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Underneath the Elder Tree

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Dawn had risen in delicate blooms of lavender and blushing heather across the waking sky, down to a pine drizzled cabin, quiet inside. Only stirring with the shuffle of Claire dressing for the day about her room.




To have


To keep


Where she could litter the floors with crumbs of bread, warm with honey, never to be stale. Dress without fear of a presence lurking, panting, leaping, as she dashed through trees, toppling over jutting stones, desperate for a brook, a stream.


Only to be seized by her hair in a fisting twist.


A ribbon lost. Rips of cloth, bruising skin.


A blade unseen tearing fatty flesh that had her fleeing, crossing waters rushing rapid, crawling beneath a tree.


To a home where Claire could sleep without worry, deeply, soundly, wrapped in a heat that seeped across her skin that always held a chill. Like now within the silence of the surrounding four walls, luring her mind to wander, blurring to a blue dipped memory.


She, young and shivering in her mother's arms where warmth slipped away with every slap of wind, as they laid in a ditch overgrown with weeds, far from home to a destination elsewhere. Her mothers breath at her cheek, voice losing shape from years gone and farther still, warning Claire of others who found themselves bound to men, so desirous of a woman's flesh to unsheathe them of their very soul for the secrets flickering behind their eyes. The silkiness of their skin.


“What of, Father? Did he steal yours away too, Mama?” A question hushed in broken breath, as Claire feared that her father was not the noble knight her mother had proclaimed him to be.


A beloved man whose hollowed heart held her endless tears and gasping prayers to breathe with life again. Those desperate pleas fell heavy as the dirt scattered around him as he laid in darkness amongst a sea of flowers, picked by her smudged little hands, to keep forever beautiful.


"Mama?" Claire persisted, squeezing her mother to speak despite the quiet flow of grief she felt dewing her crown of locks.


“Yes, he had but no more will he ever, my darling. Nor will you ever know the cruelty of any mans heart as I."


The vision dimmed, love warm whisked away to infinity by the sounds echoing in the air of a man anything but cruel. One Claire felt an intangible pull to trust despite her wary instinct that thought her a fool, whispering of the white petaled tree where the promise of all that she was still waited for her.


Calling for her.


But so did the tuneless whistle that stole a gentle sound from her, felt sharply in her cheeks dimpling in a smile. That same oddly beating thrum of her heart, the only call she cared to answer of a man who thought her friend.


And now she of him.




Woodsmoke lightly scented the air, drifting through a window left ajar as the newly kindled logs in the hearth caught a rising flame, heating the kettle to and fro along with Willie, drowsily draped across his father's chair, legs swung over the arms. While the lad had been eager to rise to quell his ever insatiable appetite, the lack thereof was enough to keep him stuck between the brim of wakefulness and the heavy pull of dreams.


No bother to Jamie though, as he rose with a sigh from his crouched position in front of the budding fire, arching his broad back to crack the bones knotted from another hard night spent on a pallet. That would have to be tended to and soon, he thought. But until then, Jamie rolled up his sleeves, baring the coppery brush of his arms, getting on with a breakfast of bannocks lest his son wither away to dust, belly first.


By the time Claire emerged from her room, Jamie was stickied white in oat dough from brawny wrist to blunt fingertips while crooning like a thrush, (without the harmony, but ever so the pitch) that could only delight the blessedly deaf. But from his lips the song vanished as his attention was drawn to her curls flowing wild in rebellion from their binding braid, framing a face softly nestled like a pearl, glowing in fondness seeing Willie's dozing form.


And then her eyes that could shame the very sun, a wonder that coaxed his sons imagination and in this moment Jamie's, of an otherness that enveloped her like a veil, a shield, now settled on him. The dusted hairs along his arms lifted, tingling to the back of his neck in what he reasoned was from a breeze slipping through the window.


But why was it warm as if sunkissed by spring?


