James Fraser - King Arthur
Lord John Grey - Sir Lancelot du Lac, Le Chevalier Blanc
Claire Fraser - Guinevere, La Damme Blanc
Master Raymond - Merlin
Murtagh Fitzgibbons - Arthur's foster father, Sir Ector
Dougal MacKenzie - Gawain
Jonathon (Jack) Randall - the Black Prince / Meleagant
Geillis - Morgana
Holding his head in his hands he surveyed the round table that had just been installed in the Grand Hall of Broch Tuarach. The carpenters and joiners had grumbled about the design and having to assemble it in situ, especially when he had informed them that it had to be composed of thirteen equally sized portions. But they had done a magnificent job, despite the glares cast at him as they had painstakingly slotted each of the thirteen segments together with wooden pegs. It was everything that Master Raymond had promised him it would be.
However, as he ran a fingertip across the polished oak, James Alexander Malcolm McKenzie Fraser wondered what the hell he was trying to do in uniting the clans. Even those of his nearest kin appeared to despise each other almost as much as they hated their common enemy from beyond the seas. If only he could persuade them to set aside their petty border squabbles and agree not to raid each other’s herds of cattle or burn down each other’s barley crops, they would be a formidable force to be reckoned with. Sitting back in his heavy wooden chair, he lifted his pewter tankard to his lips and sighed softly to himself.
Heavy footsteps from the entrance nearest the kitchen alerted him to the return of his uncle. A snort of disdain informed him that Dougal McKenzie’s opinion had not changed since he had first presented him with the plans for the great hall.
“It’s a waste of good timber if ye ask me.” Striding around the perimeter of the circular table, Dougal seemed, as ever, to be in a mood to find fault. “I dinna ken what was wrong with the auld banqueting table. It was obvious who sat at the head o’ that table! How does anyone ken who’s sat at the head o’ this bloody great wheel?”
“That’s the whole point,” explained Jamie through clenched teeth. He had been through the reasoning behind the design of the table to his uncle on several occasions. “Also, no one will judge their rank or importance by how far down they’ve been sat-”
“Dinna fool yerself, laddie.” Dougal’s contempt was barely disguised. “They’ll still argue over who gets tae sit next to who-”
“I’ll have nae fighting at this table,” stated Jamie, glowering at his uncle from under furrowed brows. “D’ye ken just how badly carved up the surface of the auld table was? There were gouges deep enough to still hold remnants of the Beltane feast –”
“Aye, scars that gave it character.” Dougal grinned as his hand strayed to the hilt of his own broadsword. “That split running down the centre started from where yer own father hurled an axe.”
“Aye, I heard how it sliced through a few fingers before it got stuck in the wood!” Shaking his head at Dougal’s evident delight at the gruesome details, Jamie rubbed a hand over his face and frowned.
“It’s not been chopped up fer firewood, ye ken. The auld table is now in the new mess hall and I’m sure it will gain a few more scars before its legs give way completely.”
“Like me?” asked Dougal, hoisting a leg up on the nearest chair and slapping his thigh.
“Aye, uncle, like ye,” chuckled Jamie, fully aware that there were few younger men capable of taking on the older man, seasoned warrior that he was. “Anyway, tae answer yer question, there will be no arguments over who sits where. Look closely. Each section has engraved upon it crests and names of families. During any gathering, the seats will be draped with the plaid of that clan.”
As Jamie reached out to brush his fingers across the carving of the running stag of the Fraser clan he kept a wary eye on Dougal who was nonchalantly strolling around the table, in the opposite direction, reciting the names of the clans one by one:
“Cameron, Stuart, Mackintosh, MacLauchlan, McLean, MacDonald, Gordon, MacGregor and Campbell- wise tae keep Campbell away from McLean.”
“Aye,” agreed Jamie, continuing to watch his uncle closely. He was waiting for an inevitable reaction.
“I take it this was a clever idea of that poison toad ye keep in the cellar?” sneered Dougal as he tapped on the section of the table that bore the name of the McKenzie clan. He then scowled as his eyes caught sight of the crest in the sector next to that of the Frasers. Within the outline of the shield was a rampant white lion against a red background along with the motto ‘De bon vouloir servir le roy’ ( ‘to serve the king with good will’). With an expression that would have soured milk, Dougal grimaced. “I see his family crest is alongside yours – just like his bed.”
“Are ye jealous, uncle?” Jamie raised his chin, daring Dougal to make any accusations openly.
