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Love is a three-edged sword

Chapter Text

 

 Banner for story - Jamie, John, Claire, swords and stones

 

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

 

Jamie, Dougal and images of a round table

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.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Gathering at Lallybroch

 

Banner showing swords on the round table, John and Jamie, a scroll, and moonlight through a window

Jamie smiled to himself. There was truly nothing like an afternoon spent in bed to relax a man, especially one spent in such diverting company. That delightful companion was in the process of escorting each clan leader to their place around the table. John was the only man in the Great Hall not wearing plaid – although theoretically he could have worn that of the Armstrong clan if he so wished. But John had wisely chosen to dress sombrely for the occasion – nothing ostentatious, just a dark cloak over an even darker tunic and hose, the only light-coloured fabric being the ivory-coloured silk neckcloth he wore.

Dougal had returned, less than an hour before the meeting was due to start, bearing scratches on his cheek that he refused to explain, beyond muttering about claws that needed trimming. Jamie had shrugged off his excuse thinking perhaps he had also stolen an opportunity to bed his lover before duty called him away. Fortunately, the marks he bore himself were upon his back and buttocks, and not so visible. Smirking to himself, he stole another glance at John, who disguised any discomfort with such grace that no one present would have imagined how dishevelled he had looked earlier that day, his hair loose upon the pillows of his bed and his limbs sprawled out in wild abandon, asking to be taken hard. Dipping his head down quickly so that none would see the rush of blood to his face, Jamie tried to focus on images less likely to have the end of his twitching cock nudging his sporran this way and that.

As his guests took their seats, Jamie moved to stand behind his own chair, draped in the Fraser tartan. Drumming his fingers on the back of the chair, he checked that all was in readiness. Along a sideboard were flagons of wine and pitchers of ale, to be served only when treaties were signed and not until. Aromas from the kitchen had been drifting into the Great Hall all day, the savoury scents of roasting meats and fruits stewing with exotic spices. Candles had been lit at the table, casting everything else into shadow as the sun slowly set beneath the horizon. Raymond had instructed him of a bright moon that would shine that night and that he should wait until the first rays of its light came through the window high in the wall to the east before asking all present to pledge their allegiance. The diminutive Frenchman had asserted that all Highlanders were superstitious and would be readily swayed by omens. Jamie had not been so convinced, but he had been well advised by Raymond in the past and trusted him on this occasion.

When all were seated, Jamie sat down and began proceedings. As the evening progressed, he was grateful of John’s diplomacy and tact in preventing any bickering from escalating to an exchange of blows, accusations flying across the table like arrows across a battlefield. The scribe, Ned Gowan, sat at a small desk and made notes during the subsequent discussions. He then transferred the main points onto a piece of velum. They had finally reached agreement on most issues and Ned Gowan had read back the main clauses. However, there were still a few who argued that the agreement favoured some clans over others and that they wanted more benefits, in terms of protection or trading rights. Sighing to himself as he felt John’s hand reach under the table to squeeze his bare knee, he chanced to look upwards. A bright light had caught Jamie’s eye and as he gazed up at the small window in the east wall, he saw the rim of the Moon edging upwards and into view. All became clear.

“Enough!” he yelled, smashing his fists down, causing the candle flames to flicker wildly. He stood up, his height and breadth towering over every other man present. The light from the candles danced in his dark red curls that clustered around his head like a halo. He looked each man in the eye, daring them to blink as he fixed them in his sights, one by one. “Now is the time. Are we going to fight amongst ourselves, sparing our common enemy the trouble of destroying us from without, or are we going to join forces? Ye’ve killed sae many of each other’s men over the centuries – over land, cattle and access tae rivers and the safe harbours. If we share our resources, fight together and have each other’s backs, there’s nae force that can take these lands from us!”

Taking his sword from its sheath he held it aloft, then lowered it so that he could kiss the elaborately decorated blade. He then laid the sword down on the Round Table, pointing towards the dragon engraved at its centre. As he did so, the Moon ascended in the sky further, its silvery rays falling directly upon the blade of his legendary sword. A collective gasp was heard followed by a hushed silence, broken only by the crackling of a log in the hearth.

“Who’s with me?” challenged Jamie.

Immediately, every man present sprung to their feet, and laid their swords on the table. The moonlight shone off the sharp edges as if blessing the union created. Then, as the last sword was put in place, a spark shot out as the blade hit that of Jamie’s sword. His eyes quickly tracked along the blade, that he already recognised, until they fell upon the gem-encrusted waves of the unmistakable hilt. John’s sword. That had to be a portent. Whether of good or evil he had no idea. He would have to ask Raymond. Either way, he knew that he dared not look at John’s face.

Ned Gowan recorded the names of all those who had agreed at the bottom of the scroll and then waved his hand over the velum sensing the restlessness of the men around the table as they waited impatiently for the ink to dry. He passed the document to Jamie who passed it around to John first. Each man in turn hastily signed the document as it was passed around the table. As Jamie signed it last, he slowly dripped the sealing wax into a dark puddle next to his name, then took his signet ring from his finger and pressed the Fraser crest into the wax. At which point, a collective roar went up from the gathering.

After bellowing loudly in triumph, Jamie clicked his fingers and within moments, a cluster of servants darted into the Main Hall bringing around beakers of whisky with which to toast each and every clan gathered that night. Then, as if magically, appeared platters of roast goose, salmon, venison and pork. With a broad grin, Jamie gestured to the trestle tables groaning under the weight of wine, ale, bread, fruits and cheese. He entreated his guests to take their fill.

Grabbing hold of a bottle of the best whisky, Jamie weaved his way amongst his guests, topping up their glasses. As he did so, he looked for John, wanting to make sure his glass was filled. He did not see him at first, and just as he was starting to wonder where the man had disappeared to, he spied John leaning against the wall, apparently relaxed, but anyone who knew him well would have seen the hand hovering close to the hilt of his sword, and his eyes sharply focused beneath the hood he had pulled up over his head. In one hand was lightly clasped a goblet of wine and at his feet an empty plate. Apparently he had not participated in the festivities beyond taking a drink of wine and a small plate of meat, probably out of politeness to the serving maids rather than any desire to eat or drink. Jamie sighed and wished that John did not feel he had to stand apart, respected well enough for his courage and honour, yet never truly embraced as a comrade by any other than himself.

Feeling a presence approaching from behind, he spun around to see the familiar bald head and beard of his uncle. The red welts of the scratches stood out on his cheek, which appeared to be slightly swollen.

“Uncle – will ye still no’ tell me where ye got those scratches?” asked Jamie, determined to wrongfoot Dougal before he had the opportunity to spoil the evening.

“Nae, I shall not.” Dougal shook his head sharply, looking suitably irked. “However, I shall congratulate ye on a successful gathering – ye’ve proved yerself capable of rousing a rabble. Now tae see if ye can get them to work together.”

“Aye – that’s where the hard work will start,” agreed Jamie. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Master Raymond slip into the Hall and head directly towards John. Frowning, he turned as if to head in the same direction. “I wonder what’s wrong wi’-”

Dougal had followed his nephew’s eyes and muttered under his breath. Reaching out to snag the bottle that Jamie was holding, he managed to distract him sufficiently.

“Is there anymore where this came from?” asked Dougal, emptying the bottle into his tankard.

“A Dhia! Can ye no’ use a glass like everyone else – at least try tae show respect.”

“Those wee thimbles are meant fer womenfolk no’ men. While I have yer attention, I need tae discuss a wee problem. Ned is afeared tae travel back tae Dùn Èideann alone wi’ the signed treaty – he’ll no’ admit sae much to ye, but he’s worrit he’ll be ambushed on the way and that the treaty will no’ make it safely to his office in the city.”

Dougal looked across to the desk set up in the corner where Ned Gowan was carefully rolling up the signed and sealed document and tying a cord around it. A few of the older chieftains were observing every move he made to ensure nothing untoward occurred, their scrutiny causing Ned to sweat so profusely that he had to keep pausing to push his spectacles back to the bridge of his nose and then wipe his hands on his robes. Jamie watched on as Ned placed the scroll into a cylindrical canister and then sealed that.  

“D’ye think we should send an escort with him, tae make him feel safer. Perhaps Rupert and Angus-”

“Aye, that’s a bonnie idea, although…” Dougal paused to scratch his beard. “Nae, never mind.”

“What are ye thinking? That maybe it would seem suspicious me sending along two of my own kin?”

“Far be it fer me to say so, laddie. I would go myself, but ye ken how rumours spread – before ye ken where ye are, that auld bastard, Campbell will be suggesting I’ve changed the wording on the bloody thing tae have them all beholden tae the MacKenzies.”

“Aye, ye’re right. So, perhaps someone who is not-”

“Not a member of any clan? Excellent idea – Lord Grey has nothing else tae keep him busy right now has he? A trip tae Dùn Èideann and back will do him good.” Dougal slapped Jamie’s back. “I’ll go tell Ned the good news – he’ll be very relieved tae ken ye’re sending yer best man to guard him.”

“Ifrinn!” swore Jamie as he watched his uncle plough his way through a tide of tartan. He realised too late that he had walked into a trap. For some reason, Dougal wanted John away from Lallybroch and he had tricked Jamie into arranging for him to accompany Ned Gowan, who never rode fast, on a journey south. He would be gone for at least a week, if not longer.

Scouring the room looking for John, to break the bad news before his uncle got to him, Jamie saw Raymond first, furtively glancing at him before shaking his head and disappearing behind a tapestry on the north wall. There was no sign of John – which troubled Jamie. There was something afoot that had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. He would not rest easy until he had retired to his quarters that night, with John safely by his side.

Meanwhile, the combined thirst and hunger of a group of men, who had been riding all day and not been fed on arrival, rapidly demolished the victuals on offer and by the time the chieftains and those they had travelled with started to withdraw to the tents set out for sleeping in, they were all blood brothers. Raucous shouting accompanied the chieftains tripping over their own feet as they swerved to avoid falling over chairs haphazardly strewn across the floor of the Great Hall. The whisky had served its function, making friends of sworn enemies as they drank elaborate toasts swearing vile retribution against any who broke the bonds forged that night.

Only as the door was shuttered and the heavy bolt slot into place, did Jamie sense the presence of his lover. Turning around with a smile on his face, he saw John striding purposefully towards him, carefully sidestepping the servants who were clearing away the debris of the feast. He still wore the hood of his cloak up, the darkness of the fabric appearing to steal light from the room, making John seem like a shadow and not a man of flesh and blood. It was only when he tilted his head up, letting the hood slip back to reveal his hair, loose upon his shoulders and his eyes, gleaming like sapphires beneath furrowed brows, that Jamie allowed himself to exhale. But he could not shake the feeling that there was something amiss.

“John, I need tae tell ye-”

“I know,” interrupted John, holding up a hand. “Master Raymond informed me of your uncle’s intentions. I have been making enquiries to determine if there is any plot that has passed me by, but my sources are all certain that you are not in any mortal danger.”

“I wasna thinking of myself, but of ye,” sighed Jamie, understanding why John had disappeared. It was typical that his first thought had been that there was a conspiracy to do Jamie harm in his absence. “Whatever motive he has, we should both be on alert. He’s up tae no good, that’s fer sure. Mo chridhe – what will I do without ye?”

“I am sure you’ll find something to amuse you, as long as you don’t try to teach your nephews how to play chess with my chess set again. I still cannot believe you let them carve half the white pieces into phallic shapes.”

Jamie chuckled and pulled John close. Wrapping his arms around John’s lean body, he could sense the tension still there – he was as taut as the string on a long bow.

“I’ll carve ye a new set,” promised Jamie before whispering in John’s ear: “Tae be honest, the sight of yer long fingers teasing the wee rook has put me off my game this past month.”

“I know – why do you think I’ve been doing it?” replied John with a wicked smile, as he reluctantly broke free of Jamie’s embrace. 

“I shouldha known. However, no chess tonight, mo charaid, ye need tae relax, man.” Jamie still kept his hands on John’s shoulders, not ready to lose contact completely. “If ye’re tae be leaving tomorrow I’ll need to make sure ye get a good night’s sleep.”

“I would much rather you kept me awake all night and gave me something to remember you by for the next week or so,” murmured John, a wry smile upon his lips.

“After you – and no messing about packing fer yer trip first, I want tae find ye tucked up in bed by the time I get upstairs.”

“Whose bed?” mouthed John as he started to step away.

“Mine,” mouthed Jamie in response.

As John drifted away, his cloak billowing around his legs, the fine cloth wafting in the gentlest of drafts from the door to the kitchen, Jamie again had the impression that he was becoming more ethereal with each passing day. Try as he might, he could not shake the feeling that something beyond the mortal realm was intent of taking John away from him. Shuddering as a chill ran up his spine, Jamie walked towards the kitchens to ensure that there was enough food to feed all those whose hard work had made the feast such a successful event.

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

By the time he reached his quarters and slid the bolt into its latch, ensuring their privacy, Jamie thought that he had taken too long and that John had fallen asleep while waiting. He had tied back his hair at the nape of his neck and was lying on his side, his eyes closed.

Taking the sword belt off and hanging it from the peg on the wall within reach of the bed, Jamie quietly sat at the foot of the bed to pull off his boots and peel off his stockings. He was careful to tread quietly. If John was asleep it meant he was exhausted and he needed the rest, and if not … well, anticipation always heightened the pleasure.

The water in the basin was cold, but needing to clear his head, Jamie leant over the bowl and scooped up a handful of the cool water to splash his face.  Shaking the drips from his hair, he rubbed his face dry on the towel hanging close by. Feeling refreshed he set about undressing as quietly as he could.

Jamie unfastened the pins holding the plaid in place over his shoulder and slowly unwound the yards of fabric from around his waist, removing belts and sporran methodically as he did so, setting each item on the battered wooden chest under the window.

As he stood beneath the window he could see that the Moon had moved across the sky since they had gathered in the Great Hall and was starting to set towards the west, casting its pearly light into the bedchamber suffusing the room with an eerie glow punctuated by the brightly flickering candle flame. Looking over his shoulder to where a stray moonbeam touched the ornate headboard of his bed, he was almost brought to tears at the sight of the soft light caressing the pale, unblemished skin of John’s back where the sheet had slipped down to reveal his naked body.

Lifting the crumpled sark over his head he winced as the scars on his back pulled tight. Then letting the garment fall to the rug, he carefully lifted the blankets so that he could crawl into the bed – he could hear John’s breathing change and realising that he was not asleep, Jamie slid a cold hand under his body to grasp a fold of skin above his hip. A loud yelp and a string of curses followed.

“Ye awake now, mo leannan? Or were ye awake the whole time?”

“How long did it take you to work that out?” demanded John, as he curled up instinctively, protecting himself from any further onslaught from cold hands.

“I wasna sure until I was closer to ye – come here, I need ye tonight, John.”

Pulling John’s hips closer to his, Jamie felt the smooth buttocks of his lover come to rest in the cradle of his pelvis.

“Is that almond oil I can smell?” asked Jamie with a knowing smile, as he reached around to inspect John’s hands and felt the tell-tale traces of slippery oil on his fingertips.

“I saw no reason to waste time, not when the remaining hours of night are so short,” murmured John, a tinge of sadness in his voice. “Damn that man and his bloody machinations. I shall miss you.”

“Then I’ll have to make sure tae give ye something to remember me by,” answered Jamie, before running the tip of his tongue along the exposed throat of the man he loved. Then, having laved the sensitive area he gently bit down, delighting in the groan of pleasure from John.

Denying John’s urge to turn around to face him, Jamie slung a leg across his body and rolled them over slightly so that they were pressing down into the soft mattress. It did not take much from that angle to move one of John’s legs upwards, parting his buttocks and allowing Jamie access to his well lubricated opening.

“Es-tu prest?” asked Jamie, his voice hoarse with want.

“Pour tu? Toujours.” ‘For you? Always’ came John’s habitual response as he pushed back onto Jamie’s cock that was pressing against him. “Maintenant, s'il te plait.”

Sliding one arm under his lover, to wrap around his waist, Jamie threaded the fingers of his free hand through those of John’s hand that was clutching the pillow. Only then, did Jamie enter his lover, slowly pushing past the tightness until he eased his way in, not rushing as he wanted to revel in the breathy sounds and gasps as John accommodated to him. Once he felt John relax a little he started to thrust in earnest, picking up the pace as he moved the hand gripping hold of John’s waist down to take hold of his lover’s leaking cock. The sweat from their bodies mingled as Jamie pounded into John, losing control as his movements became more erratic and uncoordinated. He could feel John tensing up again, his hair broken free of the ribbon and sticking to the sweat on his back, his free hand clasping Jamie’s as he fisted his own cock, desperate for release. The stimulation from all sides had John coming first, his seed soaking into the sheets as he shuddered in Jamie’s arms, followed by the climactic roar as Jamie came deep inside his lover.

Gasping for breath, John pushed back against Jamie until he was on his side and no longer pressed into the pillows.

“I didna suffocate ye … did I?” asked Jamie as he carefully slid his softening cock from John’s body before collapsing onto his back, his own chest also heaving with the need to take in air.

“Not this time… my dear,” replied John, a silly grin on his face as he rolled over to sprawl out next to Jamie. “When you’ve got your breath back… you can kiss me goodnight. You forgot to earlier.”

“Damn, how remiss of me,” responded Jamie, recognising a challenge when he heard one. “Come here then.”

Threading his hands through John’s sweat-damp hair, he kissed him deeply, swiping his tongue over John’s and stealing what breath he had left in his lungs. John reached up to hold Jamie’s head in place as he reciprocated with the same intensity. On nights when they were about to be parted for any length of time, he acknowledged Jamie’s need to take control, he knew that Jamie wanted to make sure that he knew how much he meant to him. Neither of them ever mentioned the fact that on parting they never knew if it was to be the last time. Their world was a violent one, where even the strongest could be brought down suddenly and without the chance to defend themselves. For that reason, Jamie took possession of John, as if to declare to invisible forces that John Grey belonged to him and that if they were to take him they would have him to answer to.

“Are you alright, my love?” asked John after a while. He thought he had felt the moistness of tears on Jamie’s cheeks as they had kissed. “Is there anything wrong?”

“Tae be honest wi’ ye, there’s something been troubling me all day. I dinna ken what it is, just that feeling of the wind is shifting and bringing something unexpected.”

“Take care – keep those idiots Angus and Rupert close by. You can trust them to have your back.”

“Dinna fash, John, I’ll be fine here.” Jamie held John close, while he could, and kissed his head. “Just take care on the road, will ye?”

“I shall. I promise you,” agreed John, tracing patterns in the reddish hair upon Jamie’s chest, the coppery gleam glistening in the light of the candle on Jamie’s nightstand.

“Good. Ye ken the safest routes – dinna roam from them.”

“Yes dear. It is a pity that I shall not have the chance to meet your betrothed before I set off with Ned in the morning,” teased John, his head nestled in the crook of Jamie’s neck and his fingers still idly stroking his lover’s chest. “Just play nice and try not to terrify the poor thing.”

“Ye ken it’s a betrothal in name only,” huffed Jamie. “A pact more than a marriage proposal. Ned Gowan has the papers all drawn up, ye saw them - the priority is tae secure control over the properties bequeathed tae the lass by her late father and her uncle after he died.”

“I am certain that shall be a great comfort to the dear child after being removed from the guardianship of the Abbot in Inverness.” John shook his head at the thought of a child being bartered for political gain. “I was only twelve when my own father died and I was removed from all that was familiar to me. The fact that I recall so little of what happened, beyond some time spent in Aberdeen, is testament to the effect it can have on a child-”

“I’m sorry, mo leannan.” Jamie wrapped his arms around John and squeezed him to his chest in apology. “I should ha’ realised ye’d be sensitive tae the whole situation. I didna think. Forgive me?”

“I know you meant no harm,” sighed John, pressing a kiss to one of the many scars on Jamie’s torso. “I can just envisage her imagining all nature of horrors to be visited upon her in this unfamiliar castle, surrounded by drunken Highlanders. Your uncle’s timing is either atrocious or very deliberate – and I am not sure which troubles me the most.”

“Aye, ye make a good point there, mo charaid. But ye ken that even Raymond said that it was better that she came here than was left tae be preyed upon by men with evil in their heart.” Jamie paused to stroke John’s back, knowing that the man’s concerns were well founded. It had taken a lot to persuade him of the wisdom of the venture. “Dinna fash, mo leannan, ye ken I’m no’ interested in taking a child bride and as soon as she’s of an age tae wed, I promise I’ll let her choose her own husband.”

“And lose control of her inheritance?” asked John, with a wry grin. “I am not sure your uncle would approve of such a chivalrous gesture.”

“That’ll no’ be fer a few years yet and by that time I’d have hoped she’s learnt tae trust us and will choose a man from one of our allies,” reasoned Jamie. “And perhaps in the meantime, Laoghaire MacKenzie will stop harassing me and focus her attention on some other poor soul.”

“I can appreciate that would be a beneficial aspect to the arrangement. I am surprised that vixen has not succeeded in poisoning me yet. If looks were daggers she would have stabbed me to death a thousand times.” John stifled a yawn as he stretched out lazily alongside Jamie. “Another advantage to having to entertain the young lady will be the opportunity for you to practise your French on someone other than me for the next week or so.”

“I’ll no’ be saying quite the same things to Mademoiselle Beauchamp as I’ve been whispering in yer ears, mo chridhe,” chuckled Jamie, as he leant down to press a chaste kiss to John’s lips. “Bonne nuit, mon cher.”

“Bonne nuit, mon amour.”

Chapter Text

banner - Jamie and Claire, a magpie and a knight on a white horse

Chapter 3 The Once and Future Queen

Droplets of dew sparkled on the grass like strings of diamonds on the fine silk of cobwebs woven overnight. Fairy rings of mushrooms had broken through the surface of the meadow and Jamie knew they would all be harvested before noon. A trail of hoofprints through the miniature landscape marked the passage of John and Ned as their mounts had cantered across the grass, heading for the road to Inverness. Jamie trusted that John would keep off the main roads once they turned to travel southwards. His suggestion of taking at least five more men had been rejected by John, on the pragmatic grounds that a larger group would draw more attention and be more likely to be challenged. Jamie had been forced to concede that two horsemen could disappear into the forests faster, even if one of those horses was John’s gleaming white stallion, Karolus.

However, all of John’s assurances could not prevent Jamie from worrying, there were too many omens of ill fortune to ignore as mere coincidence. A solitary magpie in the paddock. The horseshoe hung above the door of the stables come loose and toppled over, letting the luck fall out. To counter the omens of misfortune, Jamie had tucked a large sprig of white heather behind a pin fastening John’s cloak – for protection. Embracing John one last time before he got into the saddle, Jamie had pressed a kiss to his cheek and told him to come home safely.

Waiting until both men were out of sight, his eyes watering as the sun’s rays all successfully broke free from under scuds of crimson clouds, Jamie wiped his face and returned to the stable block. It was still early, so he decided he would help the stable lads turn out the rest of the horses into the paddocks. They had tried to politely refuse his assistance, but he had insisted. Spending time with the horses in the open air cleared his mind and gave him back the connection to the land that he missed while conducting endless discussions with conniving war lords.

However, his mind was not focused on the job at hand. Images of John being waylaid or attacked would not stray far from his thoughts, even as he opened the last stall and slid the bridle over the head of the large black stallion. It was his own battle horse, Donas, a fearsome beast. He had grown complacent when handling the animal and did not stop to check that the route out of the stable block was clear. Before he knew what was happening, Donas had bolted from its stall and needed restraining to keep it from getting jammed alongside another horse that was already half way out the main stable door. Jamie had grabbed hold of the bridle to avert disaster and had felt the moment his arm was partly wrenched from its socket.

The sound of stamping hooves on flagstones and the loud cursing of a man in pain brought the head groom running to his aid. The poor man had apologised profusely, explaining that Donas normally needed two men to handle him – and that they usually took him out ahead of the mares. Jamie had insisted that it had been his fault. He explained that he had just exacerbated an old injury and that he would be fine, even though he was gingerly bracing his arm against his chest.

“Dinna fash, Alex. The bloody joint has never been the same since I dislocated it that time.”

Grimacing as he stood back to let the stable lads lead Donas safely out, Jamie blamed his own stubbornness. To be injured during a training session had been humiliating enough and after Dougal’s bungled attempt to put the bone back in place, he had refused to let anyone else try, even John.

Cradling his right arm carefully, Jamie then followed the stable lads as they took out the Shetland pony he had recently traded for a barrel of whisky. It was healthy and sturdy, with a good nature and a cheeky personality. Jamie chuckled to himself as he watched the wee horse canter fearlessly towards the larger beasts, not caring that it was less than half their height.

“Ye’re up early, nephew!” called out the gruff voice of Dougal. He sounded more displeased than could be accounted for by a hangover alone.  “I take it they’ve already gone then. Damn, I needed tae have a word with Ned before they left.”

“I’m sorry ye missed them, then,” replied Jamie, lying through his teeth. He was glad to have had the chance to see John off without Dougal breathing down his neck. And he was relieved that Dougal had not had the opportunity to whisper further instructions to Ned Gowan, the old family retainer who had been working for the MacKenzie clan for many years and been paid well for his services. Ned’s loyalty had been bought and if Dougal were conspiring against John, there was a strong chance that he would be involved.

They walked together until they reached the fence around the paddock. Dougal rested his arms on the fence, his hands clasped loosely in front of him.

“D’ye think Mademoiselle Beauchamp will like the wee pony?” asked Jamie nodding in the direction of the Shetland pony nibbling grass. “I havena named her – I thought I’d let the lass do that herself. She’s a bonnie wee beast.”

“That she is, but I dinna think her ladyship will be overly impressed.” Dougal paused, snorted loudly and then turned to face Jamie. “I expect she’d sooner walk than ride that pony ye’re intending tae gift tae her.”

“What? Dinna tell me she’s a spoilt wee brat,” growled Jamie. “Maybe ye best find a governess tae encourage better behaviour – ”

“Oh, Jamie, lad, I verra much doubt that will make matters any better – she’ll no’ be needing a governess. Or a pony.” Dougal smiled cryptically. “But ye may want tae keep yer distance when ye first meet the lass, she has awfully sharp claws.”

Jamie’s mouth fell open as he stared at the scratches on Dougal’s cheek.

“A Dhia, I thought those were from Mistress Duncan. What have ye brought back for me, a demon or a banshee of some description?”

“Ye’ll find out soon enough.” Dougal refused to meet Jamie’s eyes. Instead he glanced across to the neighbouring field where one of the grooms was attaching a lead rope to the bridle of one of the horses.  “Just as well ye’ve got experience breaking in wild horses, mind.”

“Hmph,” snorted Jamie. He tentatively attempted to flex his shoulder but had to grit his teeth to keep in the cry wrenched free by the pain. “I ken ye’ll be disappointed, but I’m a bit out of practice there. Donas all but dislocated this bloody joint again.”

“That shoulder again?” enquired Dougal. “Ye should let me try to fix it properly.”

“No thank ye, uncle, it will go back in place on its own. I hope. Meanwhile, I think I’ll need some parritch inside me before I meet this lass.” Holding his right arm close to his body by the elbow, Jamie indicated that he was heading straight to the kitchens. “Let’s see if there’s any ready yet.”

With the sun on their backs, they leisurely strolled back towards the manor house. It had been fortified and extended over the years and although it was not originally built as a stronghold, it was still a grand building.

Entering the courtyard to the rear of the cluster of buildings, they became aware of a loud disturbance. Shattering the peace of the morning came sounds of protest, shouting, screaming and pots being broken. Jamie clutched his aching arm tightly and broke into a run, intent on discovering the source of the commotion.

“What the hell is that noise?” demanded Jamie, before calling back to Dougal. “If any of yer men are trying tae raid my cellars again-”

“Och, Jamie – I recognise that voice. It’s no’ any MacKenzies causing mayhem. That will be yer bride-tae-be.”

Jamie stopped in his tracks, spun around and stared at his uncle, open-mouthed.

“What d’ye mean? Surely that ruckus is no’ being caused by a wee slip of a lass?” Jamie was incredulous.

Dougal avoided meeting Jamie’s eyes once more and just stared in the direction of the kitchens.

“No’ a slip of a lass, Jamie. Mistress Beauchamp is a full-grown wench with ideas well above her station in life. Aye, she may be a lady, but she’s feisty enough tae make yer Janet look meek and mild.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Jamie gingerly approached the doors to the kitchen. He was surprised to find them still locked fast. By the time the sun was up, the doors would normally be wide open to allow eggs and milk to be fetched. Hammering on the door with his fist, Jamie yelled above the din for someone to let them in. There was a hush and then the door slowly opened to reveal a cluster of kitchen maids, their arms linked, barricading the door. They broke apart on seeing Jamie and shuffled to either side to allow him entry.

Walking into the gloomy kitchen, it took a while for the men’s eyes to adjust after being outdoors in the bright morning sunshine. It was then that they were able to take in the scene of destruction – pots and pans scattered across the floor, stools lying upturned and broken amidst shards of broken crockery. Jamie would have called into question Dougal’s assertion that there were no MacKenzies involved if it were not for the presence of the most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes upon.

