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A Thousand Ships: A Tale by James Fraser

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“Tell me a story, Jamie,” said Claire.  Her voice was content and lazy as her head rested on Jamie’s lap.  He was running his fingers through her curls, combing them out just to watch them spring back into wild disarray.

“Ye’ve heard all my stories, Sassenach.”

“I highly doubt that.”

The children had all gone home, and they’d taken Fanny and Germain with them, leaving an empty house for the two of them to enjoy.  Claire lazily stretched her body across the couch like he’d often seen wee Adso do just before settling down to sleep for the night.  Her arms rose above her head, and her feet stretched out, pointing toward the warm fire next to them.  

God she was beautiful!  And every year they spent together, she only grew more beautiful still.  She was his very own Helen of Troy, with a face that could launch a thousand ships. 

“The only stories ye havena heard after all our years together are no’ meant for a lady’s ears.”  He slowly sipped his brandy, a serene smile playing over his lips.  He ran his hands languidly over Claire’s body, her thin shift hiding none of her curves.  He sipped his drink again, letting the warm liquid settle in his mouth before he swallowed.  It burned pleasantly all the way down his throat.  

“Make up something new for me,” said Claire.  “Uncle Lamb always told me a story on Christmas before putting me to bed.  You can’t break tradition.”

Jamie looked at the ridiculous pine tree Claire made him chop down and bring into the house.  Brianna and the weans decorated it with painted pinecones, adhering little bits of broken glass so they’d reflect the fire and candlelight like twinkling stars.  Mandy even volunteered to have Esmeralda sit atop the tree, dressed in paper wings and a halo like an angel of God.

“Weel, I suppose we canna break tradition.  Although, I dinna ken how to make stories about auld fat men coming down chimneys or wee green beasties stealing presents from children.”

“Then stick to something you know well.  Love, war, the wild outdoors.”

Jamie sipped his drink again, searching for a tale to entertain his wife before taking her to bed after such a perfect day.  He gently pulled the laces on her shift, opening her breasts up for his leisurely exploration.  

She was his...and his alone.  Mated for life, like the greylags on the coasts of Scotland.

The buzz of intoxication had him chuckling at making his lovely goose honk out all sorts of wee noises when he’d take her to bed in a few minutes.  His mind drifted to burying himself inside her, rocking into her over and over again, shooting his seed deep in her womb…

“Jamie!  You’re dozing off.  What about my story?”

“Alright then, Sassenach.  I’ve got a story for ye...though ye may regret asking by the time we’re through.”

Her answering smile lit her whisky eyes, warming his heart and spurring him on.  He squeezed her breast, gripping firmly and letting go as he began his novel tale. “Our story starts wi’ a young Scottish sailor…”

 


 

Some weeks ago—never mind how long precisely—a young Scot thought he would sail about a wee bit and see the watery part of the world.  So he took all he owned—which was very little—and found a small boat to sail across the seas.  

The evening before he was set to depart, he found a crowded little tavern and began filling his belly with warm food and too much ale.  It would likely be the last time he’d feel sated until he returned from his journey.  The tavern was packed fit to burst with men of all kinds.  Men with red hair and black.  Blue eyes and brown.  

In the very air around him, there was a thrumming energy.  His heart beat in tandem with the excitement pulsing through the room, making him restless and eager to be on his way.

He was only halfway through his meal when he was interrupted by a stranger who asked to share his table.  He nodded his consent, thinking it would be a fine thing to have a bit of company before going out on his own at sea.

“Call me Seumas,” said the man.

“I’m James Fraser.  Jamie.”

“Oh, aye,” Seumas laughed.  “’Tis a common name ’round these parts.”

“Is it now?”

Seumas nodded and pointed across the room to a tall man in a black tricorn, “That man over there...his name is Jamie Roy.  Best smuggler on the seas.”  

He then pointed to a table on the other side of the room where a large, filthy man, covered head to toe in grime and what appeared to be blood, sat drinking whisky straight from the bottle.  “That there is Red Jamie.  Stay away from that bastard if ye ken what’s good for ye.  He’s no’ been right in the heid since the last Rising.  And that man at yon table refers to himself as Himself, though I heard tell his Christian name is James.”

Jamie looked over Seumas.  His impromptu dining companion was dressed head to toe in Fraser tartan; the bright red stood out in a sea of trousers and of kilts of common dull hunting patterns meant to blend in with the forest.  

“Ye ken this place well?  And the people in it?” asked Jamie.  “Ye been around a long time?”