“Of how close he sleeps to ye?” Dougal’s eyes narrowed as he glared at his nephew. “Nae, I’ve heard ye snore – like a bloody farrowing sow. My objection lies in the fact his family is no’ one of the clans.”
“He has my back and always has had, more so than the men of many of the other clans,” pointed out Jamie. While others had supressed him and kept him from Lallybroch, it had been thanks to his dearest friend that he had been restored to his rightful place. Jamie made sure never to miss an opportunity to remind Dougal of that fact. “His crest is there because he has earnt the right tae sit at my side.” And because he’s the only man I trust not tae stab me in the back or sell me the enemy fer the right price.
Their eyes met across the table – the MacKenzie section being directly opposite that of the Fraser’s – and for a moment it seemed as if they were both experiencing a glimpse into a future where they would continue to challenge one another. A shiver ran down Jamie’s spine as he heard Dougal grunt derisively.
“Aye that’s as may be, but I shall nae ask how he’s earnt your very particular favour – above that of yer closest kin.”
“Good, because that will spare me from telling ye to mind yer own bloody business.” Jamie grinned without any sign of mirth reaching his eyes.
Taking a drink of ale from his tankard, Jamie was being deliberately discourteous to his uncle having failed to offer him any refreshment. It was a game they had played over many years, the accumulation of slights making them both bristle in each other’s company.
“Ye’ll need tae be leaving fer Inverness soon, won’t ye, uncle? It would be bad manners tae keep the lady waiting.”
“The wee orphan?” Dougal smiled to himself as if he were in possession of facts unknown to his nephew. “Aye, we’ll take one of the ponies fer her tae ride back on just in case she doesna want to travel in the cart.”
“Are ye going to take one o’ the maids along wi’ ye?” asked Jamie, looking over the rim of his tankard. “I dinna want the poor wee lass tae be scared by a bunch o’ hairy Highlanders. A friendly face would put her at ease. I hope she’ll bring her own governess with her, Master Raymond has yet to appoint a suitable woman fer the task or I’d have ye take her with ye.”
“Dinna fash, I’ll be taking Mistress Duncan to accompany the young lady. She kindly suggested that she would be willing tae take her under her wing-”
“She’s no’ suitable and ye ken why!” exclaimed Jamie.
“She’s a wise woman-” started Dougal, biting his tongue as he saw the look of exaltation on his nephew’s face.
“Aye, that she is and no mistake!” spluttered Jamie. “Ye ken what they say about her and how her poor auld husband met his end, leaving her a rich widow.”
“Mistress Duncan is a fine woman and cannot be held accountable fer the spiteful, jealous tongues of the other women here.”
“That lass has ye bewitched –” warned Jamie, waggling his finger in disapproval.
“And ye’re no’ under anyone’s spell yerself?” challenged Dougal, his eyebrows raised.
Jamie noted that his uncle had not denied his accusation, merely countered it with one of his own. He shook his head and fought not to rise to the bait.
“Mistress Geillis is a handsome, young widow and ye’re still marrit,” growled Jamie, choosing the most acceptable reason to find fault with his uncle’s relationship with a woman rumoured to be a witch and in league with dark forces. “The men all ken she leads ye around by yer dick – ”
“At least she’s a loyal Highlander and no’ a fucking Sassenach!” spat Dougal before turning on his heel and storming out of the Great Hall.
Jamie’s head hit the back of his chair with a loud thud and his fist tightened around the tankard causing the sides to buckle.
Before he could hurl the deformed tankard across the room, a warm hand on his shoulder grounded him.
“Es-tu prêt?” enquired a gentle voice.
“Oui, mon ami, je suis prest,” he replied in kind, slowly running a fingertip over the motto of the Frasers of Lovatt on the edge of the table. Their accustomed greeting always set his mind at rest. Inhaling deeply, he could smell lemon verbena and pine. He smiled.
Turning his head slightly, he knew instinctively that a warm mouth would meet his in the sweetest of kisses. A blessing of confidence and support.
His kin had been suspicious of John William Bertram Armstrong Grey initially. He was from beyond the wall left by the Romans, and that stirred suspicions deep in the hearts of the clansmen. Yet, his chivalry and bravery were unsurpassed and his loyalty beyond question. He had taken on each and every Fraser and MacKenzie who doubted his loyalty, besting each one until he was rightfully accepted as the greatest of the men who served him.