Standing next to the shattered remains of a large bowl, apples rolling away from her feet in all directions, stood a young woman with dark curls wildly tumbling over her shoulders. As she turned to see who had dared to interrupt her temper tantrum, the woman fixed him in the gaze of golden-brown eyes, which seemed to hold the fire of well-aged whisky. Her hands were firmly planted on the swell of her hips and her chest was heaving, the soft bosom framed by the lace shawl tucked into the neckline of her dress.

Jamie was vaguely aware of Dougal issuing orders, but he did not make out a word that he was saying. He had often wondered what the phrase ‘spellbound’ meant, but at that moment he knew. Shaking his head slightly until the sounds of the kitchens seeped back into his consciousness, he stepped forward intending to greet the woman, only for her to spin around, pluck a plate from the nearest table and hurl it directly at his head. Sharply ducking to avoid being hit, Jamie felt his shoulder joint grating and then a tingling sensation preceded a sharp pain. Rather than get back to his feet, he crouched down close to the floor, keening in pain.

“Ifrinn!”

“Are ye alright, lad?” asked Dougal.

“Tha mi ceart gu leòr,” claimed Jamie, attempting to smile in a reassuring manner. However the terrifying grimace indicated that he was far from fine.

“I told ye I’d set that bloody thing fer ye!” Dougal made to grab hold of Jamie’s arm by the wrist, only to be stopped in his tracks by the woman.

“Oh no you don’t!” asserted the petite woman, moving to stand between Jamie and his uncle. “If you do what I think you’re going to do, you’ll do irreparable damage to his arm.”

“Are ye trying tae tell me what tae do?” snarled Dougal, the blood rushing to his face causing the scratches to stand out lividly.  

“No – I am telling you what not to do. I’ll keep doing so as long as your intentions threaten to maim that man permanently. Now pass me that stool and get him to sit down on it.”

Dougal bristled at the woman ordering him around, but did as he was told, hoisting Jamie onto the stool and then standing nearby in case she chose to attack his nephew.

If he had not been in so much pain, Jamie would have been amused to see Dougal cowed so effectively. As it was, his attention was soon diverted to the woman’s presence as she stood behind him, pulling him back against her thighs as she ran her hands over his shoulders, comparing them.

“Has this just happened?” she asked, paying special attention to the damaged right arm, a cool hand sliding under the collar of his shirt as she probed the joint tenderly.

“Aye – but I dislocated it a couple of months ago,” explained Jamie, his mouth dry for some inexplicable reason. “Dougal set it back in place, but it’s no’ been quite right since–”

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. The head of the arm bone wasn’t relocated correctly.”

The proximity of the woman whose hands were gently manipulating his injured arm was almost too much for Jamie. As she moved around to his side and leaned over, her hair tickled his nose and he picked up on the scent of lavender, reminding him of the fields of it in France. Closing his eyes to avoid gazing directly at her soft breasts it occurred to him that she was simultaneously too close and not close enough. He could barely feel the pain in his shoulder, even as she cautiously lifted his arm and asked him to call out when the discomfort became unbearable.

“Hang on there, soldier, I’ll soon have that back where it should be. It must be causing you a great deal of pain.”

“Where did ye learn tae do this?” asked Jamie, after clearing his throat.

“During the invasions, the women of my family learnt how to care for the injured men. We weren’t allowed to fight, but it was something useful we could do.”

The touch of the woman’s hand in his own took Jamie by surprise, and then her smile, reassuring, yet cool, melted his heart.

“This is going to hurt, but once it’s back in place it should feel much better. Are you ready?”

“Aye.” Jamie felt he had lost the power of coherent speech. As Mistress Beauchamp worked around him, there was something about her movements that reminded him of John, graceful and purposeful, not to mention belying unexpected strength. With deft movements, she carefully manoeuvred the arm and once she was satisfied it was in the right place, and then, with a sharp movement she had the top of the bone pop neatly back into its socket.

He felt the moment the head of the arm bone rotated and slid back into place. It was preceded by a wave of nausea that was soon replaced by an absence of pain. Just as he was about to swing his arm he felt a strong hand on his shoulder urging him not to risk it.

“Oh no you don’t! Let the ligaments tighten up again before you try anything stupid.” Wiping her hands on her skirt, the woman took a step back to check her handiwork, before turning to address Dougal. “He shouldn’t work in the stables for the rest of the day, he needs to rest that shoulder.”

“Why d’ye think I work in the stables?” Jamie narrowed his eyes as he wondered how long it would take for Mistress Beauchamp to realise who she was speaking to.

“There’s fresh horseshit on your boots and you’ve got straw in your hair.” She graced him with a warm smile that could have melted beeswax.

“That’s a canny observation, lass,” replied Jamie, biting his lip as he tried not to laugh. “Indeed, there was a time when I did work in the stables. But now I employ others tae look after the horses in my stables. And this morning I should ha’ let them do their job without interfering. It was helping out that wrenched my shoulder again.”

“Your stables?” the smile slipped from her face. “I think it is about time we should be introduced properly. I am Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp, daughter of Henry –”

“Bee-chum?” echoed Jamie in a poor imitation of how she had pronounced her name. It then struck him that she was not speaking with a French accent. Her voice gave her away as a Sassenach – like John. “I thought ye were French.”

“Obviously not. However, you have me at a disadvantage as you know who I am, if not where I am from.”

“Weel - I do ken who ye are lass. I just wasna expecting ye tae be sae… “ Jamie flapped his hand uselessly as he tried to point out that from head to toe she was very much a woman. “Sae … well, tae be honest, I was under the impression ye were just a wee lass, I wasna expecting a full-grown woman.”

Claire’s face darkened as the blood rushed to her cheeks. She swung back her arm and then slapped Jamie about the face with enough force to cause his head to snap to one side. The bustle that had resumed in the far corners of the kitchen came to an abrupt halt and everyone froze in place.

“You bloody barbarian!” Her eyes were flashing now with anger. “The rumours are true then? You bloody Highlanders marry children and force them to – ”

“Sguir dheth!!” Jamie yelled angrily at the woman to stop her before she struck out again. Even if she could not understand his words, the fact that he towered over her when he sprung to his feet conveyed his intent, as did the fact he had grabbed hold of her wrist. His cheek reddening with the print of the woman’s hand, he struggled to keep his anger contained.

“I have never had any intention of getting wed tae a bairn. We dinna marry children.” Taking a deep breath through clenched teeth, he paused before demanding: “Madam Beauchamp, I demand ye take back that insult!”

“But … but …” blustered Claire, struggling to loosen his grip on her arm, using her free hand to try to prise the large fingers from her arm. “You just said you were expecting me to be a child. What were your damn intentions?”

“If ye must ken, my intention was tae… tae present ye with a pony-”

“A pony?” interrupted Claire, thoroughly confounded. The wind taken from her sails she raised her free hand to her lips. Glancing to the left of the large Scotsman she saw Dougal MacKenzie nodding his head.

“Aye – a wee Shetland pony,” confirmed Dougal. “She’s a bonny wee beast. The lads just put her out in the paddock if ye want proof.”

Claire looked from Jamie to Dougal and back again, her forehead wrinkled.

“We were also going tae employ a governess, but I can see that will no longer be necessary. Our intentions, madam, were tae keep ye here fer yer own protection.” Jamie leant close and forced the words between his teeth. He was still furious at both the slur and the slap to his face. “But it seems ye’re more than capable of fending fer yerself.”

Realising he still had a firm hold on Claire’s wrist, Jamie loosened his hold and stared into the woman’s face. As stormy blue eyes met amber fire, their faces so close they could feel each other’s breath, it was as if they were in a world of their own. A world of defiance and fury.

“I’ll let ye go if ye give me yer word that ye’ll never to raise yer hand tae me again.” His eyes fixed on hers, ignoring the belligerent pout, Jamie’s voice was dangerously low. “And if ye choose to break that promise, I swear I shall strike back next time.”

Neither Jamie nor Claire seemed to be aware of every eye in the room being on them, every ear pricked up to bear witness to the meeting of two volatile spirits. From a corridor that led away from the kitchen into the cellars, a small man peered. His long, silver hair tied back in a braid, his hand clasping a twisted staff. He held his breath and murmured to himself. Those closer to him would have hushed him if they were not afraid of him.

“I shall endeavour not to be in a position where I feel the appropriate response is a recourse to violence.” Claire’s measured response was couched in terms that made it clear that she had no intention of being subservient to the Laird. Her haughty words were greeted with gasps and tutting from the assembled kitchen staff.

Captivated by the fire still smouldering in her amber eyes, Jamie shook his head as he understood exactly what she was saying and what she was not promising.

“When it comes to any future discussions between the two of us, I shall endeavour likewise, madam.”

A loud burst of laughter from the far corner of the kitchens had Jamie snap his head up, just in time to see Master Raymond tap his staff on the floor.

“So it begins, the meeting of red and blue merge to give a royal purple. Such a strong aura – dear me, Madonna, what have you done?” Chuckling to himself and not offering any further observations, Master Raymond turned away and disappeared back down the corridor from which he had appeared.

“Who was that?” asked Claire.

“Master Raymond. He is …” Jamie trailed off, wondering if he should describe Raymond as an advisor, herbalist, wizard or necromancer – the man defied description. He decided to avoid any description. “Ah well, ye’ll find out what he is when he decides tae tell ye.”

“Are you being deliberately cryptic?”

“Nae, madam, but I’m certain he’ll talk tae ye soon.” Pausing to consider his answer, Jamie wondered why Raymond had referred to the woman as ‘Madonna’. “After all, he’s already given ye a special name.”

“Yes and you’ve told me his name. Perhaps, especially if there are to be further discussions, you would be so kind as to introduce yourself to me, sir.”

Shaking his head, Jamie pulled back his shoulders, despite the painful reminder of the relocation of one of the joints. It occurred to him that after being dazzled by her beauty and then enraged by her vile accusations, he needed to remind Mistress Beauchamp and everyone else present, who he was and what he represented. His position demanded respect and to lose that would be his undoing.

“James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Laird of Broch Tuarach and leader of the alliance of Highland clans.”

“That’s quite a mouthful,” observed Claire acidly, her chin raised rebelliously. “Do you expect me to refer to you by all those names and titles?”

“Ye may refer tae me as Laird and I shall call ye Mistress Beauchamp. What I do expect of ye is an explanation – why were ye taking out yer anger on the good folk here in the kitchens? I think ye owe them an apology. If yer argument is wi’ me, we’ll continue this somewhere more private.”

Glancing around at the mess surrounding her, Claire pulled her lower lip between her teeth and nodded.

“You’re absolutely right – I am deeply sorry for my actions this morning. The only exit from my room that was not locked led to the back stairs and into the kitchens. I was trying to get out of this place and they were preventing me.”

Sheepishly, Claire pointed at the rallied cooks and maids, arms folded over their chests, who had apparently kept her from escaping.

“That was fer yer own good, mistress,” explained the housekeeper, the chatelaine of keys rattling as she straightened her skirts. “After the doors are shut at the end of any gathering, we’re under strict instructions tae keep out any drunks looking fer more alcohol and tae keep the women inside fer their own safety.”

“Safety? What the hell’s out there?” demanded Claire.

“About a hundred men gathered from several of the fiercest clans in the Highlands,” stated Jamie. “They’re no’ bad men, but when flushed wi’ wine pride and in need of one more bottle of whisky they canna be easily reasoned with.”

“I see,” huffed Claire, swallowing hard as she started to appreciate that her anger had been misdirected and that she had not fully grasped the situation. “Please accept my apologies for any damage I have caused.”

A few scattered nods and murmurs suggested that the apology had been grudgingly accepted, which was sufficient for Jamie to consider the matter dealt with, for the time being.

“Aye, well, if ye would do me the honour of accompanying me tae my chambers, we’ll talk there in private. Mary – can ye arrange fer some parritch, maybe some bacon and fresh rolls tae be brought tae my study? A jar of honey as well and some ale – no, make that wine.”

“Yes, my laird,” a petite woman bobbed down in a curtsey before dashing off to gather the items he had requested.

“Could I have some fruit as well maybe?” asked Claire, stooping down to pick up some of the apples that had come to rest near her feet. Polishing one on her sleeve, she handed it over to the maid who had darted forward. “I don’t mind eating bruised apples.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

By unspoken agreement, they had broken their fast before engaging in any further discussion.

After seating her at the table, Jamie had slipped into his bedchamber to change into a fresh sark. Sniffing his boots, he chose to leave them outside the door for cleaning, for fear of offending the lady with the stench of horseshit while she ate, and was in his stockinged feet. Having poured them both a glass of wine he was staring at the woman across the table from him.

Watching Claire add slices of bruised apple to her bowl of porridge made Jamie shake his head in bewilderment, but she had calmed down somewhat and for that he was grateful. He was fascinated by her hands – in the space of less than an hour he had seen them hurl plates, curl into fists and wield a knife with skill. He has also felt them on his bare skin – soft, yet strong. Suppressing a shudder, he took a sip of the sweetened wine, before asking the question that had been preying on his mind ever since she had slapped him about the face.

“Why did ye scratch Dougal? I’m no’ saying he didna deserve it,  but will ye tell me what the hell he said tae ye?”

Licking the last morsel of porridge from her spoon, Claire set it down in the bowl. She wiped at the corners of her mouth with the linen napkin and wrinkled her forehead as if wondering whether or not she could speak candidly.

“If you must know, he informed me that it was his duty to ‘check the goods’ on behalf of his nephew.”

“What?” demanded Jamie, outraged. “Did he give ye the impression it was on my account?”

Claire rolled her eyes and fixed him with her amber gaze.

“Yes- but I gather from your reaction that his actions were driven by his own depravity.”

“What did he do? Tell me.” Jamie reached out across the table to take hold of Claire’s hand, pleased to find she was receptive to his gesture of reassurance.

“He cupped my bottom in his hands and then squeezed my breasts as if I was a prize cow. It was when he tried to hoist my skirts up that I was forced to defend myself.” Claire wrapped her free hand around the handle of the knife she had used on the apple. “I swear to you, if I had a knife upon my person, I’d have cut his balls off.”

Jamie’s eyebrows shot up and he could not help by admire the fire he saw once more in her eyes.

“That bastard!” growled Jamie, slamming a fist on the small table, causing spoons to rattle in bowls. His face was flushed with rage. There had been rumours of Dougal’s behaviour upsetting the young lasses that worked around the estate and when he had confronted his uncle, he had been reassured that it was just playful jesting. “He deserved those marks on his cheek then. If I’d have been there I’d ha’ given him something more permanent as a reminder no’ to take advantage of womenfolk.”

Claire sat back to appraise Jamie and for the first time since they had met, she let herself smile at his words. Looking around his quarters, her eyes were drawn to the doors that led off from the enclosed area where they were sitting at a table. She had seen Jamie go through one and return in a change of clothes, so she assumed that was his bedchamber and whilst he had been out of the room, the girl delivering their breakfast from the kitchen had slipped into another room and reappeared with a bundle of sheets and what looked like a nightshirt.

Jamie sipped his wine and took the opportunity to look at Claire’s face as she appeared to be taking an inventory of every item in his sitting room. She seemed to be fascinated by the small table in the corner upon which sat a chess set, half way through a game. He really hoped she would not inspect the chess pieces too closely, he did not think she would be amused by the penis-shaped pawns. He sighed softly as he recalled John rubbing the tip of the white bishop over his lips before setting it down in very provocatively.

“Is he your chess opponent?” she asked pointing at the chess set.

“Who? Dougal?” asked Jamie startled until he realised that her idea of a game of chess bore no resemblance to the game he was reminiscing about. “Nae. Dougal has no time fer the game.”

Seeing her eyebrows raised in question – wanting to know with whom he played chess in such a private setting, Jamie felt uncomfortable. He was sharing an intimate breakfast with another person in their rooms, the same morning as he had last made love to John in the adjoining bedroom. He was glad the door was shut or she would have seen the crumpled sheets and two sets of discarded clothing strewn across the rugs. He felt guilty as if he were betraying John in his absence.

“Who is your chess partner then?” asked Claire raising her own wine glass to her lips, without once taking her eyes from his face.

Jamie took a deep breath to steady his nerves that were unsettled by the gaze of the woman opposite him. Images of John’s shy smile came to mind and he found himself smiling back at them.

“That would be my dearest friend,” he answered, before adding in a softer tone: “John. His name is John.”

“Will I get to meet him today? They say you can judge a man by the friends he chooses.”

“Sadly, no.” Jamie looked away, not wanting her to see the pain in his expression. “He’ll be away fer a week or so. He had to leave early this morning.”

“Not on my account I hope.” Claire sat forward, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Och no!” Jamie shook his head vigorously at first until it dawned on him. She was the real reason that Dougal had suddenly decided that John should accompany Ned Gowan on his journey south. Dougal wanted John out of the way when he met Claire. It was on her account that John had been sent away, but it was too late to do anything about that. He was tempted to dispatch a fast rider to halt them and bring his lover back home. But he also felt the need to find out what plans Dougal had concocted and was in a better position to do so if his uncle was unaware that he was onto him.

“So, about this betrothal?” asked Claire, taking a crusty roll and tearing it in half. Her long fingers reminded him of John, especially the way she held her spoon as she carefully trickled honey onto the soft bread. “If you weren’t intending to take a child bride and were not expecting a grown woman, what are your intentions concerning our planned betrothal?”

Jamie poured himself another glass of wine, wondering how to answer her question. He was finding Mistress Beauchamp to be a most forthright woman. She spoke her mind and although her honesty was refreshing, it was proving to be just as confrontational as the debates he had conducted the previous day.

“It was intended tae be in name only to establish an alliance between yer family and mine. Also, tae have the men loyal tae yer father join our forces in defence of the Highlands. If ye were in agreement, we could proceed on that understanding with no pressure on either of us to wed any time soon.” Jamie took a drink from his glass and tilted his head to observe her reaction. He was not surprised to hear a gentle snort as the lady rubbed the crumbs from her fingertips. She appeared to be readying herself for an argument. “Trust me, I have nae wish to wed anyone against their will. I would rather ye found a husband ye wanted - ”

“I was betrothed once before,” stated Claire, icily. “My husband-to-be was killed though. Did you not know?”

“No. That’s a detail my uncle did not share with me.” However, Jamie had come to realise there were many details his uncle had been keeping from him.

“I think perhaps we should agree to speak truthfully to one other. Do you agree, sir?”

“Aye,” agreed Jamie, eagerly. “Although I may need tae keep secrets, I’ll no’ lie tae ye. Will that suffice?”

“Secrets? Perhaps a lover?” Claire chuckled as she watched Jamie go pink at her suggestion. Then she recalled the maid collecting bedding from what must have been a second bed chamber. She smiled indulgently. “It’s alright - I overheard the men escorting me here, they were suggesting that you would have to make changes to your sleeping arrangements. I doubt that a handsome man such as yourself would go wanting for company in his bed.”

“There is no woman in my life if that’s what ye want to know,” responded Jamie. Despite the honesty of his answer, he felt that he was not being true to either John or to Claire. Although there was no woman, there was a man in his life and in his bed whenever chance prevailed.

“That will make matters less complicated then,” observed Claire. “But I did sure I heard them mention someone by the name of Leery, well at least that’s what it sounded liked to me. Does she mean anything to you?”

“Laoghaire?” chuckled Jamie. “She’d sell her grandma tae be where ye are right now, lass. But dinna fash, she’s had her eyes set on me fer many years now and doesna ken how tae take ‘no’ fer an answer.”

“So, you are proposing a betrothal as a temporary arrangement? Maybe for a term of one year?” suggested Claire, seemingly as keen to reach an accord as Jamie was. “But we will not be expected to marry or consummate the union?”

Jamie spluttered on his wine, almost choking as he did so.

“Madam, ye are verra bold if I may say so. We would need to have new agreements drawn up and much as I would like to discuss the matter further, I am afraid that I have business to attend to all day with the leaders of the clans gathered here.” He frowned as he realised he had other duties that day that would keep him busy until long after sunset. “Perhaps tomorrow we could go fer a ride together, away from prying eyes and walls with ears. Then we could discuss mutually agreeable arrangements?”

“You would trust me not to make a break for freedom?” asked Claire, her eyes sparkling mischievously.

“I wouldna stop ye, but I will caution ye not to. It’s no’ safe.” He found himself smiling back, especially as it came to him that they were still clasping each other’s hands. Symbolically releasing her hand he added: “If ye want yer freedom I shall ensure ye have it – when I ken ye’ll be safe.”

“That’s very gallant of you,” replied Claire, rubbing her fingers together. “You have my word that I shall not try to escape. Perhaps I could stay here, in your chambers. It appears that there is more than one bedchamber- ”

“No,” came Jamie’s sharp response. There was no way that he could possibly allow her to use John’s room – that was his and his alone.

“Oh, I am sorry. I misunderstood earlier-”

“Nae lass, there is no female company I keep in my bed. But that is Lord John’s room. As my champion, he keeps a room close by when he is here.”

“Oh, I see…” replied Claire, screwing up her face, as she failed to grasp what Jamie was trying to explain. Clearing her throat, she nodded her head. “I recall that my father kept his secretary and confidante close at hand and for a while I served that purpose for my uncle.”

Jamie almost choked on his wine as he hoped she had not been quite so close to her uncle as he was to John.

“Aye – well, even though he is away fer now, he keeps his personal effects in his room,” Jamie nodded in the direction of the door that was locked until its owner returned. Staring at the dark wood, Jamie wished it would spring open to reveal John’s calming countenance.

“I shall see ye tae yer own quarters, perhaps ye’d like to take some books from my shelf – ”

“Perhaps I could be trusted to visit the walled garden? Maybe in the company of Mistress Duncan. She was telling me of the wonderful plants and herbs that were growing there.”

“She did, did she?” asked Jamie, with a frown. “Aye, I’ll have a couple of the lads go with ye – tae keep ye safe, ye ken? Well, Mistress Beauchamp-”

“Claire, please call me Claire.”

“And ye may call me Jamie when there is no one else around.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

A fist crashing against the outer door woke Jamie from a fitful sleep. He had finally seen off the last of the clansmen not long after the sun had set. After taking a late supper in his rooms, he had fallen asleep in front of the fire.

It was Dougal. He stormed in and stood with his back to the hearth. Without preamble or niceties he blurted out what he had come to say:

“Ye’re going tae have tae marry the lass sooner than we thought – that bastard Randall has produced proof that her uncle promised him to her.”

“What? No’ Jack Randall?”

“Aye, the cunning bastard managed to change the name on the betrothal agreement. She had been betrothed tae his twin brother Francis who was killed last year.”

“She told me she’d already been betrothed – ye failed to tell me that,” snarled Jamie, jabbing a finger into his uncle’s chest.

“It didna seem tae matter – the man was dead. Nasty accident, rockfall in the mountains took him and his horse over the side. Maybe it wasna an accident after all.

“We need to get ye marrit legally, and by that I mean sae it canna be annulled – or that bastard will be able to snatch her and her father’s lands –“

“Is that all ye’re worried about, the fucking land?” yelled Jamie. The blood had drained from his face, he was horrified for more than one reason.

“Nae, of course not. But ye need to marry the lass before the end of the week-”

“Can it no’ wait fer a week or two?” Jamie desperately wanted to discuss the whole situation with John.

“Nae it cannot – the man is already heading fer Durham tae stake his claim on the borderlands – if we dinna move fast, all is lost. Ye’ll no’ let the lass be wed tae that evil murderer Jack Randall will ye?”

Jamie could not allow that bastard, who had threatened his sister with rape and had him whipped, marry and then no doubt abuse the fiery Claire Beauchamp. But he was wed in all but name already – committed to John Grey who owned his heart. Surely John would understand that he had to marry Claire in order to protect her. Then he realised that John would not know that Mistress Beauchamp was twenty-four years of age and not fourteen. It would be a marriage of convenience. That was all. He would have Master Raymond arrange a ceremony.

“I need to talk tae Master Raymond.”

“That fucking wee toad? Why will ye no’ take my advice alone? D’ye no’ trust me?”

“No. I dinna trust ye as well as I need to – ye tried tae assault the lady Beauchamp yerself, that’s why ye’re scarred across yer face is it no’?”

Jamie fisted his hands into Dougal’s tunic and dragged him close enough that he could see the vein throbbing in his temple.

“Go. Now. I shall speak tae Master Raymond now and I shall meet with ye tomorrow morning tae discuss this further. I want no more lies or secrets from you. Is that understood?”

Dougal curled back his lip as if to object only to find himself nodding reluctantly. He begrudgingly realised that any plans he had depended on Jamie’s assent.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Knocking at the door that led into Master Raymond’s domain, Jamie could smell smoke and the unmistakable aroma of cherry brandy. The man had a weakness for the spirit, that he distilled for himself when he was not concocting all manner of other elixirs.

“I wondered how long it would take you to come asking for answers to questions you do not understand.” Raymond was sitting in a wooden chair by a black slate hearth. The smoke from the small fire formed curls and spirals as it drifted lazily up the chimney.  

“Aye – well, it seems that, according tae Dougal, I have tae wed the lass tae save her from the clutches of Randall.” Jamie did not waste time in pleasantries and from previous experience, he knew that Raymond would already know what he had come to discuss. “I’ve only just met the lass-”

“Time is meaningless, my boy. A moment is all it takes for a spell to be cast. And you have the look of a man who has been struck down by a charm you were not expecting.”

“She’s an extraordinary woman and I dinna want tae see her come tae any harm, but I canna bind myself tae her.”

Laughter bubbled up from Raymond’s barrel chest and he shook his head at Jamie.

“It is far too late to protest. The Madonna’s path is to become entwined betwixt yours et Le Fils de La Dame du Lac. You can no more avoid that, than stop the rain from falling. Sit, your pacing is making me dizzy!”

Grumbling as he acquiesced, Jamie took a seat on a stool, the chairs were all too small for his frame.

“The paths are fixed in respect to each other. Whether they all reach the ultimate destination depends on maintaining those paths.” Raymond used the tip of his staff to draw three lines in the ash scattered onto the hearth stone. He drew the tip through the ashes several times, heaping the ashes up in ridges on either side. “All you can possibly control is the state of those pathways – keep them clear from weeds and not so overgrown that you can be ambushed along the way by those who wish you ill.”

He then gently brushed the staff over one of the ash ridges causing it to spill into one of the previously clear pathways.

“Which one is which?” asked Jamie, pointing from one to the other, as the lines intersected at various points in the wavering tracks they made.

“You always take things so literally – they are just lines in the ash.” Taking the bellows, Raymond squeezed a puff of air that obscured all three pathways. Sitting back, a broad grin spread across his face and his dark eyes glittered ominously. “I can tell you that together, La Dame Blanche et Le Chevalier Blanc will support you in all you try to achieve. They will love you like no other ever shall.”

“I dinna understand how I can be with both of them!” protested Jamie.

“Oh you can be such a dense boy,” grumbled Raymond. He swung his staff out in an arc until it hit the legs of the nearest table. “How many legs has that table?”

“Three.” His eyes rolling, Jamie impatiently wondered where his mentor was heading.

“Très bien! And what would happen if I were to cut down one of those legs?”

“The table would fall over. But-”

“Précisément!” Raymond set down his staff so he could clap his hands slowly. “Two legs lack stability-”

“Nae, that’s no’ always the case,” argued Jamie, slapping his hands on his thighs. “Men have two legs!”

“And there rests my argument – inherently unstable and even more so when they try to prop themselves on their third, feeble leg – their cock.”

“Dinna speak tae me in riddles, Master Raymond. I came fer yer advice. Should I wed this lass or no’?”

“Oh my dear boy, you have no choice – it is not your decision to make. You were always meant to and shall always take this woman as your wife and queen.” Raymond settled back into his chair, wiggling his toes in the heat of the fire. “Do not fight your destiny.”

“My destiny?” His mouth agape, Jamie was shocked to hear that his future pivoted on a marriage he had never envisaged actually happening.

“But, a word of warning. If the paths of La Dame or Le Chevalier are interfered with, then all shall be lost. Whatever happens, you must never sacrifice one for the other.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

That night in his bed, clutching the pillow that still held the scent of lemon verbena and John, Jamie wished he was there with him, to tell him that all would be well and that he understood.

But as he drifted to sleep, imagining long dark hair across the pillow within the circle of his arms, John's fond blue eyes he saw in his mind’s eye changed shade from that of a sparkling mountain stream to the hue of water in a burn running across rich peat. And then back again.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

He woke from confusing dreams to find his pillow damp with tears he had apparently shed in his sleep. Jamie got out of the bed that had never felt emptier. He resolved that he would seek counsel from his foster father first and then he would speak with Mistress Beauchamp. A decision had to be made and he was not going to make it alone.

