigue. Nausea. Tender breasts.
No. I can’t be.
Bolting out of my seat, I frantically dug thru the drawer where I kept my daily log. I hadn’t written in it very faithfully, especially while I was on the road, but it was the closest thing I had to a calendar.
My heart raced as I flipped back thru the pages.
I had my courses while traveling, hadn’t I?
I found the ones pertaining to rent collecting and my subsequent marriage, but they had no mention of my monthly visitor.
May 29th, 1743 - Monthly begins.
June 2nd, 1743 - Left Castle Leoch at daybreak.
I frantically flipped to an empty page and hastily sketched out the days, not wanting to entrust this to mental calculation.
Four weeks would be…
It should have started the twenty-sixth of June and it was now the sixth of July, making me ten days late.
I’m never late.
The world seemed to spin around me as I slid against the wall to the floor, curling myself into a tight ball. My heart screamed that I couldn’t be pregnant, that I was simply late and stressed, but the incessant stream of logic in my mind told me that pregnancy was the most probable cause.
I’m pregnant. I’m going to have a baby.
It was at this very moment that the door swung open and Mrs Fitz’s cheery voice greeted me from the entryway, shattering the fragile moment into a hundred different pieces of fear and uncertainty.
“I found ye a wee bit o’–” she stopped suddenly as she came around the corner, “Ach, Claire! Whatever’s the matter, lass?”
Should I tell her? It was really Jamie’s news to hear first.
The very thought of telling Jamie I was pregnant with his child sent me scrambling across the floor in search of something to vomit in. I reached the bucket in time to turn away from Mrs Fitz as I retched. Tears fell from my cheeks, mingling with my stomach contents at the bottom of the bucket.
I heard Mrs Fitz softly pad across the room behind me before she lowered herself to the floor and began to rub soothing circles between my shoulder blades, “Ye dinna have to say a word, lass, I ken just wha’ yer feelin’.”
Oh, she does, does she? She KENS what it feels like to be pregnant by a man who you do not love? To be separated from the one you do?
I must have muttered aloud, for she cheerfully replied, “Oh, aye. I was sick as a dog wi’ all o’ my bairns. Dinna fash, it doesna last forever.”
Wiping my mouth on the hem of my apron, I pushed the bucket aside. Mrs Fitz smiled at me as she reassuringly patted my arm. I made no attempt to smile in return, but instead petitioned, “You won’t speak a word of this, will you?”
“‘Tis yer news to tell, lass.” She waved away my concern, then added, “Jamie must be proud as a peacock, aye?”
Unable to meet her gaze, I answered, “He doesn’t know. Not yet, I mean.”
She took my face in her worn, wrinkled hands and waited to speak until I looked up at her. Her voice was gentle, without a hint of reprimand. “‘Tis a noble an’ holy thing to bear yer husband’s child, lass, no’ a thing to be ashamed of. Ye’ve given Jamie a great blessing.”
“But I don’t love him,” my throat tightened around the words, unable to fully explain myself. “I can’t, I mean, I still…”
Jamie knew it, but I wasn’t sure that I had ever actually said it out loud.
I still loved Frank.
I gave my body freely to Jamie, my time, my energy, but I could not give him my heart, for it belonged to another.
Her smile wobbled as her eyes grew misty, “I was married twice, myself, lass, an’ I didna love my second husband when we wed. ‘Twas a match arranged by the Laird an’ no’ wha’ I wished, but I did grow to love him in my own way. He was a good man, as is yer Jamie.”
Jamie was a good man. He had promised me the protection of his body and name, a vow he had kept when I put to the test. I knew that, heedless of the cost, he would do whatever it took to ensure that I was safe and cared for.
It wasn’t Jamie’s integrity that I was concerned about, it was what would happen next.
“I ken ye fear wha’ the morrow may bring, but let it be as it may. Dinna waste these precious days of carrying yer bairn by worryin’ over what ye canna change,” Mrs Fitz seemed to read my mind.
Her words rang in my ears like a resounding bell, a single phrase reverberating higher than the rest.
Carrying my child.
It took two to create a child, yes, yet this baby would be mine. He or she would bear their father’s name and maybe his looks, but I would be the one to shelter them within me, to carry them beneath my heart, to give them life even if it cost me my own.
It was in this moment, this hush between the wise and the yearning, that I knew without a doubt that I would love them. Daughter or son, it didn’t matter. A baby of my very own to care for, a child to raise, a legacy to leave behind.
After assuring Mrs Fitz that I would be fine and triple checking that the door was bolted behind her, I lay in the bed that was tucked into the corner of my surgery, wrestling with my thoughts. My knees were pulled tight to my chest, my cheeks wet with tears.
Why now? The question circled around and around above my head. I had tried to get pregnant for seven long years, why now?
A conversation I had with Frank right before I left flickered thru my mind. We had been speaking of adoption, of caring for a child who had been orphaned in the war since it seemed we could not have one of our own.
His words haunted me, a cold, icy fist squeezing around my heart.
“I couldn’t feel properly towards a child that was not of my blood.”
What would Frank’s reaction to my return be if I was pregnant with another man’s child? Would he divorce me? Leave me and the child alone in the world? Would I be better off here, in the past with the father of my child, than in the future, shunned by the man that I loved? Or would he support us, all the while holding the shame of my infidelity over my head like a guillotine blade?
There were too many questions, too many scenarios of a future I could not predict.
“Jamie must be proud as a peacock.”
He would be. I knew he would be.
I didn’t doubt that his reaction to my news would be anything but joyful, but that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was that I wasn’t.
I didn’t know exactly what I was, just at the moment, but joyful wasn’t it.
A loud pounding woke me some time later. The shadows stretched long and slender across the floor as I sat up and moved slowly towards the door.
“Sassenach?” A voice called between emphatic knocks.
I stopped dead in my tracks, unsure of what to do.
“Claire?” He was quickly becoming concerned, “Are ye alright?”
“Coming!” I called, but made no move to do so.
Do I tell him now? Today? Or should I wait until I’m absolutely sure?
You are sure, a little voice ridiculed me, you just don’t want to admit it.
“If ye dinna come to the door, Sassenach, I’ll–”
Visions of him knocking the door off it’s hinges propelled me forward, quickly letting him in before he gave the castle folk enough gossip-fodder to last until next year.
“Or you’ll what?” I quipped as I stared at his shirt front, trying desperately to act normal.
Jamie shrugged, mumbling something about regretting putting the bolt there in the first place. He shoved his left hand towards me, palm up, as he gestured vaguely to it with his right.
“I, ah, am in need of yer skills,” he supplied.
After leading him to the windows that lined the southern wall and turning his hand this way and that for several minutes, I looked up at him in confusion. “What am I looking for?”
“A sliver, just there.” A blush began at the base of his neck and slowly crept its way up to his ears, turning them a dull pink.
I had to bring his hand right up to my nose to find the speck he was talking about.
“This tiny thing?” I asked incredulously. How a fleck of wood that small made its way thru his thick calluses was beyond me and told him so. “How did you even notice it was there?”
He shifted from foot to foot, smiling slightly as he looked at the floor. “Oh aye, well…”
“You know, you don’t have to come up with an excuse to visit your wife.” I dropped his hand and crossed my arms as I felt a smile tug at the corner of my mouth, my voice dropping as I teased him. “You can just stop by to say you missed me.”
His head snapped up, a huge grin spreading across his face.
A good man, indeed.
July 9th, 1743; Castle Leoch.
Morning sickness is a lie, I fumed as I heaved into my bucket for the third time today. If only it would bloody stay in the morning.
It was almost time for the evening meal and I had no appetite what so ever. In fact, the very thought of enduring another aromatic meal filled with haggis and neeps in the great hall made me gag.
The nagging voice came again, You have to tell him.
I shoved the thought aside as I rinsed out the bucket and placed it underneath my work table, hidden from view.
Out of sight, out of mind...
Chapter 3: All Through the Night
Claire and Jamie settle into married life at Leoch as Claire's morning sickness persists.
July 16th, 1743; Jamie and Claire’s Room at Leoch
My stomach woke me sometime after midnight, making its intentions quite clear. I rolled onto my side and curled my legs up to my chest.
You were doing so well, Beauchamp.
I hadn’t been sick at all the day before, and only once the day before that. Somehow, the timing had always been such that I was able to slip away to be sick or I was alone when the nausea hit me.
While Jamie wasn’t what I’d call a light sleeper, he would sleep thru my frequent trips to the chamber pot if I was careful, but the moment I said something, he was alert and ready to pounce. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to vomit in the complete silence without waking him.
What would I say? How should I tell him?
We were alone and would be for some time. It would be hours yet til dawn, giving him time to process the news before he had to leave for the stables.
“I’m pregnant” was simple enough.
“I’ve known I was carrying your child for over a week, but haven’t told you” would be the truth.
I gagged and rolled off the bed, blindly reaching for my bucket and finding it just in time.
Muffled Gaelic expletives erupted from behind me as Jamie sprang into action. He tumbled over the bed and onto the floor beside me. His arm came around me, supporting me from behind as he held back my hair.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed.
For not telling you, for withholding my heart, for waking you up, and everything in between.
“Shh, mo chridhe,” he crooned, rubbing my back. “‘Twill be better soon.”
I set down the bucket and turning around to bury my face in his chest. His arms came around me, his head bending to place a kiss atop my head. I felt him tremble beneath me and realized with a start that he was crying too.
The feeling of dismay surged thru me. My limbs went numb, my womb clenched around the babe I held within me, my chest heaved with the effort it took to take a shallow breath.
He knew and he was disappointed.
In all of my fears of the future, in every change I knew this baby would bring, I never once expected Jamie to react this way. I had assumed he’d take the news positively.
But the news hadn’t come from you.
I had promised him honesty, yet kept the very existence of his son from him. I had told someone else the news before him and left him to hear it second hand from the castle’s housekeeper. Or who knows how many people Mrs Fitz had told, he could have heard it from anyone.
How could he be anything but disappointed?
“I’m sorry, Jamie,” I whispered. “I should have told you the moment I knew.”
“I kenned ye would, in your own time,” his voice gentle as stood, placing me back on the bed and laying down beside me, holding me close as he spoke again, “‘Tis verra bad then? Is there no cure? No herbs ye can try?”
“I have and they don’t work,” I answered dismally, thinking of the peppermint tea I had been drinking almost religiously.
“What if we sent for Collum’s physician from Edinburgh? He’s a learned man, maybe he kens a cure.”
My heart warmed at his adamant insistence to find relief from my morning sickness. “Jamie, there is no cure, we just have to wait it out. It won’t last forever.”
“Nae, mo nighean donn,” he cried out. The desperation in his voice sent shivers down my spine and he all but strangled me in his tight embrace. “I willna let ye die.”
Let me die?
I tried to pull away, to see his face, but Jamie was having none of it.
“For heaven’s sake, Jamie, I’m not going to die!” I huffed, trying to wriggle out of his grasp.
His arms suddenly loosened and I stared up at him in confusion. Even in the dark, I could tell he was completely pale, his blue eyes wide with panic. “What are ye saying, Claire?”
“Morning sickness is a completely normal part of pregnancy. It’ll go away as the baby grows,” I explained slowly, wondering how on earth he went from being disappointed over the news to fearing for my life.
Jamie’s mouth opened and shut wordlessly before swallowing hard and asking in hushed amazement, “You’re with child?”
Jamie had thought I was ill and dying and hadn’t told him. He hadn’t heard my news from someone else, he didn’t know.
Tears sprang to my eyes as I took his face in my hands, whispering back, “Yes.”
His shoulders sagged with relief and I wrapped my arms about his neck as he held me close. “A dhia, Sassenach, ye scared me so.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, feeling him chuckle against me. The low, resonating sound calmed me to my very core. “You’re happy, then?”
Jamie rolled me onto my back, his hand traveling down my body and resting just above my hips. His fingers traced smooth circles over the place where our unborn child grew within me.
“Aye, mo chridhe, verra happy, indeed.”
I had drifted asleep in Jamie’s arms but now woke with a jolt to find his face in mine, dawn’s first light illuminating it in shades of yellow and red.
“Ah!” I screeched, followed by a more subdued, “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ.”
“Ye jumped out of a window! An’ we’ve… I’ve lain with ye! More than lain with ye, I’ve–”
“I remember,” I interrupted him, sleepily smiling as I rubbed my hand across my eyes.
“But the bairn!”
I was having trouble following his change in topics and asked, “What about him?”
Jamie let out a Scottish noise of exasperation.
“Is he harmed? Christ, Claire, if I’ve done something to–”
“No,” I assured him, now fully awake as I realized what he was about. “The baby is alright.”
His brows were drawn tightly together in worry, “Are ye sure?”
Stretching luxuriously, I pressed myself against the length of him, my toes brushing the tops of his feet as my fingers played with the curls at the nape of his neck.
“Very,” I murmured.
He kissed me long and hard before breaking away to study my face. His blue eyes were intense in their concerned scrutiny. I felt completely bare as he saw deep into my soul, asking, “And ye, Sassenach? Are ye happy?”
I couldn’t look away as I answered honestly, “I’m scared, Jamie.”
He knew this without me having to tell him, I knew he did, but it was so freeing to speak the words aloud. Tears began to form unbidden and threatened to spill onto my cheeks as he pressed his forehead against mine, his eyes closing as he whispered, “So am I, mo chridhe.”
July 24th, 1743; Leoch.
“Good morning,” Jamie murmured into my neck, his lips brushing my skin as he held me close.
He was more awake than I was and in a far better mood.
“Mmm,” I groaned, swatting his tickling fingers away from my ear, “Speak for yourself.”
“Wame bothering ye again, mo nighean donn?”
The Scottish word for belly always left me thinking of the word womb, but in either case, the answer was yes.
“Again and again and again,” I grumbled.
Jamie’s hands drifted downwards, his fingers hovering over the area I had shown him. “Can ye feel him move?”
I shook my head, “He’s too small.”
“But soon?” His voice was eager, almost impatient. I couldn’t see his smile, but I heard it in his voice.
“No, it will be a while yet.”
Jamie was quiet for a while, as if he were envisioning the little one growing within me.
“When? When will he come?”
This gave me pause.
When would the baby come?
June - July - August - September - October - November - December - January - February - March
“Middle to the end of March.”
He sighed, “What a bonnie time to be born, mo nighean donn, in the spring. ‘Tis when all the creatures of the forest and byre and moor have their bairns, aye?
I rolled over to find him grinning like a cat who had just stolen the cream. Narrowing my eyes and trying not to smile myself, I poked him in the ribs, “If you’re comparing me to a cow, James Fraser…”
“Nae, no’ a coo,” he grabbed hold of my hand, his eyes twinkling, “but a mother hen, perhaps?”
Pulling him closer, I slid my arms around him and nestled my head under his chin.
My heartbeat immediately slowed as I felt and heard his strong, steady pulse.
All will be well, it echoed. All will be well.
Could all really be well? Could I find happiness here, in Jamie’s arms, while Frank’s lay empty? Could I choose to honor my vow to Jamie over the vow I had made to Frank?
Maybe, my heart whispered, just maybe.
“If I’m a hen, what does that make you?” I shoved my questions aside and asked one of Jamie.
“The cock o’ the roost, Sassenach.”
“What is that?” I asked, squinting at a lump on the floor near the bed. Daylight was just starting to stream thru the window and left the room deeply in shadow.
Jamie’s head popped out of his sark and he looked about the room, “What is what?”
“On the floor,” I pointed.
“Where?” He turned around in a full circle, eyes on the floor, looking very much like a dog chasing its tail. “I dinna see anything.”
I moved towards the object and nudged it with my toe, but immediately pulled my foot back, exclaiming, “Ow! It’s got thorns.”
Jamie came up beside me, bending to pick up the offending bundle. It looked like a strange posy of flowers, with blades of withered grass and thorny twigs bent into strange shapes.
“What is it?” I inquired.
He didn’t answer me but strode across the room, throwing it into the fire as soon as he was close enough. The flames swallowed it quickly and I heard him utter something in Latin under his breath. A chill ran down my spine as I realized he was praying… an almost silent petition for safety against those who would wished us harm.
Whatever the thing was, it was not benevolent.
“Jamie,” I asked in a low voice, “how did that get under our bed?”
“Laoghaire,” he spat the name.
Fury swelled within me at the mention of the blonde strumpet who made no attempt to hide her feelings for my husband. She openly stared, pining away at the other end of the great hall during dinner.
I’d become aware of the rumors she’d tried to spread when I overheard a conversation that ended with, “But I canna believe it, for I’ve never seen a lad so besotted in all my days, have ye? Trails after her like a lovesick puppy, he does, an’ the lass is nae different. Ye can never find her in the surgery o’ an afternoon for she’s always at the stables. ‘Tis a wonder the lad can get any work done wi’ his mind in the bedchamber.”
An almost smug sense of possession slowly encroached upon my anger as I remembered Jamie’s words the night we had returned to Leoch.
You are mine. Mine, mo nighean donn.
I was the one he lay claim to, the one he desired, the one who warmed his bed.
It was me who he reached for in the dark of the night, whose name he called out at his climax, who carried his child.
His response in this moment rid me of any doubt of his feelings words the girl. He was smoldering with rage, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see smoke billowing out of his ears. Doing his best to conceal his feelings but failing miserably, he turned to me and spoke, “Dinna fash, Sassenach, I’ll speak to the lass.”
“No, you won’t,” I stated emphatically.
His brows rose, no small amount of annoyance in his voice, “An’ why not?”
“She obviously didn’t get the message last time. What makes you think she’ll listen to you now?” I explained reasonably before bringing him back to the object that was now crumbling into ash, “What was it?”
“An ill-wish,” he bristled.
“I thought you didn’t believe in such things.”
He shook his head, “‘Tis a threat, Sassenach, an’ no’ one I’ll let go unanswered.”
“Just who is threatening you, Laoghaire or this?” I gestured vaguely to the fire.
Jamie stepped closer, his eyes alight. “The ill-wish is meant for you.”
“Then let me be the one to handle it.”
Chapter 4: By Your Side
The castle learns of Claire's pregnancy and she assists Jamie in the stables.
July 30th, 1743; Castle Leoch.
I jumped at the sound of someone clearing their throat and turned to find Murtagh standing in the doorway of my surgery.
“I, ah, beggin’ yer pardon, lass,” he stammered as he doffed his hat. “I didna mean to startle ye,”
“No, it’s quite alright,” I assured him and waved him inside. He stepped forward tentatively, making my blood run cold and a question tumble from my lips.
“Has something happened?”
“Ach, nae, lass! Nothin’ o’ the sort. Jamie’s just fine, last I saw him, but he said- ah, tha’ is, I thought ye might- ifrinn,” he trailed off and glowered at me.
I bit my lip to keep from smiling.
I’d never seen Murtagh so tongue tied before. Not that he spoke all that much, but what he did say was always short and to the point. The man that stood before me was clearly at a loss for words and I hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was getting at.
Shifting from foot to foot, he tried again, “Do ye need me to, ah, fetch ye anythin’? More water or wee plants from the garden or such? The lad willna be in from the far pasture til the evenin’ meal an’ I didna want ye to be in need while he was away, ye ken.”
“No, thank you,” I answered slowly, wondering what on earth had prompted his offer. “I’m well situated at present.”
He nodded gravely, placing his worn hat back on his head. “Aye, well, I willna be far.”
With that he turned and left.
What was that all about?
Jamie didn’t make it back to the castle before the meal, leaving me solo amid the myriad of noxious smells that passed for dinner at Leoch. Scents were a constant battle for me and I fought nausea at every meal. Geillis was in attendance tonight, but she was doing little to distract me from my stomach.
In fact, she was only adding to my discomfort.
“Enough about my husband, what about yours?” Geillis asked with a coquettish smile.
“What about him?” I replied cautiously, swallowing hard.
She dug a rather sharp elbow into my ribs. “Well, what d’ye think? Does he look as nice out of his sark as he does in it?”
Oh God, does he ever.
Uncle Lamb had taken me to see Michelangelo’s David the summer we were in Italy, but its chiseled features had nothing on my husband. It was my professional medical opinion that a more perfect pairing of oblique and gluteus maximus muscles didn’t exist.
“Um…” I groped for an answer as I tried to get my brain out of the bedroom.
“Then ‘tis true?” she whispered.
I panicked, imagining the new lie Laoghaire had spun and was feeding the gossip mill, “Is what true?”
“About the thumbs?”
“Thumbs? Geillis, what in God’s name are you talking about?”
“Surely ye ken that? A man’s thumb will tell you the size of his cock, Claire! Great toes too, of course, but those are harder to judge, what wi’ the shoon and all.” She nodded towards Jamie, who had just appeared, as if summoned, in the doorway of the great hall, “Yon wee fox cub looks as though he could cup a good plenty in those hands of his, hm?”
“Geillis Duncan, will - you - shut - up! Someone will hear you!” I hissed, my face flaming.
“No one of importance,” She waved the idea away and grinned cheekily, her voice rising a decibel or two. “Besides, they ken he’s got ye wi’ child already, ‘twould no’ be a shock for me to commend him.”
If Laoghaire were in the room, I’d have strangled her on the spot, and I very nearly strangled Geillis in her stead.
I could see the girl’s look of pure hate when I told her I was carrying Jamie’s child, the image forever ingrained in my mind. She was not one to let things be and I knew the moment the words left my mouth that gloating this fact was a mistake. She’d even had the gall to suggest, to my face, that the baby wasn’t Jamie’s.
Part of me was surprised she hadn’t spun that into her tale.
“Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, shut up!” I pinched her hard beneath the table. “Its none of your business!”
She took on a look of complete innocence as Jamie sat down on the other side of me. He smiled apologetically and squeezed my hand as he poured himself a glass of wine. I was surprised there was any left, for Geillis seemed to have drank far more than her share.
“Oh, aye? Well,” The sly smile was back in Geillis’ green eyes. “I dinna ken about that, Claire, for the entire castle kens it to be true.”
“Kens wha’?” Jamie asked as he took a sip.
“That ye got your wife wi’ child on your wedding night.”
He choked on the liquid, his face quickly matching the deep crimson of the wine.
it was ungodly hot in here. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck as I tried to breathe thru my mouth and not my nose. The stench of the unwashed Highlander across from me was enough to fumigate an entire city block and, when combined with whatever the hell that was, it was all I could do not to vomit onto my plate. The man dished himself another helping of the concoction, sending a fresh barrage of fumes my way.
“She hasna the sense God gave a goose, ye ken,” Geillis tittered on, oblivious to my discomfort and Jamie’s barely concealed rage. The grating sound of Geillis’ voice swelled with each wave of nausea, her every intonation making the bile rise in my throat.
I gripped Jamie’s arm as my head began to spin.
“Are ye alright?” he whispered, bringing his face very near mine.
Gagging as the smell of his breath overwhelmed my senses, I got out an emphatic no before he swept me off the bench and made for the door.
A combination of sheer willpower and the breeze created by Jamie’s movements kept the inevitable at bay until we made it into the passageway on the other side of the door. He wasn’t able to avoid the mess, and took the brunt of it upon himself as we came to a sudden stop.
“I’m sorry,” I croaked between dry heaves, the both of us now wet with my warm, pungent vomit.
Jamie managed a wry grin, answering, “Dinna fash, Sassenach, I’ve been covered in worse.”
He didn’t turn to go towards the stairs that led to our chamber, but continued down the passageway ahead of us.
“Where are we going?” The back of my throat burned, my words little more than a whisper.
“Your surgery,” he replied, “‘tis cooler, aye?”
It was. For all it’s cave-like disadvantages, it did remain cool in the heat of the day.
Jamie pushed the door open with his shoulder and the chilled, damp air welcomed us. He set me down gently atop the stool near my work table, then moved about the room in a determined frenzy. The empty bucket I used for such a time as this was placed in front of me, the door was latched and locked, the basin was filled with fresh water and a clean cloth found, and the bed in the corner prepared for an occupant. All of this completed, he shed his soiled shirt and knelt in front of me.
“Wha’ can I do, mo nighean donn?”
I took a deep, shuddering breath and leaned forward, resting my head on his shoulder.
“I think you’ve already done it.”
“Did you tell Murtagh about the baby?” I mumbled, half asleep, sometime later.
I hoped Murtagh had heard the news from Jamie and not from someone else, as Laoghaire had saw fit to broadcast my condition to the entire castle.
Jamie brushed the hair off my neck, replacing it with a kiss, before responding with a rumbling, “Umhmm.”
Murtagh’s random visit suddenly made sense, and was far more endearing than I had registered in the moment.
“Why do ye ask?”
“He stopped by to make sure I was alright while you were gone,” I explained.
“Gone?” Jamie’s confusion was evident, “I didna go anywhere, Sassenach.”
I smiled, “Apparently, the far pasture was entirely too unreachable for his liking.”
A knock sounded at the door, followed by the godfather in question’s muffled voice asking, “Are ye within, Jamie?”
Speak of the devil…
Jamie made a sort of growling noise deep in his throat and pulled me closer. “Ignore him and he’ll go away.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the face he made.
“Shh, Sassenach,” he whispered, silencing me by giving me a breathtaking kiss.
“I ken ye can hear me, ye wee gomerel,” Murtagh muttered as he tried to open the door, but found it latched. He shook it a time or two, testing the strength of the lock, before uttering something in Gaelic and giving up.
His footsteps echoed in the passageway and I knew he’d left.
“What did he say?” I grinned as Jamie’s ears turned pink.
“Somethin’ about stabling a broodmare with an ass,” he grumbled good-naturedly. “‘Twas a complement to ye, to be sure, mo nighean donn, just not to me.”
“What a pity,” I quipped, taking his mouth in mine as my hands drifted further south, “ for your ass is worth complementing.”
Jamie tipped his head back and laughed in earnest, “I dinna think ‘twould sound the same coming from him, Sassenach.”
August 6th, 1743; Castle Leoch.
“You’re changing, Sassenach,” Jamie’s breath tickled the back of my neck as he came to stand behind me, bending to murmur into my ear. He slipped his arms around me and pulled me tightly against him.
My eyes flew to his in the mirror, finding an unconcealed gleam of desire there that accompanied his sudden firmness. Whatever changes he saw, he obviously liked them. A grin spread across his face that I could only describe as prideful and I quipped, “Am I?”
This wasn’t any surprise, I was well aware of the changes my body was undertaking. The fastenings of my stays no longer tied in the same place and it was becoming increasingly difficult to fit into my bodice. Never one to lack in the bosom and bottom category, my figure was rapidly changing, leaving me with mixed feelings. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little self-conscious of my figure at present.
You’re not plump, Beauchamp, I sternly reminded myself. You’re pregnant.
“Oh, aye,” Jamie’s hands caressed the very area I was thinking about, gently putting pressure above my pubic bone. I squirmed and he stopped, lifting his hands to cup each breast instead. “Ye grow more magnificent wi’ each day.”
“Is that what you call it?” I let out a faint laugh, tugging my bodice into place and shying away.
He turned me to face him, placing a hand on either side of my face as he waited for me to look at him, “Ye wouldna, mo nighean donn?”
I whispered, not able to hold his gaze, “No - I mean, I don’t - it’s not that I’m not - I just… I don’t know.”
Jamie gently brought my lips to his, slowly kissing me, keeping his face near mine as he spoke.
“Dinna ever think that I find ye anything but the most beautiful woman in all the world.” He pulled me closer to him, never breaking eye contact as he did so. “Ye have this glow about ye, mo chridhe, like the light that’s in your eyes when we’re joined, but it never leaves. ‘Tis always there. ‘Tis as if ye ken a wonderful secret that ye canna put words to, an’ in a way ye do.”
One hand traveled to the small of my back, pressing me even closer against him. “Ye carry my child, a bheanachd, tucked away deep within’ ye. Only ye can feel him, provide for him. All I can do is rejoice every day in watchin’ him grow within ye, to delight in seeing ye grow thick with my child.”
I pressed my forehead against his, my eyes sliding shut. He picked me up and carried me to the bed, sitting down on the edge. I wrapped my legs about him and buried my face into his neck in an instant.
His arms held me tight as I whispered, “Thank you.”
Jamie burst into my surgery and flew across the room to me. Without a word, he snatched away the jar I’d been holding, taking a firm hold of my wrists. He suddenly backtracked, dragging me towards the door he had just entered and to where Leoch’s stable master stood.
Alec MacKenzie’s presence in my doorway wasn’t a complete shock. He’d come seeking relief from his rheumatics a time or two, when the weather was right. Auld Alec was a crotchety old fellow, but I liked him well enough.
Yet, as to why the two of them were in my surgery was beyond me.
“Aye, that’s verra well,” Auld Alec broke the silence as he examined my hands, Jamie having all but shoved them in the man’s face, “but the arms, man? Has she the arm for it?”
“Look!” Jamie stretched my arm out straight, measuring it along one of his.
“Well, could do,” he pondered. “Aye, it could.”
Could do for what? What the bloody hell was going on?
“Would either of you care to tell me wha–”
My question was cut short as I was unceremoniously tugged thru the door and jostled about.
The two tittered on loudly about one of Colum’s horses, Losgann, by name, that was having trouble foaling.
The mare had historically foaled without incident, but this go of things was becoming problematic as the foal seemed to be breach. I thought this was really more of a job for one of the stable hands and not me. Especially since it seemed my hands were what they were after.
What about Rodrick? Couldn’t he do this? He was a good, strong lad and he certainly knew horses better than I did.
A sinking feeling formed in the pit of my stomach as I remembered splinting his fractured right arm, not two days before.
Damn. Maybe that did leave me the job.
“What exactly do you want me to do?” I asked tentatively.
“Turn the foal, of course,” Jamie paused in the entryway of the stable and blinked down at me as if I had asked him what color the sky was. “Bring the forelegs round so it can get out.”
Oh, is that all?
I sagged against the wall of the large box stall, completely drained. I felt very much like I had just given birth myself. It had taken hours and a great deal of effort, but the foal was finally here, safe and sound.
Jamie put an arm around my waist and led me from the stall, “Let’s get ye cleaned up, aye?”
We stepped into the tack room, Jamie closing the door behind us. He eased me down onto a low, three legged stool and set about ridding me of my impromptu scrubs. The large sark came off easily, taking much of the overwhelming stench with it. Jamie used it to wipe the first layer of blood and slime off, then set about washing my right arm with the rag and bucket of water he had set nearby.
“I can do this myself, you know,” I blinked owlishly up at him.
“Oh, aye, I ken,” he suppressed a grin and I nudged him with my toe, making him laugh.
“I can too,” I mumbled with more conviction than I felt.
He expertly schooled his features, but the glint of humor was still in his eyes as he solemnly vowed, “Never doubted it for a moment, Sassenach.”
I slept like the dead.
A fuzzy sort of voice drifted into my dreamlike state, asking, “Are ye alive under there, Sassenach?”
I peeked out from the bed covers and found my husband towering above me, looking amused, yet slightly concerned. Rubbing my eyes, I mumbled, “I’m not sure.”
With a grin and a look of relief, he moved out of my field of vision.
“Did I miss breakfast?” I inquired as I realized I was starving.
“Miss breakfast, cadalaiche?” He laughed, “ye would have missed the noon meal as well, if I didna wake ye up!”
I sat up in astonishment, “What?”
He draped my clothes over the side of the chair next to the bed, sitting on the edge of it.
“Should I bring ye something to eat or would ye like to go below?”
Pulling back the covers, I swung my feet to the floor, muttering, “Keep your shirt on, I’m coming.”
Fully fed, I walked with Jamie to the stables to see how my equine patients were doing. The foal was up and wobbling happily about. Mama Losgann was always near, but was content to let the gangling little thing explore their new world.
“The foal’s birth has been on my mind,” Jamie started without preamble.
I turned to find that he was wrestling to put words to his thoughts. Instead of interrupting the process by questioning him, I simply placed my hand over his on the fence rail. He looked down at it absently, then went back to studying Losgann and her foal.
“The mare’s foaled two, nae three times without assistance, easy as ye please. I’ve watched many a foal be born, Sassenach, wee coos and pups as well. ‘Tis the natural way o’ the world, but ye ken just as well as I do tha’ sometimes bairns need a guiding hand. Leoch has a midwife of its own, ye ken, and her young lass is learning as well, I’ve heard.”
Nodding, I squeezed Jamie’s hand. I hadn’t approached Leoch’s midwife about my pregnancy just yet, but she had a very good reputation amid the women of the castle.
“My mother died in childbirth when I was eight,” Jamie’s voice caught and he swallowed hard. “She had a skilled midwife to attend her and yet…” he trailed off, taking me into his arms. I felt him shudder before continuing, “She was strong, she was healthy… She’d safely delivered three bairns before that, and still she died.”
“I know,” I whispered, holding him tight.
“What if,” his hand came up to cup the back of my head, his lips buried in my hair and muffling his words. “What if something happens to ye, or to the bairn?”
“It won’t,” I hollowly reassured him.
His grip was suddenly constricting, squeezing the very air from my lungs in its ferocity.
“I ken, mo chridhe, but I canna stand the thought of ye being in pain, knowing that I caused it. Knowing that I am the reason ye have to endure it, and yet I’m unable to bear it for ye. I would, Claire!” he vowed emphatically, “I would take the pain for ye, could I, an’ ye’d no’ bear it alone!”
“I won’t bear it alone, Jamie,” I pushed against him, only to find him set on suffocating me. “Like you said, I’ll have help from the midwife and I know you won’t be far.”
“I’ll no’ leave your side, if ye wish it, mo chridhe. Propriety be damned.”
Chapter 5: Maybe
Claire has an uneasy feeling about her pregnancy and consults Leoch's midwife.
August 13th, 1743; Leoch
“Out with it, Sassenach,” Jamie sighed into the darkness, interrupting my internal musings.
The mattress shifted as he rolled onto his side and faced me.
“I can hear ye thinkin’ all the way over here.”
“Oh?” I scowled at him. “Then do tell me what it is I’m thinking about.”
“The bairn,” his voice was matter of fact, yet held a tone of such understanding that it made me reach out my hand to find his. Taking it, he gently massaged my palm with his thumbs. “Something has had ye lost in your thoughts all day, mo nighean donn. What is it? What has ye bothered so?”
How do I explain it?
My mind scrambled as I tried to think of a way to put words to the overwhelming sense that something wasn’t entirely as it should be. Nothing was wrong, per say, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling and I couldn’t put my finger on it long enough to give it a name.
“It’s just that I don't… well, something feels… something isn't… I’m not sure if I'm…” I let out my breath in a huff, “I’m confused.”
Jamie scooched closer and slid his arms around me, gathering me against his chest. He didn’t speak, waiting instead for me to gather my thoughts.
“I thought I knew what my body should be doing at this stage, but, well…” I trailed off.
“Somethin’ isna as ye thought it would be?” Jamie supplied after a moment.
How did he do that? How could he read my mind so accurately?
“Yes,” I grumbled, feeling slightly affronted that he could put words to my thoughts when I could not.
His hand cupped the back of my head, cradling me as he asked, “Have ye spoke to the midwife?”
Mistrust and skepticism surged within me as I thought of Leoch’s midwife. I hadn’t approached her for the sole reason that I wasn’t sure what I would do if I found her to be an eighteenth-century farce who had very little bedside manner and even less knowledge of childbirth. Of course, logic reasoned that I’d heard more than one story of her good deeds in my tenure as healer to the castle people, but that didn’t mean she’d meet my standards.
“No,” I admitted.
“Mhmm,” he acknowledged. “Maybe Mrs Fitz could help. Ye’ve asked her questions before when ye didna ken which way was up.”
I’d already thought of that.
She’d only tell me not to worry, or rather she’d pat me on the shoulder and croon dinna fash, lass. She’d undoubtedly assure me that every pregnancy was different and that every woman carried a child differently. I didn’t need to be told that nothing was wrong, I felt that with a good measure of confidence, I needed someone to help me decipher the messages my body was giving me.
My arms tightened around him as I pressed my face against his chest, needing to feel his reassuring, steady heartbeat.
Maybe I was being overly sensitive to the changes my body was going thru.
Maybe I was wrong, maybe all was as it should be. I hadn’t come into medical contact with many women who were this early in their pregnancy, after all.
“Maybe,” I whispered.
September 29th, 1743; Leoch.
I opened the door of my surgery and came face to face with Leoch’s midwife, the very person I’d been working up the courage to seek out for the last two weeks. She was a tiny little thing, the top of her head barely came up to my chest, and much younger than I had envisioned. I felt a measure of relief as I noticed her bandaged hand and knew she wasn’t here to discuss my pregnancy.
“I dinna wish to trouble ye, Mistress Claire-”
“No, not at all,” I interrupted her, “please come in.”
She dutifully followed me to my work table, where I had plenty of light to inspect her wound. The cut wasn’t very large, spanning her right, index distal phalanx, but it was deep enough to need stitching.
It was still bleeding, and I instructed her on how to better stem the flow before walking away to gather my necessary items. We spoke of the unseasonably warm weather and other trivialities as I moved about the room, the normality of the situation lulling me into a quiet calm.
Was this was the opportunity I needed?
I returned with an easier heart, and was pleased to find the bleeding had slowed, revealing a relatively clean wound. Nature had done most of the work for me and the blood flow had rid the gash of any debris. It would only need a few swabs of the alcohol before I stitched it closed. The task was done before I was ready and I fiddled with the bandage as I tried to think of a way to broach the subject.
“Out with it, lass,” she admonished, “or ‘twill swallow ye whole.”
I started, pulling the wrapping tighter than I intended and she winced.
“Sorry,” I murmured as I quickly finished. My hands left hers, instinctively hovering over the swell I knew she couldn’t see. I hadn’t a clue what to say to break the awkward silence that fell.
“I think… I mean, I don’t know, exactly, but I…” I trailed off, staring stupidly at my lap. “I think I’m bigger than I should be.”
Completely nonplussed, she asked, “Would ye have me take a look, then?”
I hesitantly nodded and she patted my arm.
“Dinna fash,” she assured me as we crossed the room, heading towards the small cot that often served as my examination table. She perched on the edge of the bed like a songbird taking roost, “I’ve seen just about everythin’ an’ what I havena seen, I’ve felt myself, birthin’ four bairns o’ my own.”
I felt more than a little self-conscious as I lifted my skirts, and she squeezed my hand reassuringly before beginning to examine me. Her eyes slid shut in concentration, her head tilting to one side while her hands did the work. The bandaged digit was held aloft, sticking it out to avoid unwanted jostling.
“How far along are ye?” She inquired.
“About three months.”
Three months, two weeks, and, give or take, four days.
Her brows furrowed as her hands stilled, “Are ye sure of your dates?”
“Yes,” I replied, a little too quickly. She gazed down at me with an amused smirk, and I felt my face flame as I stammered, “I, ah, was married the eleventh of June.”
The smile blossomed into a full grin as she tipped her head back and laughed.
“Oh, aye? Then ye’ve given your lad a mighty fine wedding gift, to be sure.”
“Jamie?” I called cautiously into the dim interior of the stables.
The walk here had hardly given me a chance to gather my thoughts. One moment, I was sure I had them neatly in a row, each emotion identified and acknowledged; the next, they shot off every which way, leaving me in a jumbled mess of tears, fears, and hormones.
“Here, Sassenach,” was his reply.
I stepped in, pausing a moment to allow my eyes to adjust before heading towards the sound of his voice. It was surprisingly cool within, and I breathed a sigh of relief as the familiar scents of hay, horses, and leather did nothing to make my stomach heave. I could hear Jamie speaking Gaelic in hushed tones, and it had very much the same calming effect on me as it did the horse he was working on.
