William was deep in contemplation as he walked beside the bay mule, absentmindedly twisting the leather reins around his fingers. Ian Murray was silent, having succumbed to the fever once more. Damn him, William thought, damn him and his uncle. Murray prodding him about Jamie Fraser ignited thoughts in his mind he tried to smother since he learned his true parentage. But his frustration slowly ebbed away as he realized he did want to know if he was like the man he had known as Mac. Resemblance was obvious, but could there be things beneath the surface that he had inherited beyond physical features?
Movement he could see from the corner of his eye pulled William from his ruminations. Murray was about to fall to the side, his body tilting dangerously out of the saddle. Using all of his strength, William caught the surprisingly heavy Scot and heaved him across the back of the mule, positioning him securely on his stomach across the saddle. He was hot to the touch, the fever radiating out from every part of his body.
William breathed deep, wiping sweat and dust from his brow with the sleeve of his grimy shirt. He hadn’t been as gentle with Murray as he should have been. A pang of guilt spurred William to pick up the pace. He needed to get the man help as soon as possible.
They weren’t far from the Macken house; the forest around them began to thin as they approached the village of Freehold. Rachel said Denny would be there, and William knew he’d be leaving Murray - his cousin - in capable hands. The arrow wound in his arm needed tending soon and Denny and Mother Claire would know how to stop the infection that was ravaging him.
The thought of Mother Claire jarred him. He had been so wrapped up in seeing Jane and Fanny safe, and with Murray prattling on about Fraser and privies, he had completely forgotten what Rachel said about Mrs. Fraser.
Shot. At the battle by Tennant Church. Alive. But only by the grace of God.
Alive. But the tone of Rachel’s voice had made his blood run cold.
Three times in his life he’d called a woman mother. His biological mother had died the day he was born. His Aunt Isobel was a constant presence in his life as a child, but she too died. What would William do if he lost Claire Fraser too?
It was a thought that made his chest tighten and his breath come hard.
During her marriage to Lord John, William had developed a strong connection with Claire Fraser, the type of bond he hadn’t had in a very long time. It was something he hadn’t realized was missing: a mother’s loving presence.
They spent countless hours together in the parlour of the house on Chestnut Street. William regaled her with stories of his time with the British army, the trouble he’d gotten into at his estate in England, and how he had come to love horses while growing up at Helwater. Mother Claire asked him questions every now and then, listening intently, and responding with quiet laughter when something was particularly humorous. She entertained him with stories of her childhood travels - growing up everywhere and nowhere - and her life as a healer. Every now and then he would see her startle, as if caught by surprise, when he laughed or made a gesture with his hand. A sad smile would flit across her face for just a second, but in the next moment it disappeared.
It dawned on him that she must have known all along about his parentage. How could she not? The eerie resemblance between himself and Fraser was one even a casual passerby would notice.
Mother Claire had seen his biological father in him, recognized the face of her lost husband in his own. She was always so happy to see him, embracing him with kindness and warmth, even as she mourned Fraser. But the melancholy expression she donned during the telling of some of his tales made sense to him now. He tried to recall if he had ever mentioned Mac to her. Did she know it was Jamie Fraser he had spoken of?
A man walking past William bumped into him. Looking up to apologize he realized he had reached the Macken house. Fraser and Mother Claire were here. Was there a chance he would be able to see her without having to see him ? William desperately wanted to make sure she was alright, that she would live through her injury, but he didn’t want the added complication of a confrontation with Fraser.
Snapping himself into action, William marched in, calling for someone to help get Murray inside. Lieutenant Macken assisted in carrying the injured Scot into his home. After ensuring Murray's safety, he paused in the entryway. A part of him wanted to be any place Fraser was not, and yet he wanted - no needed - to ensure himself of Mother Claire's well-being. William dragged his feet as he walked across the dooryard , procrastinating in his departure .
He reached the mule just as Mrs. Macken inquired from the doorway, “Are you staying for supper?”
William turned back to politely decline her offer but froze when he heard a noise from the second story of the home, so faint it could have been the wind rustling through the trees. Looking up, he caught sight of two figures standing in the upstairs window.
William’s eyes met Fraser’s, stormy blue meeting their match, and he saw the man stiffen. A flush rose within him, from embarrassment or anger he wasn’t sure. And just behind Fraser stood Mother Claire. Alive. He relaxed, a breath he didn’t know he was holding escaping his lips.
His face softened as he and Mother Claire looked directly at each other. He hoped his expression conveyed the question he desperately wanted to ask her. A small smile appeared on her face, one that conveyed love and understanding. She gave him the tiniest of nods. Yes, it said, she was well, she was out of danger, and she was well cared for.
He turned from her gaze and swung himself into the saddle. Gathering the reins in his hands, he felt his heart at peace, and kicked the mule forward.