Rubbing knuckles into his eye sockets, as if to dislodge the visions that lingered behind his eyelids, he realised that Master Raymond’s words had sown the seeds of the nightmares. His vivid dreams had dwelt on images of trails cut through a dense forest; he had felt the snagging of briars on his clothing as had frantically slashed his sword from side to side, the sharp-thorned branches blocking his way despite his efforts. His ears still echoed with the sounds – hasty footsteps as people had ran past him, the clashing of swords in the distance and the incessant chattering of magpies taunting him from the treetops.

Pulling back the heavy curtains to look out to the hills, still grey in the early morning mist, he had an abiding sensation of loss.

If he lost John, he would never forgive Dougal.

But if he let Randall take the woman he had already grown quite fond of, he would never forgive himself.

There were dark times ahead and if he chose the wrong path he feared he would suffer such a loss that he would never recover. He shuddered and dunked his head into the basin of cold water on the washstand, before shaking it vigorously from side to side, anxious to rid himself of the melancholy that had him in its grasp.

Murtagh would give him sound advice and not be so enigmatic as Master Raymond. He suspected the man had a good idea how much John meant to him, despite how much he harangued his partner.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

As expected, Murtagh was in the mess hall, finishing his breakfast and about to head out. Jamie intercepted him, inviting him to come for a walk around the estate on the pretext of inspecting the cattle they had recently acquired.

Strolling parallel to one of the many drystone walls, listening to the sounds of songbirds greeting the new day, Murtagh eyed Jamie suspiciously but kept quiet knowing that Jamie would speak once he was certain they could not be overheard. They were heading uphill, where it was more open and windswept. Jamie found that the clean air encouraged honest discourse, but it was in the place where his ancestors had trod that he felt most at ease, as if their spirits held him up. Following the course eroded into the rock by the tumbling brook, using water worn rocks as familiar footholds, they clambered up the steep sides until they reached a flattened area where the wind seemed to still and the birds ceased to sing. Close to the wall stood a tall stone, leaning with age, yet revered by all who passed it by. The Serpent Stone. Slipping his hand into his sporran, Jamie felt the familiar curves of the wooden snake his elder brother had made for him. The shape matched that of the snake carved into the top of the stone that bore other ancient Pictish carvings. It was one of Jamie’s favourite places to sit and think, it always felt as if his older brother was beside him.

Catching up with Jamie, Murtagh paused to bring his fingers to his lips before pressing them against the centre of one of the circles on the stone. Once he had paid respect to those who had gone before, he headed for a flat boulder that overlooked the whole estate. After brushing off the twigs and leaves he lowered himself down and took a deep breath in anticipation of Jamie joining him.

“Dougal says ye’re tae be wed. Were ye no’ going to tell me?” grumbled Murtagh as soon as Jamie had settled.

“Och, Murtagh,” sighed Jamie, plucking a long stem of grass. “It was no’ until late last night that I found out myself.”

“It has also come tae my attention that the wee Mistress Beauchamp is a full-grown wildcat and no’ a wee defenceless kitten after all.”

“Ye hear right.” Jamie reached up to brush his fingertips across the cheek she had struck and was grateful she had not clawed at him as she had with Dougal. “She can hiss and spit fer all she’s worth, so I’d advise ye no’ tae get on the wrong side o’ the lass.”

“Wheesht! Ye’ve taken a fancy tae the wee firebrand haven’t ye?” Swirling around, Murtagh poked a finger in Jamie’s chest in accusation. The coy look he caught on Jamie’s face before he turned away only served to confirm his suspicions.

“She has qualities that are verra… pleasing.” A smile came unbidden to Jamie’s lips as he recalled the scent and feel of the woman as she had tended to his shoulder. There had been something enticing about the gentleness of her touch and the softness of her skin.

“Ifrinn an Diabhuil! A Dhia, thoir cobhair!” Murtagh swore and rolled his eyes in dismay. “Are ye telling me that ye’re willing tae go along wi’ Dougal’s wretched plot because yer cock is twitching fer the cunny of some - ?”

“Dinna speak o’ the lady like that!” snapped Jamie, leaping to his feet, kilt swishing about his knees as he did so. “Show some respect will ye? And it’s no’ that simple. Dougal tells me that if I dinna wed her soon, then that bastard Randall will claim her fer his own.”

“And ye believe him?” Standing toe to toe with his stepson, Murtagh refused to back down, even though Jamie was a good foot taller than him.

“Aye – a messenger from the Abbey brought the proof last night, wi’ instructions tae return the lady tae Inverness by the end of the week.” Jamie had demanded to see the missive that had riled Dougal so much that he had come hammering at his door. “Although I wouldna be surprised if Dougal knew all along she was old enough tae be married, I dinna believe he knew of Randall’s claim.”

Murtagh scratched his beard as he ruminated on the predicament facing the young laird.

“It’s a shame Ned is no’ here tae advise on the legal situation. Ye’re right though, Dougal would never ha’ let him go if he knew the lass was promised tae Randall.” Pausing to gaze down the valley towards the east, Murtagh chewed on his lower lip as he considered Jamie’s plight. “I gather it was Dougal’s idea to assign Lord Grey as Ned’s sole bodyguard?”

Jamie snorted in response.

“Aye – that was deliberate,” he replied bitterly. “Trust me, if I’d ha’ kent I was about tae be wed, I’d want John here. By my side.”

Grabbing hold of Jamie’s arm to steady himself, Murtagh bent over almost double and guffawed so loudly it startled a flock of starlings that had only just descended into a hawthorn tree.

“Aye lad, I imagine ye would – although I’m no’ sae sure what the family would make o’ yer choice o’ bride!” Wiping tears from his cheek with his free hand, Murtagh took a step back. “Although I reckon he’d look verra bonny on yer arm, wearing a frock, even with all that chest hair instead of a pair o’ -”

“Murtagh Fitzgibbons!” rebuked Jamie, outraged despite his preference for plain speaking. “That’s no’ what I meant. Ye ken I wasna saying I’d take him as my bride!”

Not having let go of Jamie’s arm, Murtagh steered him back towards the flattened boulder they had been sitting on before. He pushed a reluctant Jamie down and sat next to him. After waiting for Jamie to show signs of letting go of the tension thrumming through every sinew of his body, Murtagh nudged him in the side with his elbow and sighed heavily.

“Ye ken that it’s no’ because he’s a man, aye?” asked Murtagh gruffly.

“What d’ye mean?” came Jamie’s wary response.

“I thought ye’d been out on the road on enough campaigns tae ken by now, soldiers turn a blind eye tae where a man chooses tae stick his cock, as long as it’s done in private and all parties are agreeable –”

“What the hell are ye getting at?” Jamie turned to look at the man who had trained him and stood by his side after his parents had died. It was as if he was looking at him anew, hearing words from his mouth that he had never thought he would hear.

“Ifrinn! Ye ken there’s nothing new about chiefs and kings alike choosing a male lover instead of, or as well as, a mistress. It only causes a fuss when other men fear the influence of that one man. Idiots and fools - no’ thinking a woman could possibly sway a man’s head. They should ha’ met yer mother, rest her soul.” Murtagh paused for a moment, staring into the distance, where streaks of crimson clouds were building up in the sky. “It’s the struggle fer power that matters more tae them than who a man is fucking. That’s the real reason Dougal detests John sae much. Mind, it’s no’ as if some men have no’ tried tae get in tae a king’s bed fer the sole reason of serving their own causes-“

“That was never John’s intention-” protested Jamie, clamping his mouth shut as he realised what he had admitted.  Slowly turning to see if he had stopped talking before it was too late he caught the grin on his foster father’s face.

“Dinna fash, ye’re no’ giving away anything I didna already ken.” Murtagh chuckled to himself as he watched Jamie’s face turn as pink as the skies to the east. “Between the sounds from yer tent and the thrashing in the undergrowth from those wee fools Rupert and Angus, I’m surprised I ever got a night’s sleep before battle.”

“We’re never as noisy as that pair o’ reprobates!” disputed Jamie, smirking to himself.

“Aye, well, they may no’ ha’ the stealth nor cunning that ye possess – but there’s no’ sae much difference in how ye all carry on.”

Jamie snorted loudly and shook his head. Neither Rupert nor Angus had even been seen with a lass, despite all their bragging of conquests. They were never out of each other’s company. Whenever one was injured, the other would not leave their bedside until they were proclaimed fit and healthy once more. He had considered at first that their relationship was purely physical, but when he stopped to think, he could tell they were devoted to one another. Just as he was to John and John to him.

“So, are ye trying tae tell me that after all these years, ye have nae problem wi’ me and John?” Jamie threw a sidelong glance at Murtagh to see if his facial expressions gave anything away that his guarded words would keep secret.

“Och, if ye must know, mo ghille, I canna help but admire the man fer loving ye sae much he’d no' think twice about giving his life to save yer hide. However, I do worry that ye’d put yerself in danger to spare his.”

Jamie huffed to himself, his guts churning as he acknowledged the concerns expressed. He frowned as it dawned on him that his assumptions regarding the general antipathy towards John were wrong.

“Tell me then, honestly, why do so many of my kin have cause no’ tae trust him?”

Murtagh fixed Jamie with a steely glare, assessing the risks in speaking openly.

“If I tell ye, then ye must no’ fly off in a rage, or hit anyone. Including me. Are ye able to abide by that?”

“Ye’re making me worrit, mo athair. I’ll promise no’ to hit ye – but if anyone has caused him harm, I shall avenge him.”

“He can take care o’ himself, ye ken. And no bodily harm has come tae the lad,” assured Murtagh, who paused before continuing, awkwardly looking towards the Serpent Stone as if seeking guidance. “But, ye ken that he’s different tae the rest of us, Jamie. He’s a warrior, that much is true, and as skilled with a blade as anyone I ken, apart from ye – and that’s no’ just tae do wi’ the swords ye both wield. Nae, I dinna believe any other than the pair of ye could master those weapons. What is that wee Raymond says about them?”

Smiling to himself as he got to his feet and unsheathed his sword, Jamie held it aloft and recited the words that had taken root in his soul from the moment he had received the gift of the heavy broadsword.

“Forged when the world was young, and bird and beast and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream.”

Murtagh spat at the ground, muttering to himself about silver-tongued toads.

“They’d be rusted if that were true. Bearing up well fer the age he claims them tae be – I’m surprised there’s any edge left tae sharpen on either o’ them.”

“According tae Master Raymond, these swords cannae be beaten by any man-”

“Not all enemies are men and not all fights are fought on the battlefield!” snorted Murtagh. “Have ye learnt nothing?”

“For all yer dislike o’ the man, ye’re starting tae sound like Raymond, ye ken. So, what is it, why do they no’ trust John? As ye say, we both wield swords of legend, surely that makes him as deserving o’ respect as me?”

“Despite yer equal prowess in battle, in all other ways ye are like night and day. Ye, Seumas, mac an fhear dhuibh, ye’re born of these hills and mountains. Yer parents were part of this land. The spirit of the Highlands runs through yer veins as it has for generations of Frasers and that’s why yer kin and men from other clans are willing tae pledge oaths to ye. Ye are rooted in the earth of this land, yer foot fit the foot stone, long and broad.” Sighing to himself, Murtagh looked towards the hilltop upon which was placed the foot stone, site of inauguration of clan chiefs for countless generations. “Whereas John Grey cast aside his roots and was raised by the fuathan. That’s why they curse the lad when his back is turned and dinna completely trust him.”

Astonished at the fervour of Murtagh’s words, Jamie was troubled to hear the old rumour being reiterated by someone he had hoped would not share the same prejudice.

“Fuathan? Bloody water sprites?” Jamie shook his head, bitterly disappointed. “Are they referring tae the Lady who took him in after his father was killed? Ye ken that John has nae memory o’ that.”

“There are more than a few who dinna believe him. Some say he’s a bastard son of the fuath and was returned tae the water after his human father was killed. Ye ken yer cousins swear he’s part selkie-”

“Ifrinn! Is that why …” Jamie breathed heavily, trying to control his anger. “He told me he’d slipped and fallen in the mill pond! I should ha’ known that wasna quite the truth. He’s no’ sae clumsy-”

“I wasna there tae say what really happened,” interrupted Murtagh, holding his hands up in the air. “But, I’ll tell ye this, I’ve never known a man who can swim underwater fer as long as he can. That, and he speaks tae the creatures in rivers, lakes, even the sea – ”

“Now ye’re talking daft – ” exclaimed Jamie, exasperated.

“We’ve both seen him charm the trout from the river. Not that I’ll complain, it kept our wames filled many a time when we’d ran out o’ rations.” Murtagh grinned as he patted his stomach. “Did ye ken that Laoghaire swears she saw him talking tae a white seal – ”

“Sguir!” commanded Jamie. “Stop there! I’ll no’ listen tae any gossip spread by that sharp-tongued wee –”

“Ye may no’ but others do. I’ll be honest wi’ ye Jamie, I believe he could swim an Cuan Sgìth to the Islands. Even in a storm. It’s no’ natural – it’s nae wonder they claim he’s in league with the na fir ghorma-”

“Fer the love of – ” Jamie had grown increasingly agitated. He was familiar with many of the superstitions held onto strongly in the Highlands, but it pained him to hear them used to cast hateful aspersions on the man he loved so dearly.

“Like many men who grow up by the sea, John learnt how tae swim. That doesna mean he’s one o' the blue men, wrecking ships! He’s pale, right enough, but no’ blue!”

Murtagh shook his head.

“I didna say he was, but anyone sae happy tae dive in and out o’ the portal between this world and the next will always make men wary.” Grasping Jamie’s hands in his, Murtagh took a deep breath. “Whether ye like it or no' there are rumours he’s no’ o’ the mortal world, that his wealth has come from stealing the tokens left fer the dead in the water. The men admire him as a fighter, but fear fer yer soul on account of ye taking him tae yer bed.”

“Are ye saying that it’s common knowledge then?” Jamie’s mouth dropped open. He had assumed that the harassment John had received since he had taken residence at Lallybroch was due to the nature of their relationship – it had not occurred to him that it was down to the mystery surrounding John’s childhood.

“Are ye really that stupid, ye great clot-heid?” Murtagh reached out to clip Jamie soundly around his ears. “Walls may be made of stone, but doors are no’ – and I ken from sleepless nights that the two of ye are no’ the quietest of men.”

Jamie flushed bright red and buried his head in his hands.

“So, now I am forced into a position where I have tae take a wife, I discover that no one was bothered about me taking a man fer a lover?”

“Ah well, it meant that ye were no’ spawning bastards at the rate yer uncle has been,” teased Murtagh, before continuing. “Dinna fash, I make sure they also ken John Grey has a calming effect on ye, and we’d all rather ye take out yer temper tantrums on him than on any of us. At least he can match ye on the jousting field if it comes tae trading blows.”

“He’s been my rock, I dinna ken what I’d ha’ done without him,” admitted Jamie wistfully.

“I can see that, mo ghille.” Patting his knee, Murtagh huffed to himself. “If only he’d been a Highlander and no’ a sassenach. Or if ye had to choose a sassenach, it might’ve served ye better no’ to choose one raised by a sea witch-”

Murtagh did not continue, having caught the fierce glare directed at him.

“Mistress Beauchamp is no’ a Highlander, ye ken. And, she’s no’ French either – she speaks like John.”

“Och, that shall make young Laoghaire verra happy – ”

“I dinna care less about her,” growled Jamie.

“Ye should – she’ll no’ let ye go, that one,” warned Murtagh. “She’s been the root of trouble fer John and she’ll no’ take tae this English wild cat ye’re enamoured of-”

“I am no’-”

“Dinna lie tae me, a ghille ruaidh! Yer face is redder than yer hair. So, are ye going tae take this lass fer yer wife?”

“I canna let Randall have her,” stated Jamie, grim-faced. “He’ll destroy her. She’s a fighter and he’ll make her suffer fer that.”

“That’s true – so in order tae do the honourable thing, ye’ll take a bride who doesna love ye and abandon the man who does?”

“I have nae intention of casting John aside,” said Jamie, tapping his thigh nervously. “Master Raymond says they both have a place in my life. He says I need both and must no’ sacrifice one fer the other.”

“What if yer noble companion chooses tae be the one tae make the sacrifice?”

“Aye – that occurred tae me. I have tae wed the lass before he returns. He’ll no’ be back from Dùn Èideann until after the deed is done.”

“Too far tae send a messenger? Ye could at least warn him-”

“Nae – I  need to wait and tell him in person.” Jamie hesitated before putting his fears into words. Sighing, he confided in Murtagh as he needed to tell someone. “I’m worrit that if he gets word of the marriage, he may choose no’ tae return. He could disappear over the borders and I’d never see him again.”

“He’ll no’ do that – no’ without speaking tae ye first. He may, or may not be, part fish, but there’s nae part of that man that’s a coward,” asserted Murtagh. “He’ll make his peace wi’ ye first – but I’ll no’ deny that he may decide to leave thereafter. Sadly, ye’ve a few kinsmen who would rejoice if he did.”

“I’ll no’ let him go wi’ out a fight.”

“So, ye’re going to do it then? Take a wife?”

“I’ll no’ say fer certain," sighed Jamie. wearily, despite the early hour. "I need tae discuss the matter wi’ my bride tae be.”

“She doesna ken?”

“She doesna ken it’s become a matter of urgency. We were thinking of a long betrothal, ye ken?” Standing up, Jamie straightened the folds in his kilt and sniffed the air. “I’ll take her out fer a ride and talk tae her out by the river, away from the ears and eyes of Lallybroch.”

“It’s no’ a good day fer a ride,” stated Murtagh, pointing at the building clouds. “Have ye seen the sky? The wind’s changing, ye can smell it same as me – there’s rain in the air.”

“Dinna fash – a wee drop o’ rain never hurt anyone.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

“Come back here!” yelled Jamie, raising his voice to be heard above the rain battering the leaves of the trees.  He was drenched to the skin and regretting his over confident words to Murtagh. 

Digging his heels into the sides of his black stallion, Jamie bent down low and followed the route taken by Claire Beauchamp. It was not the safest route, amongst the low branches of the twisted oaks – especially with the wind picking up in the branches. He cursed himself, the rain, the trees and Claire-bloody-Beauchamp. She had deliberately made for the woods when she had ridden off.

“Stop! Can ye hear me?” he yelled again. “Damn ye, ye foolish bloody woman!”

Murtagh had warned him. He had said that the weather was going to turn.

Dougal had rolled his eyes when he had seen Jamie leading the woman towards the stables. He had told him not to trust the lass and that she would be away before he could stop her.

They were right and he was wrong. He should have taken her for a nice sedate walk in the walled herb garden – or anywhere in the grounds. But, oh no, he had to let her mount that bloody horse. How was he meant to know she was an excellent rider? Dougal had failed to appraise him of that fact. Even wearing that dress, she had managed to hang on for dear life and get away from him.

Raising his head to peer ahead, he saw nothing but tree trunks, branches and rain. His hair was in his eyes, but even after desperately pushing it back, there was nothing to be seen nor heard of his reckless, runaway bride.

“Damn!!” Scowling angrily he steered Donas towards the edge of the woodland, hoping to head her off before she reached the main road towards Inverness, assuming that was where she was headed.

He genuinely thought he had established some form of rapport with Mistress Beauchamp and it had all gone well until he had mentioned the fact that they would have to cut short the betrothal period. They had been trotting along the river valley, quite peaceably, until he had broached the subject of Randall’s falsification of the documents promising her to the man’s brother. It appeared that she knew all about Jack Randall and was not going to stay around to find out if marrying a Fraser presented a more agreeable option. Jamie had been so shocked by the language she had used, he had been taken by surprise when she hauled on the reins and dug her heels into her horse’s flanks, taking off as if Randall himself were in pursuit.

The rain had been relatively light earlier, merely a drizzle, but by the time Claire Beauchamp had decided to make a break for freedom it was much heavier and before long he had lost all sight of her.

The howling wind in the canopy above him sounded like crashing waves on the shore and he was a searching for a solitary ship in a sea of leaves and water. Blinded by the rain pouring from his bedraggled locks into his eyes, he had to react fast to pull Donas to one side to avoid the beast that hurled its way out of a thicket straight at him.  

“Shit!” he swore as the bay mare galloped past him – heading back for Lallybroch. Riderless.

“No! No! No! Dammit it all tae hell!” Jamie swung his head from side to side trying to work out the precise direction from which the horse had come. “Where the hell have have ye got to, mo nighean donn?”

Pulling up Donas sharply, Jamie examined the ground until he spotted the palfrey’s hoofprints. He was able to follow them but only if he dismounted and led Donas through the thickly clustered trees. It was slower going, but at least he knew he was on the right track.

His heart leapt into his throat as he saw the prone and motionless form amongst the tree roots. She was lying on the ground, wet hair plastered to her back and her dress wet through and clinging to her body. Throwing the reins over the nearest shrub, he ran towards her calling out:

“Claire! Claire! Speak tae me lass!” Dropping down to the ground, he rolled her onto her back and watched on as her eyes flickered open. Splashes of rain washed the mud from her face in rivulets and her dress was dirty and torn, yet she seemed even more beautiful to him at that moment than she had the previous day. “Ciamar a tha tu, mo nighean?”

“What… what are you saying?” murmured Claire, screwing up her face in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“I asked how ye were? Are ye uninjured?” Jamie brushed wet strands of hair from her face, and gently wiped away smears of mud with his thumbs. “What happened?”

“Rode straight into a bloody branch.” Despite the rain cascading down from the treetops, she giggled and then laughed out loud. “I turned around to see if you were following and didn’t see the damn thing until it was too late.”

“I’m glad ye’re alright.” Bending over, Jamie kissed her chastely, tasting earth and rain on her lips.

Claire drew back and initially tried to scramble away from Jamie, that was until she saw the look on his face. He looked on the verge of apology. The earnest expression convinced her to follow her instincts. She gave him an encouraging smile and waited for him to take the initiative. Slowly, he approached her, his eyes seeking permission as he took her face in his large hands and kissed her again and again. All the while muttering thanks to deities she had never heard of that she was alive and in one piece. Similarly relieved and caught up in the moment, Claire flung her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, tasting salt on her lips. Leaning back, she squinted until she could discern that the droplets of moisture on his face were not all rainwater trickling from his dark red curls.

“The rain’s easing up now,” commented Jamie, sniffing slightly. “We should try tae get back tae Lallybroch before it changes its mind. The mare will ha’ got back to the stables on her own by now, and they’ll be worrit.”

Sitting back on his haunches, Jamie held out a hand to help Claire to her feet. Swallowing hard, she accepted his assistance. Thinking that the calloused hands were no doubt capable of violence, she was surprised by the gentleness of his touch. She may have been emboldened to try to escape when on horseback, but she was not foolish enough to attempt to make a break for it on foot.  

Jamie called his horse over, and once he had got in the saddle, he offered his arm to gather her up, lifting her effortlessly as if she were as light as a sparrow. Whilst she settled into the space between his legs, Jamie tugged at the fabric around his shoulders until there was sufficient thick woollen plaid to wrap around her. Pulling her closer, until she was pressed against him, Jamie placed an arm over her shoulder, pinning her to his body, holding her securely in place. It was then that he dragged the coarse wool around her trembling body.

“I’d be grateful if ye dinna try tae run off again,” he murmured in her ear, his warm breath a contrast to the cool breeze that whistled through the trees.

“You have my word,” muttered Claire, shivering slightly.

“If ye behave yerself on the way back, I’ll arrange fer ye to have a hot bath in yer room.”

“That would be wonderful – what a splendid idea,” replied Claire. She meant every word – the thought of a warm room and a hot bath seemed far more appealing than a dash through rain sodden undergrowth in a soaking wet dress.

The rain finally stopped as they retraced the route they had taken. Amidst the sounds of rain dripping from the trees came the songs of birds, daring to venture out to find worms brought to the surface by the deluge. As they emerged from the trees into an open area, they were greeted by the sight of a rainbow, painting the sky with iridescent colours.

Jamie closed his eyes and tried not to think of the soft, round arse pressing against his naked thighs. He was glad the lass could not look around, as he was grimacing with the effort to control his body’s responses. Her rain drenched-curls were damp against his chest, and her scent filled his nostrils, with the fragrance of meadow flowers. He huffed to himself. Perhaps Master Raymond was right, maybe she did belong with him. But how he was to have both a wife and a lover was still a mystery to him.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

She felt surrounded by him. His chest movements to her back as he breathed, his arm around her waist and his powerful thighs gripping her legs. She was glad he could not see her face. She was confused. He was not what she had been expecting. He had been crying. Over her. He cared. It was not just above the dowry that accompanied her.

Lifting fingertips to her lips, she closed her eyes and felt the memory of his mouth on hers. Ardent, sweet kisses. Her own heart started to beat faster in her chest. She had not expected to feel anything for the man who had claimed her – like a possession. Surely it was too much to hope for, that the nephew of that awful Dougal MacKenzie was not only an honourable man, but one who could arouse such feelings in her. Maybe he was being truthful and that his priority was to protect her. Enclosed in the cage of his arms and thighs, she did feel safe. She was also beginning to feel something else that she dared not give name to.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Taking another gulp of the warming whisky, John shuddered. He felt as if someone had walked over his grave and it was not just the fact that he was wet through and only just starting to warm up.

“Here ye’ go, lad. Ye’ve deserved that.” Ned Gowan sat down heavily on the stool next to John’s and handed him another glass of whisky. He put his own drink down on the table to the side of him and then held out his hands to the fire. “We’re in luck, they have two rooms above the stables we can have fer the night.”

“That’s excellent news. We may even be dry again by morning.” John had accepted Ned’s offer to enquire about rooms, knowing from experience that a tavern in the Highlands would be more likely to find room for another Scot, rather than an outlander.

“I’ve got some even better news fer ye, lad. See those lads over there-” Ned took a sip of his whisky and then pointed at a group of burly Highlanders who were playing a particularly rowdy game of dice. “Past clients of mine, employed by their father. I kept them out of gaol a while back – they recognised me and offered tae accompany me all the way back tae Dùn Èideann.”

“I am not sure that’s what the Dougal MacKenzie would wish-” started John, eyeing the disreputable looking group of vagabonds with disapproval.

“Nonsense. The lads have had good luck at the table and put it down tae my presence. Dinna fash, I’ll be perfectly safe." Ned laid a hand on John's and squeeezed it to reassure him. "They ken that if they’re ever in trouble again, that they may have need o' my services. They’ll see me home safely.”

“But-”

“It’s the way of things – favours bestowed in exchange fer services rendered. They’re heading that way themselves on business.” Ned patted John’s knee and grinned at him. “It means ye can head back tae Lallybroch straightaway in the morning. I reckon ye can be back in less than two days’ time.”

As a wide smile stretched John’s lips, his eyes met Ned’s and he raised his drink to toast the lawyer and his clients past, present and future.

“Indeed I can – I shall set off at dawn, rain or not.”

“Ye can surprise Jamie – I’m sure he’d be verra happy tae have ye back by his side sooner than expected.”

“That sounds like a splendid plan," agreed John, quickly finishing his drink. "If you don’t mind, I think I shall retire early.”

“Of course not, lad. If I dinna see ye in the morning, safe journey and may the wind be at yer heels.”

John smiled at Ned, before bouncing to his feet and, with a smile on his lips and a spring in his step, he made his way towards the stables.  

Watching him leave, Ned Gowan took the spectacles from the end of his nose and wiped them clean with a handkerchief. Chuckling to himself, he took the flask from his pocket and took a sip of the excellent cherry brandy he had been given in exchange for a favour.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

 

Chapter Text

Jamie and Claire, Claire and Geillis, John, a Knight and his lady

 

Immersing her weary limbs in the warm, scented water, Claire closed her eyes and imagined the heat at her back coming from a broad muscular chest and the sides of the bath tub, draped with linen, strong thighs pressing against her legs. With a sigh, she wondered what on earth she was contemplating. She had only just met Fraser, yet she was beginning to come around to the idea of becoming his wife. Pragmatically it made sense, she would otherwise be pursued by a man she detested and feared, whereas Fraser seemed to be an honourable man and insisted that it would be in name only, for their mutual benefit – she would receive protection, as long as she remained a part of his dynasty Randall would have no legal claim upon her and the lands bequeathed to her by the Beauchamp family would be guarded by the alliance of clans.

The reality of women being treated as chattels to be bargained and traded with made her blood boil, yet Fraser had treated her with respect. She could think of many a man that would have had her punished for her attempt to escape, yet his concerns had been solely focused on her welfare. On return to the manor house, he had called out for a groom to take the horse, while he had gathered her up in his arms and carried her inside, whereupon he had called for the housekeeper and issued a series of instructions in the Gaelic tongue that she did not understand. Any lingering fears that he would have her locked up for disobedience were cast aside as she felt his hand on her shoulder, stroking gently to keep her calm. With a kindly smile, the housekeeper called for a maid to escort her to the rooms she had been allocated, where she was bundled out of her wet clothing and wrapped in a thick blanket. Another young girl had then brought a bowl of warm broth for her while others fetched pots of steaming hot water to fill the tub.