“Hello,” I greeted him softly, standing at the entrance of the stall he was in.
He gave me a warm smile in return, moving from behind the mare to place a gentle kiss on my temple, “Hello to ye, mo nighean donn.”
“I met the midwife,” I whispered as I leaned into him, unsure if we had an audience.
“Oh, aye?” His arms encircled me in an embrace that melted me to my very core. “Did ye ask her?”
I simply nodded, unsure of how to continue now that I’d begun the conversation.
“Is she sure?” a tremulous qualm ran thru me at his question and I felt his heartbeat race against my cheek, the thundering echo reminding me that I wasn’t alone in any of this.
Alone. I would never, truly, be alone again, would I? Not while life grew within me, not while I could cradle such a love close to me in my arms.
“A dhia, Claire,” I clung to him as he breathlessly spoke aloud the word I had been treasuring in my heart.
Chapter 6: When the Bough Breaks
Claire encounters the changeling child in the forest.
October 8th, 1734; near Leoch
“What was that?”
Geillis paused a moment before responding, “It’s nothing but the wind, Claire.”
“No, listen,” I urged. In a moment, the sound came again. It was weaker this time, almost imperceptible, but my blood ran cold as I realized what it was.
It was a baby.
Dropping my basket, I plunged into the underbrush in the general direction of the infant’s cry.
“That’s a faerie hill!” Geillis hissed as she pulled me back towards the path, her eyes wide.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“That baby is no human child, it’s a changeling,” she impatiently explained, “When the faeries steal a human child away, they leave one of their own in it’s place. You know it’s a changeling because it doesna thrive and grow,”
I pried her fingers from my arm and turned away, “That’s just superstitious nonsense!”
“Claire!” she spun me back around to face her, “If you leave a changeling overnight in such a place, they’ll return the child they’ve stolen!”
“But they won’t because it’s not a changeling, it’s a sick child, and it might not very well survive a night out in the open,” I spat. “I have to go!”
“You go yourself, then, and good luck to you!” She dismissed me with a wave of her hand and disappeared into the fog.
The plaintive wail was closer now, pulling me ever onward and upward by my heart strings. It was a steep climb and the forest floor was slippery with wet leaves and mud. I struggled to find traction, grabbing onto branches and rocks in a desperate attempt to reach the abandoned child.
I burst into the clearing atop the hill and spotted the foundling nestled in the crook of large branch, laying completely still.
“Oh God,” I choked, my hands shaking as I gently lifted the tiny bundle from its resting place. The infant’s eyelids flickered and my heart soared as I realized it was still alive, then clattered to a stop as I took in its sunken eyes and deathly pallor.
The babe lay limp in my arms, making no effort to curl into my body for warmth or nourishment. It made a choking, wheezing sound as it fought to take another breath and I eased into an upright position against my chest, the crown of its downy head brushing my chin. I gently rubbed its back as I slowly bounced, swaying side to side. My tears mingled with the rain and an icy chill settled upon me. I clung to the baby, willing it to breathe, to fight to stay alive.
There was nothing I could do. For all of my medical training, I was absolutely powerless to save this poor, helpless child. I couldn’t staunch the blood flow of a wound. I couldn’t give the relief of a salve or herbal tonic. I could do nothing but sit and wait as the baby’s life drained away.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed as I slid to the ground, pulling my knees up as close as the baby in my arms and the growing swell of new life within me would allow, “I’m so sorry.”
Hunching over, I rocked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until everything went numb. The forest around me faded away into a solid white fog. I couldn’t feel my hands, my feet; just the baby’s cold, clammy skin against mine. I couldn’t hear the sound of the rain on the leaves or the wind in the trees, the only sound that could reach me was the death rattle of the baby’s lungs.
Time stood still in the interminable silence between the baby’s breaths, each pause longer than the last.
Shifting the baby in my arms, I hummed the only lullaby I knew, my mother’s favorite song.
Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside.
My fingers memorized the curves of it’s tiny ear, the perfect arch of it’s brows.
Oh, I do like to be beside the sea.
I cupped the baby’s tiny head in my palm and placed a kiss on it’s button nose as it quietly slipped away to be forever held in the arms of the angels.
Jamie’s voice floated thru the fog, a glowing beacon guiding me to a safe harbor. The mist surrounding me lifted for a moment, and I raised my head in time to watch him enter the clearing.
“I was too late,” I whispered as he sank to the ground before me.
“Aye, mo nighean donn,” he murmured, taking my face in his hands.
“I came up here… and the baby… was still alive, but… I couldn’t… I couldn't…” Understanding filled his eyes without my having to finish the sentence. His hands were warm as he brushed away my tears. “They just left it out here to die, Jamie!”
“Aye, I ken.”
He was silent for a time before bringing one hand to rest on the lifeless bundle in my arms. I could see the battle of emotions playing out in his eyes, echoing the war in my own heart. Sorrow, outrage, and terror fought to take control, but it was a quiet sort of resolve that won out in the end.
“You have a kind heart, but you’ve no idea what you’re dealing with.”
Jamie backed away slightly, offering out his arms.
I tore my eyes away from him to look down at the baby once more. I knew I would have to leave it here and, yet, I also knew I couldn’t bear to do so. The child had already been left alone in the forest once. How could I possibly abandon it for a second time?
“Thig, mo ghràidh, come,” he coaxed, sliding his hands beneath the baby.
I resisted only for a moment before I caught sight of his face.
Tears welled in the fathomless blue depths of his eyes as he took the child into his arms, cradling it with a reverent tenderness. His lips formed a wordless supplication to the heavens as he stood, hesitating slightly before placing the baby back into its place in the shelter of the tree.
Crossing himself, he turned and knelt beside me.
“‘Tis dangerous to be out here alone, Sassenach.”
I pulled away from him, “Don’t tell me you believe in faeries and changelings and all that!”
“This is no’ about what I believe. These people… they’ve never been more than a day’s walk from where they were born, aye? They hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in the kirk of a Sunday…” Jamie took my hands in his, brushing them against his lips as he continued, his voice breaking. “Now for the parents of that child… it might comfort them a bit to think that ‘tis the changeling that died… and to think of their own child happy and well, living forever with the faeries.”
A strangled cry escaped my lips as I buried my face in the front of his coat, pleading, “Take me home?”
My body was shaking uncontrollably from cold and shock by the time we reached Leoch. I was wet to the skin, my thick outer garments were sodden with the frigid rain of a Scottish September. Jamie swung down from the horse, guiding my frozen limbs to do the same. I collapsed into him the moment my feet hit the ground and he lifted me into his arms with ease.
He moved thru the winding passageways and staircases that led to our chamber at remarkable speed, somehow unhindered by inquiring castle folk. Not only that, but he had us both devoid of wet clothing and wrapped in furs and blankets on the bed before I could even register what was going on.
“Your skin’s like ice, mo nighean donn!” Concern washed over Jamie’s face as I stared up at him, unable to form the words to describe the icy numbness I felt.
Jamie hovered above me, methodically messaging the life back into my limbs. My eyes shut of their own accord as his hands roamed my body, melting me with the heat of his devotion. The dense haze that had disappeared on the ride home was threatening to return once more. Fighting against it, I slowly lifted my hand, searching, reaching for him.
“Come… here…” I murmured, my lips feeling heavy and clumsy.
Ignoring my hand entirely, Jamie gathered me into his arms instead. He was so incredibly warm. I pressed my cheek against his chest, letting the reverberating echo of his heartbeat ground me.
All is well.
All is well.
All is well.
I blinked heavily once, twice as I tried to bring the room around me into focus.
“Do that again,” he breathlessly requested.
I was more than willing to oblige, but hadn’t the foggiest idea of what I’d done, “Do what?”
“Move your eyelashes slow like tha’,” he cupped the back of my head in his hand as he explained, his thumb absently stroking my hairline. “Ye feel like a wee butterfly spreading its wings.”
Smiling lazily, I did so.
“Is that what ye mean, mo chridhe? Does it feel like that when the bairns move inside ye?”
“A little,” I whispered as the memory of the sensation flooded me with a feeling of warm euphoria, “but it’s different somehow.”
He pulled my hips tighter against him, the now discernible swell of my womb pressing into his abdomen. I tilted my head back to see his face and he kissed me. The last vestiges of frozen terror melted away as I lay in my husbands embrace, our children safely nestled between us.
All is well.
Chapter 7: In the Lion's Den
Claire has been arrested on the charge of witchcraft and is held before trial.
October 19th, 1743; Cranesmuir, Scotland
Rough hands shoved me into the gaping hole in the ground and squarely on top of Geillis. I rolled off her with a groan, glaring at the iron grate that was now being lowered and locked above us with a deafening clang. My entire body ached from impact and I was sure to have quite the bruise come morning where my head had collided with Geillis’.
“Are you alright?” I gasped as I tried to regain the breath knocked from my lungs. I couldn’t make out her grumblings, but took the response as a sign that I hadn’t injured her significantly. “Where are we?”
She moved to sit on a rocky outcropping, wiping the mud from her hands and face, “A thieves hole.”
“Are we alone?” I inquired, cautiously examining the deep shadows of the pit.
“Oh, aye,” she spat, “with the exception of a few rats, I suppose.”
I scrambled to my feet, ignoring the throbbing of my hip, just as a large, dark shape scurried past. Suppressing a cry of alarm, I crawled onto the rock beside Geillis and tried to pull my feet up after me. The action set me off balance, sending me over backwards and onto the ground once more.
Searing pain surged through my left hip, into my lower back, and up my side as I lay in the mud. My chest tightened, both from whatever injury I had sustained from the fall and the realization of what such a jarring impact could potentially have triggered within me.
I lay completely still in the mud and leaves as I desperately tried to isolate the subtle movements within me from my spasming muscles. I held my breath, becoming hypersensitive to every twitch and twinge of irregularity.
No, no, no.
I willed them to move, to show me that my fears were unfounded. My heart plummeted deeper with every moment of stillness and my head began to spin.
Oh God, no.
My soul flung wide its arms, reaching, grasping to take hold of the lives within the quiet darkness of my womb and keep them there. With trembling hands, I gently moved through familiar motions, prompting, pleading them to respond as they usually did in slow, stretching movements.
I could hear Geillis speaking to me, but her words lacked any form of meaning, the sounds jumbling and swirling above my head as her face swam into view. She pulled me into a seated position and I cried out with the force of a new wave of cramping.
I was unbearably cold. My hands and feet were numb, they had been for hours. I lay shivering in the mud as the dark, dense fog of slumber began to overtake me. It cradled me in its icy embrace, offering me respite in exchange for my sorrows, but I soon found that sleep was not a fair master.
The aching pain in my hip and back disappeared as I drifted off, leaving in its stead a sort of hollow feeling, as though I had been gutted like a butchered pig. Everything around me melted away into an endless, black expanse where my every fear swirled around me with the force of a hurricane. A voice, authoritative and unknown, called out to me from the wind.
“This is all your fault.”
It repeated itself, over and over and over, each iteration holding more scorn and derision than the last. I tried to cover my ears against the venomous words, but found I couldn’t move. Strong bonds pinned my arms to my sides, lashing my body to something solid and unforgiving.
“You’ve brought this upon yourself.”
Jamie had warned me not to leave Leoch, of the dangers of being seen with Geillis Duncan, but I had soundly ignored him and fallen headlong into Laoghaire’s trap instead.
“They’re dead because of you.”
“No!” I sobbed, wanting desperately for my refutation to make it to be true, while knowing full well that it couldn’t. My cramping hadn’t ceased in the hours since I’d fallen. In fact, the steady, knifing sensation had only spread.
“It’s only a matter of time, Claire.”
With this taunt, the void around me began to glow with an eerie, sickeningly green light.
“Give them to me,” the voice coaxed, becoming sugary sweet.
I choked as the air turned noxious and a dark shape began to move out from the shadows. The green glow illuminated its edges, giving it a razor sharp silhouette as it loomed above me. My bonds became clear as the thing moved closer. They were vines, thousands of them, running from me to the menacing creature and back again. Hundreds of arms, each with a dexterous hand, slid out of the black oblivion and grabbed onto me.
I managed to croak out “let me go” before one clamped over my mouth. I chomped down hard and it’s finger snapped off between my teeth. Gagging, I spit out the sudden mouthful as the beast cursed me in its own language.
A beam of light cut through the gloom, and with it came Jamie’s voice.
Not Sassenach, his friend. Not mo nighean donn, his brown haired lass. He had called out for Claire… his wife, his lover, the mother of his children.
The beast’s hold of me tightened even more, suffocating me as Jamie’s beam of light allowed me see even more of the many-armed monster who had ensnared me. I would have gasped, had I been able to breathe, as I realized what it was.
It was a tree.
Somehow alive and talking, it used its branches as arms. The hand I had bitten slapped me hard across the face and I caught the gleam of steel slicing through the air as my head snapped to the side. With a sickening crack, the arm dropped to the platform. It landed at my feet and I kicked it away as I strained against the branches, which were now beginning to give.
“Release her!” Jamie bellowed above the sound of another branch being severed.
The voice, which I now knew to be this thing, snarled back, “She’s a witch.”
“I dinna care,” he responded as he pulled himself onto the platform, positioning himself between the gigantic trunk of the tree and me. “I made a vow before God and man to protect her!”
“I am neither God nor man,” it sneered.
No, you’re a bloody fucking tree.
Jamie pointed the tip of his sword at what we both assumed was the heart of the beast. He lunged forward, shoving it into its rough bark. I screamed as another branch came out of nowhere and wrapped around his neck. His feet kicked empty air as it lifted him off the platform, dangling him above my head as he choked.
“What do you want?” I cried, “Whatever it is, you can have it!”
“You know what I want,” it sneered as it released me.
A vicious contraction tore through my abdomen, its intentions all too clear.
“If you give them to me, they’ll live forever with the fairies.”
Visions of the changeling child, blue and pallid in my arms, began to clear the fog around my head. The contraction eased and I swallowed hard, trying to think clearly.
I realized in a flash that Jamie’s feet were roughly at the level of my shoulders. Surging forwards, I pushed hard against the bottoms of his feet, guiding them to a place of leverage. I heard him gasp for air, coughing as he stood atop my shoulders.
“Dinna - give - it - anything,” he panted as he slowly regained the ability to breathe normally. “I will - live on - through the bairns - ye carry.”
The reality that I could very well loose all three of them in the same moment prompted me to ask of the tree, “How? How do I do it?”
I pinched his ankles firmly, hissing, “This is my decision!”
A single branch slowly wrapped about my waist, just above my protruding bump, as the beast lifted Jamie from my shoulders and placed him next to me. He instantly tried to pry me free the moment the thing released him, but I stopped his hands with mine.
Turning my face away from him and to the tree, I begged, “Promise me they will be safe.”
It didn’t answer.
Instead, in a small crook of the branch that held me, a nest began to form. Interlocking loops of vine created the shallow sides as a leafy dome sprouted to cover the top. Everything was still for a moment; the branches, the foliage, the very air waited in anticipation for what would be revealed.
A child’s laugh wafted through the canopy over the top of the nest, making the leaves tremble in excitement. I reached out my hand and softly traced the edge of one. Jamie moved closer, outstretching his hand to do the same. The moment his finger touched one, they all fell away in a soft woosh, exposing two small children.
The toddlers sat cross legged, side by side. Two sets of big blue eyes, Jamie’s eyes, blinked back at me in curiosity. I opened up my arms and they scrambled to their feet, laughing as they ran to me.
“There’s bread, Claire,” Geillis’ hand on my shoulder yanked me from my dream, sending consciousness to attack me with the strength of a dozen men. A strangled cry escaped my lips as my children vanished into the shadows of the thieves hole, my hopes with them.
Food was the last thing I wanted right now.
“Not hungry?” My cellmate studied me carefully as she retracted the proffered moldy bannock. Closing my eyes, I tried to block out the world around me and return to my children’s embrace. I was nearly there when Geillis sighed, asking out of the blue, “Do ye love him, then?”
I neither acknowledged her question nor opened my eyes until she shook me again.
“I ken you’re awake,” she pressed. “Really love him, I mean. More than just wanting to bed him, for I ken ye want that and he does too. They all do.”
Did I? Beyond the urges of the flesh?
“He’s the father of my child,” I answered flatly, even though she knew I was precariously perched on the edge of a miscarriage.
Geillis flippantly waved my words away, adding “Tis his name ye call out in your sleep.”
“I didn’t know I did that.”
“Well, do ye?” I knew she wouldn’t let the subject drop until I’d answered her.
Jamie’s face swam into view, not looking like he had in my dream, but as he had at the time of our parting. The rising sun had lit his auburn curls aflame, there in the courtyard. Our warm breath puffed around us in the cold air as we said our goodbyes. I’d looked into his eyes, telling him to hurry back, before he’d kissed me one last time.
“Yes,” My entire body trembled with this revelation as I turned away from her in the dark.
Chapter 8: Jet Black
Jamie rescues Claire from the witch trial.
October 20th, 1743; Inside the Courthouse
“Let us call the next witness,” bellowed the jowled examiner, dismissing the man who’d recounted my brush with the Loch Ness monster with a flick of his hand, “Laoghaire MacKenzie of Castle Leoch.”
It wasn’t a surprise, per se, to see Laoghaire step forward to cast her stone, but I also hadn’t expected it. I’d known since the very beginning that she was the one behind this whole debacle, and, yet, it seemed I’d underestimated her.
Laoghaire would stop at nothing to ensure that I was convicted guilty of witchcraft.
“She wasna Mistress Fraser when we first became acquainted,” the bitch began, “she was Mistress Beauchamp then. I came to her for a potion tha’ would open Jamie Fraser’s heart to my own.”
Wavering, she brought a white handkerchief to her cheek, eliciting a murmuring of sympathy from the crowd, “I’m sorry, tis painful to talk about.”
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, how could anyone believe these crocodile tears?
“Did you concoct such a potion?” The examiner on the left demanded.
“It wasn’t an actual potion,” my head spun at the preposterous accusation, “I was just trying to–“
Ned Gowan leapt up from his bench, “Clearly, she’s a just a young lass with a broken heart!”
“Aye! My heart was broken,” Laoghaire rounded on him, eyes blazing, “I was the one Jamie was meant to marry!”
She quickly regained her composure, her sudden fury slipping beneath a mask of feigned grief, and started again, “When I confronted her about the potion, she said she’d taken it herself, that she needed Jamie to fall in love with her to conceal the true nature of her bastard child. She told me how she’d lain with her kelpie lover and conceived in Loch Ness and without Jamie’s affection the bairn wouldna be born human.”
My jaw dropped involuntarily as I struggled to process her words. The uproar around me spoke of their immediate comprehension, but I was still several paces behind.
I — with — what the hell?
“And—” she waited until she could be heard once more, “and that’s when she struck me.”
“This is nonsens—“
“Did you, in fact, strike this woman?” The first examiner inquired, outraged.
Yes, and if she was within reach just now, I’d gladly do so again.
”She put an ill-wish under my bed and then tried to seduce my husband!” I exclaimed instead.
Later, by the shores of Loch Beannacharain on the outskirts of Cranesmuir.
I cried out as the leather strap struck me once — twice — three times. Each lash tore across my shoulder blades with the searing heat of a branding iron, every stroke encouraging the mob of uneducated peasants into an even greater frenzy.
My body recoiled, pulling against the men who held my bonds. They stood firm, irresolute as they leered at me. My bare back and gaping bodice left little to their imagination, it seemed, and they made no effort to hide the pleasure they found in their job.
“Ye’ll burn, witch,” one of them spat, making Laoghaire’s parting words swarm around my head.
I’ll dance upon your ashes.
A cry, of sort I hadn’t heard since the war, pierced the air and it was with considerable shock that I realized it had come from me. I’d lost the control over my voice, I was at the mercy of the primal instincts that overtook my body in response to the unbearable pain.
I was plunged into a soundless chasm of darkness as a ripple of agony started at my shoulders and descended into my hips. The shockwaves stole the very air from my lungs, making me wish for death itself. I felt each individual muscle constrict and release, only to do so again and again.
I had no doubt now, none whatsoever, that I would loose them… it was only a matter of time.
Please, my spirit begged, let it be over soon.
Jamie’s voice yanked me to the surface, up and out of my pain induced stupor. I struggled to open my eyes and, suddenly, there he was; he and Murtagh. They stood back to back, swords brandished and teeth bared as they fought their way towards me.
“Hold still,” he commanded, tossing something at my head. It hit its mark and the jet rosary Colum had given me as wedding gift fell around my neck. I’d never worn it and Jamie had kept it in his sporran from the moment his uncle had given it to me.
Addressing the crowd at large, Jamie surged forward, “Jet will burn a witch’s skin, no? Still more, I should think, would the cross of Our Lord.” I wobbled as the men who’d been holding me upright let go. Jamie pulled me to him as he lifted the crucifix off my skin, “But, see? Not a mark.”
“Sir,” one of the examiners objected, “you have no place in the workings of this court!”
“I swore an oath before the altar of God to protect this woman!” Jamie roared, his arm tightening around my waist, “If you’re telling me you consider your authority to be greater than that of the Almighty, then I must inform you that I am not of that opinion, myself.”
We slowly began creep towards the edge of the crowd, moving in the general direction of Murtagh and the horses. The mob didn’t give way for us. They muttered amongst themselves, instead, as they held their ground.
“He’s the witch’s man.”
“She’s hexed him, to be sure. Ye can see it in the lad’s eyes.”
“Look at tha’ horse! No doubt o’ what he is, ye ken.”
“The kelpie — He’s come to rescue his lass!”
“Take him too!”
“Burn him! Burn ‘em all!”
Without warning, Geillis’ voice rose over the top of the cacophony of threats and gossip, sending them all into a stunned silence.
“This woman is no witch, but I am!”
I felt so incredibly numb as we rode hard, putting as much distance between us and Cranesmuir as we possibly could. The motion of the horse and Jamie’s arm around me did nothing to penetrate the transient weightlessness that had me adrift on an open sea. Nothing could reach me, could bring me back from the black abyss that ensnared me. My back and hip were silent, the pain unregistered as I moved in sync with Jamie atop Donas. I almost wished I could feel it and have some sort of anchor that would bring me back down to reality.
But, did I really want to come back to reality? Back to a world without fair trial, one that burned people at the stake for a crime that could neither be proved nor disproved? A lifetime without the two innocent lives that had once flourished within me?
I didn’t want to come back.
I closed my eyes, letting the tide take me where it would and finally succumbing to the pull of shock and grief.
Something solid and unmoving was beneath me as my awareness slowly returned to me. It’s damp chill seeped through my skirts as my name echoed in my ears.
Each reverberation gained intensity as it traveled down my spine, settling into my hips. It pulsated through my bones and took a firm hold of my lower back. An angry heat accompanied the sensation as it spread across my shoulder blades, melting the wall of ice that had, until now, kept me separated from my blinding pain.
I shook my head, fighting consciousness, but the voice - Jamie’s voice - only grew louder, his magnetic pull guiding me to the surface. His hands were on my face, his breath warm on my cheeks. I could feel him, taste him, but I remained in the dark, alone.
My lips refused to move and I tried again.
“Aye, Sassenach,” he sighed in relief, his face still hidden from view, “I’ve got ye.”
My hands trembled as they felt along to find his face. His cheeks were chilled from the wind, but the creases of his eyes betrayed the underlying heat of turmoil as his tears fell onto my fingertips before they trailed down familiar line of his cheekbones.
He took my hands in his, kissing them both before pulling me closer, onto his lap. I rested my head on his shoulder and grabbed a fistful of his shirtfront, assuring myself that he was real, that this wasn’t another horrid dream.
I blinked once, twice, and suddenly the world came into focus. The muted browns and greens of the forest separated themselves from Jamie’s jacket, the brilliance of a noonday sun above me from his pale skin.
Jamie’s hand lowered to my lap, cradling the swell of my abdomen and the floodgates opened. My tears fell in torrents and my words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. I told him of my fall, of my dream, and of the surety of my impending miscarriage.
The muscles of his jaw tensed as he swallowed hard, his fingers restlessly moving against the fabric of my skirt. An intense look passed over his face, his brows furrowing in thought as he uttered a single word.
I stared up at him. Of all the ways I thought he’d take the news, I never once imagined that he wouldn’t believe me.
Jamie half smiled, his face regaining color at a remarkable rate while something in his eyes spoke of a confidence, an intuition that I had no explanation for.
“Have… have ye had any bleeding?”
I slowly shook my head, “but that doesn’t mean —“
“Then the bairns are safe and well,” Jamie interrupted, turning me on his lap so that he could rest both hands just over my womb, “I ken it.”
“I willna stop fighting for them - for you - until the battle is over,” his chest heaved with the emotional effort it took to make his heart known, “but ‘tisna over, mo nighean donn… no’ yet.”
Then, with the care and attention of the finest nurse, he saw to my wounds, cleansing those that were visible as well as those that lay far beneath the surface. He draped his plaid over my shoulders, careful as to not upset my raw skin, and tucked the ends snugly around me. This done, he knelt at my feet, a tentative look in his eyes.
“I said before that I wouldna ask ye things ye’d no wish to tell me… and I wouldna ask it now, but I must know, for your safety as well as mine,” he clasped my hands tightly and I could feel him tremble. “Claire, if ye’ve never been honest wi’ me before, I beg ye, be so now, for I must ken the truth.”
Jamie looked down, bringing my hands to his lips. His thumbs ran back and forth over the ridges of my fingers as he wrestled with something, an internal struggle of a sort that made me wish he’d just spit it out and have it over with. I opened my mouth to tell him so when he lifted his head.
“Are ye a witch?”
Back on the horses, we continued to ride hard. I paid little heed to my surroundings, but, instead, turned my focus inwards. The little flicker of hope Jamie had ignited within me had grown into a steady flame and I mentally re-examined my symptoms in a new light.
My cramping hadn’t produced any spotting or discharge of any sort. Could they’ve merely been muscle spasms and not contractions? And my hip– the pain was now very localized to the area around my left greater trochanter, with angry offshoots if I moved wrong. Could I simply have a deep bruise, my hip’s bone structure taking the brunt of the impact?
All of these things would mend in time, if I was careful and took it easy.
This left the babies’ lack of activity, but the combination of my stress, jostling movements, and infrequent meals of the last thirty six hours was more reason enough for them to be still.
Could I ignore my doubts, push aside what medicine said could merely be a possibility?
Could I choose to trust in what I couldn’t see, have faith in what I couldn’t yet feel?
I won’t stop fighting for them until I know the battle is over.
Jamie’s words came back to me and I realized I had done just that. I’d stopped fighting for them when I let my fear for what might happen cripple me. I’d stopped fighting when I ceased to believe that they could be strong enough, that I could be strong enough.
I squeezed Jamie’s arm, which was securely wrapped around my waist, and slid my eyes shut as I leaned my head back against him, resting my other hand over them. I felt him turn his head towards me, anxious of my discomfort, I was sure, and lifted one corner of my mouth in reassurance.
Maybe all could, indeed, be well.
A warm, fuzzy glow surrounded me as I lay in Jamie’s arms. The sunlight streaming through the window behind him set every wispy curl on fire. He bent his head, his lips kissing mine in such a manner that I felt breathless, dizzy with passion. I melted into the downy mattress beneath me as his heat permeated my very core.
I gasped as he lifted the hem of my shift, a cool breeze raising gooseflesh on my thighs. His hands slid up my legs as his tongue flicked in and out of my navel, his thumbs massaging me, opening me. I tipped my head back against the pillows as I writhed with pleasure, encouragements tumbling from my lips.
I heard the rumble of his voice, felt his breath against my skin and reached out my hand to touch his face. My fingertips found rough, damp wool instead of smooth, bare skin and the sensation pulled me out of my dream. My head spun as I regained consciousness, desperately trying to sort figmentation from what was actually going on around me.
Or, more accurately, within me.
Grabbing a fistful of his shirtfront, I shifted myself into a better position. His lips found mine again and I nearly swallowed him whole. He laughed as I rose up to meet him, ready and willing.
“Please,” I urged.
Jamie shook his head, pleasure written all over his face. His lips hovered above mine in a smile that was just out of reach. I strained, lifting my face, begging him to kiss me. He did so in such a way that only made me burn hotter, that left me needing even more from him than his little game would allow. I groaned in frustration and arousal and moved against his hand. He eagerly responded, coaxing me closer and closer to the edge of oblivion.
“Now,” I insisted as I pulled his head down, “I need you inside me now.”
A low rumble of delight started somewhere near his toes, gaining intensity as it worked its way to his face and burst forth into a grin I could only describe as cheeky, ”No’ just yet. I want to watch ye.”
A new day dawned as Murtagh and Jamie readied the horses. The icy stream made my morning ablutions a bit brisk, but it was wonderful to wash the last reminders of the thieve’s hole from my skin. I heard my husband approach and turned, giving him my best attempt at smile. His proffered hand lifted me to my feet, then tucked a damp curl behind my ear.
“Ready to go home, mo nighean donn?”
Nodding, I leaned into him, needing his warmth. His arms came around me and I tipped my face up, my lips seeking his. He kissed me with a desire, a ferocity that beckoned back to our encounter just a few hours before.
“It’s what you wanted, aye? What you’ve always wanted?” His voice was lower than usual, thick with an emotion I couldn’t quite place. “To go home?”
“Yes,” I answered slowly as I studied his face, unsure where this was coming from.
Jamie’s eyes slid shut, his hands framing my face. He pressed his forehead against mine for a moment, then murmured, “Then lets go.”
“Is this the place?” he asked, hesitating just outside the circle of standing stones as he examined their positions carefully before entering.
“This is it.”
The buzz coming from the center stone was beginning to make me feel dizzy as it drew me into the windblown space between the stones. Jamie came to stand beside me as he finished his loop around the giant, cleft stone. “This one?”
“Yes,” I answered, shifting uneasily.
My heart beat erratically in my chest. It plummeted as I caught Jamie’s pale countenance out of the corner of my eye, then soared at the thought of seeing Frank again, of reuniting with the man I’d longed to be with for the last six months.
“What did ye do last time?”
“I didn’t really do anything,” I took a step forward and outstretched my hands. “There was this buzzing sound… and I just… touched the stone.”
The roar of the stones sucked me in, the walls of the world around me came crashing down in a sensation both familiar and completely foreign. It was the same sound, the same siren’s song that echoed in my ears, tugging me back to my own time… to Frank.
Suddenly, something - or someone - grabbed hold of me. A force latched onto me, jerking me into a blinding white light. I screwed my eyes shut as a pounding in my head took up residence and nausea threatened to pull my digestive organs up and out of my mouth all at once.
Jamie’s voice was strangled, more frightened than I’d ever heard it. I tried to smile, to show him I was still breathing, but all I managed was a slight twitch of my lips.
“I’m alright,” I muttered.
“Are ye, then?” He pulled me up from my prostrate state, clasping me tight against his chest, “Oh, God, Claire, I thought ye were dead. Ye left… began to go somewhere… and ye had the most awful look on your face, like ye were frightened to death.”
“Claire, I’m sorry,” Jamie breathlessly apologized. My eyes were open now and I could see the shock and fear written all over his face, “I stopped ye, I shouldna have done so. I just… I wasna ready.”
Clarity slowly returned to me with each beat of my heart, my tunnel vision and focus expanding with every breath I took. The thundering in my ears lessened and the nausea faded away, leaving a lump in my throat as I realized I wasn’t ready either.
This is what I wanted, right? To go back home?
Suddenly, now that the opportunity was here, I wasn’t entirely sure.
“At least we know it still works,” I mumbled, finding words woefully inadequate.
Jamie nodded, his jaw twitching with tension as he wrestled with .
“Aye, it does,” he swallowed past a lump of his own and cast a glance of fearful loathing towards the center stone. “‘And now I must part wi’ ye… ‘tis what we’re here for, aye?” His face was pale as he brought the both of us to our feet, speaking aloud to himself as much as he was to me, “‘Tis your own time, the things ye ken, on the other side of tha’ stone. Ye’ve a home there, a place… and Frank.”
“Frank,” I echoed as his face swam before me as the blood rushed to my head, his eyes dark and smiling.
“There’s nothing for ye here, save violence and danger,” his fingers beat rapidly against his leg. “Nothing, Sassenach. Now go,” he insisted, taking a step backwards, “I’ll stay until nightfall, to see ye safe.”
I couldn’t look away as he walked to the edge of the stone circle, where he hesitated, swaying slightly before he turned and bid me, “Goodbye, Sassenach.”
I stood frozen, torn between following my heart or my head.
The word stopped him in his tracks as he moved to leave. He didn’t turn back to face me, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. His rigid stance held no sign of weakness, no lingering doubts over his actions… over his parting words to me.
Was there truly nothing here for me?
Here with the father of my children, a man I loved?
I bit back a sob and swallowed his rejection with the lump in my throat.
My voice shook as I whispered, “Goodbye.”
Chapter 9: To Build a Home
Claire chooses to stay in the past and is reunited with Jamie.
October 20th, 1743.
The sun had set long before I made my decision, which made making my way back to the campsite a far more daunting task than I had anticipated. I nearly fell face first into the underbrush several times before I was able to force myself to slow down, but all my restraint fell by the wayside as I caught sight of his low burning fire. Jamie and Murtagh heard me coming long before I made it into the clearing, the both of them rising up from the ground to stand ready for whatever sort of foe may appear.
I launched myself in Jamie’s general direction, paying little heed to Murtagh’s Gaelic exclamations. I couldn’t care less about what he thought of my absence and reappearance, my attention focused on the man I never wanted to be parted from again. He caught hold of me around the waist and pulled me close, his heart beating erratically against my cheek.
“Take me home,” my lips trembled as I tipped my head back to look up at him. “Take me to Lallybroch.”
Jamie opened his mouth to speak, but I silenced him, bringing his lips down to mine. Words would come in time, but, just now, I needed an assurance that could not be spoken aloud. I needed to know that his parting words to me were uttered to give me the freedom to choose my future and not a reflection of his heart. I needed to feel him respond to my kiss as he always did: with a passion and desire unfettered by what tomorrow may bring.
My heart soared as he rid me of my every doubt. Jamie brought one hand to caress the swell of our children and I laced my fingers between his, wishing desperately to have the faith he had in their health. The hours of their stillness were taking a toll on my own well being, slowly draining me of hope. He nuzzled his nose in my hair while he pressed his hips against mine, assuring me, “They are well, mo nighean donn, even if they canna show us just yet.”
As if summoned by their father’s voice and touch, I felt an unmistakable stirring within me. My heart skipped a beat, then clattered on at breakneck speed. I held my breath as I quickly moved Jamie’s hand to the place. His eyes widened in surprise, then took on an incredible soft sort of glowing delight.
“Oh God, Claire.”
I stared into the dying embers of the campfire as I lay in Jamie’s arms, his warmth curled around me as he slept.
The babies hadn’t moved again, but, for now, I was content with their quiet slumber. I tried to remind myself that it was still early yet and their movements should sporadic, without a discernible pattern or prompting. Maybe it was because there were two of them, and therefore twice the amount of activity, that I could feel them as I did. Whatever the reason, I cherished every sign that proved my worries to be unfounded.
I’d never been so happy to be wrong in my entire life.
With a smile, I settled into a more comfortable position. Jamie moved with me and sighed in his sleep, completely content with our earthen mattress. I’d gotten used to sleeping on the ground by now, but it certainly wasn’t my first choice of sleeping arrangements.
Who are you fooling… if Jamie was there to warm you, you’d gladly sleep on a glacier, my brain teased.
I caught sight of Murtagh’s shadowy blob on the other side of the fire, his back towards us and the dying embers, calling to mind Jamie’s words to me of how his godfather had responded when he’d returned from Craigh na Dun without me.
Murtagh recognized this as being near the place where he’d rescued me from Black Jack Randall some six months before. He’d questioned Jamie as to why this was, that if I’d had a connection to the area, why I hadn’t mentioned it, only speaking of Oxfordshire and France. Jamie had been sure I was already in my own time, gone forever and to never return, and told him everything, sharing his heart and baring his soul to the one who knew it best. He’d been skeptical, God bless him, but he took Jamie at his word when he described watching me start to vanish before his very eyes. Few words had come from Murtagh, who was quiet on a talkative day, before he turned in for the night, leaving me wondering just what he thought of the whole ordeal.
I had it second hand from Jamie that Murtagh had believed his explanation, and I knew Jamie wouldn’t lie about it, but I had my doubts that his godfather, a skeptical Scot to his very core, actually believed that I’d supernaturally appeared that cold, spring day from two hundred years into the future.
“Mmm?” I intoned, peeking out of one eye to look up at him. With the warm sun on my face, Jamie’s strong arms around me, and steady rhythm of the horse, I was having a hard time staying awake.
“Why did they call Donas a kelpie a’ the trial?”
“Because Laoghaire told the court that I was having his child,” I answered with a scowl.
We came to an abrupt halt as he all but shouted, “She what?”
“She claimed I had an affair with the Loch Ness monster and that I gave you a magical potion so that you’d fall in love with me in order for the child I’d conceived with the beast to be born human.”
Jamie stared down at me in silence as he tried to process what I just said. His brows were knit together in confusion for many moments before his face flamed bright red, the implication now clear. A stream of what I could only assume to be Gaelic profanity spat from lips and I closed my eyes again, seconding the sentiment, as he heeled the horse back into motion.
“I’ve heard that one before,” I mumbled. “What’s it mean… ifrinn?”
“Hell,” he translated as a matter of fact
Chapter 10: Lallybroch
Jamie and Claire have traveled to Lallybroch after the witch trial at Cranesmuir.
In which Odysseus returns home, disguised as a beggar.
I smiled at the memory of Jamie’s muttered Greek as I sat down on a wooden bench and I looked at my own bare feet, finding I fit the description perfectly.
Our arrival at Lallybroch had been far from triumphant, however heartfelt it had started out, and was something neither of us would have envisioned. We were both considerably worse for wear and bedraggled when we passed through the arched gateway, each showing the week of travel it had taken to get here. Jamie’s clothing at least resembled something a respectable person would wear, meanwhile I was dressed in his spare shirt with his plaid gathered about my shoulders and belted at my waist… or what was left of my waist.
The pack of dogs that had greeted us disbanded once Jamie and Jenny took their quarrel within, leaving me to find an uninhabited courtyard when I sought fresh air a few moments later. My morning sickness still came and when as it wished, but I’d found being out of doors helped, as much as anything could. Leaning my head back against the smooth stone of Lallybroch’s walls, I let the warm autumn sun slowly warm my face as I focused on taking deep, even breaths. I caught a whiff of the dovecote, which was unfortunately upwind of me, and lost what little control I had over my stomach.
A deep Scottish mmhmm of sympathy followed the sound of someone sitting next to me and made me wish I could crawl underneath the bench and hide.
What a way to meet your in-laws, Beauchamp, ralphing in their rose bushes.
Wiping my face on the hem of my skirt, I braced myself and sat upright, ready to face whomever had joined me. I found a decent looking chap about the same age as Jamie sitting next to me with a sort of grimace on his face and a gleam of amusement in his eye.
“Bairns have a way of doin’ that, aye?” He accurately stated, “Kickin’ ye when you’re down?”
I nodded, not quite capable of speech just yet. My hand instinctively went to the now very obvious swell just above my hips, reverently cradling the life within, as I fought another swell of nausea.
