It was the evening of the third day since Alistair Munro surrendered Foulis Castle. He stood on his balcony and watched the sun paint the Scottish hills orange and purple hues. Alistair knew he would not see the evening of the fourth. This sunset was his last sunset, but he'd made peace with his fate months before. Claire, however, would take this evening harshly. His daughter—
No. Alistair could no longer think of her like that. He raised Claire since she was ten years old when her uncle passed suddenly during his stay. She'd been a wisp of a thing, but his son, Jacob, had taken to her. So had he. Claire became the daughter of his heart, and a few years ago, his daughter in law, even if it was short-lived. Widowed a mere week after marrying his son, Claire dutifully stood by Alistair's side, seeing to his needs and running castle Foulis as if it was hers.
It should have been hers.
She would not understand, not right away at least. Alistair hoped Fraser kept his word, that one day he would explain to her that he wasn't vile, cruel, or unjust. He was merely a man who made a choice and chose to pay back the debt he created with his life, and hers. His, as punishment. Hers, as compensation for what was lost.
He hoped it was enough. But most of all, he hoped one day Claire would forgive him.
Three Days Prior
Castle Foulis surrendered by early morning, but casualties poured into the great hall throughout the afternoon. Claire commanded the women and spare hands to treat the dire first, not caring which side they fought for, and shouted at any idle hands for supplies.
A woman, James Fraser thought, with a belted tartan and dagger in place of stays, had never been so bonny, nor so fierce.
Claire met James - felt him really—sixteen hours later when his swooping hand kept her from falling into the grand hall's hearth. She startled as she took in the crimson and charcoal war paint and fiery braids pulled into a tight queue. Bare-chested and covered in dirt, blood, and tartan, she nearly fell back into the hearth had he not braced her arm.
"Lady Munro—" Claire took a small step back and blinked.
"You don't have to call me that." She said quietly. She wrung her hands before she straightened her face and raised her chin. "Thank you, but I am your prisoner."
James raised a brow. "One who hasn't slept, eaten, or sat down since wounded men came through the gate," he said, as he guided her into a chair. "I think you have earned your title as well as some rest, my lady."
He produced a flask and pressed it into her hands, and without a second thought, she eagerly drank the dark whiskey within. He took a knee beside her and let her eyes scan him for wounds. He was sound except for the gash on his shoulder.
"You are the Fraser, then?" She asked softly.
"I am," he answered curtly.
Mackenzies and Munros harbored a 20-year grudge that escalated six years ago when the Frasers joined the fray. She was so young then that she'd barely been aware of the conflict until the fire at Lallybroch. Alistair had wept when reports claimed the entire family perished in the unstoppable blaze.
'The Fraser,' also known as 'Red Jamie', had been at Beauly castle with his young son when Lallybroch burned. Rumors called him a ruthless warrior who slashed deep wounds through the Highland clans these past four years, seeking vengeance and blood.
"God be with you. We held mass for your family for a month after we heard." She said softly and motioned to his arm. "May I see to your shoulder?"
His eyes held hers, and though she wished to look away, she felt to do so would admit guilt to some discretion. Her skin tingled when he broke her gaze first and nodded.
"I'd be indebted to you, Lady—"
"Please. 'Claire' will do." She motioned for him to take a seat by the hearth. A moment later, a needle and thread appear from the fabric of her sleeve. He watched as she passed the steel through flame and the line through the wax. Once satisfied with both, she doused the remainder of his whiskey on the wound and began to sew.
He grimaced at her. "Seems like a fine waste of whiskey."
Claire let a soft smile settle onto her lips as she worked neat rows into his wound. "It can prevent wound fevers, so I'd hardly call it a waste, Laird Fraser."
"James. And I haven't been a Laird to anyone for several years."
"Well, someone will run this castle, surely. And then there's Beauly, in the North."
"Mackenzies will see to this keep, and all within it. We wish for peace as much as you do."