The chill that had permeated every bone of her body slowly dissipated as she came to terms with her situation. She would hear him out – that is all he had been asking for – and then, if he were true to his word, the final decision would be hers.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

A firm rapping on her door startled her from her slumbers, she had dozed off in front of the peat fire, the whisky she had been encouraged to drink having gone straight to her head. It was as she shook the fuzziness from her head that she realised no one had entered the chambers. The maids she had encountered all knocked, waited a moment and then entered, but whoever was outside was waiting to be invited in.

Curiosity got the better of her, although as a precaution she grabbed hold of the bottle from the table and held it behind her back, just in case. If it were Dougal MacKenzie at the door she was prepared for him.

Cracking the door open, initially she saw no one, then glancing down she saw a short man, barely four foot tall, with silver hair and the darkest eyes she had ever seen. He was about to rap on her door once more with the staff he carried and then paused, his face breaking into a wide grin.

“Oh, Madonna, it is so good to see you again.”

“I think you may have the wrong room,” said Claire, looking around to see if there was anyone else around to assist him. “That is not my name and we have never met before, sir.”

“Forgive me, Madonna. Of course, we have not met. Not yet, but we shall, my child. Je m’appelle Raymond. You may call me Master Raymond.”

With a deep bow after introducing himself, Raymond nimbly slipped past Claire. He took a seat in front of the fire and then patted the other chair with his staff beckoning Claire to sit down. Frowning to herself, Claire set down the bottle, perceiving no threat from the diminutive man, despite his strange manners.

“I shall not take long. The Laird is on his way to speak to you, even now. You must trust me and listen to what I have to say-”

“Excuse me, but why should I –”

Raymond glared at Claire and then rolled his eyes.

“You always have to question everything! I should have remembered. Your mother was just the same.”

“You knew my mother?” demanded Claire. “She died when I was only- ”

“Five years old. I know,” snapped Raymond impatiently. “Someone had to make sure you were safely taken to your Uncle Lamb.”

“You?” declared Claire in disbelief. Yet she could not help but wonder how he knew of her pet name for her father’s brother.

“Enough of your history, Madonna. The past is fixed and cannot be undone. Your parents both died too young, but that tragedy made you who you are now.” Raymond squinted as he looked at Claire, his eyes tracing a line around her body from head to toe and back again. “So very blue,” he murmured, before addressing her directly. “I cannot influence what has been, yet the future will be forged in the present. What happens today, tomorrow, next week- choices made now will reach out into years to come. So many forks in the road and so many ways the paths will be lost.”

“Paths?” asked Claire, struggling to follow the meandering words of her uninvited guest.  

“Oui, Madonna, paths. Not just yours, theirs too,” he muttered cryptically. Reaching into one of many pockets he drew out a trinket. Grabbing her wrist he pressed the pendant into the palm of her hand. “Take this.”

“What-?”

“Hush! Listen. Until you trust your gift to see into the souls of men and divine who is truthful and who is not, the stone will guide you. The greater the degree of deceit, the more its clarity will be diminished.”

Sitting in the palm of Claire’s hand was a pale blue topaz, cut into a triangular shape. It was set in a silver frame and hung on a fine silver chain. Its facets caught the light from the fire reflecting back a series of tiny flames.

“Sorcery or trickery to fool me?” asked Claire, sceptically, as she held out the chain and dangled the pretty jewel in the air between them. “I’ve seen these before, on market stalls, gems to detect poison, or to discern one’s true love.”

“Of course she will not believe Master Raymond.” Sighing to himself, Raymond reached out to hold her hand steady. “I am taller than the Laird of Broch Tuarach. Look at the gem-”

The crystal had become quite opaque.

“I have a crocodile hanging above my work bench and no back teeth.”

Claire shook her head as the crystal became clear once more. Raymond grinned and opened his mouth wide to display the pale pink gums that extended beyond the front teeth, not a molar to be seen.

“A crocodile? Really?”

“You must come to see it one day. One more thing, Madonna, a truth you need to know: the deaths of your parents, your uncle and also the brother of Jonathon Randall were not accidents. Not one of them.”

Claire gasped and pressed her free hand to her mouth as the gem stayed clear and sparkled brighter than before.

“Who-?” Claire wanted to know who was responsible and if they had all met their deaths at the same hand, but Raymond shook his head fiercely.

“Non, it is not for you to know. Trust in those who will come to love you and they shall avenge those deaths.”

“They-?” She wondered who these unknown people were who would love her and seek vengeance on her behalf.

“Insist on the truth and all shall be well, Madonna.” Raymond tilted his head towards the door, evidently hearing something that Claire had yet to discern. “Ah, he is nearly here. One more thing you need to be aware of – he has a large heart, room for so many, and that will be both his weakness and his strength. Guard it well.”

With no further explanation, Raymond leaned on his staff to help him to his feet and then bowed again to Claire. As he pulled the door open, he caught Jamie by surprise just as he was about to knock on it with a shaking fist.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

“Did you send him to speak to me?” demanded Claire the moment Jamie Fraser stepped into the room. She had been unsettled by Raymond’s words.

Jamie chuckled and then shook his head.

“Nae man tells Master Raymond what to do or where to go. Ye’ll find that out soon enough. I dinna bother trying tae ask him tae do anything any more.”

Claire glanced at the stone still sitting in the palm of her hand. It had remained clear. Whether she chose to trust to the sorcery of the small Frenchman or not, she felt that he was telling the truth.

“May I take a seat, Mistress Beauchamp?”

“Of course, please excuse me.” Claire realised that she was still seated, while the Laird of the estate was awkwardly hovering by the door. “Master Raymond is an extraordinary man, is he not?”

“Aye, has he been confounding ye wi’ riddles?” Jamie raised one eyebrow inquisitively. The resigned nod gave him all the answer he needed. “Dinna fash, mo nighean donn, he does that to all of us.”

Claire judged by the way Jamie’s eyes strayed towards the bottle of whisky she had set down on the sideboard and the moistening of his lips with the tip of his tongue that he would appreciate being offered a drink.

“A drink may help ease many a difficult conversation – shall we?” offered Claire. It occurred to her that he did not want to be the one to suggest they drink in case she assumed he was trying to take advantage.

“That’s an excellent idea. I think that some o’ what I have to say to ye would come easier with a dram or two inside tae give me courage.”

“That sounds ominous,” said Claire as she poured them each a large drink. She passed one of the heavy bottomed glasses to Jamie, kept hold of hers and then sat opposite him. Idly, she picked up the topaz and held it in one hand to take a closer look, only to realise that the colour of the stone matched that of Jamie’s eyes.

“Slàinte!” toasted Jamie, raising his glass before taking a mouthful.

“Good health. Slàinte!” replied Claire, sipping from the glass.

“Thinking back to our conversation earlier today, I think I’d be correct in assuming ye ken fer yerself that Randall is an evil, sadistic man – aye?”

“Yes,” sighed Claire. “His reputation is well known, as are the scars he leaves behind on those he allows to live.”

Claire shuddered. She had met Jonathon Randall on more than one occasion, the first time mistaking him for his brother when the Randall’s had called upon her uncle with a petition to court her. Thereafter, she had found the older brother, Francis to be kindly and his keen interest in ancient scrolls and parchments made him a popular guest of the Beauchamps. She had cared for him and found that it was as if he and his twin were opposite sides of a coin, one lacking in everything the other possessed. Francis had been the first born and was heir to his family’s estates but upon his death, his brother had inherited everything. Except Claire – although that had not prevented him from wanting claim her, too. But Claire was determined that he should never lay a hand on her.  

“Aye, I can tell ye ken exactly what he is like.” Jamie had seen the shudder and the way Claire took a large gulp of the whisky as if to drive away unwelcome memories. “Whatever ye choose tae do, I shall promise tae offer ye sanctuary at Lallybroch. If ye decide tae go ahead with the betrothal and tae marry me, then ye shall also have the protection of my kin, my clan and every clansman whose chief has a seat at the Round Table.”

“I understand that and I am very grateful to you. But what of this proposed marriage? We barely know each other – and although in time, I do believe I could develop an affection for you, I’m not …it’s not … I …”

Claire faltered, not knowing quite how to explain that although a strategic marriage was something she could agree to, she was not ready to share a bed with someone she had only just met. Before she could formulate the words to explain her feelings, despite having rehearsed several ways of stating her stance, Jamie cleared his throat, signalling that he had something to say on the matter himself.

“There’s something ye need to ken, lass. I’ll give ye my name and the protection that comes with it. Ye shall take rooms fitting yer station as Lady of Broch Tuarach and I’ll neither demand yer presence in my bed nor force my way into yours.”

Pausing to let her take in his words, Jamie stole a glance at Claire, only to find her staring into something clasped in her hand. She was smiling to herself.

“I believe you,” said Claire, thinking, rightly, that he needed reassurance that his word was being accepted in good faith.

“It’s no’ that I dinna find ye tae be a very attractive lass. I am drawn tae ye – ye are verra bonny, and ye have a spirit about ye that resonates here,” said Jamie, slapping an open hand to his chest. “In time, I may grow to love ye and ye may, perhaps, develop that affection fer me-”

“If that were to happen, I would welcome you as my husband in body and not just in name,” responded Claire, smiling more openly. She could not deny that there were feelings stirring inside her for the handsome Highland chieftain, with his wild red hair and dazzling blue eyes. Looking into those eyes she could sense similar sentiments reflected in the man to whom she could soon be wed.  

“But, Mistress Beauchamp. Claire. I have tae be completely honest with ye,” stated Jamie, drawing himself up and taking a deep breath in through his nose. As he breathed out, he fixed his eyes on hers. “Ye’d no’ be alone in my affections.”

“What? But I thought you said there was no one.” Claire was confused but could tell he was being truthful without resorting to looking at the gem in her hand. The thought of sharing him with a mistress was not something she had considered, but confronted with the possibility, she was not comfortable with the prospect at all.

“I said there was nae woman in my life,” stated Jamie, emphasising the word ‘woman’. “That much is true. But there is someone – a person verra dear tae me, who has a place in my heart and always will have. I’ll no’ be letting them out o’ my life unless they ask tae be released.”

“You’re talking in riddles, as bad as that Raymond!” Claire flung herself back into the chair, and slapped the arm rest. She was confused and irritated. She had been prepared to marry Jamie and then allow feelings to develop under the conditions that the man had offered, but she had also realised that she was not going to tolerate him taking another woman to his bed until she wanted him to come to hers. “Just who is it that I shall have to –”

“Lord John Grey.” Jamie swallowed hard after naming his lover to the woman he was proposing to wed. “He’s been by my side since we were barely strong enough tae lift our swords. He is my constant companion and lover.”

“Ah,” said, Claire, quirking her eyebrows and biting her lip. That was an answer she had not anticipated. She held the topaz in front of her so that Jamie’s eyes were either side of the crystal-clear gem. “And you love him?”

“Verra much and I shall nae keep my love for him hidden from ye,” explained Jamie. “But ken this – that doesna mean I will never ha feelings fer ye. I already feel the need to care fer ye and tae protect ye from harm. If ye decide tae-”

“I do. I shall,” stated Claire, sparing the man, having seen for herself the truth in his soul. “Thank you for your candour. If you had kept your relationship with Lord John a secret, I don’t think I could have forgiven you, for letting me marry you whilst you were already in love with another. But, as this is primarily an arrangement for mutual benefit, with the complication that we both appear to have developed a fondness for one another, I appreciate your honesty.”

“I will no’ lie tae ye –”

“I should hope not, although I appreciate that there will be times when you will be required to keep secrets from me.” Claire raised her glass to her lips and sipped the smoky flavoured whisky. “I’m actually touched that you will not deny that love for another but will stand by him. It speaks of a strength of character that is rare among men in your position of power. I commend you for that – it speaks of a kind heart.”

Raymond’s words came back to her about Jamie’s heart and its capacity for loving many and smiled to herself, amused to find that she was glad he was not going to abandon someone he already loved. Then a chill seeped back into her bones, as she wondered how it would be if she were in Lord John’s place.

“How will Lord John take it, to return and find you married?” If she were in his place she knew she would be devastated.

“I was hoping ye’d help tae explain the situation tae him when he does return from his travels. If we both talked tae him, perhaps-”

“Of course. I am looking forward to meeting this man you love so greatly. He must be quite exceptional to be worthy of such devotion.”

“He is indeed, mo charaid.”

“So, it is agreed. We shall be wed.”

“Aye and I’ll let ye rest fer now. There are matters I shall need to arrange. I’ll need to ensure we’ve enough food and drink in fer a feast, I’ll no’ be allowed tae get wed without laying on a good spread of victuals and whisky fer the guests.”

“Considering my last trip to the kitchens, that is definitely not a job for me.”

“Agreed. Now, I shall take my leave o’ ye.”

Rising to their feet simultaneously, they nearly bumped into one another. The empty whisky bottle on the table explaining their clumsiness to some extent.

Standing in the threshold of the room, Jamie turned to bid farewell to Claire, only to find her closer than he anticipated. Without thought, she leaned up and he stooped down, for one last glimpse of each other, but the proximity and the whisky emboldened them both. As their heads drew closer, their lips met and it felt as if their hearts opened. What started as a chaste kiss became more, as their lips parted and their mouths opened to one another. Breathlessly separating, they both appeared taken aback. Jamie ducked his head down onto his chest and scuttled away as quickly as he could whilst maintaining some semblance of dignity. Claire watched him until he headed down a stairwell, and then returned slowly to her seat and shut her eyes.


~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

The following day, announcements were made and arrangements discussed for a wedding in seven days’ time. Jamie had called all the servants, family, kin and clan members residing at Lallybroch to the Great Hall. He had held Claire’s hand as he stood next to his seat at the Round Table. He declared to all present that he intended to take Mistress Beauchamp as his wife and for her to become the next Lady of Broch Tuarach. The mixed response was tempered by the way she interlaced her fingers with his and squeezed his hand in reassurance. Come what may, she would stand by him.

It was Dougal who cheered first, naturally delighted, for all the wrong reasons. Rupert and Angus looked surprised, but had shrugged and then hollered out various coarse sentiments, fortunately in Gaelic so Claire was unaware of what they were suggesting he do on his wedding night. Raymond raised his staff and then hammered it down onto the flagstones repeatedly, a drumming beat that encouraged the others to clap and applaud the betrothed couple.

It was the women of Lallybroch who were less keen on the news, especially with the decision that the ceremony needed to be held with so little time to make plans. The housekeeper unfastened her chatelaine and flung it onto the table before walking out, saying that it was an impossible task.

“Damn – I’ll have tae ask Jenny tae help instead.” Jamie scowled as he saw that the small knife on the bunch of keys and other implements had scratched the paint on the table. So much for his insistence on nothing being thrown in anger at the Round Table.

“Jenny?” whispered Claire.

“My sister.” Jamie replied through clenched teeth. He had been dreading explaining the reasons for a sudden wedding to Jenny, without having to beg her help with dresses and the like.

 Wondering idly if there were any other women to come to his aid, he saw Laoghaire narrowing her eyes at Claire, her expression resembling someone with a mouthful of wasps. Shaking his head in dismay he was relieved to see Geillis wrap a sisterly arm around the girl to take her out of the hall, hopefully to console her.

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

By late afternoon, when Geillis invited Claire to walk with her to gather herbs and flowers, she was more than happy to get some fresh air, having been cooped up all day in her chambers. Jamie had explained that she could discuss arrangements with his sister when she arrived, but that he had tasked his kin to deal with the practicalities of the event.

Wandering along the banks of a stream, heading towards the millpond, Claire felt happier than she could have thought considering the events of the previous few days. She was carrying a basket over her arm, brimming with bunches of wild flowers to put in her room. Lifting her face up to the sun, she basked in the warmth of the sun and breathed deeply of the green-scented air,  grateful for a change in the weather. Hearing someone rushing up behind them through the long grass, she turned to see a young boy running towards Geillis. He spoke hurriedly to the red-haired woman, who frowned before turning to Claire.

“Master Raymond has a request tae make o’ me that he can only make in person,” said Geillis, irritation clear in her tone of voice. “Probably wants me to hunt for more mandrake or belladonna, that wee frog!”

“I can walk back with you-” offered Claire, expecting to be escorted back.

“No need fer that. Just dinna go beyond the mill pond. Ye’ll find that watercress ye’re after in the stream nearby.”

As Geillis carved a path through the meadow, heedless of the plants she was crushing underfoot, Claire kept walking alongside the stream. The burbling sounds as it ran over rocks was a pleasant accompaniment to the songs of birds high in the treetops.

She found the watercress where Geillis had told her it would be growing and took the knife from her pocket to cut a few bunches. She had taken an interest in herb lore when she was still a child and had learnt a lot from old texts in her uncle’s library. Claire knew that watercress possessed many properties that maintained strong blood and firm gums. She was delighted to discover it growing in great drifts in the shallow waters of the stream.

It felt so tranquil that she walked a little further until she reached the large millpond. Setting down her basket in the shorter grass, Claire kicked off her shoes, sat near the edge and dangled her feet into the cold water. She squealed a little as the icy water lapped at her calves and then screamed out loud as a head suddenly emerged from the water close by. Scrambling to her feet and grabbing hold of the knife from her belt, she turned to run, only to catch her foot in a rabbit hole and stumble awkwardly to the ground.

“Shit!” she yelled. “Shit, shit, shit!”

Looking up she saw a man wading out of the pond, clad in nothing but a white linen shirt, that clung to his body, leaving very little to the imagination. She dragged her eyes away from the area where she could see dark hair against paler skin and tried to focus on the man’s face.

“Madam – please, I am dreadfully sorry for alarming you!” he apologised.

“Alarming me? You nearly scared me to death!” yelled Claire, adamantly. She was annoyed at him and also with herself for staring in a manner not fitting for a lady of her status. “What the hell do you think you were doing?”

The man’s brow wrinkled as he heard her speak.

“You do not appear to be from around these parts.” Slowly making his way to the bank, the man swept strands of dark hair from his face and dragged the ends of his shirt down to cover what he could. He was not particularly successful.

“Neither do you,” retorted Claire.

“Ah, I am not from the Highlands, that is evidently true. However, I have lived here for a few years now... but I’ve not seen you before.”

“I only arrived recently.” Although she was trying hard not to stare at the almost naked man, she could see that he was beginning to shiver. “For heaven’s sake, sir, do come out of the water or you shall catch your death. You have still not explained to me what you were doing?”

“Bathing – I have been riding hard for the past two days and wanted to freshen up.”

As he tried to clamber up the steep side, he lost his footing in the slippery mud and fell forward. He reached out to grab hold of a tussock of coarse grass only to succeed in pulling it up by the roots.

Feeling in need of assisting him in his endeavours to get up the muddy bank and preserve his modesty, Claire leaned forward and held out a hand.

“Here, take my hand.” As soon as their hands clasped hold of one another, Claire felt a jolt as if she had been plunged into the icy millpond herself.

From the look on the man’s face, it seemed that he had experienced a similar sensation. Taking a moment to gaze at his features, his face mere inches from hers, Claire admired his elegant beauty; exquisite blue eyes, a finely shaped nose and lips so full, she was sure many a woman would envy him for them.

“Did you-?”

“What-?”

“How very peculiar,” remarked the man as he stared back at Claire.

Clearing her throat, Claire broke the connection and busied herself picking up the basket she had knocked over in her haste to get to her feet.

“Dear God, just look at me,” muttered the man. “I’ll just retrieve the rest of my clothing, make myself presentable and then return to help you gather up your plants.”

“No need, really, kind sir.” However, as Claire tried to stand up, the moment she placed weight on her ankle, she let out a cry of pain.

“Madam! You are hurt!”

“It’s just my ankle.”

Dripping wet, but attempting to be chivalrous despite his lack of clothing, the stranger guided her carefully to a smooth rock and sat her down.

“Do not move from there until I return. I shall be as quick as is possible.”

If it had not been for the throbbing pain in her foot, Claire would have giggled at the sight of the young man’s pale buttocks, inadvertently revealed as his shirt rode up over his thighs as he broke into a run. He ducked under the hanging branches of a willow tree and disappeared from sight.

Claire could hear muttered cursing and then, minutes later, from the other side of the tree, he returned, this time dressed more or less correctly and leading a magnificent white stallion. From his attire, coupled with the manner of his speech and the horse he rode, she deduced that he was a nobleman of some rank.

He crouched down in front of her and asked permission to examine her ankle. His hands were gentle and his touch careful as he cradled her foot in his lap to feel for injured bones, or severe distortions of the joint. She approved of his technique and wondered if he had come about such knowledge from necessity on the battlefield. It would explain the scars she recalled seeing on his legs.

“Not broken, just sprained – but it shall swell up terribly if we do not get you home soon. Where is it you are staying, madam?”

“Broch Tuarach.”

“That is where I am heading myself,” he smiled. “I shall be honoured to see you back safely.”

Gathering the flowers and leaves from where they lay scattered on the ground and into the basket, her saviour then picked up her knife and gingerly returned it to Claire.

“Your weapon, my dear.” Holding the knife by the blade he handed in back with a cheeky grin that made Claire shake her head.

“Thank you, kind sir. Do you make a habit of this– rescuing damsels in distress?”

“At your service, my dear.” Bowing dramatically, the man smiled and Claire found herself smiling back in return, finding the stranger impossible not to like. He then took her hand and Claire felt her heart lurch at the softness of his touch and then the gentle press of his lips to the back of her fingers. “Although I am not normally the cause of the damsels being distressed.”

“It was my clumsiness at fault,” said Claire, thinking back to the moment she had seen his head and leapt to her feet. Then it occurred to her that she had not heard him swimming and he had seemed to come from nowhere. “I had no idea anyone was in the water. I hadn’t heard you swimming.”

“I was beneath the surface – it helps to clear my head.” A sadness seemed to descend on the nobleman. “Now, if you will permit me, my dear, let’s get you home.”

Bending down to scoop her into his arms, she felt as if she had been in such a position before. Of course, only two days previously, Jamie had also gathered her into his arms when she had fallen from her horse.

As the stranger draped her arm around his neck and clasped her hand in his, she felt a similar strength as he lifted her effortlessly. She barely felt a thing as she was carefully hoisted onto the saddle of the white horse. At that moment she would not have been surprised if she had woken to find it all a dream. In her mind’s eye she felt the swaying of decks beneath her feet and a wooden rail under her fingers. The stranger was standing beside her and comforting her. Opening her eyes she gasped as she found it was real and not a dream, only she was upon a white stallion and not a ship. Looking down to her side she could see that the man’s eyes had widened, darkening as the rims of pale blue seemed to narrow.

“Did I hurt you, my dear?”

“Not at all. I just felt most peculiar. Are you sure we have not met before? I seem to recall a ship, you stood by my side on the deck.”

The man shook his head, although the way the blood seemed to drain from his cheeks suggested he was not as convinced as he would have her believe.

“I don’t believe so. No, I don’t think so at all. We are both what the locals would call sassenachs, outlanders, and beyond that I do not think there is anything we have in common.”

“Sir, it occurs to me that we have not been introduced,” said Claire. “Am I not to know the name of my gallant rescuer?”

“You may call me Le Chevalier Blanc. And your name, dear lady?”

“La Dame Blanche,” replied Claire, playing along with the game of giving descriptions instead of names when meeting well-meaning strangers on the road.

Chuckling at their shared joke, they enjoyed each other’s company as they made their way back towards Broch Tuarach.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

From his seat next to the Serpent Stone, where he had been telling his brother his news, Jamie was shocked at the sight of John’s horse. Grinning to himself, he could just make out that John was on foot and that there was a woman sitting astride the horse. Not caring about the circumstances of his lover’s early return, Jamie scrambled downhill and headed directly for the stables.

Coming up from behind he caught John by surprise, grabbing him around the waist and spinning him around in his arms.

“Mo chridhe, it’s good tae see ye home safely. I see ye’ve been rescuing lasses in distress again!”

“Ah – it’s not all it seems-”

Not waiting for an explanation, Jamie hugged him tightly to his chest.

“Well, ye’re no’ the only one,” he murmured in John’s ear. “I’ll explain later.”

Grinning at each other, they eventually broke apart. Meanwhile the grooms had helped Claire down from the saddle. Seeing her propping herself up against the side of his horse, John quickly turned to offer her his arm.

“I am most remiss. Please, my laird, may I introduce you to La Dame- ”

“What the-? Ye have a taste fer peril d’ye no’ lass?” Jamie grunted and then moved to Claire’s other side. “John – this is Mistress Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.”

“Claire? But I - ”

“John? Lord John Grey?”

Jamie looked from one to the other as his lover and bride-to-be locked eyes and looked mortified.

“Your betrothed?” asked John, seeking clarification. “The little orphaned lass.”

“Aye, John. As ye can see she is older than Dougal led us tae believe. We are tae be wed.”

Carefully manoeuvring Claire into Jamie’s  arms, John stepped back and bowed low. His demeanour had changed instantly and he had become quite formal.

“I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Mistress Beauchamp.” He then straightened and stiffly turned to address Jamie. “If you will permit me, I shall see to my horse, sire. Perhaps we could talk later.”

“Aye. But will ye no’ join us now?”

“The lady has injured her ankle and requires your immediate attention. I shall be in my quarters above the stable block.”

Jamie frowned – John’s quarters were in his chambers. He had a small room above the stables he used for those rare occasions when he arrived after the buildings were all locked and secured for the night. It was far from the reunion he had hoped for. He had desperately wanted to speak to John before introducing him to Claire, but it was too late for that. Claire snaked an arm around his waist and held on tightly as they watched John walk away from them. He sensed that she was as anxious as he was to call John back, to explain everything there and then, but they could not say a word, not in the stable courtyard.  

“I can see why you love him,” whispered Claire.

Examining her face closely, Jamie saw a wistful expression that he could not understand.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

Chapter Text

banner - weddings, Jamie, Claire, John, Geillis, Dougal

 

Chapter 6

Jamie narrowed his eyes as he watched John take hold of his horse’s bridle and lead the white stallion into the stable building. As John disappeared into the gloom, he spared a glance at the pitched roof above the stone-built stables. The loft provided lodging for the stable lads and, at one end a partition had been built of wattle and daub panels, behind which was a small room that John had laid claim to when Karolus had been taken sick once. He had spent most nights close to his beloved white stallion, and when he had fallen asleep at the animal’s side, he had been carried there by the grooms, who had great respect for the way in which he cared for his steed. From that time on, the partitioned alcove was considered to be Lord John’s place for whenever he had need to be close to the animal he depended on to carry him to battle and thence to safety thereafter.

Wondering what was going on in John’s head, Jamie asked the groom if Karolus had suffered any injury which would account for John’s desire to stay close at hand. The man just shook his head and shrugged. He then asked Claire if she had noticed anything amiss with John’s horse.

“Not at all – but if your concern is for the welfare of the horseman and not the horse, then perhaps you should ask him.”

Having eliminated any other reason John may have had to stay in the stables, Jamie bit down on his lip; he had no need to ask what ailed his lover. Resisting the urge to chase after John, he tightened his hold around the waist of Claire Beauchamp as he felt her shift against his side.

“Your injury, madam, how bad is it?” Jamie enquired politely.

“Nothing too serious, I was clumsy and twisted my ankle – a compress and raising it will do it the world of good. Perhaps you would be so kind as to help me to my quarters?”

“Of course.” With one last longing glance at the interior of the stable block, Jamie stooped down to slide an arm under Claire’s knees before effortlessly lifting her from the ground.

“This is beginning to become a habit,” murmured Claire, wrapping an arm around Jamie’s neck. Despite the tension in the air, it occurred to her that she had felt secure in the arms of both men that day – each quite different in so many ways, yet there was an underlying similarity that she could not put her finger on.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

With Claire’s exhortation to ‘talk to him!’ ringing in his ears, Jamie flung open the door to the chambers he shared with John. The silence suggested he was alone, but he still searched every room, angered to see that in John’s private room, the cabinet in which he kept his personal items was conspicuously left open and the shelves emptied. Cursing out loud, Jamie kicked the door shut behind him as he hurtled down the stone steps, not stopping to speak to anyone as he headed back towards the stable block.  

In the time it had taken to get Claire indoors, ascertain the severity of the injury she was suffering from and then summon assistance from Master Raymond and Geillis Duncan, John had apparently managed to slip past him and remove his possessions from their shared quarters. John’s resorting to stealth to avoid encountering Jamie made his quest to find the man all the more urgent.

Deciding that furtiveness would also be required on his part to corner John, he hushed the grooms that saw him approach the ladder to the loft and then climbed up as quietly as he could. The fates seemed to be conspiring against him, as he almost forgot to duck his head as he walked forward, his eyes adjusting to the gloom as he did so. Congratulating himself on avoiding the low-lying beams in the attic, he almost tripped over a small grey cat that ran under his feet in its eagerness to pounce on a mouse skittering away into a bale of straw.

Fortunately, there were enough sounds from the far end to signify that there was someone moving around at the far end, apparently unaware of his presence. He reached out to take hold of the frayed curtain that served to provide the inhabitant with a semblance of privacy.

“John are ye there?” called out Jamie, announcing his presence. He was determined to pull back the curtain anyway, even if there were no reply.