Och, no.  Only a few days, though I suppose ’tis a long time for this place.  Most of the men are only here for a day at most before they’re on their way.  I’ve heard tell of many who stopped by only hours before setting off again...others only twenty or thirty minutes before ’tis their time!”

“Busy place.”

Hmphm.  Aye, but dinna fash at how crowded it gets.  We’ll all likely be setting off come morning, and our numbers will surely die down shortly after.”

“Where are ye headed?”

Seumas laughed heartily.  “Verra funny, lad,” he wheezed.  “I dinna think I’ve had such a chuckle in a long time.”

Jamie huffed at being laughed at for his ignorance.  “I wasna making a joke.  Where is it ye’re going, man?”

“Ye’re serious?” Seumas choked.  “Ye dinna ken why we’re all here?”

Jamie just shook his head.

Seumas narrowed his eyes at him, uncertain if Jamie was teasing.  He must’ve seen the sincerity in Jamie’s expression, because he nodded in bewildered acceptance.  “Do ye no’ feel it, man?  The urge deep in yer bones?  The need to sail...to find her?”

Jamie shook his head once again, but even as he denied it, something stirred in heart.  An ache, a longing for the sea.  Then he realized, it wasn’t the sea he was longing for...it was something in the sea.

“Weel, I dinna think it would do me much good to tell ye the way things are,” Seumas smirked as he reached into his sporran, “but I couldna have ye sailing away aimlessly in these waters wi’ no mind of where to go.  Wouldna be right.”

Seumas pulled out a small, framed portrait that was wrapped in a bit of cloth.  He stared at the wee thing for some time, mesmerized by what he saw.  “I had to sell my best dirk for enough coin to buy this from Ellen’s son—he’s a good hand wi’ a paintbrush, ken.  I canna draw or sing to save my own life.”

Seumas stared for a long moment more before he handed the portrait over to Jamie.  Jamie looked down, wondering what could possibly spark such reverence in an auld sailor like Seumas.  

Jamie’s gaze locked on a pair of eyes that glittered brighter gold than the sun itself.  Her face was framed by flowing curls, more beautiful than glimmering water in a burn.  Her cheeks were soft and pale, as ethereal as the finfolk of the lochs.

Claire.”  Jamie already knew her name.  It was written on his soul.  An urge to find this woman, to hold her and protect her, to join with her, roared loudly in his ears.  “My Sassenach.”

“Aye,” said Seumas.  “You and everyone else here.”

Jamie could see Seumas growing restless without his portrait in his hands.  Jamie took one last look, drinking in the sight of the most beautiful creature he’d ever beheld before placing it back in Seumas’s outstretched hand.

“We’re all here for the Rising,” said Seumas.

“What is the Rising?

“D’ye really no’ ken, man?  D’ye no’ feel the truth of it in every beat of yer heart?”

Jamie closed his eyes and took a drink of ale.  If he was honest with himself, he’d felt that restless pulse surging through him ever since he entered the tavern.  In fact, he couldn’t remember a time when it wasn’t there.

“We dinna ken just when the Rising will happen, only that it is inevitable.  Soon, when the tides rise and the sea swells, like blast of a cannon, we’ll all set off in search of her.  The Sassenach.”

“Where is she?  Why is everyone looking for her?”

“She’s alone and waiting in the great fairy caverns deep in the heart of the sea.  She’s waiting for the one who will come save her.  The one who will join wi’ her, binding his soul to hers forever.” 

Jamie looked around the tavern at all the men gathered.  “And everyone here came in search of her?”

Seumas nodded.  “Aye.  Many will lose their lives on this quest.  They’ll be lost, or they’ll starve, or they'll lose their will to carry on.  Those who make it through the dangers of the elements will be fighting against each other for the chance at her hand.”

“And those that make it to the end?  Those that reach the Sassenach?”

“She’ll choose her mate from the survivors...if anyone even makes it there alive.”

Jamie drank his ale, picturing those golden eyes, and he promised himself that nothing, nothing would stop him from kneeling at her feet and begging for her hand.  There was no longer any other purpose in life but Claire.

Jamie’s throat was tightly strained when he asked, “Where?  Where can I find her in this fairy cavern?”

Seumas looked at him pensively, as though deciding how much he really wanted to reveal—the truth of it was they’d likely be enemies come morning.  He sighed in resignation and drank back his ale.  “Finish yer supper, lad.  We need to find ye a map.  I ken someone who can help.”