In contrast to the Highlanders, dressed proudly in kilts, John wore fine woollen hose that clung to his calves and thighs, a long-sleeved shirt, with the lacing at the collar loosened enough to show just a glimpse of chest hair and a well-worn leather jerkin, embossed along the edges with a pattern of interlocking waves. About his trim waist, a sword belt. At a distance, he appeared to be a huntsman from the forests of the south, but what set his attire apart was the quality of the materials – the finest linen, softest wool and most supple of leather. Jamie had discovered that John revelled in luxurious textures and he had learnt to appreciate the feel of those fine fabrics when worn by his lover. Setting down his battered tankard, he flung an arm around John’s waist to gather him close before pulling him down. The glower he received was worth it to feel the comfortable weight of the man in his lap.
“Dear God – I am glad your uncle did not witness that!” John wriggled around until he could have a good look at the finished table. He glanced at the empty space on Jamie’s left-hand side. “So, you did decide to have thirteen places, with the thirteenth unclaimed. Is it wise to tempt fate quite so blatantly?”
“Ye ken that Raymond advised that I should have one seat kept empty, so there will only be twelve of us sat around the table. D’ye think it’s worth it?” Jamie toyed with the ribbon holding John’s hair in place as he sought reassurance. “Dougal doesna think it will work if there’s no one man tae sat at the head of the table.”
“Authority and respect are not merely conveyed by seating position.” John gently removed Jamie’s hand from his hair and held it firmly over his heart. “You will always be the one others look up to, and not just because you tower above us all!”
Jamie laughed out loud, the tension from his conversation with Dougal finally leaving his body.
“Meanwhile, much as I love the feel of your well-stuffed sporran pressing against my arse, I think it best if we were not found in such a compromising position.”
“D’ye mean ‘we’, ‘me’ or ‘ye’?” asked Jamie as John levered himself to his feet and tugged the jerkin down to cover his hips.
“That would depend on who walked in.” John sat down in the chair next to Jamie’s, not quite so comfortable as the wide thighs of his lover’s lap, but a seat less likely to cause gossip. “There are some who still grumble at how much time we spend in each other’s company.”
“Are ye still having trouble from -”
“If I was, I would not tell you, because you would storm into their quarters and create such a scene that I would still be suffering the consequences six months from now.”
“Hmph!” snorted Jamie, having deduced that the answer was ‘yes’ and that there was nothing he could do about it that would not make things even more difficult for John.
“It’s not so bad,” added John with a forced smile. “It’s been well over a week since Angus and Rupert dangled me by my ankles over the well-”
“They did what!” raged Jamie, slapping his hands against the table. “I’ll dangle the pair o’ them over the edge of a bloody cliff!”
“It was just their idea of a jest - they would not have let go,” assured John, placing a hand on Jamie’s to calm him down. “At least it wasn’t your uncle Dougal or your godfather Murtagh.”
“What is it that they’ve done now?” Jamie rubbed his face wearily. It did not bode well for unity amongst the clans if his own closest kin still insisted on tormenting John, partly at resentment over the fact that his bedchamber was annexed to Jamie’s. He sighed, knowing that if they had any idea how close they really were, they would have him exile John from the Highlands– although it crossed his mind that Dougal would probably have him killed before he made it to the border. “I ken Dougal doesna like ye, but if he’s been making threats…”
His uncle did not like the idea of anyone advising Jamie other than himself, especially if it was John. Dougal’s animosity towards his dearest friend went all the way back to the time when John had stopped him using Jamie’s scarred flesh to garner support for the cause.
It had been a few years ago in that tavern, he recalled. John had been seated unobtrusively in a dim corner, cloak over his head, just the occasional flash of blue from his eyes as he observed proceedings. Up until that point, it had been the same as every other occasion when Dougal had whipped up a crowd into fury at the atrocities of the enemy, before handing around a bag to collect donations to the cause. It had been when Dougal stripped the shirt from Jamie’s back, baring his scars to all, that John had surged from his seat and whipped his own cloak off to shield Jamie’s damaged skin from the gawping onlookers. He had drawn his sword – a gleaming, silvered sword that glistened in the light from candle flames. The hilt was fashioned into a series of interlocking waves, the metal cage adorned with tiny blue and green stones so that when the blade was held aloft it appeared to be rising up from beneath the sea.
With eyes the colour of a raging ocean, blazing brighter than the reflections of the fire on his blade, John Grey had rounded on Dougal fearlessly, berating him for using Jamie’s wounds to rouse anger. His words still came back to Jamie whenever he doubted himself.
“How dare you make an exhibit of this man? He is a warrior and leader of men. You should be honoured to serve him. How dare you exploit the scars he bears from an evil foe, one who I would swear to vanquish should your Laird accept my fealty.”