After a few seconds, the curtain was lifted to reveal John, still attired in his travelling clothes. That fact alone made Jamie uneasy. John’s fastidious nature always took over when he returned from a journey and he was never comfortable until he had bathed and changed into fresh clothes.

Looking into the room, Jamie’s mouth fell open. He was appalled at the state of it. It had never occurred to him that it would be so barren and filthy, with dust motes floating thickly in the beams of light that pierced the gaps in the roof tiles. His heart ached at the thought of John voluntarily sleeping there. As a bolthole to take cover from bad weather, or to stay close to his horse, he understood the reasoning, but to choose to move out of his lavish quarters to take up residence in the room that smelt of mould and horseshit – that was unfathomable. Clearing his throat, partly due the cloying dust, Jamie spun around to address John.

“Is that the chest from yer room?” Jamie pointed at the offending article that had been placed on top of a rickety table.

“This is my room,” replied John, testily, self-consciously brushing dust from his sleeves.

“That’s no’ what I asked, mo charaid.” Deciding to get the answer for himself, Jamie pulled a few items from the chest, trinkets and mementoes he knew John usually kept safe in their shared quarters. He wrapped his fingers around the king, the sole remaining piece of the chess set they had carved between them when they had first become acquainted in France. “Why are ye packing all yer belongings away?”

“Do you really need to ask?” sighed John, wearily running a hand through his hair, all the while avoiding looking directly at Jamie. “You are to take a wife. It is therefore incumbent on me to move aside.”

“Ye canna stay here, man!” exclaimed Jamie, sweeping an arm out to draw attention to the shabby interior of the loft space. “It’s filthy and there are rats-”  

“I have absolutely no intention of staying here,” countered John. “However, there is a limit to how much I can carry with me, so I am placing some items into storage. I shall place them in the care of Master Raymond.”

The fact that John was intending to leave his most valuable possessions with Master Raymond and not with Jamie struck home, causing him to bite the inside of his cheek. Choosing to ignore the deliberate provocation, he changed tactic.

“Where d’ye intend to go?” demanded Jamie. “Ye only just got home.”

“I have no home!” asserted John angrily, snatching back the chess piece from Jamie’s hand to toss back into the chest. His aim went askew and the roughly carved piece of wood bounced off the edge of the chest and landed in the folds of the sheet upon the bed.

“Yer home is wi’ me!” yelled Jamie in return.

“Not any longer,” said John, sadly shaking his head. “There is no place for me, anywhere, not now.”

“Dinna say that, John,” beseeched Jamie, reaching out for John, only for his lover to move away from him. He felt as though his heart was breaking at the mere idea of John leaving Lallybroch and his side forever. “Ye dinna ken the full story-”

“What else is there to know?” John moistened his dry lips with the tip of his tongue before stating what he thought was obvious. “Mistress Beauchamp is beautiful and charming. She will make a delightful bride and no doubt bear you a clutch of heirs.”

“John,” pressed Jamie, reaching out to clasp John’s shoulder, not letting him slip away. “I explained everything tae the lass. She knows what ye are tae me -”

“Ah.” A bemused expression ghosted across John’s face, as he almost smiled, then frowned, his forehead wrinkling. “Of course, that would explain the startled reaction when the lady was made aware of my true identity.”

“Startled, aye, but not without understanding. I have told her that my affections lie with ye. We’re agreed that the union shall no’ be consummated.” Jamie tilted his head to look John in the eye, trying to determine if he was grasping what he was being told. “The arrangement stands as before, when we were under the impression she was but a wee lass in need of protection. However, Jonathon Randall has placed a claim on her, so the wedding will have tae be sooner than we’d intended-”

“How soon?” asked John abruptly, taking hold of Jamie’s hand and peeling his fingers from his arm.

“What d’ye mean?” Jamie frowned.

When are you getting married?” insisted John, his eyes glinting in a stray beam of light.

“What does it matter?” Jamie frowned.

“When, dammit?”

“Soon…” admitted Jamie.

“Soon? Next month? Next week?” John’s eyebrows moved higher with each plea for an answer. “Dammit, sooner?”

A flinch from Jamie had John take a step further away from him and sink down onto the straw-filled mattress. He rested his elbows on his knees, and let his head fall into the grip of his hands. Not daring to look up, John pieced together the implications.

“So, if Ned Gowan hadn’t fortuitously met up with some old clients of his, who insisted on seeing him safely to his destination, you’d have been married before I returned to Lallybroch. Would that be a correct supposition?”

“Aye,” confessed Jamie, swallowing hard as he witnessed the effect of the revelation on John.

“Was it ever your intention to send word to me?” continued John, his voice almost breaking. “To inform me of the change in our circumstances?”

“I wanted tae tell ye in person,” explained Jamie, although it struck him that John would not have stayed long enough to hear him out if he had returned to find him already wed.

“Ah well, I can see at least one advantage to your courtship having been so short,” mused John, picking up the chess piece from the sheet and turning it over between his fingers. “At least that will put paid to any of the usual rumours surrounding a hasty wedding-”

“What d’ye mean, John?”

“Well, it would be highly unlikely that the lady would know if she were with child so soon-”

Jamie grabbed hold of John by the front of his damp shirt, hoisted him to his feet and shoved him against the rough stone wall.

“How dare ye suggest that!” growled Jamie. He was angry that John had hinted at the scurrilous allegation and furious that he may have done the same if he were in John’s place.

“Do not act so aggrieved, my dear. I saw the way you looked at her!” responded John, not intimidated by Jamie’s fists against his chest, or by his hot breath in his face. “The lady also seemed more than at ease in your arms.”

Unable to dispute John’s observations, Jamie relaxed his grip and leant even closer to John.

“This is no’ like ye, mo leannan.” Jamie cupped the back of John’s head in one hand, not letting him avoid his eyes. “Are we tae let a lass come between us?”

John sighed and bestowed a watery smile upon his lover, as he, too, reached out and placed a hand to Jamie’s cheek.

“Not unless that’s exactly what you had in mind. But it would have been nice to have been consulted.”

“If I am tae invite anyone tae our bed, I’ll make sure tae ask ye first, mo chridhe,” came Jamie’s reply.

As both men laughed awkwardly at the absurdity of the situation, Jamie closed in to kiss John, wrapping his arms around his lover and pulling him to his body.

“Yer shirt is wet and yer coat is damp through, John!” commented Jamie. “What the hell have ye been doing?”

“I was bathing in the millpond when I disturbed your betrothed,” explained John, a smile teasing his lips as he recalled the encounter. “I would have taken off the wet shirt and changed into dry clothing, but time was of the essence.”

“Ye really ought tae get out o’ those wet clothes.” Jamie started to tug the shirttails loose as he pulled the shirt over John’s head. He leant forward to take a chilled nipple between his warm lips, startling John as he did so.

“Not here!” hissed John, darting his head in the direction of the flimsy curtain that would not keep any sounds from being overheard.

“Dinna fash, mo charaid. Claire’s no’ the only one who knows what we are tae each other,” chuckled Jamie. “I have been reliably informed that so does everyone else whose opinion matters.”

John let out a bitter laugh.

“It would appear that my opinion doesn’t count, then, as I have been kept in the dark over all manner of matters.”

With a pitiful look, Jamie ignored the truth in John’s words and focused on divesting him of his clothing. Lowering his lover onto the grimy mattress, he could not bring himself to let John’s bare flesh touch the stained sheets, so he rolled them over, spreading out his plaid as a makeshift blanket. John ran his hands under the kilt to reveal Jamie’s hardening cock. Sitting astride Jamie, he wrapped long fingers to encompass them both, and as Jamie’s hand wrapped around his, he let him take control. Throwing his head back and biting into the fleshy part of his free hand to stifle his cries of ecstasy, John allowed Jamie to apologise in the way he knew best.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Lying sprawled and naked on top of Jamie, his head on his lover’s chest, John waited until they were both breathing slowly before picking up on their previous discussion.

“So, she’s not as young as I expected,” murmured John. “Did everyone else know she was a woman and not a child?”

“I swear tae ye I wasna hiding that from ye.” Jamie stroked John’s back, and feeling the goosebumps developing, tugged the plaid around so that it covered them both.

“Neither a slip of a girl nor French,” pondered John. “No wonder it never occurred to me that the young woman I encountered by the millpond was your betrothed. She is quite exceptional.”

“Aye, she is indeed. In many ways, she reminds me of ye.” Relaxed from their lovemaking and the fact that John was in his arms, Jamie did not realise at first that he had put voice to the thoughts running through his head. But John’s reaction quickly disavowed him of that delusion.  

John stayed silent for a while. He breathed softly and then slowly started to tense up as if coming to an unwelcome conclusion.

“I suppose I should be grateful for that.” John’s voice had become clipped and emotionless. “The Lady of Lallybroch can serve as a reminder when I am gone.”

“Gone?” exclaimed Jamie, instinctively tightening his grip around John’s shoulders. “But I thought-”

“All matters considered,” said John, pausing to listen to Jamie’s heart that seemed to be beating faster. “I think it best if I were to depart as soon as possible.”

“Please, mo leannan,” begged Jamie. “I told ye, I am no’ taking that lass tae my bed-”

“My love, that decision is out of your hands,” stated John, adamantly pointing out what he saw as Jamie’s folly. “You will have to – do you not realise that unless you bed your wife, the marriage can be called into question? Randall can cry foul and have it annulled. He is an evil bastard, but he is not a fool.”

“Ifrinn!” Jamie slammed a fist down, causing fragments of straw and dust to rise up in a thick cloud. “I dinna want ye tae leave Lallybroch – or me.”

“I am afraid that you have no choice in the matter.”

Bowing his head to hide his tears, John sat up, casting the warmth of the plaid aside, he reluctantly disengaged from Jamie. From an open knapsack he pulled out a clean dry shirt and then dressed in silence, allowing Jamie time to come to terms with the situation as he understood it to be.

As he sat on a stool to pull on the boots he had set to one side earlier, John sensed Jamie stirring. He had pushed his kilt back down and rearranged the pleats as he lay on his back, staring up into the rafters. Slowly getting to his feet, Jamie took a deep breath and addressed John almost formally.  

“I would be honoured if ye would serve as ridire bean-bainnse.”

John let the boot he was holding fall to the wooden floor boards with a clatter. He gaped for a while before putting his reaction into words.

“I never thought the day would come when you would make me such an offer – that you would ask me to act as your bride-knight.”

“Ye understand what I am asking?” Jamie frowned as he noticed John become quite pale.

“I understand the traditional role in procuring a bride and then protecting her from potential kidnappers before the wedding. I assume it is only the latter duty that you would wish me to fulfil.”

“Aye – so, are ye saying ye dinna want –” Jamie faltered as he saw John shake his head quickly.

 “No, I am not refusing you. For some inexplicable reason, it occurs to me that I would be prepared to protect that woman until the day I die.” John frowned as the words came unprompted to his lips.

“I feel the same way,” admitted Jamie solemnly.

“But, how could you ask me to do this? Are you being deliberately cruel?”  

“I meant no dishonour, John. There’s nae better man fer the role. No finer swordsman tae defend the lady.” Jamie knelt down in front of John and took hold of his hands. “I want ye tae stay by our sides as our champion – tae keep yer quarters as before.”

“Am I imagining this foolishness?” John sprung to his feet, pulling Jamie up with him, as he refused to let go of John’s hands. “Jamie, my love, you are to be wed. Your quarters are to become those of a married man. It would be highly inappropriate for me to remain there.”

“I’ll no’ be giving ye up, John. Ye will stay as my champion and dearest of friends.”

“Alright, dammit. I shall stay by your side until after the wedding,” conceded John. “On one condition.”

“Anything.” Jamie trusted that if he could persuade John to stay for a few days, he could convince him not to leave at all.

“You will assign me the quest to rid you and the lady Claire of the threat hanging over you both.”

“Mo leannan?” Jamie’s eyes narrowed and his heart beat faster in his chest as he realised what John was asking of him.

“It is imperative that someone makes sure that so-called Black Prince does not trouble you or your wife, or indeed any in the alliance. I shall set forth on that quest as soon as the nuptial festivities are over.”

Feeling the icy fingers of fate creep up his spine, Jamie had no choice but to nod his head. He felt hollowed out and sickened that his insistence on John staying had led them to a place where he was to put his lover’s life in grave peril.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

In the ensuing days leading up to the wedding, Jamie, John and Claire spent more and more time in each other’s company. The role of bride-knight entailed John being with Claire whenever Jamie was not, to serve as her guard. Consequently they formed a cautious friendship. Not because they did not care for one another, but because they did.

John attempted to teach Claire some Gaelic phrases – he explained to her that he did not let on that he understood as much as he did and advised her to do likewise. She was impressed at the ability of both men to speak several languages fluently, sometimes slipping into Latin or Greek when they wanted to share secrets. John took Claire riding about the estate, ostensibly as body guard in case of trouble and Claire looked forward to the feel of John’s strong arms around her as he helped her on and off her horse, even after her ankle was fully healed.

When he could be spared from his responsibilities as Laird, Jamie would join them, bringing baskets of food that they would share in the meadows near the millpond. Relating the story of their first meeting, John had blushed furiously when Jamie teased him about swimming half-naked.

As the day of the wedding approached, they had formed such ties of friendship that the forthcoming handfasting ceremony seem to be a pinnacle of the bonding between the three. Jamie and John had separately promised Claire their protection; Jamie was already bonded to John; and, by making John his bride-knight, Jamie had pledged John’s loyalty to Claire in turn. All the while, Claire found herself basking in the deep love the two men had for one another, delighting in the fact that they felt comfortable enough in her company to openly share kisses and affectionate touches. She dared not examine her own feelings too closely, for fear she would have to admit that she was falling in love with each of them.  

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

On the morning of the ceremony itself, Jamie was as nervous as if he were truly marrying for love. John was busy calming his nerves as he helped him get dressed in his finest plaid and full regalia.

“Mistress Claire – is she safe?” asked Jamie for the hundredth time that morning.

“Yes, as I have already told you, Murtagh is standing guard outside her chambers – he will not let any harm befall her, of that you can be certain. He has become quite fond of the girl, not least because she scratched Dougal’s face.”

“Aye – that’s good. Have ye seen her this morning? Is she happy with her dress?”

“I was refused entry by your sister, so I cannot answer that question,” replied John, taking the brooch from Jamie to fasten the plaid as it draped over his shoulder. “However, it is fortunate that Janet has taken charge of the dress, otherwise I suspect Laoghaire would have given your bride a torn sack to wear. It will be beautiful, of that I am convinced – how could it not be? In the meantime, you look thoroughly resplendent. Every inch the Chief of the Clans. I do not recall ever having seen you look more handsome.” 

Jamie could not fail to hear the wavering of John’s voice or see the brightness of tears in his eyes. He took John’s hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it fondly.

“Ye also look verra handsome, John. The dark blue suits ye well.”

As their eyes met, they conveyed in a single look the tumult of emotions eating away at them. Each man knew that their lives were about to be irreversibly altered. Whether for good or bad, they had no idea. They were simultaneously terrified and excited for whatever their futures would hold.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

The ceremony was simple and touching. Conducted in the centre of the stone circle in a grove in the forest, Master Raymond officiated. Their choir was a symphony of birdsong that Raymond seemed to conjure from the branches. The rays of sunlight that filtered through the leaves of the trees struck the heads of Jamie and Claire as they held out their hands to be bound together by a soft silk cord.

Glancing up, seeking John out amongst the small group of attendants standing around the outside of the stones, Jamie’s heart sang as he saw a stray beam of sunlight alight upon the head of the man he loved.

Turning to look at his bride, Jamie smiled at her, taking in the beautiful dress that fit her so perfectly. It framed her soft breasts and sat snugly on her trim waist, before flowing out around her feet in a cascade of embroidered silk. He slid the ring onto her finger – wrought from a key to the castle, the iron to repel evil and the engraving inside that he hoped she would read later.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

The simplicity of the ceremony was in stark contrast to the festivities at Broch Tuarach. The Great Hall was bedecked with floral garlands: wild roses, honeysuckle, harebells and forget-me-nots, draped over every surface, filling the room with scent. Lining the walls were tables groaning under the weight of casks of wine and bottles of whisky. A troupe of travelling minstrels had been tasked with providing the music for the revels, and couples danced with wild abandon to the cheerful jigs and reels.

The Round Table itself had been covered in linen cloths upon which were heaped platters of meats, bread, cakes and fruit. The chairs of the Laird and Lady decorated with even more greenery and pure white roses. Seated at the table around Jamie and Claire, were members of Jamie’s family who had mostly taken Claire to their heart. To Claire’s side sat John, who appeared to be as happy and content as the bride and her husband.  Directly opposite Jamie sat his uncle Dougal, with Geillis Duncan sitting on his lap, something Jamie would not normally have tolerated, but he was in a benevolent mood. He turned to Murtagh, who was sat to his left and raised a glass of whisky to his foster father.

“Slàinte mhath!”

“Comhghairdeas deartháir.” Murtagh congratulated his ward with a knowing look. He had not been convinced of the necessity to marry the young sassenach so hastily but had accepted Jamie’s reasoning.

“Sister?” prompted Jamie, catching the attention of Jenny who was watching the antics of their uncle with disdain. “Thank ye fer the dress – it is the most beautiful gown I’ve ever seen. Ye did a fine job there, a piuthar.”

“She wears it well, a bhràthair,” observed Jenny, leaning forward to admire her handiwork. She had to admit that the lass looked radiant in the gown and it seemed to be made for her. She also saw genuine affection between the two and that was better than many an arranged marriage she had been witness to in the past.

“Treat her well, a bhràthair. She’s a bonny lass and has a good heart – dinna break it, will ye?”

“Nae, Jenny, I’ll protect the lass – ye have my word on that. She now has my name and is part of our clan and our family. If necessary, she will have the protection of my body.”

Jenny opened her mouth to pass further comment but was cut short by a disturbance from across the table.

The convivial chatter and clatter of plates, knives and glasses came to a sudden halt as Dougal slammed down his tankard and leapt to his feet, causing the flames on the candles to sputter. The musicians stopped playing and everyone’s eyes were suddenly fixed on the tall, imposing figure of Dougal MacKenzie.

“How can you sit there, boy, while that heathen is making eyes at yer wife?” Dougal drew his sword and waved it threateningly in John’s direction.

“Ye’re drunk, Dougal – sit down and stop making a fool of yourself!” bellowed Murtagh. “Dinna make me throw ye out!”

“I’ll have ye ken, Fitzgibbons, it’s no’ me who’s being made a fool of! Yer wee lad needs to hear what that slut has been up tae with the man he trusts more than his own bloody kin!”

The sound of chair legs scraping against the slate floor drew everyone’s eyes to John, who had got to his feet, his face flushed with anger.

“Take that back, sir!” Bristling with rage, John’s voice was low, but dangerous. “How dare you speak of the Lady of Lallybroch in such vile terms?”

“Perhaps ye’d like to explain what ye were seen doing with the ‘lady’ by the millpond?” challenged Dougal.

“What the hell are ye talking about?” demanded Jamie. “I appointed John as ridire bean-bainnse tae protect the Lady Claire until we were wed. I was there as well!”

“Ye’ve not been with them every time, though, have ye? Geillis, mo leannan,” said Dougal, reaching behind him to draw Geillis Duncan up beside him. “Why don’t ye tell the Laird exactly what ye saw wi’ yer own eyes?”

Dressed in a pale green robe that clung to her body, Geillis sinuously moved around Dougal until she stood in front of him. She flicked back her long red tresses and pressed herself back against his body, seeming to draw on the energy of his hostility. She bowed slightly to Jamie and then addressed Claire directly.

“I’m sorry tae have to say this lass, but ever since I saw the two of ye together, I couldna sleep at night. My conscience wouldna let me-”

“Mistress Duncan – would ye be so kind as tae tell us exactly what ye think ye saw,” requested Murtagh, quickly interceding before Jamie lost his temper. “Just the facts, if ye please.”

“I saw him!” She paused to point a long finger at John. “I saw him before my very eyes transform from a sea creature into a man as he rose out of the water.”

The gathered assembly hung on every word as Geillis told her story in the same way as they were used to hearing such tales from bards. As they imagined the scene she was describing, the onlookers broke into shocked gasps and a few muttered prayers to ward off evil.

“Heavens above, I had been bathing in the millpond after a long horse ride,” protested John, shaking his head in dismay.

Claire turned to Jamie and clasped his arm, she felt obliged to support the man who had become a dear friend.

“What he says is absolutely true. He had been swimming in the pond – ”

“Of course ye’d collude wi’ him!” protested Dougal. “Perhaps he has ye bewitched as well as our Laird.”

“That is preposterous!” responded Claire, infuriated.

She was about to reach up to the gem from around her neck, the one Master Raymond had given her, thinking to use it to prove that the words of Geillis Duncan were lies, when her hand was stilled.

“Non, Madonna. Her lies will not be detected. She speaks words they wish to believe.” Master Raymond tutted loudly. “Her wicked tongue coaxes lies from the souls of others.”

“But-” started Claire, only to see him shake his head ruefully.

“It is too late. That seed of distrust was sown long ago and now they are reaping its harvest.”

Before Claire could ask him what he meant, he muttered something barely audible in French, patted Jamie’s shoulder and left the hall.

Meanwhile, Dougal had persuaded the crowd to quieten with the promise of more disclosures.

“Go on, my love – tell the Laird what else ye saw,” prompted Dougal, one arm around the young widow’s waist.

“She was lying on the grass – he took her hand and then, bold as brass he held her bare foot in his lap. All the while he was naked apart from a plain sark, wet and clinging tae his body. I saw him kiss her - ”

“For heaven’s sake!” ignoring Jamie’s entreaties not to get involved, Claire had taken her knife and rapped it against the side of the crystal goblet, the chiming getting everyone’s attention. “That is not how it happened. Lord John was examining my foot, which I had injured, but not before he had dressed himself-”

“So, he had been with ye, with no clothes on – ye are admitting tae that?” pounced Dougal, his eyes glinting malevolently.

“As we have established, I had been swimming,” stated John. “Naturally, I do not do so fully clothed. But neither was I naked.”

Jamie rubbed his face, watching Dougal taunt his wife and his lover. He had to trust to good sense to prevail and for all present to recognise that the accusations were spurious and without merit. To intercede would not stop the falsehoods – better they be laid out in the open where they could be disproved.

“But that’s not all is it?” Dougal’s smile grew wider as if he had merely started. “Tell them the rest.”

“They’ve been riding out into the woods every day – alone together. Nae other chaperone present.  It’s no secret that he attends to the lady in her chambers – I have heard them cavorting like demons together!”

“Lies, all lies!” shouted John, his eyes darting around the table and seeing suspicions growing in many as they considered the evidence presented before them.

“Really? I think ye protest too much.” Dougal glared at Jamie and then returned his attention to John. “Ye’ve been gazing into one another’s eyes all night. Even as we celebrate the wedding of our Laird, ye cannae keep yer eyes off each other. Nephew – grow a pair o’ balls, man! That bastard is fucking yer wife with his eyes!”

Amongst loud gasps of shock, the sound of John’s sword being drawn from its scabbard sliced through the air. He slowly advanced on Dougal, skirting around those seated at the table, his eyes darkening with rage.

“Is your quarrel with me or with the lady? Either way, I challenge you in defence of my honour and that of my queen’s.”

“Oh no, ye treacherous, fornicating selkie!” snarled Dougal, making sure every word rang clear and loud throughout the hall. “I challenge ye, on behalf of my nephew, Jamie Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, on account of seducing and bewitching the Laird’s wife.”

“Oh the cunning bastard,” muttered Murtagh, gripping hold of Jamie’s shoulder and holding him down. “Ye cannae interfere, Jamie, not now. He’s made the challenge in yer name.”

John raised his sword as he broke into a run, determined to take on Dougal MacKenzie there and then. Jamie shook off Murtagh’s hand to dash after him, reluctantly grabbing hold of John’s arm and preventing him from engaging in a fight with his uncle.

“Not here!” hissed Jamie, a pang in his chest reminding him of when John had spoken the same words to him in the loft above the stables. “Ye will no’ fight in this hall. Neither of ye,” Jamie pointed a finger at Dougal, who was advancing on John, his own sword raised. “Challenges have been made and accepted. First light in the tournament field –  lances and swords.”

John nodded in agreement, sheathed his sword and then headed for the large oaken door. Not waiting for Dougal’s response, Jamie followed him and, by chance, glanced up at the high window just as a dark cloud moved across the waning moon. Muttering a prayer to dispel the bad luck, he walked faster to catch up with John who was opening the door to leave.

“John?” he called out softly.

“I shall return by first light, but I cannot stay here tonight,” said John, quietly so none other than Jamie could hear him. Fortunately for both, there was a growing buzz of scandalised gossip circulating around the table, covering their muted conversation.  “I shall go and prepare myself.”

“Where will ye go?” whispered Jamie, aware of a few curious heads turning in their direction.

“The usual place. You know where. But stay with Claire. I fear she is in danger.” John frowned and pointed at Dougal who was refilling his tankard from a cask of ale. “He is not alone in this conspiracy and it was the testimony of that consort of his that would condemn us all. Seek counsel from Raymond and have Murtagh guard your rooms.”

“Aye,” Jamie turned to look at Claire who was staring at them both, even as Murtagh and Jenny stood defensively on either side of her. “Will ye take some wine and food with ye, John? Please. Ye canna fight on an empty wame.”

“I have no appetite – ”

“Come morning, ye will. Please, fer me.”

Jamie snapped his fingers to beckon one of the young lasses who was carrying a tray of empty platters back towards the kitchens. She darted across and, holding the tray close to her chest, dipped into a low bow as she came to stand before him.

“Prepare a parcel of food for his Lordship – a flask of wine as well, Mary. Take it straight tae the stables when it’s ready.”

“Aye, milord.”

As the maid scuttled off towards the kitchens, John took his leave of Jamie, bowing low and pledging his loyalty. Under his breath he murmured:

“Blood of your blood. Bone of your bone.”

“I give ye my body that we two may be one,” whispered Jamie, in response. When one or the other departed to do battle, they always repeated the oaths they had made to each other.

“I give you my spirit till my life shall be done.”

“May it not come tae that, John,” sighed Jamie, squeezing John’s shoulder. “Keep safe – I shall see ye on the field in the morning.”

With his hand on the door, John turned around and glanced past Jamie’s shoulder – at Claire, who was watching the two men anxiously. With a wistful smile, he slipped away. As Jamie turned his head to see what had caught John’s attention he happened to see Mary apparently gossiping with Laoghaire.

“Get about yer business, lass!” he called out gruffly, frowning as he saw the girl slip something into the pocket of her apron. Laoghaire smiled at him, dropping into a curtsey as he passed. “Ye can tittle tattle all ye like after ye’ve taken some food out to his lordship.”

“I’m sorry, sir, it was my fault fer distracting Mary,” said Laoghaire. “Please forgive me.”

Jamie narrowed his eyes and although he sensed something was amiss, he needed to hurry back to the side of his wife. He had promised her protection, little had he thought he would need to act on that oath quite so soon.

Dougal and Geillis had disappeared by the time Jamie returned to Claire. He whispered to her that they should also leave, as the festive atmosphere had been shattered by Dougal’s outburst. Murtagh leant across to speak quietly to both of them, suggesting that if they were to retire early to their wedding bed, no one would be any the wiser. He pointed out that it would make all the more sense that the Laird would want to take his new bride to his bed after Dougal’s accusations of infidelity. With a shrug, Jenny agreed, adding that if the wedding guests thought they were about to consummate their union they would leave them in peace.

Announcing his intention to put paid to his uncle’s drunken allegations and to take his dear wife to his bed, Jamie bowed to all the guests, thanked them for their well wishes and bade them stay late, and to eat and drink of their fill. As Jamie scooped Claire into his arms and carried her up the stairs leading directly to the Laird’s room, there was a relieved cheering and hollering from the more drunken guests. Closing the door on the clamour from below, Jamie turned the key in the lock, secure in the knowledge that Murtagh was taking up position outside his quarters and would be there all night.

In the seclusion of his quarters, Jamie sighed heavily and poured himself a large whisky before remembering to offer one to Claire. He was pleased that she asked for whisky and not wine.

“I swear to you, nothing transpired between myself and John,” said Claire after taking a small sip of the spirit. “He has shown no impropriety towards me at any time.”

“I ken lass. John is an honourable man,” replied Jamie taking a seat next to her. “It’s nothing tae do with ye and everything tae do with my uncle’s plot tae get rid o’ John.”

“He plans to kill him?” gasped Claire.

“I didna think so until tonight,” said Jamie, grimly. “I just thought he wanted him away from my side.”

“Can he fight Dougal?” asked Claire, worried for John’s safety. “That brute is so much bigger –”

“Aye. John has beaten Dougal many a time. What he lacks in brawn, he gains in lightness of foot and speed of attack. Also, he is stronger than many imagine. Slender yet no’ lacking in muscle,” Jamie explained with pride as he considered John’s prowess as a fighter. “He can spot where the sword of his opponent will go before they’ve decided where to strike. As long as there’s no foul play, he’ll best Dougal.”