“My wife was ill with our first, but we’ve been blessed with a reprieve wi’ this one,” he continued, not minding my silence. “She mebbe wouldna tell ye so, what wi’ the bairn bein’ so close, but saints be praised just the same.”
He offered me the warmest of smiles and I couldn’t help trying to return it as I inquired, “Your wife is with child, then?”
Before he could answer, the wind changed and pushed a few barbed comments from within our way, most indistinguishable, but Jenny’s voice rang out clear for a brief moment.
“… and wi’ ye struttin’ home, proud as a peacock wi’ yer trollop! How dare ye suggest such a thing when ye ken the bairn she carries isna yours?!”
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, would Laoghaire’s lies never end?
A smile of amusement tugged at my companion’s lips as he easily nodded towards the house, “Jamie’s home then… and I imagine ye’ll be…”
“The trollop,” I finished for him, “otherwise known as Claire Fraser.”
He laughed outright at this before introducing himself, “I’m Ian Murray, Jenny’s husband.”
“So, you’d heard of it then?”
“Oh, aye. Ye canna keep anything a secret long in the Highlands,” he looked back to the window where the argument had risen in severity. “Better give them a few minutes longer… Frasers canna listen to anythin’ when they’ve their dander up. When they’ve shouted themselves out, then ye can make them see reason, but no’ til then.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” I commented dryly.
Ian grinned unashamedly, “Ye’ve been married long enough to figure that out, eh?”
“Just how far along are ye, then?” Jenny inquired from behind the bed sheet she was pulling from the clothesline.
I stared blankly at the flowing, white linen, trying to figure out what day it was. “This is, what, the last week of October?”
“Well into the first week of November, lass,” my sister in law chuckled. “Today’s the fifth.”
“Then almost five months,” I sighed.
Her face appeared above the sheet, more than a little surprised, “Truly?”
“Our wedding was the fifteenth of June, so, yes that would be…” my chin rose as I quickly counted, “four months and twenty five days, to be exact.”
“Aye, I didna mean that dinna believe ye! Jamie cleared the air of the rumors we’ve heard of ye, to be sure.”
The ever present rock began to sink in the pit of my stomach. Just what exactly had they heard? What tales had been spun about my flight from the trial? Obviously, Laoghaire’s claim that the baby wasn’t Jamie’s had reached Lallybroch, but what else had?
“But,” Jenny’s voice nipped the budding questions before they could bloom into anxiety’s fragile flower, “tis only that ye look… closer than that.”
Another sigh left my lips, heavier this time, and I confessed to the first person outside of my husband, “The midwife at Leoch says its twins.”
“Twins?” She dropped the now folded sheet into the basket at her feet with a succinct plop as she muttered, “Mother, Michael, and Bride protect ye.”
My fingers found the jet beads amid the folds of fabric. I hadn’t taken it off since Jamie’s thrown them at me and I wasn’t sure when — or if — I ever would.
May they indeed.
The master bedroom had been hastily vacated for us, Jenny and Ian’s things moved from their places to a new room in short order, leaving Jamie and I alone to try to wrap our heads around the fact that we were really here.
Jamie loosened the belt about my waist and I sighed with contentment as he slid the plaid from my shoulders, pushing my skirt to the floor. He swept me up into his arms, his eyes hooded with a mixture of desire and fatigue. Slowly, he moved us towards the bed, lowering me down onto it and crawling in beside me. I sank gleefully into the feather mattress as the muscles my lower back and hips proclaimed their thanks.
“Welcome home, Lady Broch Turach,” he murmured, his voice low and sensual.
The lives within me jumped and tumbled with joy, expressing the same growing sense of relief that I felt.
“They know they’re home,” I pulled his hands to the place, catching my breath as they almost immediately stilled at his touch, as if in awe of their father’s presence. Squeezing his hand gently I urged, “Talk to them, they hear you.”
Jamie looked up at me, his mouth open in surprise, his eyes shining in the low light. He swallowed hard, “They can?”
“Yes,” I nodded, bringing my other hand to frame his face. “They know it’s you.”
He bent his head, his lips brushing against the almost translucent fabric of my shift. His hands traveled the curve of my belly, caressing and cradling his children.
“Oidhche mhath, mo bheannachdan.”
They moved again, pushing against his hand in an urgent manner that brought me to tears. My hand slid through the soft curls at the nape of Jamie’s neck as I cried tears of joy, of hope.
Jamie brought his face close to mine, shifting so that he could take me into his arms. I clung to him and let my tears fall, even as I smiled through them.
“I love you,” I whispered, speaking the words aloud for the first time.
His gaze melted, his eyes brimming with an affectionate moisture of his own, “Ach, Claire… how I love ye.”
Chapter 11: Language of the Heart
Later that night, in bed; Master Bedroom, Lallybroch.
“There’s just so much that I don’t know,” I sighed, searching for a comfortable position with very little success.
”You could ask Jenny,” Jamie patiently offered as I squirmed beside him, “she bein’ a mother twice over, an’ all.”
With another exasperated sigh and an uncoordinated roll, I turned and gripped his arm, frustration and discomfort pouring from me as I burst, “But I don’t even know what to ask her! Where do I start?”
“A’ the beginning, aye?” he grinned.
A swift kick to the shin had him laughing outright — the opposite of what I needed from him just now — and I could feel the waterworks begin.
“I know the beginning!” I fumed, great, angry tears rolling down my cheeks. “I know how to bloody conceive a baby, but what I don’t know, James Fraser, is how to deliver and raise one!” My throat constricted as my words tumbled out, unchecked, “I mean, I know the basics of labor and delivery and how to assist the mother, but I don’t know how to be the mother!”
The laughter in Jamie’s eyes softened into a compassionate glow as he wiped my chin, catching the offending drips before they landed on his bare skin. His touch slowed and stemmed my tears, calming me as he dried my tears.
“What you dinna ken, you’ll learn, mo nighean donn,” he assured, brushing a gentle kiss along my hairline. I let out a hiccuping sigh and another kiss landed amid my curls as he added, “An’ the lads will tell you wha’ they need, no doubt.”
“They’re boys, then, mmm?” I sniffed, smiling in spite of myself as I shifted, trying to be closer to him.
“Oh, aye, Brian an’ Alexander.”
My eyes slid shut as his hand moved to caress the curve of my womb, my soul easing deeper into a contented bliss.
“What about Henry?” I inquired lazily.
I felt him nod, his chin nudging the top of my head, “For your father, aye? ‘Tis a good name, to be sure.”
Brian and Henry.
I liked the sound of that, and told him so.
“But what if we’ve one of each,” I suggested, “or girls?”
They were always boys in my dreams, but contingency plans were never a bad idea, in my opinion.
“Mmmm,” Jamie intoned, the vibrations of his voice doing wonders for my frazzled nerves. “Bonnie as their mam, with a head full o’ your curls.”
“Or your curls,” I grinned against him.
He chuckled, seeing the humor in professing their possible curls to be mine when he had an unruly mop of his own.
“I suppose, but I’ve only thought of them as lads, Sassenach,” Jamie admitted. “I havena given much thought to names for a lass.”
I hadn’t either, but I knew of one combination that I loved and was sure that he would too. My lips hovered over his collarbone as I murmured, “Ellen Elizabeth.”
“Ellen Elizabeth,” he repeated, then sighed with delight, “tis a verra fine name indeed.”
A thought came to mind and it made me frown. Noticing this, Jamie prompted, “Say it, Sassenach, or neither of us will sleep tonight.”
“Would you mind? If they’re girls, I mean.”
A noise escaped his lips, a sound from the very depths of him that couldn’t be held back. His arms tightened around me as he stiffened, the change immediate and almost startling.
“Nae,” his voice was heavy, weighed down by deep emotion, “I wouldna mind.”
“I dinna care whether you give me two sons, or two daughters, or a daughter and a son, Claire. All I want is to have the three o’ you always a’ my side, alive and healthy. Everythin’ else doesna matter.”
Jamie swallowed hard, his words barely above a whisper.
“I can bear my own pain, but I’m no’ sure how I will yours… when your time comes.”
“It won’t matter, you know,” I brought my mouth to his, kissing him with a delicate urgency, “once they are here. It will be worth it.”
He shook his head, pulling his lips from mine, “But knowing that I am the cause of your pain… I dinna ken… I dinna ken how I am to bear it.”
I brought my hands up to frame his face, my thumb tracing the line of his cheekbone and he pressed a kiss into my palm. Our tears of worry, anticipation, and concern mingled as I pulled his head closer to mine. He kissed me then, the embrace filling us both with a warmth and strength we could never find on our own.
Two days later.
My entire body ached — my feet, my back, my hip, everything — but the tennant’s rent had been collected and I’d been properly introduced to all of Lallybroch and then some, it seemed. There’d been so many names, so many faces and yet Jamie knew them all by heart. They’d been so wonderful, bringing posies and little trinkets for us, and Jamie’s face had beamed with pride as he welcomed each one.
I’d slipped away, retiring to our bedchamber as soon as it seemed appropriate, when only a few of the men remained congregated somewhere with Jamie and Ian, and all of the women and children had gone home. The new bodice and skirt Mrs Crook had made me for the occasion fit like a dream, but it was still heaven to discard it for the freedom of my shift. The master bed had welcomed me with joyous silence, enveloping me as I sought and found a comfortable position…
That was until the door opened and gave entrance to none other than the laird himself.
Jamie’s speech was slurred, falling into a register he rarely used, with a lilt that was both endearing and irritating all at once.
He was drunk.
I didn’t turn my head to look at him — the position I was in too comfortable to forfeit just yet — but I still found a considerable amount of humor in the situation without seeing him.
I snorted, “Come again?”
“I thought of a name for the bairn,” the bed shook as he sat down heavily upon it. “We should name th’lad Dalhousie.”
“We are not naming either one of them Dalhousie,” I responded definitively.
He easily agreed as one boot fell to the floor, then the other, “Oh, aye, no’ if he’s no’ a lad.”
“How considerate of you,” I muttered as he moved closer, the stench of alcohol on him was enough to set my stomach rolling. “You smell, James Fraser.”
“Th’isna verra kind, Sassenach.”
He actually sounded crestfallen at my pronouncement and I couldn’t help but peek over my shoulder at him. He was pouting, for goodness sake! The look was complete with protruding lower lip and I couldn’t help but laugh.
He grinned, his affrontment gone, and flopped down beside me, “I ken a wee joke.”
“Do you, now?” I groaned as my space was invaded and all sense of comfort evaporated.
“Mmhmm,” Jamie intoned and leaned against me, placing his chin on my hip like a dog before a fire, completely at ease.
I rolled my eyes and elbowed him to move, trying to rearrange my pillows again. He didn’t so much as budge, but instead sighed and draped one arm over me, his hand absently patting my breast.
Not entirely minding, I inquired, “What are you doing?”
“Tellin’ a joke.”
“And it involves fondling me?”
“Oh, aye,” his face took on an almost comical expression of intent sincerity, “I’m verra fond of ye, mo nighean donn.”
I laughed out right at this and he grinned sheepishly down at me, not understanding why I found this to be so funny.
“I’m verra fond of you too,” I patted his cheek reassuringly, “even when you’re drunk.”
Jamie immediately scowled, protesting, “I’m no’ drunk!”
“Mmm,” I raised a brow.
He seemed to ponder this a moment before adding, “Well, mebbe a wee bit drunk.”
With this admittance, he cozied himself down beside me and became rather quiet. His hands were still moving — or stroking, to be more accurate — so I knew he hadn’t fallen asleep, but I found myself becoming more and more awake and aroused by the moment.
“Tell me your joke,” I urged, needing him to make good on his ministrations and not succumb to an intoxicated slumber. He started to giggle — for a childish noise of delight he, indeed, was making — and I poked him, “Are you going to share? Or keep it to yourself?”
“Tisna polite t’speak o’sitch things, Sassenach.”
This gave me a rather good idea of the sort of joke it was… one probably told to him by a tenant while they caroused around the fire.
“You’re in bed with your pregnant wife,” I chuckled. “I don’t think there’s much you can joke about that we haven’t done or would insult my delicate sensibilities, James Fraser.”
The last bit was said in complete jest, but I’d felt very much out of place amid the gathering of womenfolk this afternoon. My pregnancy had been the only bridge I had with the mothers and grandmothers of Jamie’s inheritance. My hand slid under the curve of my distended abdomen, cradling the lives that hid beneath my heart, thankful for their presence and the way they brought me closer to Jenny and the residents of Lallybroch.
“Aye, ye’re sensible to a fault, Sassenach,” he grinned, then bent his head, his hand overlapping mine. “An’ delicate as the mother hen tha’ ye are.”
I snorted, ”More like a mother cow… or a horse, perhaps.”
Jamie looked up at me, his gaze intense.
“Ye feel big, aye?”
“Yes,” I murmured, feeling incredibly insecure under his gaze, “and I know I’ll only get bigger.”
He shifted and moved closer to my head, his hand cupping my cheek, his voice barely audible, “Do ye no’ ken how bonnie ye are to me? How ye shine more an’ more wi’ every day they grow within ye?”
“Mebbe I havena told ye enough just how proud I am… the delight I take a’ the sight of my bairns within’ ye,” one hand dipped to my breast, lifting it reverently. “I love every bit of ye, Claire, and the fuller ye get… the more my bairns need ye… the more ye change before my verra eyes… the more I find I love ye.”
“Dinna ever doubt, mo chridhe,” his lips brushed against mine, “that I find ye beautiful.”
My eyes slid shut, his nearness making me dizzy.
“You’re drunk,” I murmured aloud, my insecurities trying to convince me that he didn’t really — truly — mean what he was saying. I felt him hover above me, pausing in his delicate appreciation. I opened my eyes to find concern in his before the corners of his mouth turned up in a wry smile.
“Christ, Sassenach,” he swore, his nose knocking into mine as he clumsily tried to kiss me and speak at the same time, “the drink doesna make a liar o’me… jus’ loosens m’tongue a wee bit.”
The drink, as he called it, had indeed loosened his tongue, for he began to nibble, to taste every inch of my skin from neck to navel, his head bent and his mouth determined. His hands pressed against my hips and pushed me deeper into the downy mattress, his words flowing out from a hidden depth he had only just begun to show me, here in the master bedroom.
“When I saw ye… tha’ first time, ye ken? Drippin’ wet wi’ yer frock plastered against yer skin… An’ then when tha’ round arse o’yers was wedged between m’thighs,” he moaned, firmly grasping the item of anatomy in question, “Tha’s when I kenned… for sure an’ for certain tha’ ye were mine.”
“But I wasn’t,” I half teased, half coaxed and playfully resisted as he tried to nudge my knees apart. “Not yet, anyway.”
A low rumble emanated from him as his hands ran up my sides, skimming over my ribs and coming to rest under my tender breasts. He gently cupped them, taking great care as his thumbs circled my nipples, making them stand on end. Involuntarily, I arched upwards against him, seeking more. He pressed his cheek against my belly as his eyes slid halfway shut with and a silly little grin played on his lips.
“Nae,” he murmured, “no’ yet.”
“Then ye cared for me… tended to the folk a’ Leoch wi’ such a manner tha’ I… I thought mebbe ye were one o’the wee folk as they said ye were, for ye’d surely enchanted my heart, to be sure.”
He moved to hover over me on his hands and knees. His hips were low and he brushed against me as he whispered in my ear.
“An’ then ye rode wi’ us… out on th’moors an’ the heather an’ in the mud,” his lips brushed against my neck, “Dougal didna give us the choice then, Sassenach, but… I choose ye now… an’ every moment since.”
His fingers found the ring on my right hand and reverently traced its engravings, “Then a’ Leoch, when ye told me… ye told me of the bairns… Christ, I didna ken whether to crow wi’ pride or cower wi’ my fear for ye.”
“You thought I was dying,” I remembered.
“How could I no’?” He burst. “Ye couldna keep down a bannock to save yer soul an‘ avoided me like the plague I thought ye had!”
“I didn’t avoid you!”
Jamie rolled over, flopping onto his back with an exaggerated sigh, “Aye, ye did. Kept yerself holed up in tha’ surgery of yers an’ wouldna even come out for meals… no’ that I blame ye, for ye’d only retch up ‘gain.”
I turned to face him — which took no small amount of effort on my part— and placed a hand on his chest. My fingers brushed against the ridge of his collarbone as my lips murmured against his skin, “Forgive me?”
He turned to face me as well, a smile on his lips as his arms pulled me closer.
“There’s nothin’ to forgive, but, aye, I do… an’ I always will.”
He kissed me with an urgency and need that matched my own. We’d both fallen into bed utterly exhausted each night for over a week, leaving us both in want of the other’s touch, but now I suddenly found myself hesitant for reasons I could not define. I clung to him in my need, yet somehow shied away from at the same time.
“Ach, mo chridhe,” Jamie’s hands lifted to frame my face, moving his head so that the end of his nose brushed against mine. “Tha gaol agam ort.”
I love you.
My Gaelic was rudimentary at best, but I’d come to know this phrase, one Jamie uttered with a most sincere reverence, and it was always my undoing. His hands skimmed down my neck, over the ridge of my collarbones until they cupped the outside of my breasts. Our lips were almost imperceptibly apart as we breathed together on the precipice I feared but could no longer deny.
“May I show you?”
Even when drunk, he was a gentleman. I was his wife — in his bed — and his peers would find no fault in him having his way with me… but not Jamie. My desires were his. My body was not a thing to be trifled with, but something sacred.
I nodded, sliding my eyes shut to stem my tears of self doubt.
“Look a’ me, Claire.”
This wasn’t a command, his tone was as delicate as it was urgent, but I found that I was doing just as he’d asked in spite of myself. The fathomless blue depths of his eyes gazed right into my very soul and left me completely bare, my every insecurity and doubt and fear there on display for him to see.
“I love you… every bit of you.”
I tried to smile, but knew I wasn’t overly successful.
“I love you too,” I whispered back.
Jamie nodded, accepting my words, but did not dwell on them. Instead, his hands began to caress me as he held my gaze, his face becoming a map of desire as he charted every curve, every plane of my body. He gently rolled me onto my back again and began to massage my hips, his thumbs working at the muscles and tendons that, until recently, had enjoyed a rather sedentary role in my everyday life. He knew just where to be firm and where to tread lightly, treating my left hip with the utmost care that it required after being injured in the Thieve’s Hole.
It soon became clear that his ministrations were of an entirely different nature than mere massage and his face took on a look that had me quivering in delight beneath him.
“Just there, aye?”
“Yes,” I gasped as his nimble fingers began to tease me.
I moved against his hand, my back arching as he gently laughed, “Easy, Sassenach. We’ve all night.”
I moaned as he continued his work, “God, now, Jamie.”
“No’ just yet,” he crooned, the low resonance of his voice sent tremulous shockwaves down my spine. “I want to take my time with ye.”
I couldn’t breathe as the blood roared in my ears, the reverberations of my arousal threatened to tip me over the edge and into oblivion. He began to move away, but I grabbed hold of him by the scruff of his neck and pulled him back. Jamie grinned at me in that infuriating way of his and I groaned in frustration.
He knew, damn him.
He knew how close I was and just on the verge was exactly where he wanted me to be. Even in his drunken state, my husband knew my body almost better than I did myself and he was currently building me up to such a soaring height that I was quite sure I would never recover from it.
I let go of him with a huff, but he held on to me and in one fluid movement, he somehow had me sitting astride him, leaving me to blink rapidly down at him in astonishment. I rocked forward on my knees and bent to kiss him, rubbing the tip of my nose against his.
“Better?” he mumbled around my lips as he adjusted himself beneath me and brought the two of us together at last. There was no need to answer him and I wasn’t sure I was capable of coherent speech just then — had I wanted to — but that didn’t stop me letting my pleasure be known. Jamie quickly responded in kind, catching up to my state of near depravity and I knew neither of us would be much longer as he moaned, “Christ, Claire.”
We collapsed together, tangled up in bed sheets and each other’s limbs, as our bodies slowly regained equilibrium. The lives within me had a good deal to say about our activities and made their opinions known. I watched Jamie’s face he felt them move about, his eyes alight with wonder.
“If I gave you a diagram, could you carve me something out of wood?” I asked lazily, tracing the swirl of his ear with my fingertip.
Jamie’s brows furrowed a bit, confused at the abrupt change of topics, “What?”
“There’s a medical instrument in my time, something called a pinard horn,” I grinned. “It lets you listen to fetal heartbeats and I think we could make one.”
The awe was back, a complete amazement at the prospect.
“We… could hear them?”
“Well, you could,” I commented, my fingers moved through his hair to the nape of his neck, twisting in and out of the curls there. “I don’t think I can bend that way.”
“The horn is cylindrical and magnifies the sound enough for our ears to hear it.”
Jamie’s jaw dropped and he pressed his ear to my belly, inquiring earnestly, “An’ then you can hear wha’ they’re sayin’?”
I laughed, making him grin up at me, “No, silly. You’d hear they’re hearts, not their voices.”
“Isna tha’ the same thing?” He wondered aloud, “I mean, you talk to them tha’ way, aye? Wha’ do you think they’re sayin’?”
“I’m here,” I murmured, giving words to the rhythm of my heart. “All is well.”
“Mmmmfh,” I blindly flung my hand over to Jamie’s side of the bed. “Where are you?”
He sounded a good distance away from me and I raised my head to investigate, cracking one eye open as I groaned, “Come back to bed.”
Jamie grinned and shook his head and I gave up my attempt at wakefulness. I let my head flop back down onto the pillow, feeling drowsier than a drunken bear. Come to think of drunkenness, it seemed that of the two of us, I was the one to have the hangover this morn… which was entirely unfair. The bed shifted slightly beneath me as he sat down beside me, giving me an opportunity to grumble.
“How is it that you got drunker than a skunk last night and I’m the one who can’t get out of bed?”
He bent over me with a chuckle and kissed my temple, tucking the covers more securely around me, “I dinna ken what a skunk is — or has to do with it, for that matter — but I’d say tis because I’m no’ five months gone wi’ twins.”
“It’s a foul smelling animal who can’t hold its liquor,” I teased as I brought my hands to his face, keeping him near.
“Must no’ be a Scottish beast, then.”
“North American,” I informed him, nudging his nose with mine. “Come back to bed”
Jamie smiled around my lips as he kissed me, “I have my boots on.”
“Then take them off again.”
“Ach, mo chridhe, I canna,” he eased away from me reluctantly. “But we have a lifetime of mornings ahead, aye?”
My eyes slid shut with a smile as he rose from beside me, my hand slipping from his as I burrowed deeper under the thick, downy covers.
A lifetime of mornings.
I liked the sound of that.
I hadn’t intended to sleep the day away, but it seemed I had. The sun had risen significantly since Jamie had bid me good morning and I turned from the mirror with a sigh, wondering how on earth Jenny managed to do it all… and she was a good deal further along than I was, with a toddler to boot.
“Those two run on a fuel entirely different than the rest of us,” I muttered to myself, thinking of my husband and sister-in-law.
Opening the door, I stepped out onto the landing. I expected to hear the usual hubbub of daily life here at Lallybroch, but was met with silence instead. I felt a growing sense of unease settle into the pit of my stomach as I reached for the balustrade and peered over it into the room below. At my movement, the small cluster of men gathered there looked up in unison, but it was Jamie’s face that caught my attention…
That, and the pistol pointed at his head.
Chapter 12: Hard Labor
The next day; Lallybroch
“That money was for you, Claire… for the bairns, for our life here together.” The muscles of Jamie’s jaw clenched as he chewed over the price for Horrock’s silence and swallowed hard, trying to regain his composure, “I wanted to fill the halls with the sound of their laughter, pass on the legacy that my father built for them, hand down the good Fraser name… but now?”
A small sound left him. It was neither a sob nor a shout, but rather a cry of his heart. The timber of it reached out and clenched my own heart in an icy grip, the following words barely above a whisper.
“We should have never have come home.”
“Don’t say that,” my fingers dug into his back as I held him close, my cheek pressing tightly against his chest. “Whatever happens, we’ll handle it. No matter the cost.”
“That’s the thing, is it no’?”
Jamie’s palm cradled the back of my head, his thumb working slow, steady circles just behind my ear as he continued, his voice cracking as he spoke.
“The money willna be the end of it, mo chridhe, I ken it. What will it be, the cost of my freedom and your safety?”
I lifted my head and his hands moved to frame my face, his eyes dark with apprehension. I gazed deeply into them, giving him my own strength of surety.
“Whatever it is… whatever it takes to keep us together,” I vowed easily, “I will give it.”
He kissed me then, his body echoing my promise with one of his own. A sharp kick from within made me catch my breath and Jamie smiled as his hands moved to the swell between us.
“I shouldna keep you from Jenny,” he murmured.
I nodded, but didn’t move away, needing his touch more than his sister needed me at present. She was in the capable hands of the midwife and I was merely there to support and observe. I found myself growing more and more on edge with every moment I spent in that birthing room and welcomed any excuse to leave for a few moments… allowing myself to catch a breath or two of fresh air. My fears for when my own time came fed on the thick fog of tension that hung heavy around Jenny and Mrs Martin, restricting my oxygen intake and effectively smothering me.
“Talk to her, mo nighean donn,” he encouraged, patting me almost patronizingly. “Or ask Mrs Martins your questions… dinna let them eat at you.”
I’d been doing plenty of the latter in the last week and my observant husband knew that this uncharted medical territory was causing a good bit of unease for me. I was abundantly thankful that the seasoned midwife had been able to come to Jenny’s aid as I was completely unready to deliver my niece or nephew on my own, though I’d witnessed a birth or two in my scant and hurried nurse’s training.
“They’ll be here in our room helping you soon enough, aye?”
The same realization had come to me when Jamie left to retrieve the midwife this morning and it’d grown from a fleeting thought into a constant, gut churning awareness in the five hours since. Swallowing hard, I reminded him, “Not for a while yet… we’ve a long winter ahead of us.”
His hands slid along my hips, pressing me against him as he bent his head. He kissed the small hollow just behind my ear, his breath on my skin as warm as his words.
“That we have,” his voice dipped low and I felt him smile, “but I’ll keep you warm, Sassenach.”
Haste ye back.
Sitting on the edge of Ian and Jenny’s bed, I watched as my sister-in-law fought her way through another contraction, my heart echoing the command I’d given Jamie before he left. I was thankful that I had something to occupy my time while he was gone, but, in truth, watching Jenny labor was doing nothing to calm me and everything to feed the growing unease within my spirit.
The lives within me moved in correlation with the churning of my gut, as if they were wrestling with my emotions themselves. I worked at taking deep breaths, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, but this only spurred them into greater action. Giving this up, I let my mind wander to how the midwife had assessed Jenny’s baby’s position, how she could identify limb from rump from head, and I tried to imagine what positions mine were in.
Were they nestled close, their little heads touching in their uterine embrace?
They hadn’t room to be anything but close, I ruefully corrected myself as I pressed my hand to the spot where a sharp foot connected with my ribs, trying to encourage the baby to lose its footing. One was currently head down, then. They switched often enough that I knew this had no bearing on their readiness to leave the womb, but rather a position they found comfortable at this moment.
The baby Jenny carried was not head down, as he or she should be, and the midwife had tried a good number of things to get the obstinate Fraser to move. I could tell from Mrs Martins’ expression that she had one more trick up her sleeve, most likely a more forceful way to reposition the baby, but was hesitant to do so unless it was absolutely necessary. Having just tried a new position and hopeful of its success, Jenny stood beside me, her face gradually resuming its normal color as the contraction eased.
“What is it like?” I blurted when the midwife stepped away for a moment.
Jenny and loosened her grip on the bed’s corner post, “Well, ‘tis no romp in the heather, can ye no’ see my face?”
“No, I know that, but what does it feel like?”
She turned to look at me and must have caught my hand nervously caressing my own distended abdomen, for the annoyance left her eyes and she gave my question some thought. Her gaze seemed to focus on something far afield, outside the room as she tried to find words to describe the battle raging within her.
“Ye ken that sort of… cramping ye get when ye’ve your courses? It starts off like that,” she commented, stopping and starting again as the words came to her. “Ye arena sure if tis more of the same… have ye no’ had the wee pains, then?”
Braxton Hicks contractions.
“A few times,” I acknowledged the muscular inconvenience I’d felt now and then of late.
Jenny nodded, “Tis a bit different than tha’… They pick up a pattern o’ their own, for one thing… an’ ye’re in the privy more an’ more… until ye fear the bottom half o’ ye will come off wi’ the strength of ‘em.”
She pulled a face and I got the impression that she was at this stage just about now.
“Then ye’re fightin’ with everythin’ ye have… an’ suddenly ‘tis over an’ the bairn is here,” she shrugged noncommittally.
I swallowed hard against the bile rising in my throat and felt very much as if I were going to be sick as I lamely murmured, “Oh.”
Jenny reached out her hand to me with a wry smile and I stood. Taking it readily, I nestled it safely in the crook of my arm as we set off for another turn around the room.
“Ye willna mind all of this,” she inclined her head in the general direction of the midwife, “once they’re in your arms, ye ken. I dinna ken how ‘tis possible, but ‘tis true, lass.”
Two Days Later.
The chill of Lallybroch’s front stoop was seeping into my skirts, but ignored it and turned my face towards the sun, basking in its warmth. My eyes slid shut as the weight of the baby in my arms comforted me, her quiet cooing doing wonders to my anxious spirit. The little squeaks and sighs she made as her cheek pressed against my chest smoothed over every raised alarm and jagged nerve.
My palm cupped the curve of the back of her head as I held her tiny frame close, breathing in the sweet scent of her. The fluff of her dark hair tickled my chin, making me smile as I cracked one eye open to peer down at her. She wrinkled her nose at me and yawned lazily. Her rather dignified sigh pushed away the cobwebs of worry around my heart, clearing my head as I imagined what Maggie’s close-in-age cousins would look like.
Up until I’d become pregnant myself, I’d held the opinion that most infants looked remarkably like Winston Churchill… their grumpy, wrinkled faces resembling neither their father nor their mother in my eyes, but something of an old man. I still found infants rather homely, but now they were endearingly so… a face only a mother could love and I, an expectant mother, delighted in their quickly changing features.
Maggie looked like any other baby, I surmised, with her button nose and rosebud lips, but I marveled at the realization that the arch of her cheekbones and the set of her eyes were very near to those of her mother and her maternal uncle. She had murky, bluish brown eyes at the moment. Jenny informed me that they would most likely change color as she grew, and I wondered if they’d become Fraser blue or echo Ian’s deeper hue.
My head snapped up as the sound of approaching hoofbeats broke into my revere and I was on my feet in a moment, something that rather surprised me at this stage in my pregnancy. I fixed my eyes on the arched entryway that led into Lallybroch’s courtyard, holding my breath as I willed the rider to be Jamie, not some unknown traveler or village person. Time seemed to stand still, all the chickens pausing in their search for food to turn and look with me. Even the dogs were silent, holding onto their judgment of the visitor until they came into sight.
A rather scruffy looking man appeared first, breaking the spell and setting everything into motion. He waved away the small pack of dogs as he lead an unfamiliar horse behind him with an even more worse for wear, yet recognizable, rider swaying precariously in the saddle.
The rider was not my husband… it was Ian.
Chapter 13: The Search
Mid November, 1743; Lallybroch.
“What are ye doin’, lass?”
Murtagh’s voice held more concern than consternation as he made his way towards me in the dim stable. I didn’t — couldn’t — look at him as I hoisted the saddle blanket onto the mare’s back, knowing that if I did, if I saw the fear he was trying to hide in his eyes, I would cry… or worse, lose my resolve.
“What does it look like?” I huffed as I turned my attention to the heavy saddle, “I’m coming with you.”
He was at my side before I managed to get it anywhere near the horse. A guttural Gaelic expletive left his lips and I forfeited the heavy tack to him, but made no move to surrender my position near the mare’s flank. I crossed my arms against chest, my gaze withering as he set down the saddle and turned to back me.
“Ye’ll no’ be riding with me,” he insisted with a dismissive shake of his head.
I knew better than to ask him why not, for there were a thousand and one reasons for me to stay behind while he forged ahead. I’d thought of each and every one, every horrible scenario playing out in my mind since he’d arrived with battered Ian in tow and still came to the same conclusion.
I was going to find my husband… with or without Murtagh’s approval.
My chest heaved as I stared him down. He met my gaze without so much as a twitch, but the crack and timbre of his voice betrayed his true feelings.
“Ye’ll stay here… where Jenny can tend to ye, where ye are safe,” his shoulders hunched with huge weight of the situation, his breathing labored as he tried to talk me down. “Wha’ happens to the bairns if ye fall, lass? ‘Tis a long way down and no guarantee of a bush or heather to land on.”
“I won’t fall.”
He snorted, “And if ye do?”
“I’ve fallen a good deal farther and they’re still here,” I grimly stated and shivered slightly, for the chilling nightmare I’d had while within the depths of the Thieves Hole had become a frequent visitor in the weeks since my imprisonment, each repetition more frightening than the last.
My comment tore down Murtagh’s mask of resolute strength and his hands shot out, gripping my upper arms as moisture sprang to his eyes, “I canna risk it, a nighean. Please… will ye no’ stay here?”
I shook my head, opening my mouth to protest, but he cut me off.
“I give you my word, Claire,” he vowed, desperate for me to stay behind. “I will find him and bring him back to you.”
“I don’t doubt it for a moment, but in what condition?” I spat, even as my voice cracked. “They flogged Jamie within an inch of his life the last time you broke him out of prison and I can’t imagine they’ll do anything less to him this time!”
The image of a hangman’s noose around my husband’s neck knocked the air from my lungs and I felt very much like I was going to be sick. My head spun as I lifted my hands to my face. A shudder ran through me in a desperate attempt rid myself of the sudden vision of Jamie swinging from the scaffold at Fort William. I felt my legs give way beneath me and my crippling fears swallowed me whole as the floodgates opened, a sob bursting forth from my lips unchecked.
Murtagh caught me just before I hit the ground, pulling me to him in an awkward embrace as my tears flowed freely. I’d been bolstered by Jenny’s strength and carried by my own stubborn determination, but the quiet darkness of the stable had been my undoing. I knew that, on their own, my tears would solve nothing… but I also knew that I wouldn’t solve anything if I didn’t allow myself to cry… here in the stillness, protected by the arms of the man my husband trusted above all others.
Working together, we could – and would – save Jamie.
We had to.
Two weeks later; Somewhere in the Highlands.
“Thank ye, Mistress,” the young boy nodded to me, going so far as to bend forward from the waist in a slight bow.
While I understood their appreciation, the almost reverence the village folk gave in the last few hamlets we’d traveled through was beginning to grow wearisome. I hadn’t even treated the lad’s wound yet and here he was acting as though I’d cured him of leprosy with a touch of my hand. Most of this was Murtaugh’s doing, I knew, and yet if it meant word spread more quickly or even made me more identifiable to Jamie, I would go along with the harmless charade.
Placebo pebbles, I’d mentally dubbed them when Murtagh explained his idea at the start of our journey. Highlanders were equal parts superstitious and religious and Murtaugh’s plan was to capitalize on both. He told me of a folkloric woman, a sort of witch who was able to see the motivations of men and women alike, who could strike an evil-doer down with a single look. He thought he could use the structure of La Dame Blanche, as she was called, to create a Holy Mother-like figure who could see the future and give protection or healing with the aid of a stone. The rumors of a pregnant Sassenach wandering about the countryside telling fortunes and healing the sick using magic rocks was sure to make it to Jamie, wherever he was hiding. I only hoped he’d hear of us before they tried me for witchcraft a second time or even for heresy.
I offered the boy my best attempt at a smile, gesturing him to come closer as I placed the small pouch of stones into a more visible part of my work space.
“Does it hurt much?” I nodded to the bandage on his right hand.
“Och, nae,” he bluffed as he extended it to me. “Jus’ it gets in the way a wee bit, now an’ then.”
I carefully unwrapped it and noticed a little girl standing near a tree about fifty yards from us. She had her eyes trained on the boy, yet made no move to come any closer as I examined him. The two shared similar cheekbone structures, a smattering of freckles, and glittering brown eyes.
“Your sister?” I inclined my head, trying to distract him as the last layer of his bandage slowly peeled away. He nodded bravely, but I caught the wince he tried to hide as he averted his gaze to where she stood.
“What’s her name?”
“Flora, Mistress.” His voice changed, rising in timbre as his discomfort grew and I began to examine what revealed to be a minor burn.
It had already begun to heal and was relatively clean, needing only minimal cleaning before my application of a basic salve and a fresh bandage, but I took my time with him. For once, there wasn’t a flock of people hovering about my skirts waiting to be treated, and I made the effort to do the extra things Murtagh had suggested.
Use just enough Gaidhlig to make them think ye have it.
Give them every reason to believe ye can do a great deal more than what yer doin’… an’ tha’ the wee stones will do the rest o’ the healin’ for ye.
I kept my eyes on my work, but watched the boy out the corner of my eye as I began to slip in the phrases I’d been carefully taught, “And yours, a bhalaich?”
His head lifted in surprise to look at me, eyes wide with reverent awe and answered softly, “Michael.”
I nodded and reached for my medicine box, taking out the vial of salve I needed and a roll of fresh bandage. I set both down beside the small, leather pouch of stones before I looked at him again and found him unabashedly staring at me. My cheeks warmed, but I didn’t shirk from his gaze as I began to clean the wound.
Michael flinched as I cleared a bit of debris and dropped his eyes, staring the items table. I could see his mind working, but he didn’t speak. The cogs and wheels of his brain turned over each one until he came to the leather pouch. His mouth dropped open in excitement, then shut just as quickly as he tried to contain himself. He shifted from foot to foot uneasily and I knew this was the very result Murtagh had hoped for.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, here we go again.
“Would you like one, Michael?” I coaxed.
Murtagh would chuffed to know that I hadn’t needed to explain the purpose of the stones with this patient. The rumors had reached this village far ahead of us and done the work for me.
My patient’s brows drew together in concern, “I dinna have anything to give ye… and ye’ve already mended my arm. I canna ask for a wee stone besides.”
“Then a gift for your sister, perhaps?”
Michael’s smile threatened to stretch right off his face as he nodded, turning to beckon the child to his side. I caught the little girl’s nervous glance between her brother and I and smiled at her in encouragement. With a final look to Michael, she stepped out from behind the tree and ran to his side, burying her face in the back of his green coat.
“Hallo, a nighean,” I murmured and finished off applying the salve, wiping my hands on my apron.
The little girl’s arms wrapped around her brother’s waist and held on for dear life. He coaxed her in Gaelic, resulting in her peering around him, but not budging so much as an inch. Michael’s tone changed and she reluctantly let go, sidestepping to reveal a dirty blue dress and smudged face. My heart melted as she grabbed for her brother’s free hand, anchoring herself to him as she tried to decide if I was friend or foe.
I reached for the pouch and loosened the drawstring. Not looking at Flora as she studied me, I, in turn, examined its contents and made a great show of selecting which one I wanted to give her. I did have quite a few options thanks to a good deal of forethought, but it really made no matter which I chose, for they were all plain, benign, everyday rocks.
I eventually selected a small, white pebble that was near the top as I tried to focus on the task before me, but — as if the brother and sister’s presence called out in greeting to them — the lives within me stirred. They turned and prodded until I, in turn, had to move to appease them. I shifted uncomfortably on my hard, wooden seat and tried to nudge one, encouraging them to remove their heel from between my ribs.
Would they be brother and sister like these cherubs? Would I have a daughter and a son? One to favor me and the other Jamie?