She tied off the knot at his arm and tucked the needle back into her sleeve. She tried to bite back a response but found her hands curling into fists.
"Traveling two days to sack a castle—"
"We did not sack the castle—"
"Hardly seems peace provoking, sir. Excuse me." Claire turned her back to leave.
"I need answers from him, Claire."
She turned slowly and met his steely gaze.
"I don't know what answers you hope to gain from an old man."
"The truth. Alistair's involvement with the Grants, and their involvement with the fire."
Claire's brows furrowed. "British deserters were the ones who set the fire, not—"
"That's how it appeared, but the apprehended soldiers told very similar and very illuminating tales." His eyes were on her face again. "You truly didn't know?"
Claire dropped her chin as her eyes darted to her feet. "I'd have no way to know," she whispered. "Alistair hardly shared such matters with me."
"But, your husband, surely…"
"My husband spent his last days drowning in his blood," Claire whispered fiercely. Clan politics were not a priority."
The silence stretched between them, interrupted only by the hissing hearth logs.
"Forgive me," James whispered. "I didn't realize he passed around the same time."
"The day after we received word of Lallybroch," Claire whispered. His hand cupped her elbow and squeezed it softly, a gesture that nearly tore a gasp from her lungs.
"I must leave you now, but we'll speak again," He said softly, and then he was gone.
Two nights passed since that encounter, but she felt his eyes on her always. He lurked in the corner of vision, like an apparition of shadows. She found herself relieved when she turned and saw him standing before her, neatly dressed and thoroughly scrubbed of war paint. At least she hadn't imagined him watching her.
"Lady Munro. Will you come with me please?"
Though he asked politely, his expression made it clear his words were not a request.
She followed him from the Great Hall and found herself heading towards Alistair's study. James motioned her in, and she saw Alistair sitting in front of his desk, quite pale, with Dougal Mackenzie at his left.
He did not look at her, and Claire felt her throat tighten.
"Will ye tell the lass what you told us then?" Dougal asked, and Alistair nodded.
"Claire, I've confessed to aiding the Grants in setting the fire at Lallybroch."
Claire stood still, her eyes unmoving from Alistair's face as the silence in the room threatened to swallow her whole.
"Have you gone mad?" She finally whispered.
"You were here." Her voice trembled, and she felt a hand try to put her in a chair, but she pushed it away. "Jacob was dying two rooms away, and you were here, saying goodbye to your son. The Grants—"
"Never entered the castle." He said slowly. "I met them in Edinburgh to escape notice."
Claire kept her eyes pinned to his face, but she knew now that he spoke the truth. She stepped forward, watched his face turn up to meet hers, and could not stop her hand as it slashed across his face.
"The trip that delayed our wedding," She whispered.
Alistair closed his eyes and bit his lip. "Yes. I didn't know, Claire."
"But the fire? You planned it?" She rasped.
"It was meant to be the barn. Just the barn." He said softly.
Claire dropped to her knees, and her vision blurred with unshed tears.
"Just the barn," Alistair whispered. "Brian Fraser was a friend, and I was angry with him, certainly, for getting involved in a dispute of land and sheep, but not enough to…" Alistair stifled a sob that threatened to escape his lips. He cleared his throat and nodded.
"I've confessed, Claire. I've lived too many years with it on my conscience, and I'm ready to atone." Alistair sought her gaze, but Claire would not look at him. "I've no right to ask anything of you, but I could not face death without knowing you're cared for."
Claire felt a chill crawl up her spine at his words, but only let the slightest tremble show in her fingers. She knew what his request would be, the only request it could be, but she asked anyway.
"Who would you have me marry, father?" She asked softly, the coldness heavy in her tone.
"Fraser. He's already agreed."
She felt her heart splinter, and the sound of it roared in her ears.
Marry the man who will kill the only father I've ever known.
Her mouth tasted of ash, but she stood and walked to the door.
Without turning, she answered them. "We'll marry in the morning."