“You’re still worried about him aren’t you?”

“Aye – it’s his state of mind that concerns me most. He’s no’ thinking straight right now. I wish he’d stayed here.”

“Should we- ?” started Claire, biting her lip nervously as she eyed the door to Jamie’s bed chamber.

“There’s nae need fer that, lass.” Jamie shook his head. “Ye can take John’s room tonight.”

“If you would like the company, perhaps we could lie together, clothed of course,” suggested Claire tentatively. “We can worry about John together.”

“Aye, I’d like that, mo nighean donn,” said Jamie, pulling his wife close to his side and pressing a kiss to her head. “John would understand.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Several miles away, deep in the forest, John lay naked on his dark blue cloak.

Earlier he had waded out into the loch, letting the chilled waters soothe his muscles. He had then wandered through the trees, leading Karolus behind him, until he had reached the clearing with the single stone. Lying on his back, looking up into the moonlit sky, it seemed as if the branches were dancing above him, the wine he had drunk having gone straight to his head.

Closing his eyes to shut out the light of the waning moon as it darted to and fro amongst the clouds, he could see Jamie’s disapproving face and hear him uttering scornful words. Words which seemed to echo in the trees surrounding him.

“Ye have betrayed me. Fall on yer own sword.”

He could feel the cage of the hilt snugly encasing his hand as he drew the sword from its scabbard. He spun it around, so the blade faced him. It was awkward, but he managed to line it up, so the sharp tip rested under the edge of his ribs.

Echoing through the woods the words ‘fall on your own sword’ came at him, punctuated by the calls of an owl and the song of the nightingale – all eerily beckoning him to a self-inflicted death.

Just as he started to pull the blade into his own chest, he closed his eyes and saw the faces of Jamie and Claire – their eyes beseeching him to stay with them. At the last minute he let the sword go loose in his hand, soon enough to stop the point sliding under his ribs and into his heart, but not before the blade sliced into his side emerging above his hip.

Howling in pain, he curled into a ball, blood trickling between his fingers as he grasped at his side. Turning his head, he let his tears fall freely into the soft green moss that served as a pillow. 

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Jamie heard the screeching of an owl in the night and shuddered violently. His movements woke Claire who stirred and turned over to face him.

“What is it?” she whispered, draping an arm over his chest, attempting to soothe him.

“A bad omen, mo leannan, a very bad omen. If ye pray, can ye say one fer John.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

Chapter Text

banner - smoke, caves, Jamie's tears, Jamie and Claire kiss, Claire tending a wound, John falls on sword

 

 

Deep beneath the foundations of Broch Tuarach, a series of steps roughly cut into the rock led to a natural cavern carved by an ancient subterranean river long before the first stone was laid in the walls of the tower. The trickling of water through the ground over millennia had adorned the floor of the cavern with eerie stalagmites, while spindly stalactites dangled precariously from the roof, droplets of water hanging from them before falling into pools of ice-cold water. The sound of dripping water echoed all around, a chilling sound, permeating the complex of caves leading off into the surrounding hillsides.

Stubs of candles were stuck into ledges and crevices and their flickering flames gave a yellow glow to the glistening rock, giving the impression that the surfaces were coated with a fine layer of sulphur. The wavering light cast deep shadows around the two figures kneeling over a circular pool. So still they almost seemed to be growing out from the rocky substrate.

The surface of the pool they leant over was like glass, smooth and flat, yet it cast no reflection. The deep, dark water absorbed light and provided a window for those with the gift of second sight to see beyond the realm of ‘here and now’.

Geillis Duncan was such a woman. She thought of herself as gifted – although for other women it had proved a curse, condemning them to death at the stake. But, Geillis had ambitions and was prepared to use whichever tools were at her disposal to succeed, and some of those tools were people. As a young girl, she had been enamoured of the Master Raymond, whose age was undefinable, yet he claimed to have been around before the clans existed. He had doted on her as if she were his granddaughter, yet all the while she was stealing scrolls from the shelves of his library, even as she helped him reach those out of reach to himself. He had encouraged her, taught her how to read the ancient script and how to use herbs and crystals. But he had eventually banned her from his domain when he caught her stealing a pot of quicksilver from a locked cabinet she had broken into. However, by then it was too late, she knew enough and had the skills to find out the rest for herself. Although she was aware that there were incantations he kept from her – words of power that would give her everything her heart desired – she was patient and was willing to await the time he would use those words unwittingly within her hearing.

It was from Master Raymond that she had learnt the secrets of the scrying pool from secretly observing him. She had discovered that not only could it be used to see beyond the immediate, but it could also be used as a portal to carry simple commands across both distance and time. It explained why the enigmatic sorcerer had often seemed to have been in more than one place at once.

Bracing the palms of her hands on the cold stone floor, she bowed her head down, and keeping sufficient distance that her breath would not disturb the water’s surface, she whispered into the inky pool. Keeping her voice low and husky she murmured repeatedly:

“Fall on yer own sword…”

“Ye have betrayed me…”

“Ye, too, lass – say the words after me.”

The voice of her companion echoed her, their combined malicious intent dripping from their voices as insidiously as the water from the roof above them. Each word another layer of doubt, adding to a foundation of insecurity and feeling of unworthiness. Every whispered exhortation to self-immolation accumulating in the soul of the one they would destroy.

Staring into the depths, Geillis could make out a moonlit glade in a forest. A solitary standing stone at its centre and beneath it, legs tangled in the fabric of a crumpled cloak, a naked figure writhing in agony on the ground, the glint of a discarded sword on the moss beside him. Dark trails of blood drawn by fingertips across his flesh.

Biting her lip to keep in an ecstatic exhalation that would have disturbed the surface, she was pleased with their work. She had promised Dougal MacKenzie that he would win the contest – at first he had been uneasy at the idea that his success would be due to witchcraft, but she had reassured him that he would triumph because his opponent would be weaker than him. It amused her that people, especially men, were so easily manipulated. Seeing her plan coming to fruition, she picked up a silver coin she had previously set to one side and dropped it into the pool. As the ripples broke the surface and radiated outwards she smiled to herself. Always pay for a favour, she had learnt, or the fae would take payment of their own choosing.

Rising gracefully to her feet, she reached down to pull up her companion to stand in front of her. Both women were naked, she abided by the ancient belief that clothing interfered with the flow of primeval forces.  She wanted nothing inhibiting those powers from using her body as a conduit. Moving behind Laoghaire MacKenzie, she slid her hands over the woman’s chilled skin, cupping a heavy breast in one hand, she rolled a pebbled nipple between her fingertips, feeling it become harder in response to her touch. Teasing the other nipple, she let her free hand wander downwards, over the rounded stomach and further, eventually slowly dragging a finger through warm, moist labia. She chuckled as the guileless girl moaned softly and arched her back.

“It makes ye wet doesn’t it, having another act on yer will.” Running the tip of her pink tongue around the shell of Laoghaire’s ear, Geillis turned the girl around and then proceeded to kiss her, plunging her tongue into the mouth that opened willingly to hers.

Breaking away, she licked the moisture from her lips and trembled, feeling arousal thrumming through her veins.

“Ye feel it too, don’t ye? The fire in yer belly, smouldering away, threatening tae engulf ye.” Geillis then paused to inhale deeply, all the while caressing the smooth limbs of her companion and running her fingers through the golden tresses that tumbled down the woman’s back. “That’s the serpent’s power – it arouses violence in men and passion in women. So mote it be.”

“And ye promise me ye’ll get rid o’ the woman as well?” pleaded Laoghaire, her eyes shining brightly as she felt Geillis wrap an arm around her waist, cupping a round buttock in one hand. She let out a startled gasp as she felt sharp fingernails bite into her soft flesh.

“Aye, lass, all in good time,” murmured Geillis, as she took one of Laoghaire’s hands and guided it through the springy auburn curls at the apex between her legs. She sighed with pleasure as she felt the woman’s fingers part her nether lips, delving between the slippery folds, seeking her opening.

They sank downwards as one, oblivious to the cold stone floor as their bodies were enveloped in a warm mist welling up from a fissure in the wall.

“The serpent’s breath – can ye feel it?” whispered Geillis, letting her legs fall apart so the warm tendrils of mist could enter her body. “Can ye feel his tongue licking yer skin and teasing yer body?”

“Aye – oh, but it feels so … oh… “ Laoghaire almost forgot to breathe as she succumbed to the unearthly sensations of a long, forked tongue probing her, entering her and piercing her to her very soul.

Opening her eyes, she looked into the dark green eyes of the woman lying next to her, the pupils almost looking like slits rather than circles. Any further observations were curtailed as her attention was pulled away to the fingers lazily stroking circles around her nub, using her own moisture to remove all friction. The sensations she had tried to hide under bedcovers, with teeth firmly clamped on the sheet, amplified and allowed full rein.

“Dinna fash, lass … just let it happen. Cry out as loud as ye wish, nae one can hear ye down here. Let the serpent bring ye more pleasure than ye’ll ever find on a man’s cock.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

It was just before dawn, mist was still lingering in the grass, coating cobwebs with dew as Jamie and Claire proudly walked hand-in-hand around the perimeter of the tournament field. They held their heads high as they made their way towards the chairs set under an awning for shelter, high up on the raised bank. Others had already made their way to the training field, used to develop combat skills in the men who could be called upon to fight at any time. Clusters of farmworkers, stable hands and kitchen servants were sitting in groups on the grass, their knees drawn up to their chests, talking in hushed whispers. The armourers who maintained the weaponry had set out the stall laden with shields and lances for the two opponents to choose from. There were other weapons as well, maces, flails and pikestaffs, but Jamie had declared the previous night that the contest would involve lances and swords alone. There was always a fair chance of treating a piercing wound, whereas there was no coming back from a crushed skull.

Claire caught Jamie stealing glances towards the gate through which John would have to ride to enter the tournament field. Knowing from experience that John was never late, Jamie watched the lightening of the sky with apprehension.

When he had dunked his head in a pail of water and then combed out his hair, he had seen dark circles under his eyes. He had not managed to fall asleep again after hearing the owl screech in the night. During the night, as Claire had dozed off, her head had come to rest on his chest and he had not had the heart to move her. She was also very concerned about John – even though the accusations had been directed at her as well. The three of them alone were privy to the truth – that if anyone was being disloyal to a spouse it was Jamie, in taking Claire as his wife when he was already committed to John. But the deeper truth was the fact that they were all falling in love with each other – there was no jealousy or animosity. This was a truth they could not share – not without placing Claire at risk from Randall. Meanwhile, Jamie and Claire would have to watch as their beloved companion fought for the honour of all three. Jamie prayed it was not to the death – he intended to announce that it was to first blood on condition that the loser concede defeat. However, he doubted that either man would be willing to concede.

Tapping his fingers on his thigh, Jamie huffed as he watched Geillis Duncan make her way across the grass towards the opposite bank. Wrapped in a dark cloak, she was trying to adopt the demeanour of a respectable widow, even though the cloak failed to disguise the way she rolled her hips provocatively as she slowly walked through the long grass. He observed her spread out a blanket upon which to sit – clearly the MacKenzie plaid -  and knelt down on it, keeping her eyes fixed on him and Claire as she did so. It was not long before Laoghaire MacKenzie joined her, setting down a flagon of wine and two simple beakers. Geillis kissed Laoghaire on each cheek and the two shared a secretive smile that made Jamie even more uneasy. His thoughts were disrupted by the sound of a loud snort behind him and, turning in his seat, he saw that Murtagh and Raymond had approached the bank from the other side and were now taking their positions behind him.

“All we need now is fer that Dunsany bitch tae join them and then we’d have a full coven tae deal with,” observed Murtagh, seeing who had caught Jamie’s attention.

“It is said that Lord Dunsany has her locked away in a tower with her sister – to keep them both from molestation by violent barbarians,” responded Raymond. “Although I suspect the barbarians would be grateful to have her incarcerated for their own peace of mind.”

“Geneva deserves locking up – aye, and her sister protection, although I’d no’ wish Geneva’s company on sweet Isobel fer any length of time.” Jamie grunted in disdain. “Heavens help us all if that bitch were ever in league with Mistress Duncan.”

Raymond urgently pounded his staff into the soft ground and muttered an incantation as if warding off evil.

“Please, my dear James, I would be eternally grateful if you were to keep such thoughts safely locked up within that thick skull of yours.  Do not issue challenges to the serpent. He has ears in every blade of grass.”

“Who is she?” asked Claire, nudging Jamie with her elbow. “Geneva? A mistress?”

“No’ fer want o’ trying. She’s nae one ye need to fret about, lass,” answered Jamie, shaking his head and forcing a smile. “A vindictive wee bitch who tried tae seduce me once. Spoilt vixen never did like not getting whatever she wanted.”

The hazy pre-dawn light was starting to give way to daybreak and the landscape began to release its colours, from the fresh green of the grass to the bright yellow celandine flowers, sparkling like stars under the trees. Despite the sky becoming brighter, the air still held the chill of night, and Jamie pulled his plaid tighter around his shoulders and he noticed Claire doing the same.

Thundering into the arena, Dougal rode in on his chestnut stallion. He went to the weaponry station first, plucked a shield from the stand, and then selected a lance to be handed to him. He then deliberately rode past Jamie and Claire barely acknowledging them with a curt nod of his head.

It was just as Jamie was about to rise from his seat to admonish his uncle that Claire grabbed his hand and prompted him to look in the opposite direction. As a ray of sunlight broke through the clouds, a horseman appeared at the gate, his gleaming white stallion declaring his identity to all. Like Dougal, he wore a heavy leather tunic and a spaulder to protect the shoulder of his sword arm. Both were intricately embossed with interlacing patterns, like waves crashing into one another on a rocky shore.

Riding up to the Laird and his Lady first of all, in contrast to Dougal’s lack of courtesy, John bowed low and apologised for his late arrival. His face appeared pinched and there were visible beads of sweat upon his brow. Jamie noted with concern that his uncombed hair had been hastily tied back with a strip of leather and not neatly braided as was his custom.

Before Jamie could think of a way to ask John how he was faring, Claire sprung to her feet, took the fine lace scarf from around her neck and handed it to John as her favour. John leaned down, a slight gasp escaping from his lips as he did so. He took the scarf, kissed it gently and tied it to the hilt of his sword. It was evident to both Jamie and Claire that all was not well with John, but there was nothing either of them could do. Solemnly standing up to address John, Jamie felt the icy fingers of fate once more upon his spine.

“Lord John Grey, champion tae the Laird and the Lady of Broch Tuarach, are ye prepared tae fight fer the honour of the Lady of Broch Tuarach?” called out Jamie, knowing that all eyes were on them.

“It will be my honour, as your champion, my lord and my lady,” came John’s formal response, before adding a phrase purely for Jamie’s benefit. “Yours is my spirit till my life shall be done.”

Squinting his eyes, Jamie could tell that John was sitting more stiffly on his horse than usual. He barely met Jamie’s eyes for more than a few seconds, but long enough for Jamie to see that his pupils were dilated – making his eyes appear as dark as they were when he was in the heights of passion. There was something amiss and Jamie could not put his finger on it. Dougal appeared too confident and John was detached, distant – as if preparing for defeat.

“So be it. The challenge shall involve lance and sword alone,” announced Jamie loudly. “Whoever draws blood first will offer mercy to his opponent – who will be given the opportunity tae concede defeat.  If Dougal MacKenzie concedes he shall renounce his accusations. If Lord John Grey concedes, he shall admit the truth of those accusations, condemning both himself and the Lady of Broch Tuarach. Should neither party concede, the fight shall be tae the death.”

Dougal rode forward, raised his lance high in the air and bellowed his assent loudly while scowling at John.

“I take it that ye agree wi’ those conditions?” asked Jamie between gritted teeth.

“Aye – and I’ll be  happy tae put an end tae this when yer champion moves his arse and collects his weapon and shield.”

“Accepted, my liege,” agreed John, ignoring Dougal and gently nudging his horse in the direction of the armourer.

Once John had removed his cloak and selected a shield and lance he rode to the opposite end of the field to the one already selected by Dougal. With a nod from each man to signify their readiness, Jamie lowered his raised hand and held his breath as the two men galloped fearlessly towards one another, one hand on the reins and the other clasping the heavy lance, parallel to the ground. Both lances struck shields full on, but the men kept their seats despite the shuddering jolts. Wheeling around at opposite ends of the field, hooves digging into the soft turf, throwing up clods of mud, the riders pulled their mounts around and rode at one another once more. This time, the lances struck with more force, splintering the shields and hurling both men to the ground, their lances lost. Rolling over speedily to avoid the crashing hooves of their riderless steeds, they drew their swords and advanced on each other.

Claire grabbed hold of Jamie’s hand and squeezed it tightly. She did not dare look away from the fight but could feel the tension in Jamie’s body. He was scared. If Jamie Fraser was scared, that meant there was good reason to be terrified.

Dougal struck out first, wildly swinging his broadsword but John blocked his blow and then twisted their swords around so he could jab his more slender blade towards Dougal’s armpit, unprotected by the leather armour. However, he was fractionally too slow and was shoved forcibly away as the taller man spun around and kicked John in the gut. As John doubled over, winded, he slid his left hand under his tunic to grasp at his side. Watching nervously, Jamie’s eyes widened– there was blood on John’s hand as he pulled it away and wiped it on his thigh. John was wounded – but not from any weapon wielded by Dougal MacKenzie.

Raising his sword quickly to defend himself, John pushed back, parrying and thrusting his blade forward. As their swords continued to clash, sparks flew as the force of the blows increased. John held his ground, his agility enabling him to successfully fend off counterattacks until Dougal’s heavy sword smashed into his spaulder, jarring his shoulder joint. Dougal grinned as he had finally managed to use both his height and weight to weaken John, and taking the upper hand, he swung his sword in a wide arc intending to deal a mortal blow. Ducking to avoid losing his head, John stumbled on a clod of earth kicked up by one of their horses. Dougal tried to take advantage and drove forward, but in his haste, he left himself open to attack and this time it was John who launched a surprise attack, crouching down and swinging out a leg to trip Dougal and then springing on him as he fell onto his back. Sitting astride the man who had threatened him, John stamped one foot down on the man’s sword arm, pinning it to the ground at the elbow. He held his own sword high and let the sunlight catch on the blade as he called for Dougal to surrender.

It was clear to all that John was sweating profusely and panting for breath, yet he fought to keep control, his voice strong as he called once more for Dougal to withdraw his accusations.

“Concede, damn you. I shall exercise mercy if you rescind all your vile claims against the Lady of Broch Tuarach.”

Dougal’s lips were clammed shut; his eyes narrowed in hatred. It seemed that he was gathering his strength to resume the fight. His fingers were clenching around the hilt of his broadsword, his biceps bulging as he flexed his arm muscles.

Hearing Jamie mutter under his breath, Claire glanced at her husband to see the hand not grasping hers gripping the arm of his chair so tightly that the knuckles were white. She saw Murtagh reach out to place a hand firmly on Jamie’s shoulder, keeping him in his seat. However much Jamie obviously wanted to intercede and demand a halt, the concession had to come from Dougal’s lips.

Not receiving a reply to his request, John lowered the tip of his blade and ran it across Dougal’s cheek, leaving a shallow cut running through the faded scars from Claire’s nails. He then raised his sword once more, and held the hilt in both hands, making his intention to pierce the man’s throat clear to all.

“I ask you one more time, sir, do you renounce the malevolent claims made against the Lady of Broch Tuarach?”

Dougal bit his lip and angrily spat the words needed to bring the challenge to a close.

“I concede. The Lady is innocent of all charges made against her. But let all present know that I was misled and acted only in the interests of my nephew and Laird.”

With a reluctant snarl, knowing that Dougal MacKenzie was still a threat, John sat back, taking his foot off the man’s arm, but keeping his own sword at the ready in case of treachery. For one moment it looked as though Dougal might strike an illegal blow, but a quick flick of his eyes in Jamie’s direction showed that his hand was on the hilt of his own sword, ready to exact just revenge if necessary. Glaring down at his nemesis, Dougal swiped at the blood on his cheek, got to his feet and stormed off. John took a moment to catch his breath before slowly standing up and leaning on his sword as if it were a crutch.

Cheers echoed around the field from the majority of the gathered crowd with notable exceptions. Jamie’s eyes were drawn to the ruckus coming from across the field, where the sound of jeers had been coming from. He saw Geillis heading towards the squire holding the reins of Dougal’s horse. Not far behind followed Laoghaire, hastily gathering their blanket and wine flagon. It appeared that as their favourite had lost, there was nothing to be celebrated.

A sharp tug on his sleeve drew his attention away from the two women walking away to the one at his side who was desperately trying to get him to listen to her.

“Jamie! It’s John – he’s collapsed!” Claire cried out.

Startled, Jamie looked in the direction Claire was pointing as the armourers and one of the stable lads rushed to where John was lying prone on the ground. Horrified, he quickly scrambled down the steep bank and onto the field, running to John’s side. He did not need to turn around to know that Claire was close behind.

As the men around John started to unlace the leather tunic, they revealed bare skin, steaked with fresh blood, the torn fabric from John’s shirt now visible as a makeshift bandage tied around his abdomen.  Jamie pushed the bystanders away and scooped John up from the ground to carry him away, all the while hearing Claire’s urgent voice at his side, demanding to know what had happened.

Rushing into the main hall, Jamie carefully laid John’s body down on the Round Table, yelling out orders for someone to fetch Raymond.

“Let me see – I have treated all manner of wounds,” stated Claire, rolling up her sleeves as she called on one of the anxious maids to fetch hot water, clean cloth, needles and thread.

“Nae, lass – he needs a proper physician!” said Jamie, shaking his head.

“Trust her, James!” instructed Raymond as he entered the hall. “Madonna will be a far more skilful healer than I shall ever be. Let her treat him. I shall fetch yarrow to staunch the bleeding and –”

“Elderberry, and peppermint as well if you have them,” added Claire, relieved to see Master Raymond nod his head in approval. “To stop the wounds from going bad.”

It was not long after Raymond left to collect the herbs from his store, that Jamie’s sister, Jenny, rushed into the hall, out of breath and shouting at Murtagh to shut the door behind them, barricading it from entry by the curious and the unwelcome.

“What’s happened, brother?” she shouted out as she approached the table with trepidation. “Sister, can I help ye?”

“Please hurry the kitchen girls – I need cloths and hot water.”

“Dinna fash, I’ll fetch them myself if I have tae.” Jenny nodded and made her way to the kitchen.

While Murtagh bolted the door, Jamie and Claire worked together to remove John’s leather jerkin. As Jamie carefully slid a dirk under the useless bandage to slice through the sodden cloth, he was shocked to discover two wounds, each bleeding profusely.

“Ifrinn – he’s been pierced through with a blade. He fought while badly injured, nae wonder he wasna sae fast or as strong.”

Swearing to himself, Jamie only noticed his sister had returned, when she pulled him away from the table to let Claire access the wounds. Jenny dipped a roll of cloth into the hot water, wrung it out and passed it to Claire who then pressed the cloth against the wound above John’s hipbone.

“Jamie, I need you and your sister to turn John onto his side. I need to clean the other wound as well.”

After doing Claire’s bidding, Jamie bit his lip, focused solely on assessing the nature of John’s injury and checking there were no others they had missed. The sight of John’s blood running into the engraving on the surface of his Round Table made his heart clench. It was fitting that his blood would stain the crest of the MacKenzie clan.

“I want him out of Lallybroch by nightfall – my uncle and all those loyal tae him above me,” growled Jamie. “Chan fhaigh mi seachad air seo.”

“Ye have tae accept that Dougal conceded defeat, lad.” From his position guarding the bolted door, Murtagh reluctantly pointed out the facts. “His blade didna scratch yer man, he’s no’ responsible fer that-”

“Maybe he attacked him in the night-”

“Dinna be sae rash, a bhràthair,” added Jenny, looking up from her work staunching the flow of blood from one wound as Claire stitched up the other. “Dougal is still our mother’s brother – and ye need the MacKenzies of Leoch.”

Claire looked from Jamie to his sister – wondering at the power the smaller, fierce woman held over her taller, physically more imposing brother. Sighing to herself, she tied off yet another stitch and pierced the skin once more, pulling it tight to close the wound. She was concerned at the lack of response from John, beyond the occasional flinch as she pushed the point of the needle into his skin. Not a sound had passed his lips and his eyes had remained closed since Jamie had gathered him up from the damp grass.

“Who the hell did this to ye?” yelled Jamie, crouching down to gaze at John. He ran his hand over John’s head as he waited for an answer. As far as he was concerned, someone had assaulted John and he wanted vengeance. “Who attacked ye, John? Give me his name and I’ll have the bastard pay fer this!”

For the first time since his collapse, John’s eyes briefly flickered open. Slowly shaking his head, he laughed weakly, before coughing from the exertion.

“John – they couldha killed ye!” exclaimed Jamie. “Or left ye in such a bad state that Dougal couldha finished ye off!”

“A ghille ruaidh– ye’ll want tae see this,” called out Murtagh who had been examining John’s sword that he had collected from the armourer along with John’s cloak. He held it out for Jamie to see – showing him the smear of blood on the tip from Dougal’s cheek. But closer examination revealed dark stains of blood in the engraved steel all along the blade from tip to hilt.

“He must have been attacked and had tae defend himself,” reasoned Jamie, his eyes narrowing and nostrils flaring at the possibility that Dougal had sent men after John.

Murtagh shook his head and sighed.

“I’ve never known him no’ wipe his blade clean – have ye?”

“Perhaps if it happened this morning and there was nae time-” started Jamie.

Murtagh placed the sword in Jamie’s hands and plucked John’s cloak from the floor, before spreading it out on the Round Table, alongside the pieces of the leather tunic.

“Look carefully, there are nae cuts in his cloak or tunic. He wasna attacked this morning, or any time while wearing the clothes he left in.” Frowning, Murtagh observed the blood-stained shreds of shirt lying discarded on the floor. “And he had time enough tae bind the wound – when would he ha’ done that?”

Returning to John’s side, Jamie took a clean damp cloth and gently mopped his brow.

“John, a ghraidh, I beg of ye, tell me what happened.”

Moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue, John swallowed before whispering in response:

“Fell on … my own sword. As you… asked of me.”

“What?” Jamie felt as if his heart was in his throat. He stared at the sword in his hand, realising the blood upon the blade was John’s. He turned and looked towards Raymond who had told them that their swords could not be beaten by any man. His mind raced, wondering if that meant that John’s injury could not be healed.

 “I would never ask that of ye, mo chridhe! Not on this sword! When did I tell ye this?”

“Last night… said I let you down…  only honourable thing… to do … was…”

John’s eyelids slid over his eyes as he yet again succumbed to blood loss and exhaustion.

“Jamie?” asked Jenny, shocked at what she had heard. “Tell me ye didna-”

“I would never say such a thing tae John!” declared Jamie, appalled at the mere suggestion. “Murtagh, ye were outside my door all night – ye ken I never left the castle.”

“Then why would he say what he did?” asked Jenny, rinsing out yet another blood-stained cloth.

“Madonna – are you finished with the stitching of his visible wounds?” asked Raymond as he stepped forward looking worried.

“As best I can – but the yarrow is having hardly any effect.” Claire took another cloth from Jenny to press against John’s side. “He is still losing blood. I’m concerned that there may be injuries inside that cannot be mended.”

“Hmm … you may be correct, in more ways than one.”  Raymond frowned and leant over John’s face, sniffing his breath. From his pocket he drew out a gleaming white stone on a long chain. He held the stone to John’s lips and Claire watched in horror as the stone took on an inky black hue.

“Master Raymond?” asked Claire, recalling the gem that he had gifted her. “What does that signify?”

“Poison – not to kill, I suspect or he would be dead already.” Raymond rubbed his own lips with a fingertip considering the evidence of foul play.

“Poison? Someone poisoned him?” echoed Jamie, growing more agitated. “But he didna eat anything last night that we’d no’ taken from the same platter. He drank from the same bottle as I did.”

“In fact, he barely touched a morsel at the feast,” added Claire. “And the toasting cup was passed from person to person, so-”

“Ifrinn! Jenny will ye fetch Mary from the kitchen?” Jamie took hold of his sister’s arm urgently. “Dinna let her stop and talk tae anyone – bring her straight here.”

Jenny nodded her head and left for the kitchen immediately.

“Mary – she’s no reason to poison John, surely?” asked Claire.

“I told her tae pack some food and wine fer John and to take them to the stables,” whispered Jamie. “I had to chastise the lass fer dallying wi’ that Laoghaire. But, I swear I saw her put something in her apron-”

Claire lifted her hand to her mouth, aghast at the implications.

A scuffling sound alerted them to Jenny shoving Mary towards the table. The girl looked scared witless.

“Have I done something wrong, my Laird?” she asked, unprompted.