A small, warm hand gently covered mine and I looked up in surprise to see Flora lean in towards me, a quiet lullaby tumbling from her lips. I couldn’t understand the words, but I didn’t need to. Her soft melody possessed an almost hypnotic charm, an intonation of the purest intent, a blessing from one child’s heart to another. The baby moved their foot and the both of them stilled, as if they could hear her song and were listening intently.
I held my breath as she finished, giving my hand a pat with her final, sustained note. My throat constricted as her wide, innocent eyes met mine and she gave me a shy smile. Tears burned at the back of my eyes as I gave her one in return, lifting my right hand to cup her face. I tucked a tangled strand of hair behind her ear and her smile grew, making her brown eyes dance.
“May our Heavenly Father keep you safe, my child.”
This time I truly meant the phrase Murtaugh had taught me, though I’d uttered them to nearly every patient I had treated, and my spirit echoed it, petitioning for the both of them to be safe and well in the name of our Lord.
Flora turned her face into my palm and kissed it, then moved my hand to rest where it had been on top of the curve of my abdomen. I opened my left hand and offered her the stone, adding my own hasty benediction, my brain scrambling for the words.
“May Christ Our Lord be your solid rock and cornerstone… May He cradle you in the palm of His hand and shelter you under His feathers… from this day on and forever more.”
The sweet child accepted my token and then crossed herself before stepping back to her brother’s side. I blinked rapidly in a vain attempt to keep my tears at bay as my mind scrambled to remember what the hell I was doing before I had descended into complete sentimentality.
Bandage him, you bloody sot, I chastised myself and reached for the roll of cloth.
My fingers set about their business, pure reputation having made them deft and capable of doing the work without a connected or coherent mental direction. My tongue was thick in my mouth, my lips suddenly felt clumsy as I tried to spit out the basic care instructions that he would need.
“Keep it dry,” I muttered, adding, “and change the bandage daily.”
Michael’s head bobbed enthusiastically, “Aye, Màthair. I will.”
The bandage now fastened off and talisman administered, the children simply stood and beamed at me, waiting for dismissal or further instruction.
“Right then,” I swallowed hard. “Off you go.”
With a parting wave, they flounced off and disappeared into the village’s market.
God go with you, dear ones.
Another week later.
The chill from the cave’s damp, stone floor was beginning to seep through the sheepskin beneath me. I shifted, pulling my woolen blanket up and over my shoulders, but it didn’t help… the cold and dark disquiet of the night still found me. My eyelids and every muscle in my body burned with fatigue, yet my mind refused to stop churning. It’s machinations kept me forever suspended in wakeful agony.
A short puff of air left my nose in frustration as I tried to ease the ache in my hip and lower back, as well as in response to Murtagh’s observation.
“Of course not,” I muttered in answer.
How could I sleep when I knew we’d been unsuccessful?
When we’d paraded through every village, hamlet, and croft and had no more information on Jamie’s whereabouts than when we’d left Lallybroch over three weeks ago?
I felt Murtagh’s gaze upon me and looked across the fire to find him studying me intently.
“What is it?” I raised a brow in slight annoyance
He’d grown more accustomed to my condition as both our journey and I progressed, but he was still more than a bit tongue tied about the whole matter. I didn’t know if it was due to the century and culture in which he lived, or if it was simply from lack of exposure, having never had a wife of his own. Either way, the fact that he had questions was evident and I often had to drag them out of him.
“Are the bairns troublin’ ye?” His brows furrowed in concern as he added, “Wi’ their movin’?”
I shook my head, “I think they’re asleep.”
This surprised the Scot and he absently stroked his chin in thought, a motion that amused me as I realized my hand closely echoed his, although it was hidden from his sight beneath my blanket.
“They don’t always sleep when I do,” I explained, even while wishing they did, “but they do sleep.”
“When they wake…” he searched for the right words, “a bit like ye’ve swallowed fish, aye?”
“More like a small hippo,” I grumbled, wistfully remembering the days when the movements within me could have been something akin to the brush of a fish’s tail, instead of the hooves on fire they resembled of late.
“It’s a… it looks something like a pig,” I started, my gaze lifting to the dark, stone ceiling above me as I tried to conjure up the image of the beast. One had nearly capsized our boat when I was in Cairo with Uncle Lamb and — though I’d only been eleven or twelve at the time — it was certainly an experience that stuck with me.
I heard his astonished murmured acknowledgement as he shifted his mental image from something the size of a loaf of bread to a decent sized farm animal and grinned to myself as I added, “Except it’s bigger than a horse.”
His guttural reaction was incoherent to my Sassenach ears, but the shock, disbelief, and then reverent awe was crystal clear. Murtagh didn’t quite know how to change the subject and we both let a heavy silence fall.
It was now well into December, making me officially in my sixth month of pregnancy. The babies were growing rapidly and so, in turn, was I. It felt as though they were already running out of room… though I knew we still had a long three months to go.
The blessing of living on the road was that I hadn’t seen my reflection since we’d left Lallybroch. I firmly held onto that mental image of my figure, not wanting to think of what I looked like now, nor how big I’d be come the month of March. The fit of my skirts was evidence enough of how I was changing on an almost daily basis and I half wondered if the age old tradition of confinement was so that heavily expectant mothers could get away with wearing nothing but their shift all day… but come to that, I wasn’t sure if even my shift would fit for much longer.
“Ye’ll return to Lallybroch in the morn,” my companion’s command interrupted my wandering thoughts.
I stiffened, my head snapping to the side to search for him in the dark.
“No,” I responded simply.
I hadn’t the energy or the words to plead my case just now, but giving up on my husband was not an option and neither was returning home to Jenny empty handed. I would not go back to Lallybroch without Jamie at my side.
The dim light of the fire threw deep shadows across Murtagh’s face as he insisted again, “Ye’ll go, Claire.”
“I won’t,’ I countered, my temper flaring and swallowing my fatigue as I pushed myself up onto one elbow. “He is my husband.”
He rose one brow as if taunting me, his silent ‘do ye no’ think I ken that’ ringing loud and clear in my ears and I swallowed hard in a desperate attempt to keep my tears at bay.
“You can’t possibly know how it feels!”
Murtagh rose suddenly and strode to the mouth of the cave as he burst, “An’ ye’re the only one to lose someone ye loved, then?!”
The sky was clear and the moon shone bright tonight, silhouetting his hunched shoulders, usually so proud and stalwart.
“I lost someone too,” he murmured, his voice betraying the deep, churning waters that flowed beneath an always unbroken surface.
“‘Twas at a MacKenzie gathering, many years ago… she was a canty lassie, bonnie as the day is long… but she had another suitor. So, I thought to prove myself to her, to be the kind of man she desired… During the hunt, I alone killed the wounded boar with nothing but my dagger… The MacKenzie was so impressed by the deed, he gave me the tusks… I had them made into bracelets… and gave them to her as a wedding gift.”
Jenny had given them to me the morning Murtagh and Ian had returned and they’d been in my pocket ever since, a talisman of my own to keep Jamie’s presence with me. I pushed myself the rest of the way up, my hands patting at my skirts to find them.
“It was you,” I whispered as my fingers wrapped around the curved ivory, warm from being against my body.
Murtagh turned and I staggered to my feet, closing the distance between us as I held them out to him. He was at my side long before I made it to where he’d been standing and his hands shook as he took the bracelets, bringing them to his lips as his eyes slid shut. He swayed slightly and it was my turn to place a steadying hand on his arm, .
“Ye think ye’re the only one who loves Jamie?” Murtagh murmured after a moment, the silver light of the moon making his damp cheeks shine bright as he finally looked at me. I found my own pain echoed in his eyes, multiplied tenfold.
“He is a son to me, a nighean.”
I nodded, knowing that I couldn’t possibly form accurate words to convey the acheings of my heart… the overwhelming and soul crushing realization that he did, indeed, know how I felt and he’d been carrying the weight of it around for decades.
My hand gripped his arm and he pulled me to him, supporting me as I cried. His hand lifted to gently cradle the back of my head as I sobbed into his shoulder, my tears flowing free for the first time since we’d left Lallybroch.
The doubt crept in as I let go of my facade, making me ask, “What’s going to happen to me… to us, if he’s… if Jamie is…”
“If the lad is truly gone,” Murtagh choked out, his embrace tightening, “I vow to protect ye and the bairns for the rest of my life… just as I swore to Ellen to protect Jamie.”
Chapter 14: The Proposition
December 23rd, 1743
Go to Glen Rowan Cross with all due haste.
The words echoed in my mind as the horses’ hooves pounded against the forest trail, the icy wind biting at my cheeks and generally making forward progress exceedingly more difficult. My heart raced ahead to our destination, unhindered by the strong gales we were forced to face head on.
After traversing what seemed like every inch of my husband’s homeland, I was now going to be reunited with him. I longed to see his face, to hold him close. The remembrance of his touch, the lingering warmth of his body, complicit against mine pushed me ever onward… and now the end was in sight.
If only I could fly… if only I could leave my swollen, shivering, aching body behind and soar ahead to where my heart already resided and would now forever be: at Jamie’s side.
Instead, I would have to wait. I would have to fight for every inch of ground we gained. The remaining distance between us seemed endless, stretching on like the unending sea — always another hill to crest, another obstacle to overcome.
Murtagh’s pace slowed and I reluctantly followed suit, pulling back on the reins instead of running him over in my need to see my husband.
“Why are we stopping?” I huffed impatiently and he turned in his saddle to study me for a moment, the setting sun glinting off the ice that had formed on his beard and making his calculating gaze even more unreadable.
His brow furrowed as he commented cryptically, “There’s an inn just ahead. Ye’ll stay there ‘til I return, aye?”
“The river’s too high for ye to be crossin’ it in yer condition, lass.”
“I am not staying behind while you meet with Jamie,” I contested hotly.
“Aye, ye will,” Murtagh snorted, turning his horse around to face me directly. “Ye’ve come this far wi’out harm and I’ll no’ have ye freezin’ to death the minute I get ye back in yer husband’s arms!”
I pushed ahead and continued down the road, calling over my shoulder, “I’m going with you!”
Catching only the occasional phrase of Murtagh’s grumblings over the plod of both our horses hooves, I listened instead to the growing noise of rushing water. What if I couldn’t cross? Could I really stay on this side of the river while my husband waited for me on the other side?
I was at the crest of the river bank a moment later and my resolve wavered as I surveyed the raging torrent before me.
While I wasn’t afraid of water, I avoided wandering into depths that were over my head and moving water was not to be trifled with under any circumstances. I could swim a fair bit — enough to keep my head above water — but I didn’t seek out the activity for recreation and, above all else, I knew the dangers of hypothermia. We would have only minutes to cross the frigid river before it set in and without the assurance of immediate warmth following our emergence…
My toes clenched in my boots, my voice voice shaking as I inquired, “How far to another ford?”
I heard Murtagh snort behind me, his opinion on the matter evident.
“Too far… a day’s ride a’ best, an’ this is the better of the two,” he explained. “The inn isna far, lass. Have a wee rest and Jamie will be wi’ ye by the time ye wake.”
“You think I could sleep?!” I stared at him incredulously.
“Yer tired, lass. I ken ye are. Let me take ye back to the inn and get ye a warm bed.”
I shook my head and began to pick my way down the embankment, touting, “Not bloody likely.”
The path was narrow, but obvious and well worn, with a corresponding swath on the far bank.
If others had crossed successfully, why couldn’t I?
“Claire!” Murtagh bellowed in frustration as he followed me down to join me at the river’s edge.
Because you’re heavily pregnant and your riding skills are basic at best, Beauchamp!
A queasy feeling rose at the back of my throat and I swallowed hard, tipping my chin up and tearing my gaze away from the obstacle before me. I scanned the treeline, looking for any sign of what would be Glen Rowan Cross amid the trees. My eyes strained, but I thought I could see stone walls amid the bare branches of the forest.
“Is that it, there?” I pointed my heart skipping a beat before it thundered on.
I could make it.
The end was in sight and nothing — neither hell, nor high water — would keep me from reaching my destination. I had come too far to give up now, to remain here when I knew my husband was just beyond those trees. Nudging my mount forward and hiking my skirts up above my knees, my heart soared as we splashed into the shallows.
Murtagh’s horse pulled up suddenly in front of mine, blocking my path.
“I am going,” I insisted, my voice low, but deliberate.
“Dinna be foolish, lass!”
“Why should I have come at all if I’m to stop when Jamie’s finally within reach?” I screeched. “I might as well have stayed home!”
“Aye! Ye should have stayed home like I told ye to in the first place!” he countered.
“Well, I didn’t… you couldn’t stop me then, so why the hell do you think you can stop me now?”
“He’s right there, Murtagh!” My voice wavered, but my resolve stayed firm, “I need my husband… I need Jamie.”
My companion’s gaze followed to where I was pointing, to where neatly hewn stone peered tauntingly at us through the trees, and I watched his face soften.
“Ye will do as I say, aye? An’ ye willna do anythin’ rash?” He turned to look at me, his eyes serious. “Ye’ll no’ let go o’ yer horse, nae matter what happens?”
“Of course,” I promised, my throat constricting.
He sighed heavily and rummaged for something in his saddlebag, a length of rope emerging. He dismounted and splashed over to me as he made a loop with one end, tying it off with a firm knot before tossing it into my lap.
“Put it around ye,” he insisted, then secured the other end to his saddle, ensuring that we would not be separated. “I’ll no’ have ye floatin’ off downstream on me.”
I did as told, slipping the rope over my head and letting it settle beneath my arms. It did not seem like it would be a very comfortable way to disembark and I tightened my grip on my horse’s reins, praying that it would be unnecessary.
Murtagh brought his horse around so that we were side by side and he looked over at me from beneath furrowed, bushy brows.
“Ready, lass?” came his quiet inquiry, his voice low and rasping.
I nodded, muttering Geronimo under my breath as we moved forward, wading deeper into the river.
The water crept up higher and higher, edging ever closer to my feet and I clutched my skirts firmly in one hand in an attempt to preserve as much dry clothing as I could. We were almost halfway across before it reached the top of my boots and I gasped in shock as the frigid water touched my skin for the first time.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ!
My mount stumbled for a moment, her feet shuffling along the riverbed and I dropped my fistful of clothing. I instinctively reached out with both hands for my horse’s mane as I bent forward, the bunched clothing and my belly only getting in the way as I held on for dear life. With a snort and a low noise of reprimand at my lack of faith, she shook her head and continued on, her foothold stable once more.
The rising flow was almost to my knees now, my woolen stockings wicking the water upwards at an alarming rate. I lifted my head for a moment to find the far shore and my heart sank at the distance we had yet to travel. I could no longer feel my feet — though I tried to keep my toes moving in a desperate attempt to encourage circulation — and was shivering so hard I almost slipped out of the saddle.
Increasingly difficult to stay in my seat, I let go of the reins, assuming the horse was ignoring my commands by this point anyway, in favor of her far superior survival instincts. I gripped the edge of the saddle in front of me, shoving my skirts out of the way in order to get a better hold. A clump slid off my lap and into the water, but I was well past the point of caring. Now completely wet above the knee, it was only a matter of time before I was soaked to the waist and beyond.
But — just when I thought I could stand the frigid cold no longer — I felt the water begin to recede as we made our way into the shallows.
Murtagh turned to grin at me, his breath billowing out in front of him as he sighed heavily with relief at our safe arrival on the far shore. He is relief melted away into concern as he studied me without a word, as if to gauge if I would be able to make it the rest of the way on my own or not. Reaching out an arm to steady me, he paused us for a moment to be sure I was secure in my saddle before we moved on.
I untangled myself from my sodden lifeline, tossing it back to him and he urged both our mounts forward. We climbed the embankment side by side and finally emerged triumphantly at the top, though soggy and shivering. The ruins of what had once been a grouping of stone buildings stood in an open clearing before us and we continued, completing the final leg of our journey.
My husband’s name slipped through my frozen lips, it’s warmth radiating across my cheeks as it burst into the air and spurred me on, Murtagh following close behind.
“Jamie,” I murmured again, each repetition louder than the last and sent percussive, electric shockwaves down my spine. Speaking his name aloud bolstered me and I felt my extremities begin to regain their circulation, fierce and fiery pinpricks attacking my fingers and toes.
Once more, I called out to him and his strength found me, my pulse beating faster than my horse’s hooves against the forest trail. The heat of him coursed through my veins, returning feeling to my hands, setting the lives within me astir.
Thirty eight days ago, Jamie had been taken from me… from the safety of our home. I’d spent thirty seven nights on the road battling fatigue, the harsh Highland weather, and every challenge carrying twins threw at me.
But now he’d found us.
This knowledge sent adrenaline coursing through my veins, giving me the strength to push forward and complete my journey.
Pulling up sharply in front of the door, I threw myself out of the saddle, nearly falling off completely in my haste. My legs were numb, the impact of what I knew was my feet hitting the ground shuddering up my spine, but I could feel nothing as I commanded my feet to move and staggered towards the open archway.
My teeth chattered, my lips clumsy as I lifted my voice, “Jamie?”
I stumbled and sagged against the ancient stone wall, wanting nothing more than to curl up into a ball and sleep… to succumb to the chilled curse that the river had bestowed upon me. A shadowy figure moved towards me and I tried to focus on its face, squinting into the darkness as I used what little strength I had left to speak once more, my voice trembling.
Strong hands took hold of my arms, pulling me back up just before I hit the floor. Joy surged through my veins and I tipped my head back with a smile on my lips, eager to see my husband’s face… but it was not Jamie who had caught me.
It was his uncle.
I frowned up at him, shaking my head in a desperate attempt to right the face before mine.
The world set to spinning around me as pain knifed across my abdomen and great, black blotches began to crowd my vision.
This couldn’t be right, Jamie had to be here.
He had to be.
“Dougal,” I groaned, his name tasting bitter in my mouth as the rest of my question stuck to my tongue and making me gag.
Where is Jamie?
I thought very much that I might vomit right here and now, all over his boots, but fought to keep my head about me as I tried to find the one my heart desired. I craned my neck to look over my shoulder, but found only Murtagh behind me.
Another spasm ripped across my lower back as I saw the truth in his eyes.
Jamie wasn’t here.
Dougal had sent the message.
I had crossed that fucking river — placing both my life and the lives within me in danger — only to find that I’d once again been deceived and disappointed by none other than Dougal MacKenzie. My knees buckled beneath me and I sagged heavily against him, defeated. There would be no reunion, no end to our journey in reward for my reckless behavior… only mind numbing, gut wrenching consequences.
But I needed to know.
My lips were clumsy and uncooperative as I tried to speak, tried ask for my husband.
“Christ, lass, ye canna even stand,” Dougal scoffed as he tightly snaked one arm about my waist, half leading and half dragging me down the corridor. “Ye’ll ken soon enough.”
I dug in my heels, using everything left within me to stay firmly planted as I demanded, “Tell me now.”
Dougal paused, his icy blue eyes softening only for a moment.
Jamie is alive.
Deep within my core, in the secret place beneath my heart, a surge of joyous heat burst forth. My eyes slid shut and my legs went out completely, making Dougal grumble something in response as he tried to get a better hold on me. He jostled me until I had one arm around his neck and then urged me forward. I let him, opening my eyes and setting my sights on the raging fire in the hearth ahead of us.
I expected him to continue as we stumbled on and looked up at him in confusion when he didn’t.
“Tell me… everything,” I bit out with as much strength as I could muster.
I needed to sit down. I needed to sleep.
I needed Jamie.
A chair materialized beneath me and I found myself suddenly before the fire.
Instead of the warmth of the flames at my feet, I felt only the aching, empty chill of disappointment. The laping tongues of the fire spoke my husband’s fate in a foreign voice. It wasn’t Dougal’s, it wasn’t Murtagh’s… It was the sinister intonations that haunted my dreams, the recurring nightmares that spoke of a future with neither my husband nor my children by my side.
He was taken at Achnasheen.
Drawn there by word of your healings.
A hard fist sucker punched me in the gut, knocking the air from my lungs. I bent forward, dropping my jaw as I gasped for breath.
Met six redcoats face to face.
One recognized him.
Jamie had been captured while trying to find me. It was all my fault. I’d sent him headlong into a trap that he had no chance of escaping… My siren’s song had led him right into the devil’s snare.
Each accusation leapt out at me from the fire, the embers of regret setting my hem ablaze as guilt consumed me.
He’s in Wentworth Prison.
The flames crept up my legs and shut out the river’s chill, making me come alive in my seat. My fists clenched as I shuffled my feet, commanding them to support me once more.
I had to go to him, I had to free him.
Stood trial three days ago.
I bolted from the chair, my spine welding together to form a ramrod beam, forged from steel and still piping hot.
He’d been there an eternity already, heaven only knows what they’d done to him in that amount of time! The crisscrossing scars of Jamie’s back flashed before me and I knew I need to act fast, to do something today.
Condemned to hang.
The floor fell out from beneath me and a noose slipped over my head, constricting and choking me as I forced myself to ask, “When?”
“Today,” Dougal shrugged, the response enraging me enough to pull me out of my head and his voice became his own once more. “Day after… not long.”
The remainder of the air in my lungs left me in a gut clenching whoosh, my mouth opening and shutting again like a landed fish. My breath came in short bursts, tiny gasps that supplied me with enough oxygen to stay upright, but barely so.
I lifted my gaze to Murtagh and found him in much the same state, all of the blood having drained from his face as he raked a hand through his hair.
“Then we have to hurry,” I countered and headed towards the door.
The both of them began talking at once, each shouting to be heard over the other, and I shook my head. Unable to understand either, I turned back to the one who had never left my side… to the man who had put Jamie’s well-being above his own time and time again.
“We have to go,” I gripped Murtagh’s arm tightly, almost swaying as I repeated myself. “We have to hurry.”
He eased me back into the chair, hushing, “Warm yerself first, aye?”
When combined with the frustration of not being taken seriously, this subtle change in elevation made my stomach roll and head spin. I groaned as I tried to simultaneously not vomit and stand back up again, groaning, “No, we — have — to —“
Murtagh’s strong arms kept me in my seat, his blue eyes as wet as mine as they bore into my soul.
“We will do everythin’ to save him, a nighean… but ye canna do it all on yer own an’ I’m not about to rush into Wentworth wi’out a plan, aye?”
I nodded and blinked hard as his face began to swim before me, big black spots suddenly clouding my vision. He moved closer, lurching forward as he brought his hand to my cheek, crooning, “Easy, a leannan. Dinna go swoonin’ on me, now.”
“I don’t swoon,” I mumbled, swallowing hard, forcing myself to regain equilibrium.
The hint of a smile tugged at Murtagh’s lips, a deep mhmm resonating in his chest as he pursed his lips. He kept his eyes on my face and addressed Dougal without turning from me.
“How many men are with ye?”
Dougal snorted, “I need to have a word… alone.”
Murtagh rose to stand before me, nodding his head towards the way we’d come.
“No’ with you… wi’ the lady.”
“I have a name,” I grumbled, quickly gathering my wits about me, “and anything you have to say to me can be said with Murtagh in attendance.”
“Claire, I must speak wi’ you—“
“He stays,” I insisted and leveled him with look that brooked no disagreement.
Dougal turned from me to my companion and back again, his displeasure evident. He seemed to gauge Murtagh’s mood against what he knew my tongue to be capable of for a moment, calculating his words carefully as he stepped around my intermediary and moved to kneel before me.
“I understand that you’re grieving, lass… I do,” he began, taking my hands between his own as he avoided looking me in the eye. My gut churned, wondering what it was that he wasn’t telling me.
“I ken it is hard to accept tha’ Jamie’s gone, but you have to let him go.”
My head began to spin again and I struggled to speak, my voice hoarse as my throat closed around my words, choking me with every syllable.
“You said he was still alive.”
Dougal nodded, finally looking up at me. There was something hidden behind his eyes and I heard Murtagh stir beside me, catching the movement as he shifted his stance uneasily. My brow furrowed and I shook my head, not understanding why he was willing to give up so quickly.
“Then, there must be something we can do.”
“Aye, there is,” Dougal smiled, sending a shiver up and down my spine. “Come back with me.”
My heart froze inside my chest and my voice was barely audible as I bit out in surprise, “What?”
“Come back with me,” he repeated himself, his thumbs rubbing the back of my hand in an attempt at reassurance.
“I’ll protect you.”
Protect me from what?
“I don’t need protection,” I shook my head adamantly, another spasm threatening to tear me in two as I insisted. “I need my husband.”
“I can protect you as your husband!”
His grip on me tightened as I instinctively tried to pull away, blanching at a future that would force me to marry again… of Jamie dead, of my children without their father.
Dougal wanted Jamie dead.
He’d always had his sights set on Lallybroch, even going so far as to try to poison Jamie’s relationship with his sister to keep him away from his rightful place as Laird, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he’d had his sights set on me from the get go. Had his wife died any earlier, he would have most assuredly been the one tasked with marriage to keep me out of Jack Randall’s reach.
My voice was low and deliberate, my rage mounting as I saw his intentions clearly.
“Get your hands off of me.”
“Now, listen to me, Claire—“
“I will do no such thing!” I pulled my hands free and slapped him full across the face, rising to my feet once again as he rocked back on his heels,.
Murtagh quickly moved to stand between us as Dougal rose to his full height and I blindly reached for the back of the chair for support. My legs trembled beneath me, but I remained standing, looking him in the eye as I seethed, “Have you no shame?”
“Your nephew lies rotting in prison under a death warrant and you make a play for his wife?”
“You are a widow,” Dougal snapped, lunging forward.
He was met with Murtagh’s resolute, immobile force and resigned himself to shouting over my protector’s shoulder, nearly foaming at the mouth as he continued.
“If ye’re no’ one now, ye soon will be! An English widow a’ that!”
The echo of Jamie’s voice purred in my ear, the memory of his breath on my skin standing the hair on my arms on end. My knuckles turned white as I gripped the engraved wood, struggling to breathe as thick band of overwhelming emotion tightened around my chest. I dipped my head and tucked my chin as I curled inwards, protecting my heart from Dougal’s poisoned barbs.
“Wi’ no money, no property to call yer own, an’ a bairn on the way!”
Murtagh shoved him roughly and he now split his taunts between us both.
“How long do ye think it’ll be before Captain Jack Randall comes knockin’ on yer door?” Dougal shouted, “Ye’ll be back in his hands the minute he takes his fancy to!”
“The Frasers will protect me, thank you very much,” I growled, not looking up.
“As they protected Jamie?” I heard him scoff. “Nae, lass, the only way to keep ye and Lallybroch safe is to come under my protection as war chieftain of clan MacKenzie!”
“Lallybroch?!” my head snapped up as my suspicions were confirmed. “So, that’s what this is really about… You want to control the Fraser lands!”
Rage surged through me and I found the strength I needed to step around the chair, coming to stand behind Murtagh and face my enemy head on. Dougal’s eyes shot daggers at me over Murtagh’s shoulder, but none of them found their mark, for I refused to be defeated.
“My son will inherit Lallybroch before you do!”
“An’ if it’s a girl?” He taunted again, “What then? What happens when ye fail to produce an heir?”
I felt a smirk tug at one corner of my lips, “Then its an awfully good thing she has a brother to keep her company.”
Dougal stared at me, blinking in confusion before he suddenly understood, “A dhia… Twins? How can ye be sure?”
I snorted at this, my hands sliding across the curve of them, smoothing my damp skirts as I pressed my palms against the two different places they’d just now decided to kick… almost as if to voice a dissenting opinion of their own.
“Oh, I’m sure,” I pressed my lips onto a forced smile, cheekily adding, “From what I understand of anatomy, it would be impossible for a single baby to kick me both in the bladder and the ribs at the exact same time.
Dougal seemed to be at a loss for words for a moment or two, his position weakening as mine strengthened.
“All that may be true,” he continued finally, stammering slightly, “but it doesna alter the position ye’re in.”
The truth of his statement hit a little too close to home and I winced.
Even if I produced an heir to Lallybroch, my own fate still hung in the balance. My son could and would be the next rightful Laird, but history seldom looked kindly upon widowed mothers whose young and impressionable children were entitled to the property their fallen fathers had left behind.
Dougal pounced on this small weakening in my defense, challenging, “What would Jamie want you to do?”
“He sure as hell wouldn’t want me sleeping with his uncle,” I retorted immediately.
“Listen to me!” Dougal shouted, his eyes wild. “Jamie loved you, more than I suspected he did when I proposed you we’d, but—“
“Loved?!” I bellowed, interrupting him and nearly shoving Murtagh out of his position between us to attack Jamie’s uncle with my bare fists. “How dare you speak of him as if he were already dead!”
“And how dare you act as though marrying you would be the only solution to my problem, if he were? I would marry a good many other men to ensure my children’s safety before for I married you, Dougal MacKenzie.”
“Like who?!” he burst.
Yes, Beauchamp, that nagging little voice in back of my head whined.
I took a deep breath and clenched my jaw, letting it out again forcefully through my nose before answering him.
“The man standing before you, to start with.”
My words had Murtagh swiveling on his heels and both men openly stared at me. Using their complete attention and astonished silence to my advantage, I pressed on and addressed Dougal, “How many men do you have with you?”
“What?” he blinked at me stupidly.
“I asked how many men you had with you.”
Dougal’s mouth opened and immediately shut again, his hand lifting to rake across his face in frustration.
“Ten, but I ken what ye’re thinkin’,” he burst. “There is no way on earth tha’ so few men can force their way Wentworth Prison!”
My chin rose in defiance, throwing a barbed taunt of my own, “Jamie led half that when he rescued me at Fort William.”
Dougal’s eyes narrowed as my words hit the nerve I’d been aiming for.
“What’s the matter?” I continued, “Are you scared you’re not as good as him?”
“I’ll no’ be baited by you, Claire.”
“But will you help me?”
The muscles of his jaw rippled as he considered this, his gaze dropping for a moment before meeting mine again.
“He’ll be dead before you get there.”
Dougal’s words weren’t said with any particular venom, but the truth of them stopped my heart in its tracks. It dropped into the pit of my stomach, taking all the air from my lungs with it as it crashed through the floorboards beneath my feet.
My voice shook as I acknowledged for the first time, “It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
Murtagh’s eyes softened as he moved closer, taking my elbow instinctively. I accepted his support, needing it as Dougal continued to press me.
“And if he is?”
My companion bristled as I felt my legs begin to shake.
Dougal took no heed, forcing me to give him an answer, “What then?”
Murtagh lunged at him with this, placing himself in front of me while still keeping me on my feet. He hissed something unintelligible, but the meaning behind his words was clear: to get to her, you’ll have to go through me.
“If… if he… is,” I stammered, needing to start again to get their attention as well as the ability to put words to my emotions.
“If he is… or if I fail, then…”
My mind raced, jumping from one indecisive thought to another.
Then what, Beauchamp? What will you do then, when all hope is lost?
A nudge against my ribs brought me out of my head. Then came another… and another, reminding me of what, of who would remain with me, even if the worst did happen. They bolstered me, giving me the strength I needed to ensure their safety… even at the cost of my heart.
“Then, I will consider your offer.”
“Claire!” Murtagh objected and turned back to me, his eyes wild.
I met his gaze unflinching, “I said I would consider it! I refuse to seal my husband’s fate by naming his fucking successor!”
Silence fell around me as I fought between collapsing into a quivering heap at Murtagh’s feet and storming Wentworth right here and now with nothing but his sword.
“Will you—“ my voice cracked and I stopped, my chest heaving as I worked to keep from breaking down all together.
“Will you help me?”
Chapter 15: The Rescue
Midday, Christmas Eve, 1743.
Murtagh, Dougal, and their men had left long ago, setting up the framework for their plan in the early hours of the morning. It was now nearly noon, but the sun had stayed tucked behind the clouds, allowing me to stay within the deep shadows that clung to the side of the road as I made my way to our predetermined rendezvous point.
It was a crossroads of sorts, where a broad, military high road intersected a narrow, winding country lane. There wasn’t a croft or structure to be seen, as it was really little more than a well worn path, but it would eventually lead us to our final destination: the refuge and sanctuary of the abbey of Ste Anne de Beaupré.
Our meeting place was just far enough away from the village inn to be inconspicuous and even farther away from Eldridge House, but it was still close enough for me to journey there on foot alone. The keeper had been suspicious when I’d said I was going for a stroll to get some fresh air — what with me being ungainly as all get out and the weather far from fair— but he’d made no effort to keep me within his walls.
The wind picked up from the east, blowing swirling, dried leaves and giant, fluffy snowflakes around my feet. I pulled my cloak tighter around me, hunching my shoulders in order to dip my nose under the knitted muffler around my neck as I braced myself against a large tree. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and a chill shivered down my spine, despite my attempts to block out the intruding draft.
But it wasn’t just the wind.
I held my breath, unable to shake the feeling that I was being watched. Quickly scanning the intersecting roads for any sign of movement while keeping myself completely still, I tried to decide whether I should retreat even further into the undergrowth or remain where I stood, but the sense proved to be true before I could make a decision.
The branches of the low shrubbery across the way began to shake as someone — or something — moved amid them. They were far too short to hide anyone that wasn’t hunched over considerably and this seemed rather ridiculous, as whomever was watching me would realize I was on to them and would therefore no longer need to hide. I felt a measure of relief that our plan had not been found out, but it was quickly replaced with the notion that whatever it was might not be friendly.
I grabbed fistfuls of my skirts, ready to make a run for it should it leap out at me. I bit at my lower lip as I continued to watch the bushes rustle and I slowly began to inch myself around the tree I’d been leaning against. I kept my gaze rooted to the spot, not wanting to turn my back to what I was fairly certain would be some sort of woodland creature. The highlands were home to a great many beasts and, by the sounds of it, this one was quite large.
It’s a badger, Beauchamp… or stag.
I was torn between relief and even greater trepidation as all movement across from me stopped. An unsettling silence fell around me, the songbirds having all flown off at the onset of the rustling, and I was left to surmise about my fate.
How idiotic are you going to feel if it turns out to be a bloody deer?
The stillness drew on for what seemed like an eternity before I was joined by my mysterious companion, one paw emerging before its monstrous head and sleek torso followed.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, it was a wolf.
Twice as big as any dog I’d ever seen in my entire life, it seemed to size me up for a moment or two, staring at me with unblinking, brown eyes. I held my breath, standing rigid as it seemed to make its decision. It turned to look back over its shoulder, making a low noise at the back of its throat, and quite suddenly two pups tumbled out into the open beside it.
I felt all of the fear within me melt away in an instant as I realized that this was not a lone wolf out on the hunt, but a mother with her children… navigating a forest full of potential harm.
Just like me.
The mother wolf’s nose dipped for a moment as she nudged her pups closer to her side and I found myself doing much the same, letting go of my skirts and lifting my hand for a moment to rest atop my belly.
“Hello,” I murmured when she looked up at me once again, keeping my voice low but wanting to greet the kindred spirit before me.
She didn’t respond, but the littlest of her pups wagged its tail so ferociously that it’s whole body trembled in excitement as it offered up an introductory howl.
A smile stretched across my face, warmth surging through me as I responded, “Pleased to meet you too.”
In half an instant, the mother’s demeanor changed as her head snapped to look towards the west. Another low command emanated from deep within her and the trio quickly retreated back into the woods. I watched them go, offering up a blessing over this mother and her children, feeling as though somehow she’d done the same to me.
God go with you, Mother.
The next moment I finally heard what she had, my heart soaring as I identified the sound.
Turning my attention towards the direction the noise came from, and subsequently my face into into the wind, I squinted as I tried to make out anything beyond the bend in the road. I could see nothing yet and tried to keep my excitement in check, just in case it wasn’t them, but failed as the sound drew nearer.
There’d been many a crofter with his cart to pass me by while I waited, but this time was different… the conveyance was considerably larger — weighed down with a heavy and precious cargo — and I held my breath, willing it to come within sight.
My heart leapt into my throat as I caught the low rumble of voices in emphatic Gaelic and it took me a moment to identify one as Murtagh’s. I crashed headlong out of the underbrush and moved forward with as much haste as was possible — far more than what was sensible — but I was in the open and on the road a moment later, picking my way down the frozen, rutted lane.
My voice broke through the stillness of the forest and reached around the bend, pulling the wagon into sight. Rupert was at the helm, with Willie by his side, and they skillfully brought the conveyance to a complete stop as I lunged forward, reaching out for my husband as his name tumbled from my lips once more.
In an instant, Willie was out of the wagon and onto the ground next to me, guiding me up into Murtagh’s outstretched arms.
“Is he alive?”
My eyes locked onto his and I found the truth to his words deep within them as he assured, “Aye, a nighean.”
Gripping his arm tightly as I peered over his shoulder, I caught sight of my husband for the first time. Jamie’s face ashen, the dark plaid they’d thrown over him making him appear even more pale than he actually was. What was visible of chest was covered in blood and his breathing was labored, the woolen blanket rising and falling in slow, painful movements. A small cry left my lips before I could stop it and I pressed my fingers against my lips to stem any further betrayal of just how emotional I was right now.
I needed to be strong.
Jamie needed me to be strong.
Swallowing hard, I dropped my hands and tried to step around Murtagh. There wasn’t much room to move around in and I lost my balance, tipping precariously towards the edge of the wagon, but he steadied me in an instant.
One brow rose as Murtagh commented, “He needs tending.”
That much had been obvious upon first glance, but the question he wasn’t voicing was this:
Can you do this?
I had no choice.
I didn’t trust any physician in this century to be within ten feet of Jamie, let alone treat his wounds.
I had to do this.
I had no words to answer him with — I didn’t trust my voice, even if I did — and merely lifted my chin in defiance, answering back:
I can and I will.
With a nod, Murtagh ushered me over to Jamie’s side, steadying me as I eased myself down onto the floor of the wagon.
“Jamie,” I murmured and his eyelids flickered for a moment as my palm cupped his cheek, but didn’t open.
“Talk to me, Jamie.”
A low moan escaped his lips and I counted that as good enough. I reluctantly let go of his face to pull the heavy wool plaid away and really discover the extent of his injuries.
He was completely encrusted in mud, a mixture of his own blood and what I could only describe as absolute filth. His shirt stuck to him in a large, red splotch and I cautiously peeled it away from the side of his abdomen, expecting a deep, open wound. I found extensive contusions and a few minor lacerations, but nothing that would have produced this amount of blood loss.
My hands felt along his ribs and I stopped short as my knuckles brushed against the inside of his right arm, suddenly finding the trauma I’d been looking for. His right hand, the one closest to me, had remained hidden beneath a fold of my skirt when I pulled away the plaid, but was now fully visible. I could hear Angus crowing about the valiant rescue in the far recesses of the world around me, but everything else faded away as I took in the extent of the injury.
I counted no less than three obvious compound fractures at first glance, the bones of his pinky and ring fingers protruding grotesquely through his skin. His middle finger was quite possibly broken as well, but it was the other two that gave me no small amount of disquiet.
The very tip of his pinky was completely missing, the manner of its severance unknown, but the finger ended just above the distal interphalangeal joint. What remained of it was already infected and showed signs of septicemia. His ring finger remained mostly intact in contrast to its neighbor, yet it still posed a great many concerns.
My head spun as I lifted my gaze in search of Murtagh, croaking, “How?”
“I dinna ken, a nighean,” he answered honestly. “All I ken is who.”
Swallowing hard past the lump that threatened to suffocate me, I echoed the word, sounding very much like an addled owl.