“Ye certainly ken how tae make an enemy, mo charaid.” Jamie huffed to himself as he patted John’s knee, fearing for the man’s safety. “Dougal never forgave ye fer showing him up like that, ye ken? I thought ye were going tae run him through wi’ that mighty sword.”
“I would have challenged him to a duel had he not relented,” murmured John, his hand automatically going to the jewel-encrusted hilt.
“I never doubted yer noble intentions.” Grinning at his champion, Jamie shook his head. “But there were eight of them besides Dougal, would ye have taken on all of them?”
“For you?” A raised eyebrow and upward twist to John’s lips implied that the question need not be asked nor answered. “Of course.”
“A Dhia, what did I deserve tae be given such braw loyalty?”
“As has been foretold – our paths are entwined.” John paused to lift Jamie’s hand to his lips and press a kiss to the backs of his fingers. Without blinking, John recited the phrase that haunted his waking days. “Although those paths may be stony or tangled with briars, we shall walk them together. From birth to death.”
The solemnity of John’s words rang through the quiet hall, resonating up through the stone pillars and across the ancient beams in the roof. Jamie paused as he considered the implied difficulties that would face them in the future. He squeezed John’s hand in his own, silently praying that their friendship and love survive whatever obstacles life threw at them.
“Aye, that’s what Raymond said too, although he said it in reverse, from death tae birth.” Jamie smiled wistfully as he recalled Raymond’s prophecies. “He also told me that our lives are linked and he holds tae his claim that the Lady of the Lake raised you as her son. Those dusty old tomes in his cellar apparently say that we were destined tae meet and fight side by side.” And die in each other’s arms.
Looking down at the leather fastenings on his jerkin, John appeared uncomfortable.
“As I’ve said on many an occasion, I remember nothing of my childhood until I met you at the Elysée in Paris. Raymond said it was the shock of my father’s death and the way that I was removed from the family for my own safety-”
“Hmm… ” Jamie raised a hand to sweep away a loose strand of hair from John’s face. He wondered if John had been bewitched in some way to eradicate all memories of his childhood, bar the death of his father that was too strong a memory to remain hidden from him.
“Raymond also says that he could help ye fetch those memories back– ”
“And I still have no intention of gazing into his damn scrying bowl to see the past,” grumbled John. “Or the future for that matter.”
“Aye, that’s as well, mo charaid.”
Jamie had once tried to warn John about the recurring dream he had of his dearest of friends being hunted down in the forests, but he refused to listen. However, the fact that there were still hidden resentments brewing amongst those loyal to Dougal troubled him greatly. He was a bad enemy to make. Murtagh was easier to deal with, he did not conceal his distrust of John and there had been many an argument between the two men, but his godfather always conceded when Jamie pointed out that John had saved both of their lives.
He was drawn out of his thoughts by John clearing his throat, as if desperate to change the subject.
“So, you are planning on a council of war first, then the feast?” John stood up and started to walk around the table, much as Dougal had beforehand.
“Aye, keep them hungry and sober – they’ll agree more readily if they can smell the food and not be sat there wi’ full guts,” replied Jamie. “If sober they’ll have nae recourse to claim they never agreed to anything.”
John nodded in agreement as he read the names of the clans to himself, all Highland names, familiar to him.
“After which you’ll have us all sign a pledge of allegiance?” John gestured at the quills and ink set out at the intervals, alongside candles which were as yet unlit.
“Aye. I’ve got Dougal tae thank fer that idea. It was his suggestion that Ned Gowan act as scribe and for the treaty to be read back and then signed by all those in attendance.”
“With the seals of all the clans?” asked John, even though he was familiar with the plans for the gathering.
“Yes – as long as they do all agree.”
“If you keep the whisky back until they do agree, it may facilitate a speedier rapprochement.”
“That’s exactly what I intend tae do.” Jamie smiled fondly at John. He knew that he was already familiar with the plan for the evening, but in giving Jamie the opportunity to speak it out loud, whilst sat at the Round Table itself, John was bolstering Jamie’s confidence in its chances of success. “However, I kept back one of the best bottles in my quarters and I’ll no’ be sharing that with any o’ them. I wondered if ye’d be interested in drinking a toast tae the Round Table of Broch Tuarach?”
“Do we have time?” asked John, a smile teasing his full lips.
“For a drink?”
“For what a drink of whisky in your quarters will inevitably lead to…” whispered John, moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue.
“Fer ye, mo chridhe? Always.”
Jamie took John by the hand, hoisted him to his feet and led him to a doorway concealed behind a tapestry. A doorway that led directly to their chambers.