“I dinna ken fer certain, Mary.” Jamie breathed out slowly, resisting the urge to take hold of the girl and shake the truth from her. “That all depends on whether or no’ ye intended tae cause harm.”

“Harm? No, sir, I never would –”

Putting a finger to the girl’s lips, Jamie shook his head. He spoke quietly, the low voice that all who knew him signified a cold anger.

“Laoghaire passed ye something last night. Just before I told ye tae make haste.” Clenching his fists, he growled in the girl’s face: “What was it and what did she ask ye tae do with it?”

Mary’s face became pale and she looked around at the two women, hoping for their support, only to see their faces grim and unforgiving. She was not sure who to fear most, the people surrounding her and the prone figure on the table, or those whose ears were pressed to the doors, out of sight.

“She said it was a blend of herbs that would help his lordship sleep.”  Mary’s voice croaked, her mouth dry with anxiety.

Claire slid her hand into the pocket of her skirt and withdrew the locket given to her by Raymond. She looked into the palm of her hand and saw the blue gem remain clear and bright.

“Madonna – would you say the child is speaking truthfully?” Raymond asked out loud.

“She is not being deceitful – she genuinely believes the herbs were for restful sleep.”

Jamie looked from his wife to his advisor and seeing them both in agreement, he stepped back and tried not to loom over the girl in such an intimidating manner.

“And ye added it tae his food?”

“No – the wine,” admitted Mary sheepishly. “She said it would make it taste sweet and give him sleepless dreams.”

“You did no wrong, my dear child.” Raymond patted the girl’s hand, reassuringly. “Do you still have the cloth in which the herbs were wrapped?”

“Yes – I put it back in my pocket.” Mary drew out the folded piece of muslin and handed it over.

Raymond cautiously opened the cloth. The powdered remains clung to the folds.

“Fetch me a glass of wine, s’il vous plait, Mary.”

Looking nervously to Jamie for permission, Mary darted across the hall to the sideboard and poured a glass of wine. As she turned, she found Raymond by her side, holding out a hand to take the glass. Jamie and Claire had followed, anxious to discover what he suspected.

Raymond tipped the remnants of the dark brown, gritty powder into the goblet of wine. As he swirled the mixture, he held the white stone above it, the colour having returned to normal after he had moved it away from John’s mouth. Once more, the stone became black.  

Ramond dipped a finger into the mixture and licked it, nodding to himself, before spitting on the floor.

“Ergot and convolvulus seeds – and the seeds of the poppy. Tell me, Madonna, would you say those are suitable ingredients for a sleeping potion?”

“Poppy seeds – yes,” replied Claire, wiping her bloodied hands on a damp cloth. “But the seeds of the morning glory and ergot are dangerous. They-”

“Indeed,” interrupted Raymond. “Thank you. I think the Laird may forgive you, Mary, as you had no intent to harm Lord John. But you must not speak a word of what you have just heard. Is that understood?”

Raymond clasped the girl’s hand and gave her a look that made it clear that she would go against him at her peril.

“Yes sir. I am sorry – but, Mistress Laoghaire said she’d been given it by Mistress Duncan and we all ken she’s good wi’ herbs, so I thought-”

“Dinna fash, lass.” Jamie gave the girl a thin-lipped smile. “I believe ye meant nae harm. But if ever either of those women ask ye tae add herbs tae anyone’s food or drink, check wi’ Master Raymond first.”

“Of course, sir. Lord John – he will be alright, won’t he?”

“I hope so, Mary, lass. I verra much hope so.” Jamie looked over the girl’s head, back towards the Round Table, upon which lay his mortally ill lover.

Waiting until the girl was out of sight, Jamie swallowed hard and turned to Raymond, seeking answers.

“Will ye tell me what effect that potion would have had on John?”

“Depending on the concentration – and that is why the poor child was told to add it to a flask of wine,” explained Raymond, looking to Claire before continuing. “The potion could cause blurred vision, headaches, visions– if too strong, convulsions and death.”

“What nature of sorcery is going on under my very nose?” hissed Jamie, looking towards Jenny, whose brow was furrowed as she wiped away yet more trickles of blood from John’s side.

“Do not ask questions you are not ready to have answered!” retorted Raymond. “There is only one kind of sorcery! Like there is only one sort of wine, yet its taste may be unique and it may act differently depending on who is serving and who is drinking it. The effects may vary with the strength. This – ” Raymond paused to toss the contents of the cup into the ashes of the previous night’s fire. “This tells me that someone is using knowledge she should never have had been allowed to gather. Meanwhile, the poison still runs in his Lordship’s veins and he is far from safe. Ergot enhances its victim’s worst fears – and you are very familiar with those of John Grey.”

Jamie blanched and was about to continue to press Raymond for answers when Jenny called out to them:

“Brother - I dinna mean tae interrupt yer discussions of what might be, but I dinna think it shall matter,” announced Jenny, causing them all to spin around to look in her direction. “I dinna believe the poor man has much longer for this earth,”

“What d’ye mean?”

“He’s growing weaker – and his skin is becoming cool tae the touch,” explained Jenny. “And these wretched wounds willna stop bleeding!”

Claire ran to the table and grabbed hold of John’s arm, pressing her fingertips firmly to his wrist.

“His heart is failing,” she said, a sob escaping with the words she knew would break Jamie’s heart. She examined John’s face, horrified that her worst fears were to be proved true. “His lips are becoming blue. He is fading fast.”

“He defeated Dougal,” stated Raymond. “Having won that battle, he has stopped fighting to live – ”

“Is he in this state because of the actions of men or of sorcery?” demanded Jamie, grasping hold of John’s shoulder. “The man I love wouldna give up on life!”

“He has been poisoned,” said Raymond with a shrug. “The ergot in the wine – it causes delusions. Perhaps that is the reason –”

“Jamie, it could be the wounds,” argued Claire. “If the blade pierced an organ, even grazed one, that nature of injury could bring about a slow death.”

“He did that tae himself because of sorcery – poison administered by that foul witch!” yelled Jamie, even as he squeezed John’s arm, wishing his strength could be enough to keep John alive.

“She has become more powerful than I thought,” murmured Raymond, rubbing his chin as if rueing past deeds.

“Then ye will heal him!” commanded Jamie. “Undo the sorcery that is making him give up – then it will be his choice tae live or die.”

“Jamie – if he’s dying, ye have tae let the man go!” exclaimed Murtagh, fearful of what Jamie was asking. “Nothing ever good came from witchcraft. Cha ghabh cuid de nithean leigheas.”

“This is no’ incurable!” Jamie rounded on his foster father, his face red, his cheeks streaked with tears. “I’ll no’ have him taken from me, no’ like this!”

“Please,” begged Claire, reaching out to take Raymond’s hand. “It will destroy Jamie if John dies now!”

“Raymond – do something. Anything. Ye cannae let him die.” Jamie placed his hand over Claire’s adding to her pleas.

“There will be a cost. You cannot bring life from death without there being a price to pay,” warned Raymond, glaring at the two as if they had no concept of what they were asking of him. “Are you both willing to take on that debt?”

“I dinna care what it costs – I shall repay it a thousand-fold. Save him!” ordered Jamie.

“As shall I,” declared Claire. “He accepted that challenge on my behalf.”

Shaking his head, Raymond peeled Claire’s right hand from his arm and placed it over one of the wounds that was still losing blood and then took Jamie’s left hand and laid it over Claire’s. Their fingers entwined as they pressed down against the ravaged flesh. They stood close, tears running down both their faces.

Jenny and Murtagh looked on aghast as Raymond started to walk around the table, keeping the table to his left-hand side as he thumped his staff against the flagstones, seeming to make the walls shake and the rafters quake.

As the sound reverberated around the hushed hall, Raymond started to murmur an incantation – the ancient spell of making and healing.

“Anál nathrach , orth' bháis's bethad, do chél dénmha.”

“Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis's bethad, do chél dénmha.”

 (Serpent's breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making.)

From the spent hearth, smoke arose from the ashes of logs burnt the previous night, and wisps of it snaked their way across the floor, twisting around the legs of the chairs and around the bodies of Jamie and Claire. Tendrils of sulphurous smoke wove around their outstretched arms, around their fingers and plunged into the gaps between the stitches oozing John’s lifeblood.

“Dia eadarainn 's an t-olc.” Jenny had walked back away from the table, to stand beside Murtagh. She grabbed hold of his arm and muttered prayers to protect them all from evil.

Raymond continued to chant, his voice becoming deeper, yet louder with each rendition of the words of power. In the hearth, flames appeared, licking over the charred branches and the smoke billowed outwards, thicker and denser, taking shape in the eyes of those who watched fearfully  – a long body, sinuous and slender, wrapping the three in its coils as it brought them closer together, joined near the veil between life and death.

It was a loud gasp of breath from John that broke the spell. At that precise moment, Raymond stopped chanting and the serpent of smoke snapped back, withdrawing into the smouldering embers that lay scattered amongst the ashes in the fireplace.

“John, mo chridhe?” croaked Jamie, desperate to believe their love had brought him back from the brink of death.

Cautiously lifting their joined hands from the site of the wound, Claire felt her carefully sewn stitches come loose. She looked on in astonishment as the fragments of dried gut fell away as the wound’s edges closed neatly, with barely a sign of ever having been there. Her mouth fell open, wondering what she had witnessed. Raymond’s raised eyebrows suggested it was something new for him, too.

“Your paths have become one. I had not expected that. You must tread carefully, Madonna,” he whispered so that only she and Jamie could hear. “A peril to one is now a peril to all.”

After a while, John’s breathing became deeper and his eyes opened. Seeing Jamie and Claire clasping hands, gazing at him with bated breath, a tear escaped his eye and trickled down his cheek.

“Stay with us, John,” pleaded Jamie. “We love ye. Fuil m fhala agus Cràimhmo dràmha.”

“Blood of my blood,” responded John, weakly. “Bone of my bone.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Leaving Jenny and Murtagh with instructions to find Dougal and inform him that it would be best if he were to return to Castle Leoch and his wife for a while, Jamie carried John in his arms to their chambers.

They had not noticed the flow of time while they had been ensconced in the hall, desperately doing all they could to save John’s life. But the sun was high in the sky by the time Claire and Raymond announced that John was exhausted, but otherwise healed. John had attempted to get to his feet, but Jamie refused to countenance his obstinacy, matching it with his own stubbornness.  

Standing midway between the two bedrooms, torn as to where to lay his lover to rest, Claire made the decision for him. Placing a hand on his shoulder she whispered in his ear:

“Your bed. You should not leave his side for the rest of the day.”

With a shy smile, Jamie ducked his head and looked at John who returned the smile fondly and nodded in agreement to the unspoken question.

“And neither should ye, mo eudail,” said Jamie, not taking his eyes from John. “He’ll need all the love we can give him to bring him fully back tae us.” Jamie then turned around to check that Claire did not think he was making that an order. “That’s if ye wish …”

“I would. I shan’t be able to rest until he is whole once more.”

Claire draped an arm around Jamie’s neck and pressed a soft kiss to his lips and then leant down to gently cup John’s weary face in her hand, and kissed him, too.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any other resident of Lallybroch, a naked figure writhed upon the floor of a cavern murmuring the words she had had longed to hear:

“Anál nathrach…”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Chapter Text

chapter banner featuring Claire and Jamie in various states of undress

 

Chapter 8 - A Good Knight's Sleep 

 

“Shhh!” hissed Claire, swiping at Jamie’s thigh as he passed her once more in his circuit from the fireplace to the window and back again. Each and every time he managed to step on a squeaky floorboard. “Can’t you sit down and stop pacing?”

“Nae, mo charaid, I canna sit down and tae be honest, I dinna ken how ye can be sae calm.”

Pausing to glare at Claire, Jamie pointed at her feet that were resting on a footstool. As soon as they had settled John in the bed, she had kicked off her shoes, poured two glasses of brandy and then sunk into a high-backed chair in front of the fire. To all appearances it did seem as if she was relaxing without a care in the world. However, she was also worried about John. He had drifted into unconsciousness in Jamie’s arms while Claire had been pulling back the sheets on the bed and had not moved since. As soon as Jamie had peeled off the hose, stained with blood and mud, she had pulled the covers over John’s naked body. Even though it would have been her preference to check for any other injuries while the man was unconscious and unresisting, she had wanted to spare him his dignity.

Claire had tried to encourage Jamie to lie beside him, but he had denied himself that comfort with a curt shake of his head, insisting on conducting his vigil on foot. In the short time she had got to know Jamie Fraser, she had come to understand that stubbornness ran through him to his very core and that there was little point in arguing with him. Nursing her glass of brandy, she threw a glance at the carved mantlepiece, upon which Jamie’s glass still sat, untouched.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” whispered Jamie, lowering himself into the chair next to Claire. He rubbed his face and then patted her knee. “I ken there’s nae reason for ye tae be as worrit as I am.”

“I think you underestimate how difficult it is not to be worried about him,” murmured Claire, resting a hand on top of Jamie’s. “I am saving my energy, whilst you are squandering yours in an attempt to wear grooves in the floorboards with your pacing.”

Although she was chastising Jamie, she found her gaze once more drawn to John’s sword that was propped up in the corner of the room. Not long after they had entered Jamie’s chambers, Murtagh had softly knocked on the door, delivering the sword which he had cleaned and announcing that he would take a seat outside their rooms to ensure they were not disturbed for the rest of the day.

Jamie’s eyes were also drawn to the weapon, and to the lace tied to its hilt. He got up to take the sword and smiled as he held it to the light, the blade was shiny and unblemished, no sign left of John’s blood upon it. He was glad that Murtagh had taken it upon himself to clean the blade as he was not sure he could have faced doing it himself.

“I’ll leave it fer John to put back in its scabbard, when he’s up and about again.” Saying it out loud was an effort by Jamie to convince himself that John would recover. Just as Jamie was about to place the sword back against the wall, he plucked at the lace scarf and looked to Claire. “D’ye want yer favour back, Sassenach?”

Claire blanched at the sight of the delicate lace, bearing the dark red stains of blood. John had shed his blood for her and for Jamie. It occurred to her that he would do so again in a heartbeat, regardless of the potential outcome.

“No – leave it there for now. He fought for my honour and until that fight is over, it should stay there. At least until he wakes up and decides what to do with it.”

“Aye,” nodded Jamie, appreciating the sentiment. Rubbing his face again, he blurted out: “I dinna understand why he’s no’ waking up!”

“Hush! He needs time to recover,” whispered Claire, shaking her head and looking across to the still form beneath the bedcovers, checking that he had not been roused by Jamie’s loud outburst. Absently, she chewed on the edge of a fingernail, her forehead wrinkling as she considered the possibility of internal bleeding and wondered if the sorcery she had witnessed had healed any unseen injuries or only the wounds they had seen. “We have no idea how much blood he lost before he managed to bind the wounds.”

“But ye said he was healed-” protested Jamie, his voice no quieter than before.

“I told you that he was no longer bleeding to death!” hissed Claire. “That is not the same-”

Leaning so close to Claire that she could see the flames reflecting in his troubled eyes, Jamie huffed loudly.

“If that’s true, how can we ken if he’s going to wake up at all and no’ just die in his sleep?” snapped Jamie.

“Because he can’t get any bloody peace in here. Not with you two bickering.”

Claire sat up quickly and Jamie spun around, startled to hear John’s hoarse voice. With hair loose and falling around his face, John peered over the edge of the sheets, squinting as he tried to take his bearings. He proceeded to drag one of the blankets up to his chin and burrow deeper into the bed.

“This is all your fault-” started Claire, jabbing a finger at Jamie even as she attempted to straighten her skirts that had got twisted underneath her.

Jamie merely grunted in response and by the time Claire was on her feet, he was crouching down at the side of the bed and peering at the face poking out from under the covers. He ran a tentative hand over the mound in the centre of the bed, relieved to feel the shifting limbs responding to his touch.

“I hope ye’re no’ hiding anything from me, mo ghràidh. Ye ken – injuries that were no’ worth troubling over?”

Blinking against the light, John opened his mouth and then appeared to change his mind. Swallowing hard, he shivered and moistened his lips before speaking.

“It’s bloody freezing in here – have you got those windows flung wide open again?”

“Are you feeling cold?” asked Claire moving swiftly to the other side of the bed. She hoisted her skirts up to allow her to get up onto the mattress on her knees. “Bloody dress – I don’t know why you insisted that I put this monstrosity on this morning-”

“To show ye were the Lady of Broch Tuarach and that ye were owed respect as such!”

“Quieter please,” murmured John, holding his hands over his ears. “My head is still ringing.”

“Sorry,” apologised Jamie, lifting one of John’s hands away from his head to kiss the back of it.

John trembled slightly, pulled his hand away and tried to bury himself further under the covers.

“Are you very cold?” asked Claire, noting the way John was starting to shiver, only adding to her suspicions regarding his state of health.

“Hmph, “ grunted John in response as if it was obvious. “You will need to make sure he doesn’t let the fire go out – he doesn’t realise how cold it gets up here.”

Claire looked across at Jamie and the two of them glanced as one at the roaring fire in the hearth and then at the windows fastened shut. Sliding her hand under his chin, Claire pressed her fingers to the side of John’s throat. She could not help the anxious frown that had Jamie’s eyebrows shoot up in concern.

“What is it?” asked Jamie.

“His heart is racing and he’s chilled to the bone… feel his feet.”

Puzzled over the instruction, Jamie moved to the end of the bed and grabbed hold of one of John’s feet.

“Ifrinn – it’s colder than the millpond in winter.”

“Are his feet normally cold?” Claire rolled her eyes at Jamie’s disconcerted expression. “Come on, it’s not as if I don’t know that you two are accustomed to sharing a bed.”

“They’re usually cool, but never like blocks o’ ice.” Instinctively, Jamie started to rub the cold feet between his hands, attempting to warm them up.

“No – don’t do that,” instructed Claire, shaking her head. “Just make sure they’re covered.”

A shared look across the huddled form indicated that both were aware of the symptoms of blood loss that John was exhibiting. Claire gently shook John’s shoulder and addressed him directly.

“John? I need to check your wounds haven’t reopened. Will you let me take a look?”

“If you must,” grumbled John, his teeth chattering.

“Master Raymond has a lot of confidence in the lass’s potential as a lady physician, so ye’d better get used to this,” said Jamie, cajoling John into being cooperative. “Come on, let us see that ye’ve no’ sprung any more leaks since I’d brought ye tae yer bed.”

Jamie took hold of the blanket firmly clasped in John’s fists and yanked it hard until he dislodged it. Claire helped him to fold back the covers until they could see where the dreadful injuries had been. They were initially startled by the dark bruising on his right shoulder from where Dougal had smashed the broadsword into the spaulder, it had developed quite spectacularly since they had put him to bed. Claire noted to herself that whatever Raymond had done, it had only manifested its healing properties with regard to the wounds that John had inflicted upon himself. She bit her lip as she brushed her fingertips across the bare skin, feeling a raised area of scar tissue from where the blade had entered. Tilting her head, she could see a thin silvery line that looked like the a tiny snake, slithering across his side.

“Jamie, please could you roll him over towards you. Gently onto his right side, mind that shoulder.”

Scowling at the array of dark purple blotches, Jamie grasped the uninjured shoulder and gently pulled John towards him until his left hip was raised off the mattress. He was relieved to see no fresh blood on either John or the sheets, or any evidence of other injuries, besides some bruising from where he had been knocked from his saddle that morning. He watched on as Claire ran her hand over the ridge of John’s pelvis and over his naked buttock, feeling for traces of the exit wound. He understood why Raymond said she had the heart of a healer by the way she treated John with such care.

“You are uncommonly daring, my dear,” muttered John, expelling a breathy sigh. “To fondle another man’s bare arse in front of your husband is outrageous behaviour for a newly-wed.”

“If you are unable to discern the difference between an inspection of injuries and being fondled, you are far from well.” Claire could tell that all was not well from the way the hairs on John’s arms were standing on end and the way his limbs were trembling. She gently slapped the bare flesh and tried to keep the tone teasing, not wanting to worry either man more than necessary. Leaning over, she whispered conspiratorially into John’s ear: “And you know full well that he is as much your husband as he is mine – if not more so.”

“Are the two of ye flirting?” asked Jamie, the corner of his mouth twitching. Then, in a low voice he added: “Because if ye are, ye’ll need tae wait until I’ve had some answers from John.”

“Answers?” queried John, as he tried to moisten his mouth that had suddenly become very dry. He recognised that tone in Jamie’s voice – his bluster was bearable, his quietness dangerous.

Not responding verbally, Jamie kissed the tips of his fingers and pressed them against the barely visible scar above John’s hip.

“Why here? Ye told me that ye’d fallen on yer sword – we both ken what that usually means.”

Claire noticed Jamie’s eyes flick towards John’s sword, her blood-stained lace scarf still tied to its elaborate hand guard.

“Can ye explain why ye chose tae impale yer side instead?” asked Jamie, his hand resting on John’s hip.

Aware of a silent conversation taking place between the two, Claire looked from one man to the other, one set of eyes were hooded as if attempting to conceal a dreadful secret and the other’s narrowed, seeking the truth.

“Show me – where did ye truly intend tae place the tip of yer blade?” insisted Jamie, tightening his grip on John to prevent him from moving.

“Does that really matter?” asked Claire, anxiously noting the way Jamie’s thumbnail was starting to dig into John’s flesh.

“Aye, lass, it does. And he knows why.” Jamie answered without shifting his attention from John. “Show me, mo ghràidh.”

John refused to answer, his lips pressed tightly together and his eyes showing steely resolution.

“Stop it, damn you!” yelled Claire. “This cruelty is just what I had been led to expect from a Highland warrior.”

“Ye dinna ken what’s going on, lass!” growled Jamie.

“What the hell do you aim to achieve by this?” demanded Claire, furiously trying to prise Jamie’s fingers from John’s side.

“That the poison in his veins? Master Raymond said it enhances whatever is in the victim’s thoughts.” Shifting his focus to Claire, Jamie continued, hoping she would understand why he had to know John’s state of mind. “I need tae ken what was in John’s head, what his intentions had been. Otherwise I canna put his mind at rest in the way ye and Raymond set his body right.”

Tilting her head to one side, Claire considered what Jamie was admitting, that he had felt helpless. She recalled him pleading with Master Raymond, tears streaking his cheeks as he did so, insisting that he did whatever he could to save John’s life. Although his body was out of immediate danger, she understood Jamie’s fear that his heart and soul were far from safe. The combination of the drug and blood loss could only increase the risk of more harm being incurred.

“John? Please – we need to know what happened so we can care for you,” Claire asked softly, running her fingers through John’s hair, massaging his scalp with the pads of her fingertips as she did so. “Show Jamie what he needs to know.”

Sighing softly, John reached down to press his hand against the soft flesh just below his breastbone. He kept his eyes fixed on Jamie’s as he did so – knowing that he would appreciate the significance.

Ifrinn,” cursed Jamie, the knuckles of his fingers becoming white as his worst fears were confirmed.

Feeling like an interloper witnessing some awful confession, Claire tried to shuffle back towards the edge of the bed, only to feel Jamie’s hand close upon her arm and hold her still.

“That wouldha killed ye instantly.” Jamie’s grim words were for Claire’s benefit, for he knew that John was fully aware of what would have happened if he had thrust his sword upwards and under his ribcage. “What happened? What caused ye to wound yerself instead of taking yer life?”

“You. Both of you,” admitted John quietly, his voice barely audible. “I saw you, arms around each other, looking down at me with disappointment. Reminding me of my duty to stay alive to take on the challenge from your bloody uncle.”

“If ye saw us looking down on ye, it was with dread and love,” explained Jamie, dismayed by John’s interpretation of his vision. “No’ disappointment, mo chridhe.”

“That’s true, John,” soothed Claire, stroking John’s arm.

“Ye’ve explained tae me why ye run yer sword through yer side instead of into yer heart,” stated Jamie, pressing a hand against John’s chest as if to reassure himself that no new wounds had been inflicted there. “But what the hell was in yer mind tae start with.”

“I suspect you are fully aware of my motives. But if you insist,” John grunted as he pushed away from Jamie’s grip and swung his legs over the edge of the mattress. Breathing heavily from the exertion, he dragged a blanket around his shoulders. A bout of light-headedness caused him to sway and he took a moment to steady himself before continuing. “And once I have made my confession, I shall spare you any further complications by taking my leave of Lallybroch, as was agreed before the wedding.”

“What agreement is he talking about?” demanded Claire, scowling at Jamie. “I certainly do not recall John’s imminent departure being part of any discussion I was involved in.”

“You were not party to that particular negotiation, my dear.” John’s eyes did not shift from Jamie’s, even as he addressed Claire. His words were formal, even though he had to pause frequently to catch his breath. “It was a condition that I insisted upon, not Jamie. I agreed to stay by your side until after the wedding. The Laird of the Clans sanctioned my request and gave me permission to depart as soon as my duties as bride-knight were fulfilled. And that is precisely what I plan to do.”

“Ye’re no’ going anywhere until I say ye can!” Jamie angrily shoved John onto his back and held him down with a splayed hand across his chest.

“For heaven’s sake, Jamie!” exclaimed Claire, leaping to her feet and wondering if she should throw the water over Jamie to bring him to his senses. “He’s barely recovered and you’re being an absolute brute. What’s got into you?”

“Bloody obstinacy, madam,” snarled John, struggling to dislodge Jamie. “He knows he has no choice in the matter. He gave his word and will now try to rescind on that agreement.”

“D’ye no’ get it, Claire?” demanded Jamie, grappling to keep John from getting up from the bed. Despite his height and weight advantage, John was familiar with every one of his weak spots and was attempting to push his thumbs under Jamie’s collar bones. “Stop that, ye wee bastard!”

Eyeing the ewer on the washstand, Claire decided against it for fear of causing John even greater heat loss.

“This gommerel came within a whisker o’ killing himself last night and then took on Dougal while mortally wounded. And now he’s planning on going tae Slains Castle on a mission that’s fated tae fail if he leaves here weak as a new born kitten.”

“Castle Slains?” repeated Claire, aghast at the implications. “John? Are you seriously considering venturing to the castle they call the place of no return?”

“As laird’s champion, it is my right to pursue the Black Prince.” John bit the words out between clenched teeth, squirming as Jamie pinned his hands above his head. “It was agreed and now he is refusing to honour his promise!”

“The Black Prince? Randall? What the hell are you thinking?” Claire sighed, exasperated. “No, don’t bother answering that. I very much doubt that thought has come into this decision at all.”

Shaking her head, Claire turned her back on both men, left the bedroom and headed for the main door to the private chambers. She opened the door and spoke quietly to someone outside – evidently his foster father was still standing guard. From beyond the bed, Jamie could hear Murtagh swearing loudly followed not long after by the shutting of a door and the sound of a key being turned in a lock.

By the time Claire returned, Jamie was looming over John, who was desperately straining to bring a knee up under Jamie’s kilt.

“Stop it there! Both of you!” yelled Claire. “Nobody is going anywhere. I just gave Master Fitzgibbons the key and instructed him to lock the door and to only open it upon my instructions.”

“Ye what?” demanded Jamie. “Like hell he will - he’ll do as I command!”

“Not if he doesn’t believe it to be in your best interest.” Claire swept into the room, her skirts rustling as she squeezed between the fireside chairs. She took Jamie’s glass from the mantelpiece, drained the brandy from it in two swallows and then wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Your father and I have established quite an equable rapport in the past few days. Unfortunately, we had only reckoned on one of you making reckless decisions. It had not crossed my mind or his that Lord John would take leave of his senses.”

“I beg your pardon, madam,” protested John, evidently feeling insulted. “But I –”

“I’ll not listen to another word from either of you until you stop brawling like children!” Claire flung her arms apart, drawing attention to the position they were in, with Jamie straddling John, holding his arms above his head by the wrists, while John was attempting to knee Jamie in the groin. She moved around so she could see both of their faces. Standing there, hands on hips, looking thoroughly appalled, she reminded Jamie of his sister. The open-palmed slap to Jamie’s bare thigh, exposed as his kilt had been pushed up, just cemented that impression in Jamie’s head. “Let go of him, you great oaf!”

Cursing under his breath, Jamie loosened his grip and sprung quickly to his feet, staring furiously at Claire. He almost considered following up on his promise to strike back if she were ever to raise her hand to him again, but one look at the expression on her face convinced him that it would have been a very inadvisable act. Switching his focus to the man on the bed, he watched warily as John awkwardly sat up and shuffled to the head of the bed, wrapping himself in the discarded blanket. As John leaned back against the carved headboard, he threw a belligerent glare at Jamie.

A pointed look from Claire instructed Jamie that it was for him to make the first move, so he sat on the edge of the mattress facing John.  

“Why, mo ghràidh? Why d’ye seem tae have a death wish?” asked Jamie, his voice cracking. “Ye’re breaking my heart, man.”

“Do you have such little faith in me?” came John’s melancholy reply.

“Can ye blame me? Ye fought Dougal with a piercing wound through yer side and now ye’re ready to ride tae Castle Slains!”