Chapter 16: Christmastide
Some time later, Christmas Eve 1743.
We finally came to a rattling stop within the abbey’s inner courtyard and were immediately surrounded by helping hands. A stretcher materialized out of nowhere, toted by the monk who climbed aboard without any sort of official greeting, and everyone seemed to set about transferring Jamie onto it at once.
“Watch his hand,” I hastily urged, leaning forward and reaching out my own to ensure it was positioned stably across his chest as they moved him.
I struggled to my feet in the space just vacated, my spirit longing to bound after them, but my body having another idea entirely and I groaned internally as Dougal offered to help me up.
No. Go away, you fucking vulture.
Dougal had been there, hovering in the background, watching and waiting as we’d made our plans. I’d been wary when he’d volunteered to go to the abbey, sure he was doing everything he could to subvert our mission and would return without a sanctuary secured.
He hadn’t entirely thwarted our plans — for he had gotten the approval we needed — but he also ensured he would be within arm’s reach to snatch me up, should the men or I fail.
“Don’t touch me,” I growled as I moved towards the end of the wagon. Willie, whatever he’d been doing now complete, offered his assistance as well and I took it immediately, my feet finally touching solid ground as he lifted me out of the wagon bed.
Trailing after Jamie and his entourage, Willie stayed by my side and Dougal directly on my heels as we wound our way through a maze of stone corridors, one bending and turning into the next until we arrived at the room the brothers had prepared for us. It was small and sparsely furnished, but it would do.
“Father Anselm, this is Misses Fraser,” Dougal coolly introduced me to an elderly priest with a kind expression. “He’s agreed to you shelter until… we can find a more permanent solution.”
He’d covered it nicely, but I knew what he’d meant.
Until I failed.
But, I wouldn’t fail.
I would piece together Jamie’s hand and bring him back to health… back me, back to us.
“Thank you, Father,” I smiled, my gratitude genuine as I ignored Dougal’s veiled threats. “We are most grateful.”
“Think nothing of it,” his returned smile made me want to weep, the almost parental gaze tearing down the facades I’d held in place for far too long as he assured me, “We shall talk later.”
I nodded, suddenly remembering the supplies I’d requested, blurting, “I’m going to need—“
“Your husband’s uncle has given us your instructions, my child,” he cut me off and patted my hand, warming it between his own.
“You’ll find everything you need on the table there.”
A deep sigh left my lips before I could stop it as I squeezed his hand, meaning what I said with every fiber of my being as I repeated, “Thank you.”
He stepped away at this, revealing Dougal, who had been waiting in the weeds for a perfect time to pounce.
“Claire, I must speak with ye,” he begged, this time making no effort to hide his motives.
I side-stepped around him with a huff and tried to continue towards my destination, but he caught hold of my elbow, keeping me in my place.
“If I don’t set that hand, he’ll be crippled for life,” I seethed, leveling him with a look that should have incapacitated him on the spot.
Instead, his blue eyes turned ice cold and a sickening smile tugged at his lips as his voice dropped, snidely commenting, “That long?”
I was just about ready to slap him in that smug face of his, but Jamie’s voice gave me the exit I needed.
My heart lurched as I instantly turned my attention to him, dismissing Dougal coldly and succinctly as I hurried to my husband’s side, “If you’ll excuse us.”
Snagging a low stool from along the wall, I deposited it beside the bed and eased myself down onto it. His head turned on the pillow, his brow furrowed and eyes screwed up tight in agony as he rasped, “Claire…”
My left hand reached for his — his whole and dominant one — taking hold of him, assuring, “I’m right here, luv.”
The other hand gravitated to his face, pulled by the overwhelming need to take him into my arms. I cupped his cheek with my palm, my thumb tenderly stroking his chilled skin as he struggled to open his eyes.
“I’ve got you, Jamie,” I promised, silently vowing to never let him go, ever again.
His blue eyes found mine for the first time, clouded with pain and shrouded with an inner turmoil that cut me to my very core. He frowned as he studied me, searching for something in my face that he couldn’t quite find.
“Claire,” Jamie murmured again.
I bent my head, kissing him gently but urgently and I felt a good deal of tension leave his body in a shuddering sigh. My eyes slid shut as I pressed my brow to his, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed beside him, to fall into mind numbing slumber and wake to find this had all been a terrible dream.
But it hadn’t been a dream.
I’d very nearly lost him forever.
“You’re safe,” I whispered, my voice thick with unshed tears that threatened to fall.
Jamie let go of my hand and his good arm slipped around my neck, pulling my head to his. I twisted, shifting onto the bed beside him as my body tried to bend that way. The bulk of me made things cumbersome and I struggled to be as close to my husband as I wanted to be. I began to tremble, shaking from head to toe as we clung to each other, the events of the past twenty-four hours suddenly hitting me with the force of a freight train.
“You’re safe,” I repeated, as much to remind myself as it was to reassure him.
So many things could have gone wrong.
Should have gone wrong.
A gaggle of Highland warriors and their herd of cows should not have been able to break into a fortified British prison, recover a highly guarded inmate, and escape again without losing a single man.
It shouldn’t have worked.
But it had.
And Jamie was safe, here in my arms.
“Oh God, Jamie,” I hiccuped, unable to hold back my tears any longer.
I felt him nod against me, his breath catching as he pushed me away ever so slightly, his chin dipping as he stared at what was left of my waist.
I half laughed, half sobbed as I moved his hand against me, guiding it to the place where our children were currently objecting to my bent position. They were busy, thriving within me despite all I’d been through on the road. Relief washed over his face as they demonstrated well-being, dancing and rejoicing at their father’s touch.
But, soon, the muscles of his jaw began to tighten as he seemed to process a great many things and his head dropped back down onto the pillow… almost in defeat.
My heart lurched as I murmured, “What is it, luv?”
His left hand drifted over to his right forearm — just above the carnage — as his gaze fixated on a distant spot on the wall, unable to look at me.
“Will it mend?”
“Yes,” I replied without hesitation.
A knock on the door sounded before I could elaborate, Murtaugh’s inquiring a nighean? announcing his presence.
“Come in,” I called reluctantly, hastily wiping my cheeks as Murtagh stuck his head in the door.
“Is there anythin’ I can be fetchin’ for ye?”
Jamie’s head turned on the pillow in response to his godfather’s question and, with an effort, I stood again, forcing a smile as I gathered my resolve.
I wanted nothing more than to send Murtagh off for a doctor, to whisk Jamie off to the nearest hospital where a team of surgeons could repair his hand and I could simply be his wife… allowed to be fearful, to sit in a chair and wait and pray.
But that option was not available to me.
Pull it together. Jamie needs you to have a clear head.
Taking one deep breath and then another, I asked, “Do you have a flask of whisky on you?”
“Aye, always,” a slow smile stretched across Murtagh’s face.
I lifted my chin, clenching my fists at my sides as I insisted, “Then let’s do this.”
I moved away from the bed, heading towards the wash basin that stood in the corner. I slowly cleaned my hands, washing away the grime as I my mind returned to the task at hand.
What a horrible pun, I flinched and shook my head, trying to rid myself of the connection.
Jamie’s rasping voice snapped my head to the side, catching sight of him out of the corner of my eye. He was studying me intently, the gears of his mind working something over.
“Are you alright?”
The soap slipped out of my hand and into the basin with a splash, tears blurring my vision once more.
“Yes,” I answered a little too quickly, turning back to washing my hands and fishing the soap back out so he wouldn’t see my face.
Only Jamie would ask such a question.
His tender care of me was nothing new, but now —while he was incapacitated and in excruciating pain — it sucked the very air from my lungs, bending me over the basin as I gripped the sides.
The concern in his voice rose, but I knew I had to keep it together, knowing that if I turned back to face him in this moment, I wouldn’t be able to.
And so, I dried my hands absently as I lied, “I’m fine.”
Murtagh returned just then and extinguished any further discussion over how I was feeling. I set him to work, directing him as to where I needed things while I sterilized my hands the few instruments I had in the whisky, leaving him to do the heavy lifting in relative silence.
I collected the stack of clean cloths from the table and crossed the room, placing them beside the bucket of fresh water as I tried to settle myself to my work. Standing at the table Murtagh had placed next to the bed, I began arraigning things so that they’d be within easy reach, struggling to put up a calm front before I faced Jamie again. I could hear Murtagh helping Jamie to drink the whisky he’d procured and let him care for his godson for a good many moments as I took the time to deeply inhale and exhale, to harden my resolve and commit to having a clear, objective mindset.
Finally turning around, I found Jamie’s eyes firmly shut again, caught up in his pain. Murtagh had moved over to the other side of the bed, giving me room to work, and I stiffly positioned myself on my work stool. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, but it was better than being on my feet and bending over him.
I checked his pulse, finding it steady beneath my fingers and noticing that his breathing had begun to even out as the whisky took on its second use as an analgesic.
My heart crashed through the floorboards beneath my feet as his lips slowly formed the syllables of my Gaelic name and the sound of it simultaneously tore down the wall I’d hastily built to protect myself, flaying my heart wide open before him— even as it bolstered and sustained me, giving me the wherewithal to do what I needed to do… to operate on my own husband.
My hands stilled as I returned my attention to him, my lips forming a wobbly smile as I met his gaze. I saw the vestiges of pain still remaining in the corners of his consciousness, but the magical elixir of alcohol told him he no longer need care about it and he bought that lie hook, line, and sinker.
“Right here, luv,” I murmured, dipping my head.
“I… I’m sorry,” he stammered. “You shouldna… you should be… I’m so sorry, mo nighean donn.”
“Jamie,” his name tumbled from my lips as I pressed my cheek to his, crooning in his ear, but he continued.
“You should be a’ Lallybroch broodin’… makin’ yer nest jes the way you like it… no’ slavin’ to mend what canna be mended.”
“Your hand will heal,” I lifted my head in order to look him right in the eyes. He started to disagree, but I stopped him, emphatically repeating myself, “Your hand will heal… and I can’t build my nest without you.”
Infection was my main concern, mostly in his pinky, but I was confident the bones would heal with time. He would likely experience stiffness in the joints and could possibly lose some degree of range of motion as well, but I would do everything within my power to make sure he stood the best chance of a full and total recovery.
He squeezed my hand as his eyes slid shut with a sigh, his questions now answered and his mind at relative ease. I squeezed back, patting his hand gently as my spirit offered up a prayer that my words would prove true.
I’d treated horrific injuries in the war, many more unfathomable than the task before me… but none had been my husband.
The wounded soldier had always been a stranger.
Sure, I’d gotten to know many as they recuperated, but they were unknown souls as they lay broken before me on the operating table. But now, for better or for worse, both the soldier and the surgery were completely mine.
I knew every inch of my husband’s body… I could map out his every line, every curve with my eyes closed.
But could I operate on him?
Could I set aside the swirling maelstrom of self-doubt and fear of failing and perform a surgery that would place him in more pain than he was already in, even though I knew it would lessen his pain in the future? Could I overcome the suffocating grief at seeing Jamie like this and overwhelming rage I felt towards the sadistic monster who’d inflicted the wounds in order for me to heal them?
Did I really have a choice?
I slid my eyes shut as I pressed my palms against the table, forcing myself to swallow my emotions, to bury them deep within me. I took a deep breath… and another… and then one more.
My head stopped spinning and clarity was restored to me bit by bit as I began to go about the surgery in my mind. I knew that it would be a long, nerve wracking job and that I’d need to be focused, to be completely in tune with the workings of Jamie’s body.
I was halfway across the room before I even realized I was moving, returning to Jamie out of pure instinct and a blind need to feel his pulse thrumming beneath my fingertips. Sinking down beside him, I remembered something he’d done on our wedding night…
He’d held my hand, even taken me into his arms when sharing our hearts was painful. He’d said that it would be easier if we were touching and it had always proven to be true.
Why would it not be now?
I gently positioned Jamie’s right arm the way I needed it, but the jostling was enough to rouse him from the drunken slumber he’d settled into, his face contorting in pain.
Stopping this and twisting to pick up the measured amount of laudanum, I offered it to him.
“Here, this will help.”
Jamie took the cup and downed its contents gladly, only protesting once he’d swallowed it in one gulp. He screwed up his face in disgust, his jaw dropping and his tongue sticking out as he complained, “A dhia, Sassenach… tha’s foul.”
“It’s strong,” I half apologized, half explained, “but it does the trick.”
He nodded, taking this in stride as he handed me back the cup, holding my hand once his was empty once more. His grip was surprisingly tight and I paused to study his face, finding stark fear under the layers of alcohol and physical pain.
“It’ll be alright,” I assured him, trying to make myself believe it as well.
“Oh, aye, mo nighean donn,” his chin tilted up to look at me as he settled himself against the pillows. “Tis no’ the pain… but what I’ll find once it’s gone, aye?”
I watched him struggle for a moment and then could bear it no longer. Dipping my head, I kissed him long and hard, only coming up for air when I finally felt him relax beneath me.
I pressed my brow against his, whispering, “Find me.”
“I’ll be right here with you, Jamie… at your side when you wake and along with you in your dreams.”
A deep, heavy sigh escaped him and I could tell the laudanum was beginning to take effect. His gaze was distant as he struggled to keep his eyes open, fighting to stay alert instead of letting the drug’s numbing tide take him under.
“I’ve got you, Jamie,” I murmured, my thumb stroking his cheek.
I kissed him again and the last vestiges of tension left his body as he finally drifted off, the lines of pain disappearing from his face, leaving him very much like the last morning I’d spent with him… completely at peace.
“I’ll fetch a few more lamps for ye, lass,” Murtagh murmured, quietly taking his leave.
I sat up after a moment, taking a deep breath and setting my sights on Jamie’s right hand.
“Bone of my bone, mmm?” I intoned wryly, speaking to him even though he couldn’t — wouldn’t — respond.
But… if there was a small chance… even a remote possibility that hearing my voice would keep his demons at bay while he was unconscious, I’d eagerly read him the entire Encyclopedia Britannica without hesitation.
Checking his pulse briefly and finding it still strong, I heaved myself back up and moved away to clean my hands again. It was well worth going about the sanitization process an extra time to be able to touch Jamie, to reassure him as he went under, but I mentally chastised myself for not moving the necessary supplies closer.
“What I wouldn’t give for a bar of carbolic soap or a team of qualified surgeons… but, here we are,” I sighed. “Although, come to think of it, I don’t believe you’d protest much about being stuck with me and a bottle of strong whisky under any normal circumstances…”
Shaking my head at the thought, I let out a decided snort.
“And just what exactly is normal for us, James Fraser?”
Traipsing around the Highlands in every sort of weather? Evading the grasp of the latest in a string of people bent on killing one or both of us?
No, Jamie and I never had anything resembling normal our almost six months of marriage…
I peeked over my shoulder at him, needing to be reassured that he really was here with me, and found exactly what I’d expected… he hadn’t moved so much as a fraction of an inch. Jamie’s chest rose and fell at steady, slow increments, effectively qualming the ridiculous notion that he’d stopped breathing while my back was turned.
Tucking my lower lip firmly between my teeth, I gnawed at it as I resumed my work, going about the meticulous process of getting my hands as clean as I possibly could.
Murtagh returned with the extra lamps in hand as I was rinsing my hands in the whisky for a third time. He set them down, then drifted back to my side, studying me intently as he inquired, “What else can I do, a nighean?”
I paused and shifted my attention back to our patient. We’d removed what was left of Jamie’s clothing long ago, giving our patient a quick once over to get most of the grime off of him, but there was still far more dirt in and around his more minor wounds than I was comfortable with.
“The gashes on his chest… could you wash them again? Rinse them with the whisky?”
Murtagh looked relieved to be of use as he nodded and I gave him a weary smile in return. We worked together but separately, settling into a comfortable silence as we gave our full attention to our respective tasks, caring for the one that our hearts both loved.
With the hand finally clean, I could now begin to reassemble what was left of Jamie’s pinky finger. The very tip of it had been left behind in whatever hell-hole he’d inhabited and the bones that remained were splintered almost beyond repair… but with hours of meticulous attention, I was able to get it to the place where it stood a chance of healing properly.
This having been accomplished, I moved on to his ring finger. He had impressive compound fractures in both his middle and proximal phalanx and it took considerable force to draw the ends of the bones back through the skin, eliciting concern from my ragtag assistant.
“What the hell are ye doin’?!”
Murtagh was opposite me in an instant, gaping at me from across the work table. I tried to ignore him, hoping he’d take the hint and go back to whatever it was that he was doing, but he remained. He hovered in my peripheral vision, arms tightly crossed and disapproval radiating from every ounce of him.
“Setting — his — fucking — finger,” I finally grunted in answer when I could.
Proximal phalanx now in place, I quickly glanced up at him and found a look of half astonished wonder and half complete disquiet at what he’d just witnessed. Murtagh had seen his fair share of violence and wounds it produced in his life, I was sure, but watching someone exert relatively brute force to heal another would be an occurrence of absolute rarity.
I returned my focus to completing my work, but the interruption made me realize just how much I’d lost awareness of anything outside the job I was doing. I noticed that ache of my stiff joints began to settle in as I finished off the final stitch, the fatigue burning my eyes as I carefully splinted the hand, surgery now complete. I felt myself begin to tremble as I bandaged Jamie’s hand, finalizing this first step in his recovery process.
The end of the roll slipped out of my grasp before I could stop it and Murtagh quickly ushered me to a chair along the wall, sturdier and more comfortable than the low stool I’d been occupying. He opened the window a tiny bit, letting in the cold, clean air and I took great gulps of it.
I tipped my head back, letting my eyes slide shut as I fought a sudden wave of dizzying nausea. My hands took great fistfuls of my makeshift apron as I filled my lungs with the night air, trying to rid my nose of the heavy scent of blood.
Much to my immediate relief, I found that an empty bucket was within arm’s reach and stuck my head into it just in time. I could hear Murtagh’s muttered grumblings as he hurried back to my side, but paid him no heed as everything I’d repressed in the last hours came rushing to the forefront. I began to tremble violently as every muscle in my body gave out, my chest heaving with the sobs I could no longer contain.
“Shh, a leannan,” he crooned and took me into his arms, setting aside the bucket and paying no heed to my complete and utter disarray.
“Ye’ve done it… tis over now.”
It’d taken everything within me and then some, but I had done it. I had successfully set, sutured, and stabilized every injured finger on Jamie’s hand… I had wielded every weapon within my arsenal and came out the other side victorious.
“I can finish yer bandagin’, a nighean,” he assured me, his voice kind but insistent. “My coverin’ will keep til morn… he willna be movin it about much, aye?”
The smile I found in his eyes gave me what I needed to keep my wits about me. I nodded wearily and watched as he — to my surprise — wrapped Jamie’s hand quite efficiently in the cloth bandage. It certainly wouldn’t hold if Jamie used the arm, but our patient wouldn’t be conscious for a good while yet and in no shape to do much more than breathe when he was.
No, as Murtagh so eloquently stated, it would keep until the morn.
My chest heaved as my head slowly cleared and I opened my eyes, blinking down at Murtagh — who was now kneeling at my feet — through my tears. There was something eating at him, words he wanted to say, but chose for the moment to keep to himself.
“Spit it out,” I grumbled, “or else it’s going to choke you.”
Kind concern lit his eyes and it was this that kept me from descending into abject panic as he gently urged, “Go to bed, lass.”
Still, the very suggestion had my heart rate skyrocketing and my mouth completely dry.
“I’m not leaving him,” I choked out.
“An’ ye think I will?” he snorted, one brow nearly reaching the ceiling.
I shook my head, unwilling to so much as budge from this chair.
“I’ll stay wi’ him through the night, a nighean,” he coaxed. “Ye said yerself he wouldna wake before morn and ye need to sleep.”
I didn’t think he would.
My dosage of the laudanum had been approximate, wanting him to be completely under for the procedure but not so much as to cause problems. I’d never worked with the substance before, the bottle remaining untouched in my medicine box until now, and therefore had no more than a general idea of when Jamie would wake. The combination of his hangover and pain from the wounds would no doubt keep him unconscious for a time after that and I could only hope that he’d sleep away what was left of the dark night.
I chewed on my bottom lip as I struggled between not wanting to leave my husbands side ever again for so much as a minute and the overwhelming desire to crawl into an actual bed and sleep until the next millennia… and slumber’s tow was winning.
I eyed him cautiously, testing, “You’ll send for me if there’s any change?”
“Without hesitation,” he promised.
“And not let Dougal so much as touch him?”
“Oh, aye,” Murtagh’s voice dropped to a near growl. “No one save Father Anselm himself will step through that door until you do.”
My gaze shifted to where Jamie’s prostrate form lay on the bed, the slight rise and fall of his chest the only indication that he was still alive.
“Go,” Murtagh squeezed my hand, bringing my attention back to my husband’s godfather.
“I’ll see him through.”
A weary smile tugged at the corners of my mouth and, taking this as a sign of committal, Murtagh helped me to my feet. I swayed slightly, my head spinning, and his grip on me tightened, supporting me fully should I need it.
Oh God, did I ever.
Jamie had said to me once that he could bear pain himself, but he couldn’t bear mine… that it would take more strength than he had.
He was right, it did take strength.
I only hoped that each of us had enough.
Instead of heading towards the door, I turned to the wash basin, longing to rid myself of the last remnants of Jamie’s blood from my hands. Murtagh made small noises of protestation, but eventually saw the logic in this and acquiesced.
The soft refrains of the Gloria drifted through the crack at the bottom of the chamber’s door and my hands stilled as I dried them off, my head tipping to one side.
“What time is it?”
Murtagh looked towards the door too, pondering, “Long past midnight, to be sure.”
“Then it’s Christmas,” I murmured in reverent awe.
“Aye,” his voice lowered as well, “so it is.”
Murtagh knew where I was headed I even before I took a step and smoothly led me back to Jamie’s side without so much as a grumble, helping me to sit down on the edge of the bed. I took hold of Jamie’s right hand, pulling it into my lap, and clung to it.
“Happy Christmas,” I murmured to him, picking back up the pattern of speaking my thoughts out loud… hoping he could hear me, that my words would keep his demons at bay for even a short while.
Chapter 17: Darkness Falls
December 25th, 1743.
The sun rose long before I was ready to do the same, prompting me to pull the blanket over my head and blocking out its eager light. Sighing heavily, I shifted, moving my pillows about in a vain attempt to find slumber once more, but it was no use… I was awake. One of the babies seized this opportunity to begin a splendid Highland reel on my bladder and I resigned myself to the grueling process of getting out of bed.
This accomplished and relief gained, I slowly made my way across the hall to check-in on my husband. I prayed he’d slept the night away without mental or physical discomfort and that I’d find his hand to be well on the road to recovery this morning.
Please, let it be so.
It was with this optimistic demeanor that I pushed open the door to Jamie’s room to find Dougal MacKenzie standing over his nephew’s bedside.
My mouth went dry in an instant as I looked wildly about for Murtagh, but he was uncharacteristically absent from the room.
“What do you want?” I choked out.
Dougal didn’t budge from his place at the head of the bed. His voice dropped low in obvious threat as he crossed his arms.
“You ken verra well what I want.”
Bile rose in my throat at the very thought of his hands on my body.
I knew exactly what Dougal wanted… me.
You fought this battle and won once already, Beauchamp.
You can do it again.
I hesitantly took a step into the room, inching my way towards the opposite end of the bed, needing to be within an arm’s reach of Jamie while remaining outside of his uncle’s grasp. I felt like the proverbial mouse, knowingly risking my life to retrieve the cheese while staring down a hungry cat.
“I’m married,” I hissed.
He accepted this as a minor inconvenience with a nauseating smile, “Aye… for now.”
I was close enough to see Jamie’s face — able to tell if he was asleep or awake for this interchange — and felt a small measure of relief as I caught the shallow rise and fall of his chest.
He was breathing and his eyes were open, but Jamie was far from alert. He stared blankly up at the ceiling and my heart dropped through the floorboards beneath my bare feet as I noticed the dark red splotch creeping up Jamie’s right sleeve, growing larger with every beat of his heart.
A cry left my lips as I ran to his side, but Dougal intercepted me. He took hold of my arm and I wildly reached for something — anything — off my worktable to use as a weapon in self defense. My fingers bumped against the ceramic water pitcher and I fumbled to get a good grip on it. I lifted it high above my head and crashed it down hard on his, water and shards of pottery raining down everywhere.
Dougal immediately recoiled, letting go of me as he bellowed a slew of Gaelic expletives at the top of his lungs.
I made it the last few yards to Jamie’s bed and threw myself down at his side, frantically searching for the source of the bleeding. It was his pinky — damn it — and I pulled the sheet off the top of him, wadding a large fistful up and desperately began applying pressure as I screeched, “What have you done?!”
Dougal’s laugh snapped my head around and he had the audacity to look amused at my accusation.
“What have I done?” He parroted as he took one step and then two, moving closer until he loomed over me. “What have you done, Claire?”
Rage bubbled up inside me and I spat in his face, “Go to hell, Dougal!”
I quickly pulled the sash from around my waist and let my robe hang open as it may, modesty falling far by the wayside in favor of saving my husband’s life. Hastily, I looped it around his arm, just above his wrist, and tied it off in a desperate attempt to staunch the blood flow.
“It’s your own fault, ye ken,” he continued above me, as nonchalant as if he were commenting on the weather.
“You are the reason he was captured… if he’d stayed at Leoch, none of this would have happened.”
I involuntarily jerked at this, tightening the tourniquet to its limit as his words tightened the noose of guilt around my neck. I wanted to insist that this statement was false — that it wasn’t completely my fault — but my lips were numb, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Dougal picked up on all of this, using it to his advantage as he bent lower, whispering in my ear, “If he hadn’t had word of you, he wouldn’t have been captured… ‘tis your fault Randall beat him within an inch of his life.”
“No!” I burst, pulling my head away from his and bending over Jamie, shielding him from Dougal’s taunts.
“You ken it’s true.”
“An’ look a’ his hand,” Dougal scoffed. “He’ll either loose it or his life… you choose.”
“I can fix it,” I wailed, even as Jamie continued to bleed and my options quickly began to drain away. I tried to tighten the tourniquet even further, but, still, his life continued to slip through my fingers.
“Did you no’ try that already?”
Dougal’s hand took hold of my chin, turning my face towards him as his voice deepened, a new urgency settling in his icy eyes.
“You failed as a surgeon, you failed as a wife… How will you fare as a mother, I suppose?” he threatened. “Without Jamie at your side?”
I pulled away, my hand connecting with Dougal’s cheek with as much force as I could manage. His head snapped to the side with a satisfying crack, leaving a bloody smear in my wake.
I was drenched in it, completely sodden in the life giving substance that I could not stem.
Collapsing onto Jamie, I pressed my face against his chest, desperate to find a pulse within him.
A scream left my lips as I was met with complete silence, his body cooling rapidly beneath me.
Dougal’s hand reached out and grabbed a fistful of my hair, pulling me off of Jamie and bring my within inches of his, growing, “No’ verra well, I expect.”
I woke with a start, with every muscle in my body spasming as I was catapulted back into reality. The shock of it knocked the air from my lungs and a cry for help from my lips. I desperately tried to right myself, to shake free of Dougal’s grip, but his psychological hold on me was still strong.
Gasping, I blinked rapidly as my clammy hands grabbed fistfuls of the sheet beneath me in a desperate attempt to ground myself, to anchor me to what was real.
It was a dream, I chided myself. Just a bloody nightmare.
My brain reminded me that Murtagh would not under any circumstances let Dougal in the room, but my heart needed to see Jamie in order to rid myself of the lingering cobwebs of my dream.
Heaving myself up off the bed, I didn’t even take the time to dress, but snagged the top coverlet instead. I wrapped the woolen blanket around my shoulders and stumbled towards the door, pulling it open and crossing the corridor with as much speed as I could muster… a rate that would have surely made a tortoise cringe.
I was in Jamie’s room a moment later and felt a giant wave of relief wash over me as I found it exactly how I left it.
Murtagh leapt up from his place in a chair at Jamie’s side —I’d obviously woken him up, poor thing — and he blearily scowled at me, blinking heavily as he raked a hand over his face. He grumbled something in his native tongue as he sat himself back down to awaken more fully.
“How is he?” I gushed as I crossed the room, returning to my husband’s side.
I paid little heed to whatever Murtagh’s answer was, for I could now determine Jamie’s vitals myself and did so immediately.
My hands flew to his face, one cupping his cheek as the other brushed across his brow. He was warm — too warm — and sweat was beginning to bead at his temples.
Jamie’s eyelids fluttered at my touch, but he didn’t wake, remaining asleep for my examination. My fingers lowered to his neck, gently pressing to find his pulse beneath his skin. I didn’t have a pocket watch on hand to measure it against and yet I thought it felt fast.
Temperature high, pulse rapid…
I turned my attention to his right hand and gently began to unwrap the bandages. They’d held up remarkably, Murtagh’s handiwork seeing Jamie’s wounds secure throughout the night, but my spirits sank as I they all fell away and I was forced to face the reality of Jamie’s hand.
I had failed.
At least, in keeping infection from taking root in Jamie’s most damaged finger.
“Damn it,” I whimpered as I sat back for a moment in defeat and tears burned at the back of my eyes.
I tipped my head back to stem them, throwing the bundle of dirty bandages onto the floor as I began to tremble and dropped my hands into what was left of my lap.
Murtagh balked at this, suddenly realizing all was not as well as he’d thought it’d been. He lurched forward, stretching out his hand and placing it on my arm as he inquired nervously, “What is it, nighean?”
“His finger is fucking infected,” I turned to face him fully, tears streaming down my face.
“Wha’ can I fetch ye?”
I sighed, “I don’t know.”
Yes, you do, my brain nagged me.
You can fetch me a proper surgeon and as much penicillin as you can find.
Murtaugh offered me a tired smile, his hand gently squeezing my arm in reassurance as he waited patiently for me to gather my thoughts… which were currently spiraling out of control.
I was now living my own nightmare wide awake…
Jamie was quickly deteriorating before me. His infection had gleefully taken the hours I’d slept away to ravage what was left of his pinky, to run amok while my back was turned.
Damn it, Beauchamp. You should never have left his side.
I felt my throat constrict, my tears threatening to suffocate me, but I knew I didn’t have the luxury of succumbing to my emotions right now and forced myself to swallow them instead.
Clearing away my reticence with a decided shake of my head, I blurted, “More whisky… Garlic or ginger if they have it… and a bigger knife.”
Murtagh stood to do my bidding without a word, then suddenly changed his mind and sat back down, placing a warm hand on my shoulder as he quietly inquired, “He’ll lose it, then?”
I couldn’t answer, but nodded as a sob threatened to burst forth.
He left me alone with my struggles and shut the door behind him, silently leaving me at my husband’s side. Our voices and my examination must have roused Jamie for he began to shift about, unsettled by what must be a massive hangover combined with his postsurgical discomfort.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” I teased, sniffing and hastily wiping my eyes.
I reached for his hand as I desperately tried to school my glass face, all the while knowing I could hide nothing from my husband, and worked to have my smile reach my eyes.
The scowl that had formed on Jamie’s brow quickly darkened as he cracked one eye open to look at me. His lips moved, but I hadn’t a clue what he said beyond water.
This was sorted easily enough and I watched as the light slowly crept back into his eyes. There was an amused gleam twinkling in them an instant later and I prepared myself to receive something either incredibly profound or ridiculously irreverent from my husband’s lips.
“Ye look a mess, Sassenach.”
“Me?!” I half laughed, half protested at the top of my lungs.
“You look like you’ve been run over by a freight train, James Fraser!”
“Aye, well,” he grimaced, “I dinna ken what an afraid train is, but I feel like I’ve been trampled by the entire British cavalry.”
Not far off.
I smoothed the curls back from is face, my thumb gently stroking his cheekbone — careful not to brush against the purple and yellowish bruise just above his eye — as I tried to explain the modern conveyance.
“A freight train… It’s sort of like a hundred wagons tied end to end and pulled by as many teams of horses, but made of iron and steel.”
He looked suitably impressed as his eyes drifted back shut, commenting dryly, “Oh, aye… tha’ would do it.”
A Few Hours Later.
Jamie’s fever was rising almost by the minute and I knew I needed to move fast. The last of the laudanum sat measured and ready on the table beside me, but still I hesitated, clasping Jamie’s left hand tightly between my own.
I shouldn’t have left him.
I should have removed more of the compromised tissue, been more exacting in my method and manner of amputation.
I should have taken it all the first time.
“Do it, Sassenach,” he urged, his gaze strong even though his voice and grip were weak.
I nodded absently but didn’t move and he insisted once more
“Claire, mo chridhe,” Jamie squeezed my hand with all the strength he could muster. “It must be done.”
“I know… I just, I’m not so sure I can handle operating on you again,” I murmured hesitantly.
“I ken, but you must.”
“Tis no’ but a finger, Sassenach. I’ve got nine more, aye?”
“It’s not that,” I insisted, fighting sudden tears.
“Do you know how bloody hard it is to cut you open?! To know I’m causing you more pain than you’re already in? Or what about the fact that I have no formal surgical training whatsoever?!”
“You can do it, mo nighean donn,” a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “You wield tha’ knife better than anyone I ken.”
“Know many surgeons, do you?” I sighed in frustration.
“No, I canna say that I do… but, well, we both have our own pain, aye?
“Yes,” I swallowed hard, agreeing wholeheartedly.
“Then maybe we’re strong enough to bear it together,” his voice as grew husky as my own, “for I ken we canna do it apart.”
Many hours after that.
My head snapped up as Jamie moved about in the bed, his voice waking me from a sound sleep.
“Right here, luv,” I groggily responded, blindly searching for his good hand in the pitch black darkness. I finally found it, but then nearly dropped it as my fingers brushed against his burning skin
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, he’s on fire.
My heart raced as I tried to remember how much water I had left in the basin and just what exactly I was going to do if that didn’t work.
“I’m going to get you a cool cloth,” I blurted as I struggled to stand.
My legs refused to do my bidding and I had a good many false starts before I finally got up to my feet. I’d fallen asleep in my chair at Jamie’s bedside after the amputation, that much was clear, but for how long I’d slept was anyone’s guess. The tingling sensation in my feet and crick in my neck told me it had been a good while, yet my eyes burned as though I hadn’t slept a wink.
I reached out my hand to steady myself, muttering as I used the cold wall as guide in the dark, “Keep talking to me, Jamie.”
His shallow breathing was his only response and I wondered if he might truly be asleep after all.
Sighing, I lit the lamp I found on my work table and wandered towards the water basin. I found the pitcher full and it’s contents cool to the touch and so I retraced my steps, taking a handful of clean clothes with me.
“Let’s cool you down, mmm?”
Resuming my place beside him, I laid a cloth across his brow. The shock of the temperature difference seemed to make him agitated and he shied away from my touch, grumbling as I brought the cloth lower and cooled his neck.
I paused, not quite understanding, then slowed my touch.
“It’s alright,” I crooned, placing the cloth across his chest as I readied another. “I’m right here, I’ve got you.”
More incoherent mumbling followed this and I wondered if I should wake Murtagh. We’d need to try something drastic soon enough to get Jamie’s fever down, but for the time being he was objecting to the small ministrations I was doing and I didn’t think impacting him in snow would be worth it right now.
No, I’d give Jamie a bit more time to wake fully and then we’d move on.
His eyes were open again and I abandoned the clothes to take his face between my hands, knowing my palms would be cooling enough to his cheeks. I twisted and bent lower in an attempt to bring my face closer to his, but this was cumbersome and not at all comfortable and I soon gave it up.
“I’ve got you,” I assured him, my heart breaking at the agony I found in his eyes.
“It’s alright, you’re safe.”
“No,” he shook his head. “No… you must go.”
“Go where, luv?”
I kept my voice calm, knowing that this was either a dream or fevered delirium and that I was not about to go anywhere.
“You should not have come, mo nighean donn… you must leave… now!”
Jamie’s eyes were wide open, but he stared right through me, unseeing.
“Jamie, it’s a dream,” I crooned. “I’m safe, you’re sa—“
He struggled to sit up, grabbing for me and trying to pull me close. I moved as I could, helping him in hopes that he’d wake. His good arm looped around my neck as he held me tight and I quite suddenly found myself being strangled by my husband’s desperate affection.
“Jamie,” I squeaked, adjusting his grip so that I could breathe, but he interrupted me again before I could continue.
“You must leave… now, before Randall comes back.”
I pushed against him, slipping easily out of his weakening grasp and firmly insisted, “No, Jamie!”
He sank back, still shaking his head as he began to tremble.
“Jack Randall is dead! He won’t — he can’t — hurt me or you any longer. He is fucking dead!”
Murtagh hastily joined us at this, entering the room and striding over to me with my name on his lips.
“He’s delirious,” I sobbed, dropping my hands in defeat.
“Aye,” came his reassuring low reply. “Wha’ can I do?”
Snap him the hell out of it.
“Claire, you must go,” Jamie started up again, this time all but shoving me off the bed. Murtagh caught me and guided me up to my feet, holding me close as his godson professed, “I can hear him coming, Claire… you must leave.”
“It’s Murtagh, Jamie!”
Murtagh led me away from the bed and took my place at Jamie’s side as our patient began to thrash about, shouting, “Stop!! Let her go!!”
He began to speak to Jamie in Gaelic, making his voice as different from his godson’s demons as he could, but it didn’t work.
“I said let her go!”
“Jamie, I’m safe,” I wailed. “I’m right here, it’s alright.”
Jamie’s head swiveled to find me in the darkness and he was quiet, studying me for a moment before turning back to face Murtagh.
“Let her go in safety… let her go in safety and ye can have me.”
“No, he bloody can’t!” I screamed.
Jamie sat on the edge of the bed, blinking into the darkness as he fought against the tide of his fevered dream. It pulled at him and he wavered, swaying a bit side to side.
I surged forward, nearly throwing myself into his lap.
“Damn it, Jamie!” I sobbed, wrapping my arms around him. “You belong to me!”
He jerked in surprise but didn’t pull away as I continued to spill out my heart.
“You are my husband, James Fraser, and the father of my children… you swore to me, you promised me the protection of your body if I needed it and I bloody need it now more than ever.”
My tears fell onto his flushed skin and his good arm slowly came around me, his hand lifting to absently rub my back. His touch strengthened me, propelling the words out of my mouth in quick succession.
“I need you to fight this! I’ve done everything I possibly can and now I need you to fight this like the fucking Highland warrior that you are!”
I pushed away from him just enough for me to grab his good hand, moving it to the place where our children lay nestled between us. I pressed his palm against them, nudging the lives within me and begging them to be the ones to break through to him.
“Don’t make me do this on my own… I can’t,” I murmured, pulling him close again. “We are meant to be together… it’s the only explanation I have for all of this… the only way I can wrap my mind around what’s happened… it’s all been for you and me.”
He nodded slowly against me, turning his head to bury his face in my neck.
“And if you take that away,” I hiccuped, trailing off as I tried to make my point, “the one last thing that makes sense to me, then know that I’ll be forced to marry again… Your uncle has been very clear about his intentions and your sons will be raised by Dougal MacKenzie if you don’t fight this.”
This hit home like nothing else I said had. He tensed and I sat back into a more comfortable position, allowing us to look at one another. Jamie’s nostrils flared and his gaze locked on to mine with a clarity that hadn’t been there not five minutes before. His good hand stirred in his lap and I picked it back up again, linking him to the lives who were also in danger.
“You need to fight for them.”
I squeezed his hand tightly, my voice failing as I whispered hoarsely, “You need to fight for us.”