An uneasiness struck through him, or rather a wave of something foolish stoking hot in his wame that had his hand hovering white and dangerously close to his cheeks to swipe away at the creeping heat. But he caught himself just as a smile curled at Claire's mouth in a prelude to a laugh that tempted him to be that very fool if only to hear the joyous sound.


Jamie wanted her happy always.


"Did Willie have a restless night?" Claire asked, dispelling Jamie's pondering, quietly in voice and touch that grazed Willie's hanging foot, tugging his wool sock dangling near off his toes to a snug fit.


Jamie shook his head in response as he wiped his hands on a strip of cloth. "Far from it, only the lad is no morning lark as he's had ye believe, what wi' him trying to charm ye these days past. I have to throw him over my shoulder half the time just to get him moving as I did t'day. And even then, as ye see."


Claire did see in a way that sputtered a giggle out from her belly, as even the spouting kettle only provoked a scrunch of Willie's dark brows in annoyance. Mindfully, she removed the steaming pot from it's hook where it gave a whimpering splurt, moving towards Jamie when he beckoned her near, upturning the bowl of dough with a heavy plop.


"Let's have ye earn yer keep, Sassenach, and maybe we can wake that wee lazy boy of mine."


Under lashes Claire gave Jamie a skeptical look, poking a finger to the mound. "I'm not afraid of hard work but I must admit I have a hand that lacks the skill to prepare anything remotely edible. They're better suited covered in dirt which is what you'll be salivating for if you have me as your cook."


"Were ye a miscreant as a child then? Forgoing yer chores to climb the tallest trees, perched like a curly wig bird without a care for falling and breaking bones, turning all who loved ye grey?" Jamie's wicked tease of a grin dwindled as Claire's paled to a thin line, dragging her hands to grip the powdery edge of the table leaving ghostly streaks. She didn't want to speak of a time that haunted her like a phantom, yet she didn't want to be a mystery to entice curiosity.


Chancing a glance when Jamie uttered his apology, she saw the disquiet darkening his blues, carving deep around the set of his jaw that regretted ever opening and Claire then reasoned that no secret of hers would unfold from sharing a childhood memory.


"I was skinned from palm to knee if you must know." Claire began, offering Jamie a sheepish smile that eased his marked concern. "Disobedience was a skill I mastered from the moment I could walk. Always leading me astray from home to anywhere that crawled with life different from my own."


And oh how she wandered and disobeyed with devilish glee before disillusionment tainted her in blood but Claire pushed that aside for the precious wonderment she once had.


"My dresses were miserably torn and stained, replaced with trousers that fared even worse, all because I would hide in the crooks of split trees and old fox holes just to see of I could brave the dark. I even carried my -" her breath hitched in momentary hesitance, only to carry on as she was unable to prevent buried memories from spilling free.


"I even carried my father's satchel in my explorations, stole it really. Filling it with every sprig of green I could possibly find, pressing them to his books with the roots still dangling between the pages, and father would always say I must've born under a cabbage leaf for how could he ever have such a troublesome daughter as I."


Claire hastily blinked away a glimmer that shaded her amber eyes when the sudden quiet built between them was bridged in light reply.


"My da reckoned me a changeling. A hellion most days." Jamie half laughed, taking the burden of memories on himself as he handed Claire a rolling pin, gesturing to the dough with a flick of his chin.


"I gave the poor mans heart holy hell with my recklessness, spending my youth wi' a band of lads riding on horseback raiding cattle, crossing swords - for fun mostly, mind ye, lass. No' even a whisker bristled my chin." Jamie rubbed his now full mass of hairs, leaving streaks of flour amongst the golden copper that had Claire bearing a smile bright.


"Most often though, it was for opening my mouth when I should'ha kept it closed. Always questioning and pestering, challenging every word from his mouth, whether it an order or simple conversation over the weather. I have a knack for that, as ye know, Sassenach."


"Me standing here and not knee high in the forest underbrush is testament to your persuasive skills."