He shook his head, beginning to tremble once more, “Claire…”
“I know,” I swallowed hard. “but I’m right here… and I will be right here with you every step of the way.”
Chapter 18: Convalescence: Part One
Three Days Later; End of December, 1743.
“What’s your pain level, luv?” I murmured, brushing the curls off Jamie’s brow.
He’d been fever free for a solid forty eight hours now, but I still felt like singing the Hallelujah Chorus every time I found him as such.
“I’m fine, Sassenach,” he assured me with a weary smile, “Dinna fash”
As ironic as it might seem — what, with me being six and a half months pregnant with twins and him recovering from major surgery and an assault that brought him to the brink of death — sleep was at a premium these days.
Jamie was able to doze most of the day away, his body unable to keep slumber at bay entirely, but he fought hard against the tow of a truly deep sleep and the demons that accompanied it. I was haunted by nightmares of my own, each more terrifying than the last, but my body’s aches and pains trumped anything my hormone-riddled subconscious could concoct. Intense muscle spasms accompanied by nagging hip pain combined with persistent nausea and frequent trips to relieve myself made it nearly impossible for me to achieve a full night’s sleep… and so I often joined my husband in drifting off in the middle of the day.
I shook my head at his insistence, suppressing a grin at what I knew without a doubt was a complete bluff and patted his cheek patronizingly, “I won’t, but give me the number anyway.”
I rose a brow at this and his smile grew as he added, “And a half.”
I chuckled, leaning in for a kiss and he gladly obliged.
“Mmm,” he intoned, bringing me back in for another one. “A few more of these an’ you’ll have me down to a two, Sassenach.”
”I’m aiming for one,” I quipped cheekily as I sat back and took a good look at my patient.
The color was slowly beginning to creep back into his cheeks and the light back into his eyes. Jamie had endured the unthinkable — I knew he had — but remained silent about most of what had happened at Wentworth. It weighed upon him tremendously, stooping his shoulders and furrowing his brow…
While his body was healing rapidly, his mind and spirit limped far behind.
Jamie’s good hand brushed against my leg and I instinctively pulled it into my lap, curving it around the ever growing swell of our children. He jumped slightly in surprise — I mentally kicked myself, for I knew he startled easily these days — but he quickly recovered and responded in delight.
“They’re growing,” he murmured, his gaze softening.
You’re growing is what he means, I internally groaned. You’re bigger than a horse, Mother Goose.
Jamie was silent for a moment before he sat up more fully, lifting his injured hand to touch my face. His thumb stroked my cheek and I turned my face to gently kiss his palm as my eyes drifted shut, trying to mask my insecurities. He lowered his hand slightly, cupping my chin and waiting for me to look at him before speaking.
“Have I thanked you yet, mo chridhe?”
My brows furrowed in confusion as I asked, “For what?”
“For my children… for the lives you carry a’ the risk of your own.”
My face melted as tears rushed to my eyes. I kissed him, my lips trembling at his tender words as my arms slipped around his neck.
“Oh,” I uttered insufficiently, completely overcome.
I buried my face in his neck, breathing in the scent of him, filling my lungs with the anchoring truth of his presence. His arms came around me too, holding me close as my hot tears hit his skin and we both realized just how much we missed the others touch.
We clung to each other for many moments in reverent silence before I added, “It’s my pleasure.”
A low noise — not quite a chuckle and not quite in negation of my words — rumbled within him, making his chest vibrate deliciously against me.
“Aye, but I ken tis no’ always so… when you were so sick a’ the first, or when they make you change so… when your time comes?”
I shook my head against him, whispering, “Even then.”
A few days after that.
While he hadn’t ventured far from the bed yet, Jamie was now officially up and about. He puttered around after me as I worked at my table and often followed me to my chamber and back, but today we were going on our first walk around the abbey.
His left arm was looped comfortably through mine, not so much for assistance but rather assurance, as we slowly wandered the halls. Murtagh trailed several paces behind us to ensure we didn’t get lost — the maze of passageways was far more complex than I’d realized — and I thanked my lucky stars that he had, for we rounded a corner and came face to face with none other than Dougal McKenzie.
“Good to see ye on yer feet, lad,” he sneered, his words entirely insincere.
A chill ran down my spine at the sound of his voice and I flinched involuntarily as he took a step closer. Murtagh was at our side in an instant and edged his way between us and our foe.
Jamie’s arm slid out from under mine and wrapped protectively around my waist.
I’ve got you, he promised with a squeeze. He’ll have to get through me to get to you.
“Tis good to see you too, uncle,” Jamie lied through clenched teeth, “but I’m afraid we must be returning to our rooms. I hope to speak wi’ you again before you return to Leoch.”
Dougal waved the notion away as if he were swatting at a pesky fly, scoffing, “Ach, I’ll be here for a while yet… too many redcoat patrols for my taste. Wouldna want to leave ye and have them swarm the place.”
A noise of shock and dismay left my lips before I could stop it and Murtagh sprang into action, all but shoving us in the right direction. Large black spots suddenly appeared at the edges of my vision, obscuring the sudden image of a hangman’s noose around my husband’s neck. My knees buckled beneath me and I latched desperately onto Jamie’s shirtfront.
“Easy, Sassenach,” he crooned as I sagged into him, trembling violently. “I’ve got you.”
“If ye’ll excuse us,” Murtagh growled as we sidestepped Dougal and continued guiding us down the hall, nearly pulling the both of us along behind him.
They wouldn’t, would they?
Religious sanctuary was irrevocable, our protection irrefutable so long as we stayed within the abbey walls…
Father Anselm and the other elders would uphold our right to sanctuary here at the cost of their lives, I knew, but they didn’t stand a chance against an overwhelming military force with a legitimate claim of action. They were harboring not only an escaped convict, but a posse of murderous Highlanders besides. The religious laws and traditions of a Roman Catholic monastery — decidedly Scottish — would be tossed aside without a moment’s hesitation in order to capture the enemies of a mighty, entirely Protestant army.
Get a grip, Beauchamp. This is the seventeen-forties, not the fourteen-forties.
I had no recollection of the rest of the walk back to Jamie’s room, but suddenly blinked and found myself perched on the edge of Jamie’s bed, his pale face studying mine with marked concern.
“Are you alright, mo chridhe?”
“No,” I let out a shuddering sigh. “That bloody man scares the fucking daylights out of me.”
A decided snort sounded from the edges of my vision and I turned to find Murtagh all but bolting the door shut.
“He willna be layin’ a hand on ye, lass,” he vowed. “No’ if I have anythin’ to say about it”
I rather thought Murtagh would have quite a lot to say about the matter, should it be pressed, but I shoved the thought of that away.
Jamie is here.
Murtagh is here.
I am safe.
“You’re safe, Claire,” Jamie echoed my thoughts aloud, using the phrase I often reassured him with.
I nodded with an attempt at a smile, but knew I didn’t quite manage to pull it off.
“We’ll find a way to be out of here an’ his reach, aye?” He continued, tucking a stray curl behind my ear before brushing a tear from my cheek.
“To France, maybe? We’re no’ far from the coast… if we left soon, we could be to Paris or Le Havre a’ least before the bairns came.”
Murtagh seized this idea with an eager determination, “Aye, ye’ve many a kin who’d aid ye there… both Fraser an’ MacKenzie, come to that.”
“Then it’s settled,” Jamie pulled me into his arms, his lips moving against my neck as he announced, “We’ll leave wi’ the first ship tha’ll take us.”
One week later.
This proved to be a more difficult task than we’d anticipated, for travel across this area of the channel in the dead of winter was rare, and it seemed we would remain at the abbey for a good while yet.
“Any luck?” I asked unnecessarily as Murtagh entered the room, answering me with a decided shake of his head.
Jamie had dozed off and I’d hoped — in vain — to get some sleep while he did, but it was not to be. I’d found myself restless and the lives within me even more so, and so I’d given it up entirely… returning to his side instead and attempting to sketch out rough schematics for a THING.
I turned back to my paper, tapping the pencil impatiently against my drawing as I thrust the idea out into the open.
“Could you make something out of wood for me?” I blurted, not quite making eye contact with him.
“Hmm?” he intoned in grumpy confusion… perhaps this wasn’t the right time to ask him for a favor.
He grumbled, “What do ye need?”
I shoved the paper into his hands, explaining hastily before he tuned out entirely, “A THING… it’s a medical instrument in my time that lets you hear a person’s heartbeat more clearly… mostly used by midwives to hear baby’s within the womb.”
Murtagh’s eyes widened at this and then dropped to study what I’d given him.
“You can hear… them… wi’ this?”
“Yes,” I nodded eagerly. “I don’t remember the exact measurements… only that it’s shaped like this,” I pointed to curve of it.
“It might take a few tries to get it right,” I warned, but he shook his head.
“I dinna mind,” he assured me, then launched into a series of questions that left me without a doubt that we’d soon be able to hear my babies’ heartbeats.
I took hold of his hand, once he had all the information he needed, and squeezed it tightly, murmuring, “Thank you.”
A slow smile spread across his face as squeezed back, an acknowledging nod his response before he added, “Tis just wha’ the lad needs, no?”
Chapter 19: Convalescence Part Two
January 22nd, 1744.
“Jamie, this is amazing,” I sighed, trying to take in the wonder my husband had just introduced me to. Rows upon rows of books surrounded us, bookshelves housing tomes of history, poetry, and — the section I was standing in the very midst of — medicine.
My fingers reverently brushed across the spines of the books before me. English, French, and Latin titles bespoke of anatomy and physiology, the beginnings of cardiology and the cardiovascular system. They were far from what I considered the latest break in medical advancement, I was sure a good portion of the information they held within would be entirely incorrect, but the value of such a collection in my day would be priceless.
“Aye,” he grinned proudly, professing, “I thought you might like it. Murtagh brought me several to read before I found my feet again and now I find myself coming here often… ‘tis soothing, somehow.”
I nodded, knowing the feeling well, but he continued, his focus shifting to the tomes in front of us.
“Micrographia… Institutiones Medicae… A Directory for— Sassenach look a’ this!”
Jamie eagerly snatched the book from the shelf, rattling off its name and contents as fast as his lips could tout them.
A Directory for Midwives or a Guide for Women in the Conception, Bearing, and Suckling of their Children.
“The Anatomy of the Vessels of Generation, The Formation of the Child in the Womb, What Hinders Conception, What Hastens Conception… Christ, everythin’s in here!”
I peered at the open page before him and scanned the rest of the table of contents.
A Guide for Women in their Labour.
A Guide for Women in their Lying-In.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ
My gut clenched and nausea threatened to over take me at the antiquated phrase.
Their bloody fucking lying-in.
This phase of a woman’s pregnancy — the one I was now in the very midst of — often spelled her demise. What, with weeks spent confined to her bedchamber and doted on by the backward practices of an uneducated physician, mothers dropped like flies in this century and their infants soon followed, if not predeceased them. The thought of the entire book being filled with monstrous diagrams made my head spin as I pushed it against Jamie’s chest and staggered out of the row of bookcases.
My husband’s voice floated over my head as I careened towards the large fireplace at the other end of the room. I heard him follow me, but didn’t acknowledge his presence as I reached my destination and grabbed for the back of a sturdy wooden chair before the fire. My knuckles turned white as I gripped it, my chest tight as I gasped for air.
“Are you alright, mo chridhe?” he asked from somewhere behind me.
“No,” I bit out, my jaw clenching as my head gave a decided shake, “I’m fucking terrified.”
Jamie paused only for a moment before stepping around and coming to stand before me. His face was awash with complete understanding, his eyes alight with his own fears… for he knew first hand the dangers involved in the travail ahead of me.
“Aye,” he murmured softly, my frantic heartbeat evening out beneath his steady gaze.
“Forget about the book, mo nighean donn.”
I shook my head as sanity and coherent thought slowly began to creep back in, his nearness steadying me.
“No, you should read it,” I swallowed hard, tramping down the bile rising at the back of my throat. “We should read it… go through it together.”
Jamie offered his hand over the chair and I took it gladly, continuing as he guided me into his arms.
“I need you to know what’s going on… I need you to protect me… protect us, should the midwife try any funny business.”
“Yes,” I muttered emphatically, albeit muffled by the front of his shirt as I buried my face in his chest.
He contemplated this foreign phrase for a moment, his whole body rumbling in good humor as he asked, “Did the midwife a’ Lallybroch try any funny business?”
“No,” I shook my head against him as I reckoned back to that fateful day at Lallybroch.
“No, she knew what she was doing… so did Jenny.”
What I wouldn’t give to have Jenny here.
Jamie’s sister had been confident in her midwife, in her own capabilities, and in the knowledge that should the worst happen — a very real possibly as her baby had been breach — her young family would be safe in the care of their father and secure in her ancestral home.
I had no guarantees of any of these things.
I was incredibly wary of anyone in this century who claimed to have any sort of medical knowledge, unsure of my own body’s limitations — say nothing of strength of those who lived within me — and entirely unwilling to let myself even think of what would happen to Jamie and our children should I die in childbirth.
A shiver ran through me and Jamie’s embrace tightened, his head tipping forward to rest atop mine. His lips moved amid my curls and his voice brought me out of my thoughts.
“You liked the midwife a’ Leoch, aye? Mebbe we can find one in France who isna sae bad.”
The bitter taste of dread filled my mouth as I contemplated our impending voyage and subsequent overland journey to Paris. It would take weeks and I wasn’t sure just how many of those I had to spare.
What if my time came before we reached our destination?
I moved in Jamie’s arms, twisting until I could see his face. I needed to see the surety in his eyes, the strength that somehow still remained after all he’d been through.
“And if she is?”
His lips hovered above mine, his blue eyes true as he promised, “I willna leave your side, mo chridhe… not for a moment.”
I kissed him soundly, taking him at his word, needing his presence and support more than any guidance a midwife could give me.
Jenny’s labor had been almost instinctual, a dance orchestrated by the movements within her… I knew myself best while I was within my husband’s arms, intune to the inner workings of my womb and that of my heart. I could let the world and its worries fade away and focus on him… on us.
Maybe mine could be the same.
He kissed me again, making my heart soar and my head spin. His good hand slid down my back, settling on my hips for a moment before dipping even further to firmly grasp my bottom. He lifted me ever so slightly as he pressed himself against me and revealed a need as mighty as my own.
Electricity ran up and down my spine and I took hold of a fistful of his hair as his tongue slipped between my lips. I moaned around his intrusion, my hips bucking against his, and I felt his lips smile around mine as he slowly retreated.
“Jamie,” I hissed.
“Aye,” he purred, “I ken.”
Another, foreign voice echoed my husband’s name from somewhere in the distance, completely interrupting the first truly intimate moment I’d had with him in months.
“Go the bloody hell away,” I muttered and pulled Jamie’s lips back to mine.
He chuckled at this and the deep vibrations of his delight sent me reeling towards the point of no return
“Jamie?” The voice tried again, “Are ye within?”
I plunged my hands between us, tugging at his shirtfront and entirely untucking as I groaned, “Not just yet, but he will be in a moment.”
Jamie’s smile spread into a full on grin as he kissed me quickly, but then — to my complete dismay — he broke away and settled me back onto the ground. I blinked up at him in confusion as he called out to our disturbance.
“Aye, over here, lad,” he guided, tucking his shirt neatly back into its place.
Guilt overwhelmed me as I back peddled, letting him move towards the general direction of who I assumed to be Willie.
He isn’t ready, you bloody fool. Do you really expect him to hop right back into your pants now that he’s regained basic function of his extremities?! Give him time!
Jamie took hold of my hand before I could move away much farther and pulled me back to his side, murmuring low, “We’ll see wha’ news he has, then send him on his way, aye?
I nodded without comment and he squeezed my hand. He tipped my chin up with one finger to look at him and his eyes communicated all I needed to know and then some before he kissed me once more.
Soon… I promise.
I sighed as he pulled away and forced a smile for the unofficial go-between to Jamie’s uncle Dougal. I refused to speak to the bloody man and as he and my husband were at constant loggerheads over our flight from the Highlands, Willie had stepped into the position with gusto.
“A good evenin’ to ye, Mistress Claire,” his genuine and warm greeting was soothing, even as his presence was the last thing I wished for right now.
“And to you, Willie.”
Jamie’s stance shifted, unable to stay still as he anticipated the news to come, “Did you find him, then? The captain of the Demeter?”
“Nae, I didna,” the boy’s face fell. “It sailed wi’ the tide last morn… but the innkeeper thought it’d be back in three weeks time.”
“Nothin’ before then?” Jamie sighed.
“No’ that I could find… but I’ll keep lookin’.”
“Aye,” Jamie nodded, having to accept this. “I thank ye, lad.”
Willie stood a little straighter at his, his admiration for my husband growing by the day, and insisted, “‘Twas nothin’. We’ll find one yet.”
The boy made a move to leave, but then remembered something.
“Oh, Mistress Claire, Father Anselm asked if ye’d come to the kitchens… Brother Josef has a wee burn tha’ needs a bit of tendin’, if ye’re up to it.”
His face was expectant, knowing my answer before I said it. These men of faith had done so much for me and my own that it would be incredibly rude of me to not see to the wound, say nothing of unethical.
“Of course,” I tried to smile.
Jamie saw my reticence and grinned as he fanned the flames within me, picking up the book we’d found and giving me a dismissive whack on the behind with it, “I’ll bring this back to your rooms, then, Sassenach.”
“Wait for me, mmm?” I gave him a look before moving away, telling him exactly what I thought of that.
“Oh, aye,” he grabbed my hand, bringing me hastily back to his side as he dipped his head, purring a directive for my ears alone.
The act of caring for Brother Josef’s minor wound had cooled my head, but the heat of what awaited me in my chambers still burned deep within me as I bid the small gathering of monks goodnight. I assured them I could find my way on my own, not wanting their celibate presence along side me as I wrestled with what this stage in Jamie’s recovery would mean for the both of us.
Was he really ready?
Physically, my husband was certainly healthy enough for intercourse — provided he was smart about the use of his right hand — but it was his emotional state that I was worried about.
Jamie had remained silent over much about what had happened in that hell hole, but I knew for certain that the sadistic bastard hadn’t kept his hands to himself. The psychological scars were plain for me to see, even with my untrained eyes, and I had no idea how to proceed.
Would my touch echo his?
I sighed, making the executive decision to let Jamie’s needs guide my own, and turned my thoughts instead to my own physical state.
I hadn’t been with Jamie in eleven weeks and I’d be blatantly lying if I said I hadn’t kept track… or that I wasn’t self-conscious about my pregnant form. I was swollen and stretched to my breaking point, yet my hormones had me strung so high that I was ready to jump him at any and every possibility.
It wasn’t long before I reached my destination and was forced to face quite another reality.
Was I ready?
My hand hesitated on the knob, my lower lip tucking between my lips as I chastised myself.
Pull yourself together, Beauchamp.
I opened the door before I could think of a reason not to and stepped through. I found Jamie in my favorite chair before the fire, reading the book we’d found together.
His head lifted at my entrance and I found all of my doubts disappearing into thin air at his smile. It warmed me to my toes, setting the dull throb between my legs into fine frenzy as he set the book aside and rose to his feet.
He reached out his hand, taking mine as we met in the middle of the room and greeting me with a kiss that took the very breath from my lungs.
“Do you ken what I just reading about, mo chridhe?” Jamie purred, his lips hovering just above mine.
“What’s that?” I hedged, any coherent thought blissfully drowned out by his intoxicating presence.
“Mine specifically?” I found myself grinning like an idiot as I settled more comfortably in his arms, “Or female genitalia in general?”
“Genitalia,” he tested out the word, rolling it around in his mouth with great satisfaction for a moment before pronouncing, “You have verra fine genitalia, Sassenach.”
His hips shifted against mine and a shiver of anticipation ran down my spine, but still I found myself hesitant. I gave a wordless response, neither agreeing or disagreeing, and he caught this, intuitive as ever. His brow furrowed as he studied my face, moving his away as his head tipped to one side in contemplation.
“Do you think I’d find you anythin’ but beautiful, mo nighean donn?”
I shook my head slowly as one shoulder lifted in a feeble shrug, my gaze flicking away.
“Ach, mo gradhe,” he murmured, completely deflated.
My jaw clenched as tears burned at the back of my eyes and I slid them shut as his warm hand lifted to cup my cheek.
“You’ve taken such care of me,” his thumb gently wiped away my tears. “Will you let me care for you?”
I sighed, turning my face to place a kiss in his palm, but he stopped me, slipping his fingers beneath my chin and tipping it up.
“Claire,” he coaxed, kissing me gently.
His right hand lowered to the obvious presence between us, his good arm siding around my hips as he pulled me closer.
“Do you remember what I told you a’ the first?” he murmured. “When you were beginnin’ to show an’ worrit I wouldna find you attractive?”
I shook my head, but opened my eyes, unable to speak and yet needing to see my husband’s face. A warm smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, remembering back to those early days of my pregnancy. I was sicker than a dog, unable to keep much of anything down, but his care for me had been devoted and constant, never wavering.
“I said that I loved the glow you seemed to have about you… tha’ the more our children needed of you, the more beautiful you become.”
His eyes were bright, the faint sheen of his own tears making them sparkle in the low light.
“I thought I meant it then,” Jamie’s voice deepened into a sensual purr, his nose a breath away from mine, “but, now… a dhia, Sorcha, the very sight of them thrivin’ so within you…”
He kissed me then, long and hard, until we were both gasping for air, desperate for more of each other. His fingers clumsily tugged at the fastenings of my skirts, but effectively reached his goal, sending them into a heap at my feet. He paused for a moment, his hands trembling slightly as they lowered to frame the growing swell of our children.
I brought my own to rest atop his as I kissed him once more, moving his left hand to the place where they stirred within me, eagerly responding to their father’s greeting.
“They’re safe,” he murmured hoarsely, burying his face in my neck.
I nodded, slipping my arms around him, my fingers splaying wide across his back. I could feel the raised scars against my palms, stirring up memories of their infliction and the more recent injuries he’d experienced at the hand of the same sadistic madman.
“So are you,” I echoed.
Sliding my hands between us, I deftly unbuckled the belt around his waist, sending his kilt cascading down on top of the heap of my skirts before taking hold of great bunches of his shirt. I pushed the material up and he eagerly tugged it over his head, entirely willing to be the first to bare himself and stand naked in the middle of the room.
His eyes found mine after surfacing from the swath of fabric, deep pools of arousal echoing that of his firm stance below, and I quickly began to melt under his gaze. The warmth in my cheeks quickly began to spread as I loosened what constituted as my stays, my bodice gaping open. I moved to shrug it off, but he stopped me, his hands keeping my sleeves on my shoulders.
Jamie’s good hand slid between my shirtfront and thin shift, his palm savoring the fullness of my breast. The other soon joined it and his thumbs began to gently caress my sensitive nipples. They stood on end in an instant, but he kept up his coaxing repetition, making me squirm as I struggled to get closer to him, the bulk between us entirely getting in my way. He acquiesced with a smile and lowered his mouth to mine as he stripped me down to my final layer.
This done, he took my hand and led me towards the bed. My head spun with emotion and arousal, but, still, I stopped halfway there and dropped his hand. Jamie paused with me, concern growing between his brows as he tried to gauge my thoughts.
“Wait,” I murmured, biting my lip for a moment as I fought indecision, but then brought my hand to the drawstring at my neck. I quickly loosened it and let my shift slip off my shoulders, sliding it over my belly and decisively discarding it on the floor.
A low rumble of delight started at my husband’s toes and rose up the length of him, morphing into a growling moan as it hit the back of his throat. He had me in his arms again before I could register his movement, swiftly guiding me to sit on the edge of the bed and then lying against the pillows a moment later.
I blinked up at him in surprise — such activity usually requiring quite a bit more time and effort on my own — and let out a rather undignified giggle.
Jamie’s prideful smile hovered above me for only a moment before his mouth got down to business, finding my own again first off, then lowering to the base of my neck as he settled himself over me. I slipped my fingers into his curls, taking hold of a fistful and inhaling sharply as he once more found my sensitive breasts.
A low rumble of delight sounded from deep within him and I groaned, trying to pull his lips back up to mine. He only grinned, brushing a kiss across my sternum as he moved from one breast to the other.
This addressed, his hands drifted down to my belly and he took a moment to greet his children. His fingers skimmed across my skin as his lips placed a reverent kiss just above my navel, then traced a direct line to my pubic bone. He shifted then, leaving his good hand between my legs while returning his lips to mine.
“The wee book says ‘tis the clitoris tha’ gives you pleasure,” he purred. “Delight in copulation, I believe were his words.”
A wordless moan escaped my lips as he gave the area in question exquisite attention, my hips bucking as I demanded more of him.
“Tis true, then?” Jamie cheekily asked, knowing full well the answer. “Tha’s one thing Culpepper’s got right.”
“Damn the bloody book, Jamie!”
He kissed me once more before removing his hand and settled himself into position. I lifted my knees, gripping him tightly as my arms slipped around his neck. His brow pressed against mine and his eyes slid shut, his lips trembling slightly as he hesitated.
“Come find me,” I crooned softly. “Come find us.”
Chapter 20: Horn of Plenty
January 29th, 1744.
“I have something for you,” I grinned proudly from my seated position against the pillows.
A slow smile tugged at the corners of Jamie’s lips as he paused in undressing and purred, “Do you now?”
I smugly nodded and left it at that, my excitement growing as fast as my husband’s curiosity as he hastily freed himself from his kilt. He tripped and nearly fell face first into the bed as he tried to extricate himself from his shirt while still moving forward, but caught himself just in time climb in with some shred of dignity left.
It vanished, however, as he then crawled towards me on all fours and I burst out laughing at his eager expression, which was part excited child, part aroused lover.
“What is it?” he asked with a wide smile, unable to help himself.
I kissed him and whispered, “Look under your pillow.”
He reached over, skimming his good hand over the top of the coverlet and under the pillow to retrieve the pinard’s horn I’d commissioned from Murtagh. He turned it this way and that, studying it carefully from every angle, and even went so far as to peer through it as one would a telescope.
“Bring it here,” I urged, beaming, and he returned to my side, handing it over with a rather befuddled look on his face. I placed it on my chest, beckoning, “Put your ear to it… Listen.”
Jamie did as told and grinned as he heard my heartbeat.
“Verra nice, Sassenach.”
I laughed again, tousling his curls as I moved it to my abdomen, commenting, “That’s not the best part.”
“Christ, really?” he caught on quickly.
“Well, hopefully… if we can find the right place.”
I returned the instrument to him and slid back, reclining in an attempt to do my part. My hands skimmed across my belly, curving round until I found the flat plane of one of their backs.
I offered, “Try here.”
This was all the instruction Jamie needed and he set about the delicate business of finding each baby’s heartbeat. He tried to remain quiet in an effort to hear better, but couldn’t help muttering to himself as he shifted the instrument this way and that to find the perfect spot. When this didn’t prove immediately successful, he began to coax them, cooing sweet nothings as he honed his craft and zeroed in on their elusive whisperings.
Jamie fell silent and quite suddenly reached out blindly for my hand. I took it between both of mine as he murmured low, “I can hear him, Sorcha.”
I nodded, at a complete loss of words, and squeezed his hand gently. His thumb began to wiggle a bit, but then I realized it was tapping out a steady beat.
He was trying to show me what he was hearing.
“Jamie,” I breathed and he gave my hand a gentle pat before slipping it away to place beside the instrument.
His palm pressed against me, his fingers splayed wide, and all I could see was the delightful image of our baby’s downy head cupped tenderly in his hand.
“I can hear you, mo beag leanabh,” he softly greated. “Your mam says you can hear me too… Tha gallom ort.”
His eyes slid shut for a moment, savoring the auditory confirmation that our child was safe and well, then he sat back up. He couldn’t bear to move his hand from the place he’d just been listening from, but the knowledge that his search wasn’t quite done had him eager to continue.
“If one’s there,” he thought out loud, placing his other hand on the opposite side of my belly, “I should try just here, aye?”
I nodded and my hand nudged his lower, showing him a better spot. A laugh bubbled up and I bit my lip to stop my grin as the baby in question began to move within me, protesting my stagnant, nearly fully-prone position by wiggling in a manner that made their father’s work just that much harder.
Jamie sighed in good humor, the joy in his eyes negating the very dry tone of his voice, “Sassin’ your da from the start, hmm? I see how it is.”
“They are your children,” I teased, recollecting the Laoghaire’s ridiculous claim that they were anything but.
He lifted his head with a wry smile, “Aye, heaven help them.”
My fingers twined amid the curls at the base of his neck as he resumed his search once more. He copied his movements from the last successful endeavor: still coaxing, still crooning. It worked and a small sigh of relief left Jamie’s lips as he listened intently.
He stayed crouched in this position for a good many moments before returning the pinard’s horn back into my keeping and brushed his lips against the place it had just been.
His mission now accomplished, Jamie lounged comfortably beside me, propping himself up with a throw pillow and his good arm. His right was draped across my hips, his thumb caressing the place where one of the baby’s heels pressed against my side. He brought his face close and his lips hovered over my belly, his warm breath tickling my skin as he began to reverently croon to them again in Gaelic.
“That was lovely,” I hoarsely whispered, my throat constricting with the overwhelming feeling of complete and utter joy as my hand moved to cup the back of his head. “What did you tell them?”
Jamie shrugged slightly, his grin turning lopsided as he tried to downplay the importance of his words, all the while still feeling the weight of their significance. I pulled at him and he moved towards me, settling his head next to mine on the pillows.
“I asked them to be gentle wi’ you… that I kenned they’re tight on space just now, but that they’d soon be out and free to wiggle about to their wee hearts’ content,” his voice was as thick as mine now, the echo of their heartbeats still ringing strong in his ears.
Tears blurred my vision as he brought his lips to mine, overwhelming my senses with a kiss that defined tenderness itself. I looped my arms around his neck in an effort to anchor myself. I felt as though I were floating, all of my discomfort, all of my anxiety completely melting away until I was left with a single phrase.
All is well.
We settled ourselves with a collective sigh, Jamie helping me turn onto my side, and we spooned together in the gathering darkness.
“I want you to teach me,” I blurted, nestling myself more comfortably in his arms and clarified, “Gaelic, I mean… I know some phrases and can understand a good bit more, but I want to be able to speak it with you… with them.”
He planted a kiss atop my head as he eagerly agreed to this, “Aye, I’d love to teach you, but you have more of it than you realize.”
I made a small noise of negation, pulling a face even though I knew he couldn’t see, and a soft chuckle rolled through him.
“Tha gallom ort, mo nighean donn.”
“I know that one,” I insisted, playfully elbowing him in the ribs.
“Oh, aye,” he laughed again, but this time with a depth and warmth that I hadn’t heard since we were at Lallybroch.
“Where shall we begin, then?”
February 16th, 1744.
The captain of the Demeter was due to arrive into port any day now and tensions were high. Willie was making daily, covert trips to the wharf, unwilling to lose any of our precious time, and Murtagh was doing all he could to keep Jamie from going stir crazy.
A man of the outdoors, my husband was growing weary of remaining within the abbey walls, with his only respite sojourns in the resident stable and dormant courtyard gardens. I accompanied him often and it was there, amid the crumpled leaves and fallen snow, that our messenger found us.
“She’s here!” Willie burst into the withered kitchen garden with a shout, “The Demeter’s here an’ the captain’s agreed to take ye!”
Jamie let out an excited cry of delight and kissed me full on the mouth before clumsily gathering me into his arms. The embrace didn’t work remarkably well, with my face being squashed against his chest and my torso rather twisted in order for him to get even remotely near me, but I found myself laughing despite my discomfort.
“When?” He called out, “When does she sail again?”
Willie grinned, proudly answering back, “Five days time!”
A sigh of relief left my lips, albeit muffled by Jamie’s plaid, and I squeeze him tightly.
We would be in France within a week.
“A dhia, Sassenach,” Jamie murmured in amazement, putting his hands on my shoulders and abruptly held me at arms length. His eyes were bright, his chin wobbling slightly as he breathed, “We can make it, aye? We’ll make it to Le Havre before they come?”
My heart soared as high as the clouds above us as I grinned, “Yes… yes, we will.”
Chapter 21: In the Womb of the Earth
February 20th, 1744; The Abbey, Scotland.
“I’m fine,” I glared at Jamie and pointed to our chamber’s door for good measure, insisting, “Go.”
He made no move to do so, his auburn brows bunched together in concern instead as he observed, “Ye’re lookin’ a bit green aboot the gills, Sassenach.”
“I’m just tired,” I hedged.
It certainly wasn’t a lie.
We’d sail with the next morning’s tide and the knowledge had everyone on edge. No one had slept well the night before, nor had anyone high hopes of the day passing quickly. Time seemed to stretch on forever now that the end was in sight and my husband’s nervous presence — though well intended — was becoming insufferable.
“Can I help ye back into bed, a’ least?” he offered. “Do ye think you could sleep a wee bit?”
I contemplated this, then turned my gaze to my usual chair by the fire. It was a worn out sort — overstuffed to the point that it made reclining bliss — with a low footstool to accommodate my swollen ankles.
Did I want to lay down completely… or just sit a while?
A wave of bone-aching fatigue washed over me, but my brain rattled off all the things that still needed to be done before we left.
How many more linens would Brother Erastus let me turn into nappies?
Brother Nathaniel said he’d see to the food stores for the journey, but I wanted to inspect them yet today… so I’d have time to repack should I need to.
Come to that, were our things packed?
I winced, knowing I’d think of a dozen more things my weary mind had forgotten once I got started.
Maybe I would just sit a bit.
A decidedly Scottish noise broke into my thoughts as a warm hand slipped around mine, gently leading me towards the edge of the bed.
I opened my mouth to protest but stopped as he eased me onto the soft mattress, swinging my feet up and helping me roll onto my left side. I grabbed for all the available pillows — gleefully seizing Jamie’s — and was soon completely ensconced.
Bloody hell, this feels amazing.
I heard a rumble of laughter from above me and lifted my face for a kiss, Jamie happily obliging.
“Sleep well, my hen,” he crooned, his thumb gently stroking my cheek as his lips hovered just above mine.
I realized that I really must look something like a mother hen tucked up in her nest and a slow smile spread across my face as I kissed him again.
“I willna be gone long,” he assured me a moment later when we came up for air. “Jus’ to see Murtagh about the carriage, aye?”
“Take your time… I’m not going anywhere.”
Jerking awake to the sound of the door bouncing off the wall, I caught a rather undignified squeal of alarm just before it left my lips as I was yanked from a deep, numbing sleep and thrust unceremoniously into the land of the living.
I lifted my head from the pillow and discovered I was no longer alone in the room, but now in the middle of a veritable bear pit. Loud, male declarations of Herself’s safe arrival and that there’d been nae trouble aboot the matter at all only muddied the waters as I blinked groggily, hastily looking for my husband amid the array of kilts and breeks.
“Aye, place it there,” came his voice, followed by a muffled thud as they did so, and I dropped my head back down onto the pillow.
He was here. He obviously had things — whatever the hell they may be — well in hand. If I were needed, he certainly knew where to find me.
My hand slid up between the sheets and I lifted it to my face, rubbing my heavy eyes as I tried to place what on earth they could be talking about. Why they couldn’t use proper nouns in this godforsaken country like any other civilized people was beyond me.
The movement accomplished nothing except to wake the rest of my body up, settling a dull, pulsating throb in the depths of my skull and my hip to aching with such a veracity that I could have sworn my fall in the Theive’s Hole had been yesterday, not four months ago.
“Jamie?” I called and the room fell instantly silent as they all quite suddenly remembered my presence.
My voice had sounded pitiful, even to my own ears, but I didn’t care. I needed him to explain what the hell was going on and get the rest of these men out of my room… and he’d better do it quick.
“Och, I’m sorry to be wakin’ ye, lass!” Willie’s voice was the first to profess from somewhere at the back of the crowd, “Tis only tha’ we thought ye’d be wantin’ to ken wha—“
But Jamie immediately pushed through the throng and succinctly cut him off, his face drawn with concern as he nearly threw himself onto the floor at the side of the bed. I reached for him and he bent over me, kissing my brow softly as he apologized profusely, “Christ, I’m sorry, lass!”
My abject confusion over the situation must have been evident, for he continued on without letting me speak.
“Lady Drummohr sends you her good wishes, mo nighean donn… She says she hopes she’ll see you at dinner but understands if you dinna feel up to it… Says she remembers bein’ this far wi’ her own bairns an’ wouldna blame ye if he didna leave yer chamber this evenin’... I’ll give her your thanks, aye?”
I shook my head, dismissing both the notion that I was so feeble that couldn't leave my room and the cancellation of the opportunity to see a real, bonafide mother in the flesh for the first time since arriving at the abbey ten weeks ago.
“What is that?” I scowled vaguely in Murtagh’s direction, where a good sized trunk lay at the man’s feet. He stood beside Jamie with the barest hint of a smile beneath his heavy beard and I knew something was up.
I may have a name to go with the who but I still hadn’t the foggiest idea of the what.
“Aye, tis from the Lady,” Jamie continued, his face brightening with excitement. “She said she didna ken how much you were able to take awa’ with you, so she brought some things you may be needin’ for yourself an’ the bairns.”
All of the air left my lungs in a mighty whoosh as everything came rushing back to me.
We would, indeed, be sailing to France, but first we would have to successfully make it aboard the ship.
There were at least half a dozen of His Majesty’s finest dragoons stationed in the village just outside the abbey and positioned at strategic points between here and the harbor. We would need to fool every single one of them… and Dougal had found a perfect cover for us in one Lady Margaret Grant of Drummohr. Hailing from Dalkeith, a good three days' ride away, she would not be recognized as anything other than a traveling woman of good repute.
I could then take her place with a nom de guerre of my choosing, with Jamie and Murtagh trading places with two of her footmen, and we’d safely ride to the harbor in our luxurious borrowed carriage. Should we be stopped leaving the abbey — and heaven forbid we would — I could explain in my blatantly British accent that I was sailing for Le Havre where I would be meeting my merchant marine husband.
But I hadn’t counted on Lady Margaret being generous above and beyond her arrangement with Dougal.
My free hand lifted to my lips, my fingers trembling as Jamie undid the latch and opened the trunk. He lifted out a small quilt and placed it on the coverlet before me, then froze as he spotted the fragile contents below.
“Oh God, Claire,” Jamie wheezed, immobile at the sight of four tiny baby gowns.
I reached out blindly through sudden tears, needing to touch the garments — to touch him — and was rewarded with both. His arms wrapped around me again, his head dipping into the curve of my neck as the tips of my fingers reverently traced the swirls of thistles and leaves around the neck of one gown.
“I don’t... I didn’t have any clothes for them,” I swallowed hard, trying to tramp down the feeling of complete and utter inadequacy, “Jamie, I barely have nappies for them to shit it, how the hell am I supposed to be a mother to them?!”
His head lifted and his blue eyes — so completely calm, damn him — focused on mine, one corner of his mouth lifting in a slight smile as he assured, “We’ll manage it, mo nighean donn… There’s the both of us, aye? I’ll no’ be lettin’ ye fall.”
I kissed him then, pulling him closer in desperate urgency. His lips met mine and anchored me to him, holding me fast as I tried to make sense of the storm building around me.
“I’ve got you,” he crooned, pressing my head against his chest when we came up for air.
I concentrated on the sound of his pulse, the rhythm of his heartbeat against my cheek, and slowly felt clarity return to me.
“What else is in there?” I sniffed.
His arms loosened around me and he peered over the edge of the trunk a moment.
“More wee things for the bairns… but I think this one’s for you, Sassenach.”
With this he let go, retrieving a bodice and woolen skirt dyed a deep navy blue from the depths of the wooden chest.
“Well, it certainly wouldn’t fit you,” I grinned and took it from him.
He grunted good naturedly at my jest and obediently bent his head for a closer look when I shoved the bodice back into his lap, cheering with delight.
“Oh, aye,” he nodded appreciatively, yet his voice held that hollow tone of disproportionate earnest. “Tha’ll do verra nicely for you, Sassenach.”
I rose one brow at him, “You have no idea why I’m excited about it, do you?”
“Aye, well… tis a new frock, isn’t it? An’ a bonnie one a’ that,” his grin turned sheepish as he confessed.
I lunged for him, meaning to poke him between the ribs, but he caught my hands well in time and I laughed.
“The boning, the lacing of it,” I nodded towards the bodice, “It’s made for mothers!”
“Oh, aye?” his brows shot up at this and he dropped my hands in order to take a second, proper look.
I began to examine the waistband of the matching skirt as he did so and very much liked what I found.
“So’s this,” I continued. “I can wear it now and continue to after they’re here.”
He handed it back with a greater appreciation, his gaze growing wistful, “Did Jenny’s gowns have such things?”
I nodded, fighting back my gut-wrenching yearning for Jamie’s elder sister. It was always there, brooding under the surface as I contemplated our life to come. I didn’t have much of anything in the way of worldly goods, but what I did have, I’d gladly give to have her with us.
“We may be leaving Scotland at dawn,” I whispered hoarsely, then swallowed hard in order to continue, “but I know we’ll be back… I just know it. You children will see their birthright. I promise you.”
He leaned forward and kissed me softly, the promise of his body, of his protection and undying love echoing my own.
Leaning back after a moment with a sigh, his gaze fell on the tiny baby gowns and his eyes took on a light of complete wonder.
“I havena held a bairn in a verra long time,” his voice was deeper than usual, husky with longing to take his own children into his arms. “I ken they’ll be wee… but, a dhia, Sorcha, I forgot just how much so.”
I draped the gowns over the swell of our children and brought his hand to the place where one insisted on causing a disturbance within me.
Nodding, I pressed hard against them, urging them to respond to us, “But they’re strong.”
“Aye,” he brought his lips to mine as his children proved my point emphatically, “Just like their mother.”
Later That Evening
Dinner had been delightful, though we’d still excused ourselves as soon as was appropriate, citing our early departure.
But in truth, I had only one destination in mind.
The hot spring.
I shut the door of our chamber behind us with a grin and leaned against it, insisting abruptly, “Take off your clothes.”
Jamie started visibly then burst out laughing as he sat down hard upon the bed.
“Oh, aye?” He rose a brow when he could finally speak, his shoulders still shaking, “Is tha’ how it’s goin’ to be?”
Heat rose to my cheeks as I shook my head in mock derision, reaching over to the nearly empty chest of drawers and withdrawing two homespun robes of a deep chestnut hue. I tossed one to him and his amusement turned to curiosity.
“I want to show you something,” I blurted, not wanting to give away the surprise and yet needing to get him out of the room somehow.
Both brows rose nearly to his hairline as he looked at me skeptically.
“An’ I must wear this?”
I undid the lacing of my new bodice, commenting, “We both are.”
“Ye’re delirious, Sassenach,” Jamie shook his head. “Ye canna be tellin’ me ye mean to wander about in nothin’ but that?”
“Well,” my blush rose considerably and I wished he’d just put on the damn thing and be done with it already, “it covers more than you’d think… and I stick to the shadows.”
“Ye’ve done this before?!”
The incredulity of the idea had him back on his feet in an instant, a fire burning bright in his eyes.
“I have,” my chin rose defiantly, “and I plan on doing it one last time before we go.”
A slow grin spread across his face, the indignation in his eyes melting into unfettered requirement.
“Of course with you,” I snorted, shoving his robe against his chest. “Just put the bloody thing on, will you?”
He did so immediately, then helped me in turn, all the while his grin permanently splitting his face in two.
“Good,” I appraised him, adjusting the belt around my waist more securely.
“Shall we go, then?”
Jamie rose a brow at this and opened the door, bowing low over his hand as he gestured into the deep shadows of the hall.
Slipping my hand into the crook of his arm, we made our way wordlessly along the dark passageways. We turned this way and that, the slope of the floor slowly dipping as we got closer. Finally reaching the door to the passageway, I opened it and sighed with relief as I found the sconces already lit.
We continued on for some time and eventually had to walk single file as the tunnel narrowed.
“Are ye sure ye ken where we’re goin’?” Jamie asked skeptically from behind me, his frown evident in the darkness.
I suppressed a laugh and brushed the tips of my fingers along the solid rock wall, “Well, there’s no chance of us taking a wrong turn, now is there?”
The tunnel was dimly lit and full of twists and turns, but held no offshoots or forks of any sort. It simply led to our destination, which was the only reason the brothers let me travel to and fro unattended. There was absolutely no chance of me getting lost underground as I traversed completely naked beneath my borrowed robe.
Brother Jeremiah had introduced me to the abbey’s restorative hot springs during the long weeks of Jamie’s recovery. I could slip away and find relief for a few hours as Murtagh watched over our beloved charge. The warm buoyancy of the water relieved the pressure of the lives within me, rewinding time to give my body back to me. The quiet solitude soothed my frazzled nerves and slowly healed the mental and emotional wounds inflicted by the horrible ordeal we had all just gone through.
The heat of the spring wafted towards us quite suddenly and a shiver of excitement ran up my spine, raising gooseflesh in its wake.
“We’re almost there,” I assured him unnecessarily.
The light of the cavern was discernible before us — bless the brothers for preparing it for us — and Jamie now could see it for himself. We continued on a few paces more and then we stood in the midst of the gaping cavern. Sconces were positioned here and there between us and the shore, attempting to illuminate the void, but great gaps of darkness stood beyond and it was clear that the space was a good deal larger than either of us could imagine.
I let out a sigh of absolute delight, so relieved to finally be here, and asked, “Do you like it?”
Jamie didn’t answer but looked around with his mouth agape. I knew the feeling fell, but my eagerness to be within the pool had me disrobing before my poor husband knew what was happening. I had one foot in when his voice stopped me.
“Christ, Sassenach,” he burst in delight, “‘tis a hot spring!”
I laughed and continued my descent down the carved stone steps.
“Oh, you do. Good,” I grinned and reached the bottom. “Do come in, then.”
Jamie shed his robe, but kept a firm hold of his skepticism, asking from the top of the stairs, “How hot is it? Should ye be bathin’ in it in yer condition, Sassenach?”
I shook my head, my curls splaying this way and that on the surface of the water, and I rolled my eyes.
If he only knew how bloody amazing it feels in here.
The muscles of my lower back had immediately relaxed upon contact with the water, my hips loosened and my breathing eased. They seemed to like it too, for they tumbled with delight at the first and then settled into a blissful slumber. I could walk slowly about, stretching my long limbs without the strain of gravity. Or I sometimes lay my arms on the stone ledge of the shore, resting my head atop them as I let my legs float out from beneath me… levitating weightless in the water.
“It gets hotter the further out you go,” I assured him, gesturing vaguely into the darkness. “I stay over here in the shallows and I’m just fine… it's like a splendid bath that never grows cold.”
He continued in, the water slowly swallowing him up as he joined me. The awe was back in his eyes, now seeing and feeling for himself what a splendid thing this was. He wiggled his toes in the clean, black sand at the bottom of the pool, sending pulsating currents over my own. The surface looked deceptively still, but there were small currents here and there if you knew where to find them… the pulse of the living, breathing spring.
Jamie turned to grin at me in the darkness, his teeth flashing white in the sconces’ flickering light.
“Christ, Sassenach,” he repeated and shook his head, completely at a loss.
I laughed, “You approve, then?”
“Oh, aye,” he insisted, looking ‘round excitedly. “I do, indeed.”
Jamie bounced on his toes slightly as he squinted out into the darkness.
“How far does it go?”
“I’m not sure,” I shrugged. “It got too hot for me.”
He nodded with an adorable sense of determination and I knew he was out to explore this oasis I had just introduced him to. He started to move away but I touched his arm, stopping him for a moment.
“Be careful, alright?”
His face melted and he leaned back in for a kiss, nudging my nose with his, “Aye, I’ll keep an eye for any wee beasties.”
“Any big ones too.”
“Mmm,” he kissed me again, “I think we’re quite safe, m ’ionmhas. Though, tis a shame we left our pet selkie behind, hmm?”
I laughed and shoved him away, letting him explore to his heart’s content. I could hear him splash this way and that, muttering to himself, but was surprised when he returned shortly after he left.
“Nothing out there?”
He snorted, “Entirely too much that I canna see… and you’re right, tis a good deal hotter out there.”
His skin was delightfully warm as I slipped my arms around his neck with a sigh. Resting my cheek against his chest, I let my feet float out beneath me. He towed me slowly around the edge of the pool, the water rippling over my legs and abdomen feeling remarkably like his caressing hands. I became warmer and more aroused by the moment, the tips of my sensitive breasts brushed against his chest and set off fireworks deep within me.
He found the man-made niche cut into the wall that I liked to frequent and sat on the wooden bench, pulling me to sit sideways on his lap. I knew there was plenty of room for both of us on it and pushed him backwards as I moved to straddle him. The eager glow in his eyes set me afire as I settled myself more comfortably, treasuring him for a moment before guiding him home. The accompanying inrush of hot water surprised me for a brief moment, but I soon found it incredibly exhilarating and settled myself with a sigh of pleasure.
“Oh, I like that one,” he purred.
I blinked at him stupidly and asked, “Like what?”
“That sound you made,” he explained, the delight evident in his eyes, “the wee squeak.”
I didn’t think it was possible to blush — I knew my skin was already flushed to the point of beet red — and I found myself dropping my gaze, hoping my hair would fall in my face and hide my embarrassment.
“I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to be noisy.”
Jamie tipped my chin up, brushing the curls from my brow as he insisted gently, “I said I like it.”
I nodded, not entirely sure what to say to that and found I didn’t have to, for he continued.
“And I do… ‘tis one of the things I like best about bedding you, Sassenach,” he grinned, “the small noises that you make.”
He cradled my head in his hands, kissing me with an urgency that made me forget myself once more, and shifted his hips just so beneath me. I half stifled a gasp and he commented softly, “Aye, like that.”
“That's what I thought most about,” Jamie murmured, his hands slowly caressing my back, curving around to cup my breasts, to frame the swell of our children.
“In prison, at night… chained in a room with dozens of other men, listening to the snoring and farting and groaning. I thought of those small, tender sounds that you make when I love you… and I could feel you there next to me in the dark, breathing soft and then faster, and the little grunt that you give when I first take you, as though you were settling yourself to your job.”
My breathing was certainly coming faster now, my head light. Had it not been for my rather firm hold of him down below the surface, I was sure I would have floated far away into oblivion.
“Even better,” his lips brushed against my neck, sending a shiver of delight up and down my spine, “when I come to you fierce and wanting... and ye wimper under me and struggle as though you’re struggling to get away, and I know ‘tis only that you’re struggling to come closer... and I’m fighting the same fight.”
His hands sank to my hips, slipping between us to caress the stretched and yearning point of our joining. I quivered and my breath went from me in an unwilled gasp.
“Or when I come to you needing… and you take me into you with a sigh and that quiet hum like a hive of bees in the sun,” a sweet smile played at his lips, “and ye carry me into peace with a little moaning sound.”
“Jamie,” I hoarsely whispered, my need nearly strangling me. “Jamie, please.”
He kissed me soundly as his hands settled around my waist, slowing me until I groaned around his lips.
“Not yet. We’ve time, mo chridhe,” he calmly answered. “I mean to hear ye groan like that again… to moan and sob, though ye dinna wish to, for ye canna help it… I mean to make you sigh as though your heart would break and scream with the wanting... and at last to cry out in my arms… and I shall know I’ve served you well.”
With that, my release overtook me, shooting like a dart into the depths of my belly. It loosened my joints so that my arms slipped limp off his shoulders, Jamie’s steadying hands all that kept me from drowning.
Resting my head against his chest, I felt boneless as a jellyfish. I didn’t know — or care — what sort of noises I’d been making, but felt incapable of coherent speech.
That is, until he began to move again... strong as a shark under the water.
“Oh God, no,” I protested. “Jamie, no. I can’t bear it like that again.”
The blood was still pounding in my fingertips and his movement inside me was an exquisite torture.
“You can… for I love you,” his lips brushed against my neck. “And you will, for I want you… but, dinna fash, for this time I go with you.”
Bloody hell, you’re coming with me, I vowed.
I lifted my hands to his chest and splayed my fingers wide, still trembling as I pressed my palms against his slippery skin. Sliding my hands up, I took hold of his shoulders and shoved him the couple inches backwards into the stone wall of the niche with all the strength I could muster.
Jamie’s eyes flew open in surprise and the arousal I found there was the second wind I needed.
His brows rose suggestively and I sat back — settling myself to my business, as he had so eloquently stated before. His hands settled at my waist, curving round to clenching my buttocks tightly as I rode him towards oblivion.
A low groan rumbled within him and I cupped one hand beneath his head, pulling back up to me by the scruff of his neck. I was rewarded with a Christ, Claire and kissed him hard as I sank even deeper. It wouldn’t — couldn’t — be long now for either of us and with that knowledge, I tossed restraint to the wind.
“You are mine,” I repeated, the final vowel twisting into a cry of pure ecstacy.
I heard his own cry and I knew I had served him well.
Chapter 22: Over the Sea
February 21st, 1744; The Abbey, Scotland
I stifled a groan in Claire’s curls as the church bell tolled three, my arms reflexively tightening around her as I tried to ignore the fact that it was time to get out of bed.
I hated to wake her.
The night had not been an easy one for my wife — were they ever these days? — and Claire only just managed to fall back asleep, but I knew she’d need a wee bit of extra time to dress this morning… as her appearance was vital to our ruse.
Smoothing the tousled curls away from her brow, I placed a kiss on her temple, then trailed one after the other until I reached the base of her neck. She stirred at my touch, her eyelids flickering and one corner of her mouth pulling upwards towards a smile, but didn’t wake. My hand lowered to her hip, then slid along the distended curve of her abdomen as my lips found hers.
Her own hands moved then, reaching and finding me in the darkness.
“Good morning,” I murmured into her palm, brushing a kiss across it as her hand drifted round to the back of my head.
One eye cracked open to scowl at me at this greeting, her words slightly jumbled but still coherent, “Thisn’t morning, y’oaf. Dark’out.”
I curled my lips between my teeth to keep from grinning at her offended expression, the innocence of slumber still lingering on her face and made her appear very much like a spoiled, pouting child.
Claire felt my suppressed amusement and struggled to open both her eyes. Her brow furrowed with the effort it took to spear me with what I’m sure was meant to be her best look of consternation, but it fell short. I kissed her soundly in an effort to keep from laughing outright, rousing us both completely and bringing us directly back to why we’d risen at this inhospitable hour of the morn.
She sighed a moment later, a wistful look dancing across her now clear eyes.
“It’s time, isn’t it?”
“Aye,” I swallowed hard, excitement mixing with the fear of the unknown as my stomach churned.
“Time to leave.”
Half past 4am.
The wind howled around us as we stepped from the shelter of the abbey out into the open courtyard, cautiously picking our way across the frozen cobblestones. It’s nasty chill bit at any patch of exposed skin it could sink its teeth into and my cheeks and hands were already red and raw from ensuring the rig was properly loaded with our things.
I hastily grabbed for the carriage door, lunging for it before it was really in reach as I was eager to get Claire out of the cold, but she was of a different mind.
“You won’t say a word if we’re stopped, will you?” she inquired, pulling up short and studying my face intently. “Or only in French if you must? That cap’ll do to hide your hair, but there’s no mistaking your voice.”
My hand instinctively went to the back of my neck, feeling the rough wool of my knitted hat. It would keep me warm, certainly, but pulled low as it was, it went a long way to hide the telltale auburn hair that was plastered all over my broadsheets.
“Aye, er, oui Madame,” I promised, squeezing her hand reassuringly with a forced smile as I helped her onto the first step.
Wobbly as a new foal, I steadied her as she picked her way into the dark carriage. Murtagh held his lantern high, giving her light to see as she eased herself into the padded cushions and meticulously arranged the folds of her cloak.
“The same goes for you, hmm?” Claire’s head snapped up to look at us, her gaze locking onto my godfather’s. Her eyes narrowed in a rather unreadable expression of consternation mixed with something akin to a challenge as she continued, “Not a word from the both of you. Let Francis do the work and the talking until we’re aboard ship.”
I caught the twitch of my godfather’s lips out the corner of my eye — despite his heavy beard and the early morning darkness — and marveled yet again at the relationship the two of them had formed while I was away.
“And I can quite handle myself, thank you very much,” she added in afterthought and under her breath, almost as if to reassure herself as it was to us.
Claire caught the mirth bubbling up beneath my gathering nerves and reached out her hand to me. I took it in an instant, leaning in and keeping my voice low, even though I was sure no one but our present company could hear us.
“May your brilliant mind and unbridled tongue keep us safe, my love,” I blessed her in French, then dropped my hand to the swell of our children. “And may you both bide until we are safe.”
She crossed herself, the barest hint of a shudder running through her, and I dove into the carriage beside her, pulling her into my arms and vowing, “No harm will come to you, Claire. I give you my word.”
“I know,” she murmured back after a moment and I loosened my grip.
Sitting back, she waved me off.
“We need to leave if we’re going to catch the tide,” she insisted with a smile that gained confidence by the second. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
I blinked at her for a moment, which made her laugh — a heartily welcome sound — and I shook my head with a smile of my own.
“Oui, Madame,” I stepped back onto the ledge of the doorway, “I am entirely at your service, my Lady Beauchamp.”
She nodded curtly and dismissed me fully, all but shoving me out into cold with a single look.
I grinned at her and exited the carriage, shutting the door firmly behind me. Turning, I moved to join Murtagh on the bench up top but hesitated a moment before climbing aboard.
That they might be safe… both she and the children.
My eyes slid shut, my heart offering up the rest of a prayer that I could not put into words.
“Come along, a bhalaich.”
Murtagh’s command was urgent yet gentle and I reflexively moved to do so, hastily crossing myself before climbing up beside him with a fluidity that hadn’t been mine since before my injury. I nodded to him and with a flick of the reins, he set us into motion.
I held my breath as we passed through the main gate and left our safe haven behind.
There would be no going back.
We hadn’t traveled long before we encountered the first crofter’s hut, still shut up and slumbering in the early morning dew. I scanned the road ahead and caught sight of a small copse of trees off to the left side. This particular stretch of road wasn’t bounded by forest, so it would make a perfect lookout post, should a soldier or two want to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the abbey.
And they certainly would.
My gut clenched as we approached, wishing the lanterns posted on the corners of the carriage were bright enough to see what we were about to ride into. The mare on the right snorted to her teammate and I flinched. It took everything within me to not grab the reins from Murtagh’s hands and turn us around.
“Steady,” Murtagh coaxed in the language Claire had instructed us… one I knew he didn’t particularly care to use.
To anyone listening, it’d be logical that he would have been speaking to the horses, but I knew it was intended for me.
The carriage began to slow and I spat out an emphatic, “Fuck!”
I bit down hard on my lower lip, the sharp pain competing against my rolling stomach and spasming back. The deep, frozen ruts of the lane did little to ensure a smooth ride to the harbor and the combination of my raw nerves and the carraige’s jolting, jostling motions were enough to set me completely on edge.
Lifting a hand to the ridiculous bonnet atop my head, I adjusted it slightly and then arranged my skirts around me. Our success was dependent on my looking every inch a respectable woman of wealth and I was determined to have everything in place when that door opened. We came to a complete stop long before I was ready and I forced myself to take as deep of a breath as was possible in my current state.
Here we bloody go, Beauchamp.
Male voices began to bark orders, sending a shiver down my spine, and I steeled myself for the gust of frigid air mingled with danger that was sure to come at any moment. I didn’t have to wait long, for the door opened in the next second and I saw the face of Lady Margaret’s most trusted footman, Francis.
His expression gave nothing away as he offered his hand in assistance — the as yet unseen redcoats obviously requested I present myself — and I donned my most affected air, slipping into the personage I’d crafted in my wakeful hours of the night.
“Tell them I wish to speak to their commanding officer,” I sniffed, drawing my cloak tighter around me, “and do shut the door, Francis, or I shall catch my death of a chill.”
One brow twitched and I caught the briefest of smiles flicker across the chap’s face before he disappeared back into the night, doing exactly as I’d asked.
More voices sounded in conversation outside the carriage, taking on an air of confusion as a whole, with the exception of Francis’ Lowland lilt.
“Ye better do as th’Lady asks, ye ken,” he warned and I couldn’t help but grin in the dark in spite of my nerves. “She’s not one t’bide... an’ she’s a ship t’meet.”
There was a shuffling of feet and a clanking of metal, but one person had obviously moved off and all discussion faded away into nothing. A few moments passed in anxious silence until a new disgruntled voice suddenly asked, “Have you found something, then?”
Bile rose at the back of my throat as I thought of them finding Jamie up above me, but I didn’t waver from my plan.
Negatory remarks followed the new voice’s inquiry and the officer — for indeed, he must be — was informed of the situation.
Francis opened the door again and I launched into my tirade, “What is the meaning of this inconvenience, Captain?! If my ship departs without me, I shall ensure that you are stripped of your position, paraded through the streets barefoot in nothing but sackcloth and ashes, and unable to find a place of employment as anything but His Majesty’s scullery maid!”
The officer stood slack jawed just outside the door in perfect response to my tirade, obviously not expecting a well-bred, highly enraged, loyal British subject on the road at this hour.
“Do come in and explain yourself,” I huffed, beckoning him forward, “you must have a reason for holding up honest traffic in the middle of the night like a Highland bandit.”
His mouth snapped shut at this and his brows rose all the way to the edge of his wig as he climbed inside, a lantern in hand. I blinked at the sudden brightness, but it only helped to permanently affix my scowl.
“Now, who do I have the pleasure of addressing?” I titled my head to the side, feigning interest while looking very much like an addled bird, I was sure.
“Captain George Brooks, my lady, of, ah, His Majesty’s Third Battalion,” he cleared his throat, stammering slightly. “I, well, I sincerely apologize for Private Richardsen’s rather forward behavior and, well, the delay.”
He studied me quite openly, his gaze taking in my fine clothing and warm cloak. The captain seemed to take me for what I appeared to be, for he quickly continued, “You see, Madam, we have word that an escaped convict has sought sanctuary within the abbey and are stopping and searching every conveyance that leaves the place.”
I stiffened at the word convict, but used it to my advantage.
“I must tell you, Captain, that I was the guest of the good brethren and can assure you no such man exists,” I leveled him with a look that made him squirm. “And, certainly, no one of such quality is among my men.”
“I consider the Scottish brutes to be a detestable sort and am on my way now to leave this godforsaken country,” I sniffed, forcing myself not to choke on the absolute fallacy of my own words.
Captain Brooks nodded at this, but it was clear from his gathering frown he had questions for me.
“There’s a respectable tavern in the village where my men are quartered,” he shifted, leaning forward slightly. “Why stay with the heretics when other suitable — and dare I say safer — lodging was available?”
I snorted, feigning disgust, “I’d rather sleep in the gutter than under the roof of a Highland villager, Captain… and as for the heretic Papists, you forget that a good many of His Majesty’s subjects are such.”
He caught sight of the jet rosary on display around my neck and had the good grace to wince.
“My apologies, Lady…,” he trailed off.
“Beauchamp,” I supplied for him, ready to rattle off my concocted scenario. “My husband is Lieutenant Commander Alexander Beauchamp of the Royal Navy and I’m meeting him in Portsmouth… that is, if you and your men will permit us to be on our way.”
My companion shifted uncomfortably once more, groveling, “Yes, well, I see there is no reason that you should not be allowed to travel on. I shall send a man ahead to alert the guard at the port. They’ll see that you board and depart without interference.”
“How good of you, Captain,” I commented, forcing a smile as a sudden wave of nausea overtook me.
Hurry up, Captain, or you shall be wearing my breakfast.
The captain strode out the door of the carriage, nearly knocking Francis off his feet, and beckoned wildly to his lieutenant. I tensed, nearly grabbing the reins out of Murtagh’s hands, but instead steeled myself as I caught his orders on the wind.
“Ride ahead,” he motioned for a horse to be brought round, bellowing, “Tell Phillips to let them through without trouble and ensure no one delays their departure... And If I hear that so much as a seagull spoke out of turn to the Lady Beauchamp, I shall have both your head and your commission, Hawkins!”
Lieutenant Hawkins swung into the saddle with a barked yes, sir and was barreling down the path ahead of us a moment later.
I blinked in surprise, then let the darkness of the night hide the beginnings of a smile that warmed my face.
Well done, mo nighean donn.
The remainder of the ride to the harbor was something akin to cruel and unusual punishment.
The road had gotten better some time ago — the carriage no longer pitching from side to side with every rut we hit — but I still felt every stone, every bump we drove over. The muscles of my lower back and left hip spasmed with a ferocity that I had never experienced, protesting their rough handling in a language that I could not ignore. My stomach rolled, my chest heaved, and it was everything I could do not to lose my cookies all over Lady Margaret’s velvet cushions.
I slid my eyes shut. It was dark as the deepest cave around me, but somehow the feeling of closing my eyes still gave me a barrier to the outside world.
You did it.
We’d passed through the checkpoint undetected, sent on our way the very man in charge of the entire operation. I couldn’t let my guard down yet, though, couldn’t celebrate this victory until we were really, truly well on our way on the open sea.
I shook my head, trying to fixate on something steady, something outside of the tossing, tumbling barrel I was currently deposited in.
I did allow myself to smile then.
What did he think of it all? Of our walking through right under the redcoats' noses?
I was thankful he had Murtagh at his side through the whole ordeal, but I still wished I could have been with him. For my presence beside him to steady his nerves.
Who are you kidding, Beauchamp?
You couldn’t have climbed up there next to him if your life depended on it.
Well… maybe only if it TRULY depended on it.
My hands moved, my arms cradling the curve of my distended abdomen as I shifted against the seat cushions. Climbing aboard this conveyance had been interesting enough… I didn’t want to think of what getting aboard the Demeter would entail.
The footman Francis was a short, sender slip of a thing, and while that suited his career perfectly, it wouldn’t suffice should I need assistance boarding the ship.
No one would think twice of Jamie’s strong form helping me… would they?
My heart lurched to a stop, skipped a beat, then thundered on as the carriage began to slow and I realized the next hurdle was upon us. We didn’t stop, but continued to crawl along for many minutes, allowing me time to right myself and prepare for act two of my facade.
When Francis did open the door… I was ready.
Around 5am, Aboard the Demeter;
A dhia, what a woman.
I shook my head in amused astonishment as I watched Claire’s rigid form dismiss Colonel Phillips with a flick of her hand, then turned to the captain of the ship and pointedly asked for shelter from the cold. We hadn’t the time to inform him of her ruse before we boarded, but he gruffly acquiesced and motioned for her to follow him into the cabin.
Seeing that Phillips had disembarked and none of his men were looking towards the ship, I slipped into the shadows of the gathering dawn and trailed after them.
“I do apologize for my tone on deck, Captain,” I heard her sigh as I entered the small, cluttered room. “We sincerely appreciate your kindness and understand the risk you’re taking in bringing us aboard.”
“Aye, well,” he shifted from foot to foot, not quite sure what to make of my wife, “‘Tis nothin’ much… so long as ye stay within an’ out of my men’s way, ye ken.”
I’d gathered in our short time on deck that the crew’s opinion of my wife was something akin to an omen of bad luck — as a woman aboard ship often was — and had no intention of letting her out that door again until we were disembarking onto French soil.
Claire turned as the ship’s captain left, realizing I was there for the first time and her face completely crumpled. She looked as though her body was about to follow suit and was at her side in a moment, gathering her into my arms and tucking her head securely beneath my chin. I could feel her begin to tremble from head to toe against me and looked wildly around for a place for her to sit.
Not readily finding one, she clung to me as we stood in the middle of the room, swaying slightly with the motion of the ship.
“Ifrinn,” I muttered when I found I could finally speak, “I shouldna let you do tha’, mo chridhe.”
“We didn’t have a choice,” came her soft reply, muffled by the front of my coat.
I shrugged at this, knowing she was right, but wishing my heavily pregnant wife hadn’t had to be the one to navigate us through the lion’s den.
“But ye did verra well, indeed,” I had to admit, more than a hint of pride coloring my voice.
She snorted in objection to this and I grinned, turning back her hood and shedding her of that ridiculous cap in one movement. Placing a kiss amid her curls, my hand cupped the back of her head.
Lifting her chin, she looked up at me, fatigue evident in her eyes. I kissed her soundly then and she turned in my arms, looping her own around my neck with a contented sigh.
“Are you cold?” I asked, placing a kiss on her warm neck but had felt her chilled cheek against my own.
“No, not very,” she rested her head against my shoulder. “It’s much better in here.”
I nodded, agreeing as my gaze lifted and I began to examine the quarters we’d been given.
Captain’s quarters they may be, but it was also clearly a storeroom for a good portion of his cargo. Crates stacked upon crates loomed around us like a forest of trees, with bundles and baskets cast about on the floor in unorganized chaos. There didn’t seem to be a bed to be found in any resemblance of the word and this gave me no amount of disquiet.
Resigning myself to a sturdy crate that was roughly sitting height to my left, I slowly moved Claire in that direction, easing her down onto it as I went in search for better accommodations. She flapped a weary hand at me, encouraging me on my way as she loosened her stays and let out a shaky breath.
I wove in and out of the stacks of goods, desperate to find a place for my wife to lay down. There were large wooden trunks and canvas wrapped parcels, small wooden crates and barrels of various volumes and heights… but no bed. I discovered something resembling a hammock slung in one corner, but as that would never do, I dismissed it immediately and continued my search, doubling back and returning a different way than I’d come.
Claire’s voice had me leaping over a canvas wrapped bundle and grabbing for the bucket I’d caught out the corner of my eye. I reached her just in time for her to deposit her breakfast in the receptacle, her eyes wide and cheeks gone an unearthly pale.
“Christ, I’m sorry,” I gushed, keeping a stray curl from getting in the way of things. “I shouldn’t have left yer side… tis the same wi’ me, too.”
In truth, our current rhythmic motion was nothing compared to what we’d experience once we left the harbor, but I had the good sense to let that be.
Claire shook her head, glowering into the depths of the bucket and grumbled, “It was that bloody roller coaster.”
“Mhmm,” I commented noncommittally, not entirely sure what that was but fairly confident she meant the carriage ride here. “Aye, well, ye’re off it now.”
She retched again, as if the very mention of the conveyance had set her stomach into motion again.
“Shh, my own, it will be better in a moment,” I assured her in Gaelic as I knelt beside her, smoothing back the hair from her face and rubbing her back.
Offering her my handkerchief when she appeared to be done, I took the fragrant bucket from her and set it aside, though within arm’s reach should she need it again.
“Are you alright?” she squeaked, the color beginning to creep back into her cheeks.
I stared at her, my brows nearly to my hairline as I asked incredulously, “Me?!”
“Yes, you,” the frown was back, but I could see that the wheels were churning furiously behind those amber eyes. “You were just paraded in front of an entire battalion of redcoats… that couldn’t have been easy for you.”
I shook my head, shrugging off her concern, assuring, “I’m fine, Sassenach. They didna give me so much as a second glance, thanks to you.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
A slow smile tugged at my lips at her slow, deliberate enunciation of every syllable of this declaration.
“Aye, I ken jus’ what ye mean,” I reached for her hands, twining my fingers between hers, “an’ I think ye ken me better than I ken myself, at times.”
She snorted at this, dismissing the notion.
“If I do, then it’s the same with me,” she muttered, wiping at her face.
I grinned, squeezing her hands tightly.
“Oh, aye, mo nighean donn… I do, indeed.”
Chapter 23: Nesting
Midday, February 21st, 1744; Somewhere in the English Channel
I shifted cautiously on the outrageously uncomfortable crate my husband had deposited me on, trying not to make any noise, but it creaked and groaned just as much as my aching joints were at present — tattling my discomfort to Jamie, who I swore had batlike hearing.
“I have the bucket jus’ here,” Jamie commented cautiously from somewhere behind me, alluding to the fact that I had absolutely nothing left in my stomach after several bouts with the receptacle.
“Do ye need it again?”
“No,” I bit out as the muscles in my lower back spasmed, a band tightening around my waist with an increasingly bothersome intensity.
What I needed was to move around… to be able to stretch my stiff limbs and appease my offended muscles. I voiced this suggestion — a slow turn about the room with assistance — and a sudden, Scottish noise of amused non-committance sounded from my left.
Snapping my head in Murtagh’s direction, I found him bracing his weight casually against a post, one arm raised as he held onto a beam just above his head. The ship heaved just then and I could see the tendons in his wrist tighten as he steadied himself.
He caught my gaze and lifted brow as if to say ye’d fall on yer arse in a moment, lass.
I sighed, abandoning his support and craned my neck in search of my husband. The room was dim and stacked high with crates and bundles, easy enough to lose track of a bored yet always curious Jamie.
He’d made no comment in support or negation of my request, but was currently choosing to remain out of sight.
“What are you up to over there, anyway?” I eventually huffed when it became clear that neither of them had any intention of helping me.
“Ach, tis nothin’,” he tried to dismiss my attention, which piqued Murtagh’s in turn and drew the older man to his side like a magnet.
“Just a wee bit of putterin’ to pass the time is all.”
An amused sound of delight came from the elder of my two companions and I heard him slap Jamie on the back… hard.
Making no effort to hide my amusement, I heard my husband begin to protest the joyful abuse befallen him but his words were interrupted by Murtagh’s enthusiastic, “Now how’d ye manage that, ye wee fiend?!”
There was an exchange of heated Gaelic conversation — so overlapped that I was confident I’d have a hard time following even if they were speaking English — and then I quite suddenly found myself being lifted by my elbows and carted off to the other side of the room!
I objected strongly as my hips screamed in protest at their pace and was about to dig my heels in and balk completely when we came to a screeching halt before what looked remarkably like a bed.
“How the bloody fucking hell—“ my voice broke and I stared down at my husband’s miracle in disbelief, then turned to look up at him in awe.
“God, I love you, James Fraser.”
Murtagh cackled with glee at this and Jamie bent his head to kiss me in support of my declaration. I expected a quick peck on the cheek or a rather brief smooch on the lips — we didn’t exactly have the room to ourselves — but was taken aback by a kiss that made a thrumming warmth begin to grow between my legs. The heat spread across my hips and up my spine, loosening my muscles and made me feel quite suddenly completely and utterly exhausted.
I sighed as he pulled away, inquiring, “When can I crawl in?”
“Now if ye like,” one shoulder rose in a shrug and Jamie explained his construction plans. “That is, if ye dinna mind us building a wee fence around ye.”
“A fence?” I stared up at him incredulously.
“Oh, aye!” This came from Murtagh. “We canna have ye rollin’ aboot, now can we?”
Jamie caught the glare that his godfather missed entirely — being that he stood between the two of us — and bit his lip in a failed effort not to betray the mirth that clearly bubbled up inside him.
“Think of it more as a wee nest than a paddock, Sassenach,” he chose his words more carefully, then realized he quite liked them and patted my arm rather patronizingly. “A wee nest for my mother hennie, aye?”
“As long as I’m not a wallowing sow,” I grumbled, making Jamie choke in an effort to conceal a laugh.
This assuaged me a good deal and I felt myself smile a bit as I prodded him in the ribs, “Are you going to help me with my shoes or am I to track mud all over your beautiful nest?”
Jamie perched me on a nearby crate and knelt to shed me of my shoes. There wasn’t much to the flimsy things and what they were composed of was now completely sodden in mud and sea water that they all but fell off my feet with his guidance. He set them neatly aside and began to rub my aching feet, bringing warmth and a rush of blood back into the extremities with a burning pins and needles sensation.
I winced and his face contorted in contrition.
“Christ, I’m sorry, a leannan,” he crooned, keeping up his blessed work. “Ye deserve a proper bed and a fire ragin’ in the hearth… no’ this lumpy mess wi’ barely even a plaid to keep ye warm.”
Reaching out my hand, I brushed the curls from his brow and cupped his cheek in my palm, “You know I’m not above sleeping on the ground.”
Though I thanked my lucky stars it wouldn’t come to that just now.
“And I have you to keep me warm,” I nudged him with my toe, making Murtagh cough behind me.
Jamie gave him a look, but his gaze softened as it returned to me, “Aye, well, I only wish I could give ye more.”
My hand moved to the place where one of the baby’s heels pressed sharply against my side and I reached for him. His hand moved to mine, slipping beneath it to feel the life within.
“You’ve given me more than I could ever dream,” I whispered hoarsely.
“Lay with me?”
The flicker of uncertainty in Claire’s eyes cut me to the quick.
Did she really think I wouldn’t?
Nodding, I made quick work of my own filthy shoon and dropped them beside the entrance to the cove of safety Murtagh and I had built for her.
Her wee nest.
The thought warmed me and brought a smile to my lips as I gingerly crawled in beside my wife.
“Always, mo nighean donn,” I assured her, arranging the plaid around us both as I curved my form around hers.
It dawned on me in an instant that it wasn’t my presence she doubted… it was her ability to fall asleep. She looked dog tired and pale as any winter’s snow, but now that I had her in my arms, her restless spirit was made clear.
Claire shifted her hips, first this way then another, always finding it unsuitable and moving back… then tried adjusting her head and shoulders, first moving closer to me — I received a an accidental elbow to the ribs but didn’t comment — then away again, all without success until she was left completely spent and utterly exhausted.
I had loosened my arms around her, giving her full range of motion to seek the best position for sleep, but now that I knew this was an impossible task — I thought I might have a try.
Pulling her close without ceremony, I tucked her head neatly beneath my chin and curled my knees up to surround her completely. I felt the taut muscles of her back and shoulders begin to loosen against my chest as I twined my fingers between hers, our clasped hands resting gently atop the swell of our children.
A deep, shuddering sigh left her and I knew she’d not last much longer. I squeezed her hand gently, whispering, “I’ve got you, Sorcha… you can rest now, all is well.”
Another ripple of fatigue ran down her spine, her muscles slowly succumbing to the heavy weight of slumber and becoming limp. The vice grip on my forearm loosened, her head slipping back and resting fully against my arm. Her lips parted softly in that first sigh of sleep — in the way of hers that I found so irresistible — and I knew she’d not wake for anything save the second coming of Christ Himself.
I tucked a stray curl back into place behind her ear, brushing a kiss across her cheek, and settled myself more comfortably beside her.
My eyelids were growing heavier and heavier as I caught sight of my godfather. He’d positioned himself between us and the door, far enough away as to give us a measure of privacy but close enough to respond to a call for assistance at the drop of a hat. Everything about his rigid posture made me lose my resolve to stay alert beside my wife and sleep came crashing down around my ears.
It was a shallow, dreamless slumber — the sort where you know you mustn’t drift too far, should you need to be fully wakeful again — and I didn’t think I’d been out long before Claire began to stir in my arms.