"I'm starting to think my offer of shelter had more to do wi' the promise of a decent meal." Jamie squinted his eyes to a catlike slant of judgement, clicking his tongue at Claire. "Ye're punishing that puir bread like it's insulted yer virtue."


"Regale me on how exactly your father handled that gaping mouth of yours." Claire huffed even as a grin peeked from seeing Jamie drag a finger down the bridge of his nose leaving another stripe.


"By grabbing me by the scruff, damned exhausted he would be too, and have my mam deal wi' me. She could make a grown man piss himself wi' just a look, so ye can only imagine what it felt like as a snot nosed bairn, squirming and hoping I didna wet her floors."


Jamie shifted in his step, creaking the wood underfoot at just the very thought which begged the question…


"What did she have you do then if not dirtying her floors?"


Leaning on the table he eyed Claire in consideration or rather her slender, mussied hands, having resorted to palming needlessly at her handiwork to make a perfect circle. "If ye manage to no' burn the bannocks, I'll tell ye, Sassenach."


They dipped their heads towards one another then to the mess that was Claire's attempt at domesticity. She arched her brow in question at the misshapen circle between them with Jamie giving it a satisfactory nod.


"My mam would appreciate the effort. The proof is in the taste she'd say." He gave the rolled out dough a light pat before sectioning it off to a cast iron pan to set over the fire, with one piece clearly larger than the rest. "And no doubt reward ye wi' this piece here, big as my fist to be slathered in molasses or jam, always in butter and a fat slice of he ham. Too bad yer drooling devoted will nip yer fingers if ye try for it."


Claire cast a glance to Willie as she made her way to the hearth with the readied bannocks, where he was now bare footed, wool socks kicked to the floor.


"He isn't much trouble at all is he?"


"None so much considering I'm the one who sired him, but he'll grey me soon enough I reckon. Turned my father's by the time I was his age, or so my godfather has told me."


"Is he the one who could pipe smoke through his nose and spit farther then he could piss?" Willie had painted a rather colorful image to Claire of a man seldom seen yet left a lasting impression of awe.


"Aye, a charmer Murtagh is to any young lad or lass who cares to live the life of a scoundrel. He has the keeping of my parents land, my birthright since they've passed." Like yours, he would have said but he wasn't willing to upset her as even just the mention of loss shook her to a flinch and that wouldn't do.


"Tis no' much," Jamie continued, as Claire fixed her attention to poking the logs. "Only a stone walled home bigger, larger though than this patch of wood, wi' fields to farm but I hope to travel wi' Willie when he's older or the very least big enough to mount a horse himself."


"So until Willie sprouts like a weed you're stuck living in a lonely place?"


"The living here may be harsher with only a small village days away from here, but when I stumbled to these mountains it took my mind off my troubles - for a time at least." He shrugged dismissively, more to himself to rid the image of another woman. “Now it's just Willie and I under this roof, with you, our fairy lass, who ought to keep her eye on - Sassenach! Ye dinna fan the - Daingead!"





It was the thick acrid smell of bread blackening to a crispy brick that finally stirred Willie to wake, nose pinched and teary eyed, then quickly bolting upright to Claire's howling curseswith his father hissing right along while hurrying out the door, smoking iron pan in his towel wrapped hand.


"Was that breakfast?" Willie questioned, swatting at the smoke and his own cloud of disheveled curls, only to be answered with a cough.


Still blanketed in a thinning grey the threesome took to their morning meal made solely by his father's hand, that had Claire stained the shining pink of failure, yet sitting defiantly straight, daring the man in front of her to babble a remark.


He did of course, head tilted with a mouth full of mocking buttery delight .


And despite her glaring demeanor, she laughed full hearted and in such a way that illuminated his father's being, flaring indistinct in a gaze unabashed towards Claire.


Because of her.


It was then a seed planted in Willie's mind rooting deeply inside his heart. Thriving. Shooting to his thumping fingertips on how to make a moment of happiness flourish past days and weeks. Long through the winter, far beyond the summer.


Where he might gain a mother of his very own.


To have


To keep