She curled inwards, her knees tucking up tight against the swell of our children as a low groan escaped her lips.
We were each cursed with our own nocturnal demons, but my wife found hers to manifest themselves in reoccurring dreams… the most prominent and prevalent being the one born in the depths of Crainsmuir’s Thieves Hole. It hadn’t stopped twisting and turning in these many months and I would be lying if I said my blood didn’t run cold when she’d tell me of the night’s latest development, sobbing into my chest as though both the bairns and I were truly gone.
“Shh, mo chridhe,” I murmured low, curving myself around her. “Tis but a dream… I’ve got ye.”
Her entire body tensed and her eyelids flickered, but she didn’t wake.
Sweeping away the curls from her brow, I gently brushed my finger along the curve of her cheek, intoning, “Ye’re safe, Sorcha.”
Claire’s eyes opened at her name, yet stared ahead unseeing. The muscles of her jaw worked as she clenched it tight and a short burst of air left her nose in a decided snort. Her hands moved restlessly, reaching for me but then drifting back to her stomach, only to roam up and down and nearly every direction at once.
I covered one hand with my own, twining my fingers through hers — not speaking again, but letting her know I was aware of her turmoil.
Her head snapped towards me at my touch, her eyes widening as wheezed, “Jamie!”
“Aye,” I shifted onto one elbow, bringing my face directly above hers as I hovered above her. “I’m right here… I’ve got you.”
She shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut again without comment.
Was she fully conscious?
“Claire?” I tested, gazing down at her in concern as her jaw clenched tight.
She didn’t open her eyes so much as a crack but let out a grumbled fuck from between persed lips. I dropped her hand, my own flying to her face. Her eyes did open then at my touch, ever so slightly, and she peered up at me in agony.
Something was terribly wrong.
“Talk to me, Claire,” I begged, my heart racing.
Shoving me away, she thumped the narrow space in front of her and groaned, “Move over here.”
I scrambled around her, careful not to jostle her from her current position but finding it near impossible to wedge myself between her knees and the wall of crates behind me. Somehow managing to accomplish it, I lay nose to nose with her and could now see her flushed face in startling clarity in our deeply shadowed cocoon.
Her breathing remained ragged, with drops of sweat gathering at her temples as she lay rigid in my arms.
“Tell me wha’ to do, mo nighean donn.”
“Make it stop,” her voice cracked, the jagged edge of her supplication knifing across my heart and flaying me wide before her.
My mind spun as my thumb caressed her cheek, wiping away the sudden dampness that I found there. Skimming my hand along her neck and down her spine, I found the fastenings of her skirts and had them free in a moment. I bunched them loosely around her, keeping her warm, but no longer restricting her. I moved to do the same for her stays, but found she’d already started the process.
Pulling the strings completely free, I flung the constricting thing to the side and took her face in my hands.
“A wee bit better?” I tentatively asked, knowing it was nothing compared to the turmoil inside her.
She didn’t respond, having instead retreated miles within herself in the time it took me to undress her, and I did the only thing I could think of to retrieve her.
Kissing her softly to begin with — not wanting to jar her and giving her full opportunity to refuse me — I cupped her cheek in my palm. She shifted, seeking more of me, and I grew more confident in my ministrations.
I slid my fingers into her hair and slowly gathered each pin, intently undoing the neatly coiffed style she’d worked so hard on this morn as I worked to rid the tension from her body. Setting my bounty aside, my hands traveled back down to her hips, digging my thumbs into the muscles that I knew continually plagued her.
A moan bubbled up from deep within her and I knew I was moving in the right direction.
“Aye, tha’s the way,” I crooned as her arms slipped around my neck, her nose nuzzling my cheek.
“Damn it, Jamie,” she sobbed against me. “It hurts.”
I didn’t comment, but nodded and kissed her again, keeping my hands moving as well. A shudder ran down her spine as she nearly swallowed me whole, finding suddenly a respite — an ability to draw from me that which she needed.
And I was only too eager to give it.
Slowly, ever so slowly, her arms loosened around my neck…the taut muscles beneath my fingertips became lax and Claire became limp once more in my arms.
“A dhia, mo chridhe,” I sighed, my lips moving against her neck, “ye scared the life near out of me.”
I felt her groan, her voice dry as she quipped, “Well, it was no picnic for me either, you bloody Scot.”
A measure of relief washed over me, hearing her vocal jab, but reality still hung heavy in the air.
“Tha’ was different, Sorcha,” I whispered hoarsely, my good fingers splaying wide across the curve of her children. “The other pains ye had at the Abbey… they were’na like that.”
Her grip on my arm tightened as she tipped her head back, needing to see my face as much as I needed to see hers. Lifting one hand to my face, her fingers deftly traced my cheek bone, her eyes gazing deep into mine. They were now free from the fog of pain, but instead of clarity, I found agonized turmoil.
I covered her hand with my own, curling my fingers around it as I turned my face to place a kiss in her palm.
How I longed to close my eyes and slip back into that blessed, deep slumber in my husband’s arms… but every inch of me was now wide awake, whether I liked it or not.
I was now having bonafide contractions… whether I liked it or not.
Swallowing hard, I felt a shudder run down my spine and Jamie instinctively pulled me closer. I did close my eyes then, turning and burying my face in his neck as I hid from his gaze for a moment.
He knew — damn him — without me having to say it out loud. I was rather glad, for I wasn’t entirely sure I could say the word ‘labor’ aloud just now without dissolving into hysterics.
What the bloody hell are you going to do, Beauchamp? I mentally sighed against Jamie’s chest.
Was I really going to have to do this without a midwife? Twice? And while bobbing along in a dingy at sea?!
“Jamie?” my voice cracked, betraying my abject terror.
His hand traveled up my back, lifting to gently curve around the back of my head, “Mo chridhe?”
My mouth opened and shut like a floundering fish, no longer suffocating from the strength of my contraction but the size of my fear. A low rumble started up within him and I knew in an instant he’d heard my unspoken thoughts.
“Aye,” he acknowledged, softly kissed my brow. “But ye canna change things any more than I can make this ship sail faster… although, I’d get out and swim it to France if I thought t’would get ye there faster.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that particular image and Jamie must have taken great comfort in it, for he continued.
“Tis my fault, ye ken… I should no’ have taken ye in such a manner last night.”
I snorted, finally moving to look at him once more, “If you recall, James Fraser, I brought you to that pool with the exact purpose of taking you in such a manner… so don’t you dare apologize for it.”
His shoulders began to shake in suppressed laughter and I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Care to share what’s so funny?” I poked him in the ribs.
“You are Sassenach,” he grinned, easily taking hold of both my hands to prevent future attacks and squeezed them gently. “Ye’ve never wanted me so badly… or so openly as ye did last night.”
“Oh,” I commented quite lamely, finding myself blushing for the first time in quite a while.
This made my husband laugh all the harder and I resorted to kicking him in the shins as he currently had possession of my hands.
“Will you help me sit up or are you just going to lie there and find humor in my depraved state?” I quipped, raising a brow.
Jamie eagerly agreed to this and dropped my hands, easily moving himself into a seated position before guiding me into the same. I sat beside him, swaying slightly, and realized a half a moment later that we were completely alone in the captain’s quarters.
“Where’s Murtagh?” an uneasy feeling began to grow in the pit of my stomach as I asked.
“Tis nothin, Sassenach,” Jamie tried to reassure me, but it was clear that he wasn’t overly comfortable with his godfather’s absence either. “Jus checkin’ in wi’ the Captain is all… he’ll ken how long til we reach Le Havre when he gets back.”
The urgent, persistent twinge started up again at the base of my spine and I swore under my breath.
“Too long,” I pronounced, reaching for Jamie’s arm and taking a firm hold of it.
He studied me for a moment, then nodded and took a deep breath.
“Then we’ll take it one step at a time… aye?” His hand covered mine, “Together.”
A Good Deal Later.
The door swung closed behind me with a solid bang, shutting out a snowy stramash unlike any I’d ever seen. The warmth of the Captain’s quarters rolled over me like the tumultuous sea outside its walls and I sagged against the door for a moment, letting it thaw my fingers and tip of my nose.
Hrmph, I snorted, wiping the dripping appendage on my sleeve and ridding myself of near an inch of snow and ice.
“Tis jus’ me,” I greeted, unable to see them from the room’s one and only entrance.
I heard movement and subdued voices, but no answer to my call. Frowning, I quickly navigated my way around boxes and crates until I reached them — and stopped dead in my tracks.
“Iffrin,” I muttered as I took in the pile of Claire’s discarded clothes and found her in nothing but her shift and Jamie’s plaid, clinging to him as if life itself depended on it.
Her time had come.
I raked a hand across my face and sank down onto the closest crate. It was lower to the floor than I thought, making it seem as though it weren’t there at all, and a wheezing oof left my lips as my hind end finally found it.
When I looked up, both Jamie and Claire were gazing at me with no small amount of amusement. I disregarded my godson’s jesting smile with ease and instead turned my attention to the young woman who had stolen both our hearts.
Her face was pale, with furrows etched deep in the usually smooth plane of her brow. The spark of amusement in her eyes was dwindling quickly and in its place grew a consuming agony that I couldn’t bear to see.
“Yer pains have begun, then, mo leannan?” I asked unnecessarily, my voice hitching at the endearment she’d earned in our time together.
Claire nodded, trying to give me her best attempt at a smile. It wobbled and faded as she pressed her forehead against Jamie’s, her eyes sliding shut as she commented hoarsely, “They seem to be in a hurry.”
My heart turned over, skipping a beat before clattering on again as I heard the Captain’s words echo in my mind.
We’ll be lucky to find Le Havre at all in this storm… twould be another day a’ least on fair seas, but now? Best be prayin tha’ my men dinna toss yer lady overboard to appease Neptune himself.
Jamie’s gaze found mine again, this time much more subdued, and asked, “What’d ye learn, then?”
I lifted one shoulder and tried to wave him off. It was nothing I wanted to share while Claire was in such a state.
“A goistidh?” he insisted, lifting a brow.
Taking his cue, I slipped into the Gaelic, telling him of my conversations with the Captain and his superstitious men. He took it about as well as I had, working to keep his frustrations in check as Claire seemed to regain some composure and alertness.
“I dinna think we’ll make it in time,” Jamie kept his voice even, but his unease was palpable. “We’ll have to help her deliver the bairns.”
While I’d expected as much, his second pronouncement took me completely by surprise and I burst, “We?! Ye canna be serious, lad! She needs a midwife, not a couple of numpties wi’ no idea what they’re about!”
Claire sighed heavily and I realized too late that I’d said that in English. I began to apologize, but she waved me off, interrupting me.
“You may have no idea what you’re about, my dear Murtagh,” she muttered, seeking a comfortable seated position, “but Jamie does because I’ve told him what will need doing… and you’ll listen to him and do as he says, is that clear?”
She’d stopped shifting to spear me with a look that had me agreeing in an instant.
The look of relief on her face was nearly my undoing and I assured her, “I’ll do whatever ye need, mo rùinean beag… I promise it.”
Claire reached out her hand to me and I plucked it up, brushing a kiss across her knuckles.
“I know you will,” she whispered hoarsely, squeezing my hand. “You always do.”
Chapter 24: La Dame Blanche
Nearly 10pm — Still the 21st of February, 1744
“Talk to me, Murtagh.”
Claire’s directive reached over my shoulder and took firm hold of my godfather.
“Oh, aye?” he squirmed slightly, unsure of his task. “What shall I tell ye, then?”
Her grip on my arm tightened as she labored through another of what she called contractions, her brow deeply furrowed and her breath coming in short gasps.
“Tell her stories,” I provided for her. “Jus talk to her… anythin’ to take her mind off things.”
This was met with great approval and he launched into a tale — at my expense.
“Have I told ye of the time yer numpty there tried to teach his sister’s wee cheetie to swim?”
I could hear the unbridled mirth in his voice, could see the massive grin stretching across his face even though my back was to him. It was Murtagh’s favorite story of my youth — and I was certain he had told her already — but I honestly didn’t mind being the subject of ridicule if it brought some small measure of comfort to my wife in her agony.
“Christ, ye’ve told it a hundred times over,” I protested in jest, dipping my head to place a soft kiss behind her ear as I dug my thumbs into the place at the base of her spine as she’d shown me.
“Ye canna be borin’ her wi’ tha’ one.”
I caught the barest hint of a smile in her eyes behind the pain and my heart soared.
Murtagh harrumphed at my interjection, suggesting, “Well, I couldtell her o’ the time ye ruined yer da’s—“
“Tell her of the wee gomeral, ye old coot,” I grumbled, interrupting him before he could explain just what had become of my father’s best shirt as a result of my trying to impress a particular lass in the village.
Our companion chuckled to himself as he settled in for a good tale.
“Jenny’d nursed the wee slip o’ a thing back to health, aye?” Murtagh begun slowly, savoring the memories. “It’d been the runt o’ the litter an’ it’s mam wouldna feed it, ye see, so the lass took it within the house an’ fed it milk an’ cream an’ the like…”
Claire’s breath caught in a helpless whimper as something within her changed and my heart turned over in my chest. Her fingernails dug painfully into my skin — just as the talons of that wee fiend had all those years ago.
“She’d named it Mungo,” Murtagh continued, entirely unaware of the goings-on within our nest — completely taken back to time and place of his story, “an’ the wee cheetie had complete command of the kitchen… patrolin’ the pantry for enemy mice like a braw wee soldier.”
“Show me wha’ to do, Sorcha,” I pleaded, pressing my cheek against hers.
She turned and kissed me — hard — taking me completely by surprise and stealing all the breath from my lungs. Everything around us melted away as her soul reached out for mine, tugging and pulling with all her might. I gave in readily, offering up everything within me… all the strength, the will, and drive I possessed.
I kept my hands busy, not lifting them to her face as I maybe would have otherwise, but continued my massage of her spasming muscles. My fingers traced along her spine as my palms moved up her back, giving attention to the unyielding tendons I found along my way. I found her shoulders hunched near up to her ears and I knew that could do her no good.
“Right here, mo chridhe,” I showed her with a gentle caress across her shoulder blades. “Relax your arms, lean in to me… I’ll hold ye up.”
She did as encouraged, the loop of her arms around my neck loosening as a low, murmuring groan began to bubble up from within her. Her face turned into me as she rested her head on my shoulder, curling inward as the tone of her protestations became almost growl-like.
It was a considerable change from before and I thought these were more productive… less fearful and altogether rather like those I’d heard time and time again from the births I’d witnessed in the fields and byres of home.
Christ, how she hated my comparison.
“Aye, that’s the way,” I crooned. “Make all the wee noises ye like.”
Murtagh still hadn’t noticed that I’d been having my own conversation with my wife and that neither of us were paying any attention to him… It wasn’t worth interrupting him and perhaps as the contraction eased, the noise would become a welcome distraction again, but for now —
Claire was in a world of her own.
Her shoulders now sufficiently relaxed, my hands drifted back down to her hips. She’d begun to sway them again — a helpful action, she’d informed me earlier — and the low growl had risen to a steady hum. Setting my thumbs back into motion forthwith, we moved together for quite a while before she once again fell silent.
Jamie helped me turn, allowing me to sink down onto the mattress and rest against his solid chest.
He was laughing… but silently, the vibrations doing wonders to slow my racing heart. It took me a moment to realize just what was so funny, but it was soon obvious.
Jamie’s godfather was fully invested in the tale he was telling, completely oblivious as to what we were doing and instead absorbed in every detail of the recalled situation at hand.
What was it?
Ah, yes. The bloody cat .
I slid my eyes shut, a soft smile tugging at my lips.
How many times had I heard that one while we were on Jamie’s trail?
But, still, he knew it was one of my favorites and by all accounts it seemed to be one of his too.
My husband’s hand lifted to my face, brushing back the curls that clung to my damp brow and cheeks. I sighed heavily and turned my face into him, placing a kiss in the middle of his palm. A low rumble of delight ran through him as he tipped my chin up for a kiss on the mouth, the last vestiges of my latest contraction melting away as he shifted me in his arms.
And, so, it was in this manner — dressed in nothing but my shift, the nearly transparent material of which plastered against my skin, my hair a riotous mess of curls around my face, and lying cradled in my husband’s arms with my legs spread wide — that the captain of the Demeter found us as he came bounding into the cabin… with half the crew hot on his heels.
Before I could so much as blink, Jamie had extricated himself from beneath me and was using his body as a barricade to block any access to my person, dirk drawn. Murtagh had done much the same and leapt towards the door with the speed of a snapping crocodile, a nasty snarl contorting his face into an expression of such ferocity that I’d never seen before.
“Ye gave me yer word, Captain,” Murtagh spat. “Ye said ye could handle yer men… tha’ ye’d no’ be violatin’ my lady’s privacy in such a manner.”
As if in confirmation that he could not, in fact, keep control of his crew, they began to speak as one, shouting over one another and lunging towards us until the room was an overwhelming cacophony of threats of violence. I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it, save one repeating word.
Oh, bloody fucking hell.
They blamed me for the storm.
“Throw her overboard!” A raucous shout broke out above all the others.
“Aye!” came another, “Send her to the depths where she belongs!”
The very air in my lungs vanished with these words and bright spots flashed before my eyes. I reached out blindly for Jamie, desperate to take hold of something steady — but came up with nothing but empty space.
His name rolled off my tongue, parting my lips with a scream that started deep within me and multiplied until the sound bore no resemblance to my own voice.
Lightning split the sky in two and the room was awash with an unearthly light as a mighty wave surged against the side of the ship as my husband turned back to face me, the impact of the surf sending the both of us sideways across the mattress.
Jamie managed to catch hold of me, taking the blow against the wall upon himself, and it appeared from my low vantage point that only Murtagh remained upright. The rest of the men had been bowled over completely by the might of the storm and they remained where they lay… their verbal assaults suddenly silenced.
“She is no witch,” Murtagh finally spoke, raising his voice to be heard.
“She is La Dame Blanche,” he continued. “If even one of ye approaches her out of harm, she’ll curse both ye an’ yer kin to come for many a generation… I’ve seen her do it myself.”
Jamie’s arms around me loosened, now that we’d come to a secure stop against the wall, and I struggled to sit up.
“No, Sorcha,” he commanded, his voice urgent as he scrambled over me, effectively placing me between his protection and the barrier behind me. “Stay there.”
I shook my head wildly, my eyes wide. The last place I wanted to be right now was flat on my back.
“Help — me — up,” I bit out as I tried to roll onto my side by myself.
He eventually did as told — guided by a swift pinch to a tender spot within arm’s reach — and helped me sit up against the wall. He then had the audacity to turn his back on me, settling himself into a defensive position.
My vision began to cut out again in great, black blobs and I grabbed for him. My fingers brushed against his shirtsleeve and I latched on, yanking him back towards me by a fistful.
“Aye, ye’ve got me,” he assured dryly, moving only marginally closer as his attention was still firmly affixed on the ship’s crewmen and his fingers anxiously tapping against the hilt of his dirk. “I’m right here.”
“Put — that thing — down — and help me,” I bit out, using what little oxygen I had left in my lungs as my lower half once again threatened to be separated from the rest of me.
Jamie turned and looked at me — really looked at me — and nodded slowly, moving until he was right in front of me. He lay the knife within easy reach and offered himself up to me.
But the contraction had now settled in with an intensity that shook me to the very marrow of my bones. It assaulted me from all sides: making Jamie’s touch suddenly painful, the woolen fabric beneath me transforming to needled barbs, and the ruckus of the men bent on my destruction an endless, agonizing cacophony of damnation.
I had shut my eyes up tight some time ago, willing my surroundings to melt away, to be suddenly back home at Lallybroch with Jenny at my side… but it was not Jenny’s voice that called to me now.
“Mo chridhe, ye mustna hold yer breath like that.”
I felt my leg jerk in reflex, my foot connecting with something solid before recoiling and heard a correlating ooof.
“Oh, aye,” my husband muttered. “Kick me all ye like, Sassenach, jus’ open yer eyes for a wee bit, aye?”
I did no such thing, incapable of even the slightest voluntary movement.
“Christ, ye’re as stubborn as any Scot,” he sighed and I felt a small measure of accomplishment, but Jamie was not about to give up his case.
“Kick, pinch, hit… I dinna mind… do anything ye like to me, mo nighean donn,” Jamie tried a different approach. “I willna touch ye if ye dinna wish it — ye ken I willna — but I’ll be ticklin’ tha’ wee foot of yer’s if ye dinna open those bonnie eyes an’ look a’ me!!”
I cracked one eye open and glared at him with all the force I could muster, but the look of relief that washed over his face as I did so had me opening the other in short order.
“A Dhia, ye ken how to scare a man,” Jamie shook his head slowly, a rueful smile now tugging at his lips as he realized I was returning to semi-consciousness of my surroundings.
“Forget them, mmm?” He passed a look back over his shoulder towards a dwindling crowd. “Murtah’s tellin’ ‘em of all the wondrous things ye can do… they’ll be back about their business in a moment or two.”
He shifted, returning his gaze to me as he moved even closer — though making no move to touch me.
“Just focus on me, aye?” Jamie offered, his blue eyes as deep and strong as the ocean surrounding us. “We’ll take it one pain at a time.”
Lifting a trembling hand, I reached for him, my sweaty palm open and empty. He took it between both of his, squeezing it tight.
“Aye, Sorcha,” he swallowed hard. “Tha’s the way.”
He sat beside me like that, steady and calm, until my contraction began to ease.
My breath was coming easier, but still ragged as I pulled him closer. Eagerly obliging, he took me back into his arms, helping me move so that I could recline against him.
I felt a slow but steady trickle of warm fluid trail down my thigh as I shifted and quickly tried to stop my bladder.
“Fuck,” I spat, pulling my shift out of the way of the flow.
Overtaken by a hoard of men and you piss yourself.
Jamie grabbed for something to mop up my mess — coming up with an already half sea-soaked petticoat — and made a halfhearted comment of reassurance.
“Oh, shove it,” I hissed, eyeing our company. “I could have at least made it to the bucket.”
My husband stopped what he was doing and looked down at me with an odd expression dancing in his eyes.
“What?” I demanded.
“Well, tis jus’ that I dinna expect ye to catch all yer waters in a bucket, Sassenach,” he chuckled to himself. “Even if ye were in a room that didna sway an’ had a midwife by yer side.”
“My… oh,” the truth of what he was saying hit me quite suddenly.
Jamie’s bemused smile bloomed into a bonafide grin, having properly identified amniotic fluid before I did.
I shook my head slowly, letting it tip back to rest against his shoulder as I muttered, “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ.”
Chapter 25: With The Dawn
Some time later, well past midnight; February 22nd, 1744
Having assembled what I could, I propped Claire up more comfortably against the solid, wooden wall. I’d wrapped any spare clothing in her cloak — making one large, lumpy pillow — and Murtagh had found a bundle of raw wool as he’d escorted the crew back to their proper places. This was used as is and the result enabled her to remain reclined, even through successive contractions.
“Ye’re sae verra braw, mo nighean donn,” I murmured hoarsely.
Claire rolled her eyes heavenward in response, her head shaking slowly. The last pain had taken almost more than she’d had to give and left her completely spent.
I shifted to hover over her, taking my time and kissing her on the lips. She’d sought this gesture, time and time again in her pain and I eagerly offered myself to her.
Claire’s hand lifted, slipping her arm around my neck in order to keep me close, even after we came up for air. Her eyes had slid shut and she kept them that way as she whispered, “That was a long one.”
I groaned, nudging her nose with mine.
“And they’re getting much closer,” she added, the palm of her other hand skimming along the curve of her abdomen. “Things… are going in the right direction, I think.”
I moved my hand to match hers, trying to pick out the curve of one bairn from the next as she’d shown me.
“The first bairn ye mean?” I mused out loud. “Or jus’ the way of things?”
Her brow furrowed as her gaze latched onto something that wasn’t there, turning inwards as her hand slipped tentatively between her legs.
“I meant that my contractions are gaining strength instead of backing off… they could still stall, I suppose… they did for Jenny for a bit,” she surmised, harkening back to the one and only birth she’d witnessed.
“I guess… I don’t know about the baby,” her brows nearly became one as her internal concentration deepened, her hand gently cupping the place where our child would soon be making their appearance. “But I think he’s the right way.”
The right way.
I immediately regretted asking the question as I remembered there was, in fact, a wrong way. Jenny’s bairn had been born that way and Claire had assured me that they could be born feet first, but I felt all the blood drain from my face as I realized for the first time that something could indeed go wrong.
“Jamie,” Claire’s voice, soft and sweet, brought me around and I found her looking up at me with complete understanding.
“A Dhia, Sorcha,” I wheezed, taking her face in my hands. I bowed my head, pressing my brow to hers as I begged, “Forgive me?”
I heard her sigh, felt her deft fingers slip into the curls at the back of my neck.
Two Hours Later: Nearly Dawn.
Something had changed within my wife between the last pain and this one.
She had to be close.
Did I dare look?
Claire’s shift wasn’t intentionally keeping her modest — the ships’ men had long gone and my godfather with them, leaving just the two of us in the cabin — but the hem of it had fallen between her spread knees and obscured any accidental viewing of the area in question.
Would she be discouraged if there wasn’t anything to see yet?
Having not lost her touch of accurately reading my mind — even in the midst of her travail — my wife burst in frustration, “Oh for Christ’s sake, Jamie! Just look and get it over with!”
With this, she unceremoniously pulled aside her shift and I was met with a view that I instantly regretted seeking.
I caught myself just in time and swallowed the exclamation that nearly left my lips at the sight of her condition. Offering up a prayer and crossing myself instead, I patted Claire’s leg in reassurance.
“What do you see?”
A dhia, Sorcha, I groaned both inwardly and outwardly, ask me anything but that.
Her hand moved, covering mine on her leg for a brief moment and giving it a squeeze before closing in on the area in question. She caught her breath and winced as her fingers first encountered the bulge between her legs, but then calmed somewhat as she slowly, gingerly took stock of the situation.
“His head,” her whisper was barely audible but the wonder and awe in her voice was palpable.
“Aye,” I swallowed hard. “He’s almost here.”
She nodded, her hand moving away as a cloud crossed once more over her face.
Here we go.
Her heels began to dig into the mattress, her feet slipping as she fought to gain traction against the tide that pulled her this way and that.
“Here, mo chridhe,” I patted against my legs. “Try pushin’ ‘gainst me.”
She nodded, shifting until it was comfortable, and I watched in delight as it seemed to work almost immediately.
Now with a solid anchor in her arsenal, she dove headlong into the wave of her contraction. It was as swift and mighty as all the others, but she now was able to curl forward with this one, using my leverage to her advantage as she followed the call of her body.
Her moaning intonations changed as her face turned from red to white and back again — one thing now obvious.
My son would soon be here.
Claire began to push with all her might, fighting in earnest to bring forth our firstborn child. Again and again the urge came upon her, each contraction asking more and more of her.
“Well done, mo chridhe!” I praised her after a particularly rough bout, close on the heels of the one before. “Verra well done!”
She shook her head against the pillows, tired and dejected, “I just want him here… I want to be done… I just want to hold my baby, Jamie!!”
“Aye,” I crooned — not making the mistake of adding I ken to that statement.
I’d done it once early on and I wouldn’t do so again.
“Give me your hand,” I coaxed and offered up my own. She gave it freely, trembling with fatigue, and I slowly brought it back between her legs.
The small spot of brilliant auburn had grown with every contraction, the form of a now very obvious head on display for any and all to see.
“He’s almost here… he’ll be in your arms soon, aye?”
Claire’s eyes slid shut as her hand once more cupped the curve of our baby’s head. It had given her great peace to feel him earlier and I mentally praised myself for thinking of it.
Anything to help her along.
“Ye’re sae verra braw, mo nighean donn… an’ he’s helpin’ ye, aye?” I suggested. “He’s listenin’ to ye… to yer heart as ye guide him here… why do ye no’ talk to him too, hmm? Let him hear yer voice.”
Her lips began to move at once — silently at first, almost as if in prayer — but then her words grew louder and more urgent as she coaxed our child into the world.
“Come along, then, baby,” she crooned.
Her words hitched as another contraction besieged her, twisting from coddling to direct orders.
“Jesus H Roosevelt Fucking Christ,” she spat, “get out!”
I watched helplessly as she battled with all her might, unable to do anything but pick up the petitions to our child and run with them.
“Alright, ye wee fiend,” I chided under my breath, “time to be makin’ yer grand entrance, aye?”
My head snapped up as Claire’s intonations changed, my gut clenching as she began to hiss violently through her teeth.
“Easy, mo chridhe… slow an’ steady.”
It was only a few moments more and with a mighty shout that our child’s head was born.
“Well done, Sorcha!!” The praise rolling off my tongue in Gaelic. The relief of seeing her tired smile as she sagged against the homemade pillows spurred me on and I echoed, this time in English, “Verra well done, mo chridhe!!”
Her hand was back, softly inquisitive and her voice echoing the rapturous touch, “What does he look like?”
A dhia, the questions ye ask, Sassenach.
I coughed, trying to make light of a rather grizzly sight, “Well, I wouldna say he’s well pleased with his view of the world just now.”
Her laugh was cut short as the final pain came upon her, taking everything she had left to give. The baby’s shoulders moved ever so slightly and with a whoosh my child slipped into the world.
Lifting him gently — for he was, unmistakably, a him — I eased my son onto the cloth that lay ready and waiting for this purpose.
“Oh God, Claire,” I swallowed hard, tears rushing to the back of my eyes and lodging a lump in my throat as I patted my firstborn son dry, “he’s so wee.”
My heart skipped a beat, leaping right out of my chest and soaring high above my head before it fell back into place and clattered on again, the room spinning slightly as I breathlessly asked, “He’s a boy, then?”
A lusty, clear cry pierced the air in answer and I heard Jamie chuckle softly as he scuttled sideways, maneuvering a thrashing bundle just within my reach but as far as the cord would allow.
If only just a little closer...
“Aye, mo nighean donn,” his voice cracked as he announced, “we have a bonnie son.”
“Oh, baby!” I gushed as my hand traveled over him: ensuring his nose and mouth were clear — eliciting an even mightier wail of dissatisfaction from my son — before registering all ten fingers, skimming over his chest and down legs to count all ten toes.
He was here and he was whole.
This accomplished, my hand moved back to cup his flushed face, which was screwed up tight in a red-blooded fury, letting us know in no uncertain terms just what he thought about the present state of his affairs.
“Jamie,” my brow furrowed, my thumb stroking my son’s cheek, “His cord… please? I need to hold him.”
A determined look crossed over my husband’s face and he turned away at once to find the small drawstring bag we’d set aside for this purpose. I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep at the comedy that unfolded before me as he rummaged around for it in the gathering light, finding it less than an arm’s length from his original position.
He opened it and withdrew the looped thread, but then sat staring at me blankly.
“Here,” I motioned him forward.
He’d gotten us through the labyrinth blindfolded and on his own — I could guide us to the finish line, so to speak.
“Tie this one here… and that one there… Tighter… good.”
I nodded in praise, but noticed he’d balked again at the sight of the small, sharpened blade I’d packed.
“He won’t feel it,” I promised, taking hold of Jamie’s hand and squeezing it tight. “It won’t hurt him.”
He swallowed hard, but set his jaw and severed the cord as well as any midwife could under the circumstances.
“Please,” I croaked, finding my own throat tight as the tether between me and my baby was broken, “Please, Jamie... I need him.”
This was accomplished without ceremony and Jamie thrust our squalling infant without delay into my arms.
He calmed nearly the instant he hit my skin, seeming to know just who I was as I clutched him tightly against my chest.
“Oh, my sweet boy,” I sighed, my hand gently cupping the curve of his tiny head. “I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
Jamie moved closer, wiping his hands, his eyes deep pools of emotion. This gave way to shock and then melted into a reverent awe as he softly exclaimed, “Ach, look, Sorcha… he’s got his wee eyes open!”
I shifted the baby in my arms, cradling his head in the crook of my elbow and gave a soft laugh to find my son scowling furiously up at me… with brilliant blue eyes.
“Yes, I suppose I’d have to agree,” I commented dryly on the whole affair. “Wasn’t much fun, mmm?”
His little fists beat the air — somewhere in the fuzzy back recesses of my brain I remembered that was a good sign — and I took hold of one, wrapping his long fingers around one of mine. He gripped me tightly and I felt tears spring into my eyes.
I felt Jamie’s arms slip around me, supporting me — holding the both of us close.
“He has your eyes,” I murmured hoarsely. Hot tears rolled freely down my cheeks as my thumb stroked the tiny hand holding mine, “And your fingers.”
He wiped them gently away, turning my face towards him for just a moment and giving me the most tender of kisses.
“Mebbe so,” he commented with a slow smile, “but he’s got your lungs, Sassenach.”
“Is he hungry, do you think?”
Claire was exhausted, her body sagging heavily against my chest, but her voice held an excited energy that, while I understood, astoundedme.
She tried to position the bairn at her breast, but trembled so, and I quickly positioned my hand under hers. He rooted fiercely around for her nipple, his mouth as wide as a wee sparrow begging for his supper. With my arms there to help support him in place, her free hand slipped out and helped guide him, nudging herself against his upper lip.
He turned his face and, after a few gummed misfires, seemed to find the way of things.
Claire winced, firmly setting her jaw, but I saw the surge of joy and wonder wash over her face just the same. She relaxed slightly as he settled in with alacrity, sighing as her thumb stroked his cheek.
“Brian,” she murmured softly, as if testing the name out for the first time, then repeated it with more sureness, “His name is Brian.”
Overcome, I ducked my head, burying my face in her neck.
Can you see him, Da? Do you see my son?
“He’s got your red hair too,” I heard her continue, barely audible.
Brian… mo ghille beag… mo mhac ruadh.
I placed a kiss just behind her ear before lifting my head and she sighed again, turning her face towards me. Her eyes were wet, but joyous, her lips parting as she lifted her chin to kiss me in earnest.
Thank you, my soul reached out to hers. Thank you, my love, for our son.
She stiffened suddenly, her jaw dropping and brow furrowing as she pulled her face away. This jostled the bairn, who complained loudly that his dinner had been interrupted, and, had I not a firm grip of them both, would have upended him completely.
“Claire?” I asked hesitantly as I tried to set things back to rights in my arms.
She shook her head, but had regained enough composure to attempt to return the bairn to her breast. I tried to help, clumsily, but we finally succeeded, and I inquired again, a little more urgently, “Sorcha?”
Her free hand slipped to her side, her fingers splaying wide just above her hip and my heart dropped.
It was starting again.
“Aye,” I swallowed hard, nearly choking. “Ye dinna need to say it… I ken.”
She nodded, her hips shifting as she fought to keep still enough for the bairn.
“Do ye want me to take him?” I offered, keeping my voice low.
Shaking her head wildly, she got out, “Needs… to finish… eating.”
I nodded and simply held them close, holding my breath and petitioning Heaven until the contraction eased.
Mary, Michael, and Bride, help us.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the rigidity left her and she sagged once more in my arms, her fingers absently stroking the bairn’s hand.
His wee lips had stopped moving, his eyes now drooping heavily after having his fill.
“Help me move him,” Claire’s voice wobbled as her hand slipped under his head.
My hand covered her own and together we got him reclined on his side against her chest. She sighed heavily, her head tipping backwards against my shoulder as her hand started a rhythmic rubbing and patting along his back.
“What are ye doin’?” I asked in gentle curiosity.
She gave me a tired smile, cracking one eye open.
“You’ve never watched someone burp a baby before?”
“No,” I drew out the word, finding the concept utterly fascinating. “I canna say that I have.”
“Mmm,” remarked and closed her eyes again, but the smile grew.
“Why would such a wee bairnie have a need to belch?”
I felt her shoulders begin to shake and her hand stilled, her eyes opening fully to spear me with a look that made my heart turn over and warmed me through, “Jamie stop — I can’t… I can’t laugh, it hurts!”
Rather bemused, I simply nodded and decided to let the matter drop — it certainly was not worth causing her more physical pain than she was already in — but she did finally answer after composing herself.
“When they nurse, they sometimes get air trapped in their bellies… which is painful for them and sometimes makes them spit up what they’ve eaten,” she patiently explained, though the grin was still firmly in place. “If you pat their backs, the air has to leave and they burp…”
Understanding dawned and I lamely commented, “Ah, I see.”
A sort of sighing hiccup left Brian a few moments later, eliciting an enthusiastic praise from his mother, “Good job, darling!”
I blinked down at the two of them, realizing this was the intended result of the massage.
“Tha’ was it?” I commented blandly. “Yer da’s goin’ t’have to teach ye a thing or two about this burpin’ business, fear beag.”
Not five minutes later.
“Wait,” I froze, trying to focus on the movement of the ship around us, “Christ, I think we’ve made harbor!”
Easing myself out from behind Claire, who looked up at me in startled amazement, I strode over to the cabin’s bank of windows. The sun was beginning to break its way in patches through the dissipating storm, illuminating the fact that we had, in fact, slowed and were being towed to anchor in an unfamiliar port.
A joyous shout left my lips and I nearly flew back to my wife’s side.
“We’re here!” I kissed her soundly.
Her arm looped around my neck, holding me close as she began to tremble from head to toe. I took Brian from her, nestling him securely in the crook of one arm as I gathered her to me with the other. She clung to me with both hands, burying her face in my chest as great, wrenching sobs wracked her body.
“Ach, mo chridhe,” I crooned, my lips brushing against the top of her head. “Murtagh’ll have help for ye here in no time, ye’ll see.”
My arms tightened around her as her tears flowed all the more, “Just a wee bit longer, mo nighean donn… just hold on.”
I didn’t wait for the gangplank, but leapt over the rail and landed on the pier amid shouts and calls for caution.
The lot of ye be damned, I grumbled to myself, shoving past moldy French sailors, and the hell if ye’ll keep me from my duty.
But where would I find a midwife in such a place as this?
I knew enough of the language to see me by, though it near sickened me to use it, but the tongue on its own wouldn’t be the trick of it… How would I locate someone trained for my task in a harbor teaming with male sailors, merchants, and fisherfolk?
The thought lit a fire beneath my boots and had me crashing through the crowded pier towards the raucous calls of the fisher-women selling their wares.
One of them was bound to be a mother.
Nearly reaching the swarm of baskets and rows of booths, I began my supplication in French at the top of my lungs, “Help!! I need a midwife — a mother!! Someone please help me!!”
Over and over I repeated the request, grabbing hold of women’s arms, only to be shaken off and refused time and time again.
I was ready to simply take hold of the next woman I saw, throw her over my shoulder, and drag her back to the boat, when a short, frail looking woman stopped what she was doing and actually considered my request.
“Your wife?” She squinted at me, measuring me up.
“Please, madam — she’s my daughter,” I begged in French, stumbling over the words in an effort to get them out as fast as I could.
“We’ve just arrived and there’s no one to help her… Please! You must help me!”
“I’ll come,” she nodded to her companion and charged towards the quay, shouting over her shoulder, “Show me the way, we mustn’t waste any time.”
She was surprisingly spry for someone her age and we recovered ground at a remarkable speed. A glance over my shoulder found the woman’s companion — presumably her kin — who smiled reassuringly at me. I nodded politely in return, then helped the two of them down to the pier.
A few turns later had us at the base of the gangplank and I hastily followed them up, but discovered they’d made it across the deck and were opening the door to the cabin in the time it took me to board the ship.
“Christ, they’re speedy wee fiends,” I cursed under my breath and took off at a dead run.