“He makes a valid point, John.” Claire stood by, arms folded across her chest, ready to intervene if necessary.

“I defeated Dougal,” stated John grimly. “And I shall vanquish Randall.”

Jamie growled low in his throat and looked ready to tie John down if he had to keep him from setting off on a doomed mission. Claire stepped forward to rest a hand on Jamie’s shoulder, squeezing it tightly to rein him in.

“A noble ambition, my lord, but one better postponed until you are well.” Claire chose her words carefully, not wishing to insult John, yet also wanting to persuade him to postpone, if not abandon, his foolish plans. “I’ve seen enough men trembling from blood loss after suffering wounds such as yours, so please do not waste your breath trying to convince me that you are fit for the journey, never mind the fight.”

“She’s right, mo charaid. Ye’re in no fit state to get tae the stables, let alone tae ride all the way tae Slains.”

“You have seen me ride in far worse a state than this,” challenged John petulantly.

“Oh really?” Claire demanded, digging her fingers into Jamie’s shoulder as she felt him tense up. Her eyes blazing she spoke directly to John. “If you were to ride out this day, Jack bloody Randall would have your butchered body returned to us in a cart before the end of the month. Do you have any concept of how that would devastate Jamie? Or me?”

Hearing John’s gasp as he looked at Claire in horror, Jamie spun around and saw the tears pricking at his wife’s eyes. From her face, it was obvious to them that she had witnessed just such a horror.

Ifrinn. Claire, please tell me, ye have no’- ”

“I have no desire to revisit those memories,” pleaded Claire, holding her hand up as she shook her head sharply.

Ducking his head down to consider his position as both leader and lover, Jamie made a decision.

“John – yer place fer now is by my side. I’ll no’ let ye take on that bastard either alone or until ye’re fully healed.” Jamie reached out to take John’s hand. “I shall abide by my word – but I’ll no’ send ye tae certain death.”

“You have a wife at your side now, my Laird.” John grimaced slightly as he looked from Jamie to Claire and back again. “It occurs to me that with Claire at your side, as Lady of Broch Tuarach, together you would command both love and respect.”

“I have more than one side, mo chridhe.” Jamie smiled as he had only recently come to terms with that idea himself. “I dinna see why I canna have one of you on either side o’ me. My champion and my wife. That’s if…”

Jamie placed his free hand over Claire’s that was still holding onto him tightly. He turned his head to look at her, a question in his eyes. Letting out a sigh of relief, Claire nodded her head in agreement as she sat down next to John and took his other hand. That electric sensation she had felt when he had first clasped her hand by the millpond ran between them once more - a sharp connection that made her eyes widen in surprise, whilst John shuddered fearfully.

“There is one very good reason why I should no longer stand by your side.” John paused to gather his nerve before addressing Jamie. “If I stay, I fear I shall betray you. Perhaps I already have, in my heart. I have to confess that I am developing feelings for Claire. I never sought them, yet they have grown every day since we first met. I understand that you will have no choice but to-”

“Ye’re no’ the only one.” Putting a finger to John’s lips, Jamie interrupted with an admission of his own. “If ye’ve no’ noticed, I’ve become verra fond o’ the lass myself.”

“I’d need to be blind not to see that, Jamie.” John sounded dejected as he glanced at their clasped hands. “Yet another compelling argument for me to leave sooner than-”

“Will you stop being such a selfless idiot!” snapped Claire. Rubbing John’s cheek with her thumb she sighed. “You should open your eyes a little wider, my dear man.”

“But-”

“Tell me this, mo balach biodheach, d’ye love me any the less, having developed feelings fer Claire?”

“Of course not!” declared John, adamantly. “I shall love you until the day I die!”

“And I ye, John, mo chridhe.” Jamie lifted John’s hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles he could see were starting to swell from the battering he had taken earlier. “I’ll no’ desert ye or abandon ye, but I cannae help the feelings I have fer Claire. Ye ken, if we both love her-”

“But what of Claire’s feelings?” asked John, warily looking at the woman whose touch stirred him like no others ever had.

Claire leant down to kiss John on the mouth, lingering long enough to distinguish it from a chaste kiss one would bestow upon a close friend. She then reached out to pull Jamie close and kissed him in the same way. Jamie smiled into the kiss and as Claire moved away, he looked down at John’s confused face.

“I think that answers that question, mo chridhe.” Jamie wrapped one arm around Claire and the other around John drawing them all close together.

“A week ago, I had absolutely no desire for a husband at all, yet I now find myself with two. I imagine that would strike horror into the heart of most young women.” Claire chuckled to herself, recalling her indignation at being bartered for as if she were a sack of grain. She quickly shook her head to reassure the two men and reached out to both of them. “But this feels right. As if it was meant to be. And didn’t Master Raymond say that our paths had become one-”

“Aye, that he did,” agreed Jamie. “Although I never ken when he’s speaking literally and when he’s using metaphors.”

“I’m glad I’m not the only one,” replied Claire. “Yesterday, when we were handfast in the circle, the sun broke through the clouds and I saw -”

“Beams that shone on all three of us? Aye, lass, I saw that too.” Jamie grinned as he saw John’s mouth fall open in surprise. “When I smiled at ye, John? A beam of sunlight fell upon yer head, just as the words of union were spoken. The ancient ones bound us three tae one another yesterday. For good or for evil, we are one.”

“That explains the look Raymond gave me,” muttered John. “I thought perhaps I had offended him in some way.”

Claire frowned as she recalled the sensations she had experienced only the previous day. It seemed so much longer than a mere day since she had stood in that circle to be bound to James Fraser. Since then, her life had been thrown into chaos and it was only just seeming to settle again.

“For a brief moment, it seemed that everything stopped moving, the leaves in the trees no longer shook in the breeze and the birds ceased to sing. But the stones seemed to be buzzing, as if they were bee hives. And a fanciful notion came to me, that I had been living another life before I met you both.” Claire smiled contentedly, clasping their hands in hers. “It has been such a short time, yet I’ve come to love you both, despite everything in my heart rebelling and telling me this is madness. You are both so very dear to me, even though you are so very different, like the sun and the moon-”

“That makes you the brightest star in the sky, shining as the moon sets and the sun rises,” murmured John, shuddering as the cold continued to leach warmth from his body, despite the fire growing in his heart. He could barely contain a sob that broke free as doubts that had clung to his soul melted away, chased off by the two who claimed his love.

“John, mo leannan, what ails ye?” Jamie cupped John’s face in a hand and leant forward to kiss him gently.

Responding to John’s apparent distress, Claire shuffled around until she sat behind him. As Jamie took John’s hands in his, she held him in her arms and rocked him gently.

“Hush there. You’ve been through a great deal in the space of a few days. You’re weak and cold because of your body’s reactions to everything that has transpired, that and blood loss. Jamie – kit off, soldier and get in the bed with your man.”

“What?” asked Jamie, astounded. “Are ye giving me orders now?”

“You heard me – you’ve had your damn answers. For the love of all that’s sacred to you, try to make him feel better. Skin to skin will warm him best.”

Grunting loudly, Jamie stood up to unfasten his kilt and unwrap it from around his waist. As he did so, he nodded at Claire.

“What about ye, then?”

“What are you on about?” she asked, admiring the way the plaid fell aside to reveal strong, muscular thighs.

“If I warm one side o’ him,” explained Jamie as he unbuttoned his waistcoat and then pulled it off with his shirt and flung both to the floor. “Ye can warm the other.”

“Well, yes. I… I suppose I could.” Momentarily caught off guard by the broad expanse of chest exposed, Claire felt herself distracted by thoughts other than warming their ailing lover.

“Take that dress off then, ye’ve been moaning about the skirts all morning. Ye will nae be comfortable wearing that in bed. Ye can always keep yer shift on if ye wish,” suggested Jamie as he started to rearrange the sheets and blankets on the bed, feigning ignorance of the effect his nudity was having on Claire. “Fer modesty, ye ken.”

“No, dammit,” biting back her irritation at the smirk she had caught on her husband’s face, Claire ripped out the lacing and dragged the sleeves from her arms, before pushing the voluminous skirts over her hips. Finally she unlaced the front of the shift, letting it fall from her shoulders, slipping over her breasts before puddling around her feet.

Unlike Jamie, she picked up the clothing and folded it neatly before turning to see two awestruck faces gazing at her naked body in open admiration.

“I’d ask if either of you had ever seen a woman’s body before, but it seems that it would be pointless.”

“It’s not that we’ve no’ seen a lass wi’ no clothes on her back,” explained Jamie, moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue. “It’s just that I dinna think either of us has ever seen one quite as beautiful as ye, lass.”

“Oh,” was all that Claire could say, as her cheeks became warm and pink.

John had settled on his side in the centre of the bed, manoeuvred there by Jamie, who lay behind him and was holding up the covers, inviting Claire to join them. Accepting the invitation, she crawled between the sheets to take up position in front of John, slipping her arms around his waist and pulling him close.

“If this is a dream, I beg of you both, never wake me from it.”

Claire responded to John’s plea with a kiss, sealing her lips to his.

“Ye feeling any warmer, mo chridhe?” asked Jamie, pressing open-mouthed kisses to the back of John’s neck.

“Yes – oh yes.”

Jamie slid an arm around and meeting Claire’s eyes over John’s bruised shoulder asked permission before touching her. She smiled in return, before sliding her hand into the gap between his body and John’s to brush the backs of her fingers over his belly.  Grinning in response, Jamie ran his hand over the soft skin of her thigh and up, over the round curve of her bottom.

Nach ann oirre a tha 'n tòn chruinn alainn,” muttered Jamie.

“What was that?”

John replied before Jamie could say a word.

“He said you have a wonderfully fat arse.” His voice was slurred with imminent sleep.

“What?” exclaimed Claire, wondering if she had heard him correctly.

“I said round – no’ fat!” explained Jamie, gently nipping at John’s ear. “Were ye no’ listening properly? I thought yer grasp o’ Gàidhlig was coming along better than that!”

“Round then?” murmured John from his cocoon between the two who were exploring each other’s bodies around him. “Hmmm… I’m not sure whether to feel envious or jealous.”

“John, mo leannan, are ye falling asleep?” Jamie whispered into John’s ear.

“Sorry, I’m just…”

“Exhausted I should imagine.” Claire completed the sentence for him, kissing his forehead affectionately. “Rest easy, we’ll be here when you wake.”

As John drifted off into sleep, his head falling onto the pillow between them, Claire leaned forward to kiss Jamie.  

“Don’t worry – it’s to be expected,” whispered Claire. “He’s still healing.”

Neither Claire nor Jamie fell asleep completely, but the warmth from the fire and the blankets made them drowsy. When either of them did doze briefly, on waking they saw the other watching over them with unguarded love. Throughout the afternoon, they continued their exploration of each other’s bodies with gentle caresses and touches that gradually became more than lingering and far more intimate. It was a gasp from Claire as Jamie leant across to take one of her nipples between his lips that finally roused John from his restorative slumbers.

Trapped between the two he could feel the hardness of Jamie’s arousal pressing into him from behind and the softness of Claire’s breasts against his chest. They appeared to be making love to one another around him and through him – as if his body were a conduit for the growing passion between them. The sensations of warmth, of skin against skin, panting breaths upon his back and throat, combined with the scents of sweat and the floral perfume that Claire wore, all wrapped him in an embrace so intimate he could not help but respond in kind. Looking up into amber eyes, he kissed Claire deeply, letting their tongues entwine as his hands roamed her body, feeling the roundness of her breasts and the smoothness of her skin under his fingertips. All the while, Jamie’s hands moved between them, caressing first one and then the other. As John slid his hands over Claire’s hips, he chuckled softly:

“Jamie – you were right, it is a gloriously round arse.”

“So is yours, mo ghràidh, nae need tae be jealous.” Jamie wrapped his arms around John’s waist to pull him back onto his weeping cock, dragging the head of it along the crease between his lover’s buttocks.

“You’re both quite magnificent specimens,” observed Claire, humming against John’s chest, her hands gripping hold of Jamie’s arms.

“Have ye seen many men’s bodies then, lass?” asked Jamie curiosity getting the better of him. Whilst John had slept, it had become obvious to him that Claire was not unfamiliar with a man’s anatomy.

“I’ve nursed many, which has often required the removal of clothing,” came Claire’s reply, but a twitch to her lips suggested that was not her only encounter with the male body. “And I am not the blushing child bride you originally bargained for.”

“Ye’re certainly not that, Sassenach, but I’ll be honest with ye, it is a relief-”

“It doesn’t bother you that I’m not a virgin?” asked Claire, biting her lip.

“Not at all,” confirmed Jamie, the grin on his face fading quickly as it occurred to him that perhaps his wife had a secret lover that she had been torn away from to be betrothed to him. “Ye’ve had a lover before then? D’ye still-”

“No, he’s no longer in my life – that was another time, another place.” Signalling that the topic was closed for further discussion, Claire draped an arm around Jamie’s neck and kissed him thoroughly, leaving no room for her former lover to creep into her mind.

Setting aside conversation, Jamie encompassed the two people he loved in his arms and proceeded to kiss them one after the other, letting his hands wander freely over the bodies pressed against him.

“We’re going to need a bigger bed,” sighed John, squirming as a stray elbow dug into his side.

“No’ if we all snuggle up close,” replied Jamie, breathing heavily against John’s neck.

“How close?” gasped John, pressure from either side of his body stirring his loins, despite the earlier loss of blood. With Jamie pushing between the cheeks of his arse and Claire guiding his own semi-hard cock between her legs, letting it slide through her slippery labia, he was not sure he would survive the over stimulation. And he did not care.

“Verra close, mo ghràidh.” Gently biting on the side of John’s neck, Jamie nuzzled his lover’s throat relishing the responding groan of pleasure.

“I don’t think I can…” Whatever John was about to say was lost as Claire swallowed his words in a kiss that took what was left of his breath away.

Jamie ran a hand down John’s chest to take hold of the base of his cock, even as it was pressing closer and closer to Claire’s core.

Dinna fash, we’ll catch ye.”

“Just let us do the work, John,” murmured Claire as she continued to slide across his hardening prick.

John nodded his head gratefully as he held tightly to Claire, his hands splayed across her back, feeling the sweat gather in the valley of her spine as she writhed against him.

Gathering up some of the moisture oozing from Claire’s nether lips onto his fingers, Jamie rubbed it over his own cock to lessen the friction as he started to thrust with greater urgency between John’s thighs. Claire gasped as she felt the tip of Jamie’s cock moving alongside John’s between her legs, stimulating her sensitive nub. She felt John’s hands slide down, moving between her legs, his fingers stroking the soft skin of her inner thighs and then further up, applying just the right pressure in response to her vocal cues. With no penetration required, they came one after the other, crying out loudly as they did so, weeping with pleasure as their union was consummated in a sweaty, sticky knot of flesh and limbs. With legs entwined and arms circling waists, they resembled a group of interlacing creatures carved on one of the ancient stones.

It took John the longest to recover and for his breathing to return to normal, but as he did so, he felt strong arms holding him close.

Jamie had promised to catch him and he had.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~~@~~~

Chapter Text

 

In the middle of the night, when the temperature dropped, Jamie woke, a cold draft on his exposed back chilling him to the marrow. A quick glance in the direction of the hearth showed that the fire had gone out, not even a residual glow from the embers to indicate that the hearth contained anything but a heap of powdery grey ashes. The sun had set long ago, but there was enough moonlight filtering through the thick glass in the windows for him to make out shapes and forms. As his eyes became acclimatised to the gloom, he smiled to himself as he took in the sight of two heads upon the pillows, the long silky hair of John loose and messy and the dark curls of Claire cascading across the arm of the man holding her close to his chest. He could barely believe his good fortune in not only having kept the love of John but of gaining that of Claire as well.

“You let the fire go out, didn’t you?” grumbled John, his voice husky with sleep. Carefully sliding his arm from under Claire’s body, he slowly turned around until he could nestle his head against Jamie’s chest.

“Aye – ye have me there, mo chridhe.” Relieved to find his lover’s body warm and pliant, Jamie pulled him close and savoured the feeling of John’s arms around his waist. They shared a long overdue kiss, one that was anything but chaste and gentle.

“How are you feeling?” whispered Jamie, not wanting to disturb their companion. “Dinna lie tae me.”

“Loved,” came John’s immediate response, although the confused expression on his face suggested it had taken him by surprise.

“Ye sound shocked, mo charaid – did ye ever doubt me?”

“No, not at all.” Sincerity shone from John’s eyes as the pale moonbeams cast a soft glow to his face. “I just never thought-” John glanced over his shoulder and shrugged.

“I ken what ye mean,” murmured Jamie. “It seems like an age since we had the clans gathered to pledge their allegiance, yet it’s no’ even two weeks ago. Taking a wife was the furthest thing from my mind then.”

“Well, you were under the impression she was a child at the time.” Both men’s eyebrows rose and they found themselves biting their lips to keep their laughter in. “Dear me, little did we know what was in store for us – I doubt if we could ever have prepared ourselves for this situation.”

Jamie lowered his head and brushing his lips over the shell of John’s ear, engaged him in their customary exchange, although it encompassed more than ever before.

“Et maintenant, mon coeur? Es-tu prêt?”

John turned his head and let their mouths meet as he murmured his response against Jamie’s lips.

“Oui, mon amour. Je suis prêt.”

“Moi aussi,” came a muffled voice. A welcome new participant in their quiet vows.

John twisted his head to see what Jamie was grinning at and he too smiled as he watched Claire stretch out like a cat, her supple limbs painted in silver moonlight as she rolled over and arched her back.

“Good grief it’s cold in here!” exclaimed Claire, goosebumps erupting on her bare skin as the warm blankets slipped onto the floor.

“Come here, Sassenach, we’ll warm ye up.”

Jamie’s offer, accompanied by John’s welcoming expression, was impossible to resist, especially as they were holding onto the remaining blanket. Claire snuggled up closely to the two men, her husbands.

“You were right, John,” she said, peering over his hips to look at the fireplace. “He let the fire go out, didn’t he?”

John wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her close enough to whisper into her ear.

“I suspect he does it on purpose to make sure he gets to ‘warm up’ his bed companions.”

“Plural? Are there others then?” asked Claire, melting into the warmth emanating from John’s body. “We shall have to put paid to that type of scandalous behaviour-”

“Dinna fash, lass, he’s just teasing,” muttered Jamie, winking at Claire. “But, considering that’s a sign he’s on the mend, I’ll no’ slap his backside fer spreading scurrilous rumours. He knows that it’s been a verra long time since I’ve taken anyone else tae my bed.”

“Was it anyone I’ve met?” asked Claire, letting John draw her deeper under the covers and into his warm embrace.

“A mistake – one I’m still paying fer. But I’m no’ the only one tae have entertained company that didna have my best interests at heart.” Jamie had an arm tucked possessively around John, and spread one hand out across the man’s chest, making it clear that he was referring to a past association of John’s that he did not approve of. “That’s all I’m willing tae say fer now.”

“I’m intrigued-” started Claire, until John pressed a finger to her lips, effectively cutting her off.

“Leave it there, my dear. I suspect that we do need to discuss the issues of past loves, lost loves and ill-judged encounters.” John paused as Jamie barely managed to keep in a grunt of disdain. “But here and now are neither the place nor the time.”

“Is he always like this?” asked Claire, after effectively dislodging John’s finger with the tip of her tongue. “Giving instructions carefully couched in the language of considered advice?”

 “He’s as good a diplomat as he is a soldier and that’s why he’s my champion and would be even if we were no’ lovers,” admitted Jamie. “That’s when he’s no taken leave of his senses-”

“I always attempt to be the voice of reason-”

“Always? I  beg tae differ. Are ye no’ the same man who was ready tae ride out tae Castle Slains when ye could barely keep on yer feet?”

John had no response other than shaking his head and keeping his counsel to himself.

“How are you feeling, John? You are definitely much warmer.” Claire wrapped her fingers around John’s wrist to feel his pulse. “And your heartbeat is stronger, although still alarmingly rapid-”

“Is that really so surprising, my dear? I’m not dead yet, thanks to you.” John gently brushed the curls away from Claire’s eyes and leant forward to confide in her. “Pinned between his prick and your breasts, the two of you are sufficient to have me delirious with lust. Is it any wonder my heart beats so fast?”

“He has a point, lass, my own heart is racing and my head spinning with thoughts I dinna ken what tae do with.”

“You poor thing, I’ll have to see what I can do about that,” replied Claire, a mischievous smile on her lips as she squirmed around in an effort to squeeze into the imperceptible gap between the two men.

As Claire crawled over John’s body, her hair tickling his skin, she deliberately rubbed her breasts across the sensitive flesh of his abdomen. She giggled at the sight of John letting his head fall back against the pillow as he bit his lip. Meanwhile, the mattress shook from Jamie’s amused laughter, only to be cut off suddenly by something Claire did with the hand she had snaked under the covers.

“I can assure you, my dear,” gasped John. “Whatever intentions you have, your actions are doing nothing to assist either of our poor hearts.”

“Oh, I don’t know – perhaps there’s something I can do to provide temporary relief.” Wriggling between them, Claire favoured each of her men with a kiss, and then sat astride Jamie’s lap. If John thought that he would be left to his own devices, he need not have worried as slim, smooth fingers curled around his turgid flesh.  

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

When Jamie next woke, it was because a mass of dark curls were tickling his nose. With wakefulness came awareness of the slender body lying on top of him and a sticky groin. The sky was becoming lighter and the room was starting to take on the colours of daylight. To his left lay John, a satisfied smile upon his lips even as he slept, curled up on his side, one outstretched arm draped over Claire’s back. An inarticulate sound of pleasure escaped from Jamie’s lips, rousing his two lovers.

“Is it morning?” muttered John, peering through one eye to assess the time of day.

“Aye, mo ghràidh.” Jamie reached out to ruffle John’s hair, which he had rarely seen quite so dishevelled. “How are ye feeling now?”

While John contemplated how to answer Jamie’s question, wondering exactly what he really wanted to know, Claire snuffled softly and yawned loudly.

“Is it morning?” she asked, unwittingly echoing John’s precise words.

“Aye, mo leannan, it is. I was just waiting fer John to tell me how he’s feeling after sleeping for almost a whole day.”

“Good morning, dear.” She reached out a delicate hand to John’s throat and nodded in approval as she appeared happier with his pulse. “Much steadier, that’s good. You look a lot healthier now – not so pale. So, are you going to be honest and tell us how you’re actually feeling?”

Having two pairs of hawk like eyes narrowed in on him made John squirm under their scrutiny. Just as he parted his lips to respond, his stomach growled loudly, giving him cause to smile in relief.

“In the spirit of honesty, I cannot deny to being hungry. As my stomach would testify, I am famished.”

“When was it that you last had anything to eat?” enquired Claire, lifting her head to stare at John.

Although Claire had made sure they had all had water to drink after their earlier exertions, it only just occurred to her that John had eaten nothing in their company for the entirety of the previous day. Jamie’s sister had sent up food for her and Jamie – simple fare of cold meats, cheese and bread, which they had eaten whilst John had slept. There were crumbs on the rug from where Jamie had torn off a chunk of bread to gnaw upon as he had been making circuits of the room. Leaning around she could see the dried-up remnants of their repast sitting on a plate next to the hearth. It also occurred to her that it was unlikely that John would have broken his fast before the contest with Dougal.

“John?” asked Jamie, picking up on Claire’s concern. “Did ye eat at all yesterday?”.

“I don’t think so.” John scratched his bristly chin as if the growth of his beard could help him determine how long it had been since he had last eaten. “Perhaps at the wedding feast?”

“You hardly ate anything then!” Claire propped herself up on her elbows and glared at John. “I saw you nibble on one piece of venison and a few slices of -”

“Why did ye no’ eat any o’ that food I had Mary pack fer ye?” interrupted Jamie.

“I had no appetite.” John sunk his teeth into his lower lip, as it dawned on him that an empty stomach would have made the drugs he had been given all the more potent. Either that or the drugs quelled his appetite.

“Aye – and Mistress Geillis would ha’ known that.” Jamie snorted and then lifted Claire from his lap and placed her to his side. “Loathe as I am tae leave our rooms, there are things we must deal with. Dougal and Geillis are two of them, and John’s stomach another. And I think we shall need ye dressed and respectable, both of ye, but especially Claire as she’ll have tae ask fer the door tae be unlocked. I dinna think Murtagh is ready tae see the three of us naked.”

With a quick appraisal of her nudity, Claire nodded in agreement, smiling to herself. She was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable she felt being carefully manoeuvred from Jamie’s body to the space that John had made for her by shuffling across to the other side of the bed.

It was when Jamie walked over to the washstand that Claire saw his back for the very first time. The previous night he had been facing towards her at all times. She gasped in horror at the sight of the raised ridges criss-crossing his back from his shoulder blades all the way down to his waist.

“You were flogged!” she exclaimed, recognising the pattern of the long scars.

Jamie spun around, apparently caught off guard.

“Aye …” Jamie nodded sharply and swallowed hard. “It was a long time ago.”

Claire turned her head to look to John, whose face was grim, teeth clenched.

“Who?” she asked, needing to know the name of the man responsible for inflicting such horrendous injuries on her husband. “Who had that done to you?”

Before Jamie could compose himself, John answered for him. He had slipped out of the bed and swiftly moved to stand behind Jamie, wrapping an arm across the top of his chest and holding him close, instinctively protecting the man he loved.

“Randall,” came the name from John’s lips. “Yet another reason I have to destroy that sadistic bastard.”

Jamie took hold of John’s hand and squeezed it tightly, silently thanking him for his support.

“For what reason?” asked Claire, wrapping a sheet around her body as she got to her feet and slowly advanced on the two men. “What happened? When did- ?”

“Claire, my dear, those are questions that I am sure Jamie will answer -  but not today.” John’s eyes met Claire’s, smouldering with a rage she could see he was barely containing. “Although the wounds were inflicted many years ago, the scars run deep. I advise you to curb your curiosity until we are feeling less raw.”

“John?” Her eyes flicked from John’s face to Jamie’s flustered countenance. Even weakened as he must have been, John was protecting Jamie, clearly warning her off, something she had not counted on. She had rarely witnessed such fierce loyalty and devotion. Then it occurred to her that what she was seeing went far deeper and spoke of a love that was selfless, and that made her love John even more.

“Please,” he requested, politely.

“Of course.” Claire took a step back towards the bed. “Please forgive me, I have always had a tendency to ask more questions than are seemly.”

Dinna fash, mo leannan,” assured Jamie, reaching out an open hand to Claire. “No harm done.”

Despite Jamie’s assurances, John hovered close by. She watched on as they helped each other wash – John paying careful attention to Jamie’s back, pressing a kiss between his shoulder blades as he did so.

While Jamie lay down to get dressed in his kilt, Claire selected a simple dress from her chest of clothing that had been transferred from her chambers to Jamie’s on the day of their wedding. John had gone to his room to gather clean clothing and when he returned, Claire caught him looking perplexed as he picked up the blankets and sheets strewn across the floor.

“What is it, John?” she asked.

“This bed looks as though it has been the site of an orgy, while mine is still perfectly tucked in – tongues shall wag.”

“Mo charaid, they always look like that, even when I sleep alone,” came Jamie’s nonchalant reply.

“But that was before you were wed -”

“I think our champion is concerned with preserving my honour and as he nearly lost his life restoring that honour, I think the least we can do is to redress the balance in the state of the two bedchambers.”

Hands on hips, yet again making Jamie think of his sister, Claire took charge and had Jamie plump up the feather pillows to remove the indentations made by three separate heads and instructed John to take his bloodied clothing to ‘his’ room to make sure his own bed looked slept in. She busied herself, opening windows to air all the rooms and sprinkling lavender water on the floors to remove the stale odours of sweat, semen and piss. Returning to the room that all three had shared the night before, Claire caught Jamie as he was about to tip the contents of their chamber pot out of the window.

“Don’t you dare!” she called out. “Someone could be walking beneath-”

“But-”started Jamie, exasperated.

“And don’t tell me that’s what you always do,” stated Claire, arms folded over her chest. “Because you’re not doing it anymore.”

“Would ye rather I save yer piss fer the tanners tae use?” Jamie asked, a wry smile on his lips.

“I would prefer that to having it poured at great height from the window.”

It was Claire’s raised voice that brough John rushing in, looking worried, only to find Jamie and Claire standing off over a full chamber pot.

“Ah, I suspect I know what your wife is telling you not to pour from the window.”

“Aye, John, ye’d be right,” sighed Jamie. “We’re no’ to empty the pot out the window anymore.”

“Ah.” It was evident that John was trying not to smirk. “Well there was that one time when it was very windy and-”

“Thank ye, John,” interrupted Jamie as he set the pot down on the floor. “Ye’ve both made yer point. Now, Sassenach, will ye please ask Murtagh tae unlock the door so we can get John something tae eat before he passes out from hunger.”

Taking the lead, Jamie tucked Claire’s arm in his elbow and escorted her to the door to their chambers, with John following close behind.

“Murtagh – if you would open the door now, I would be most grateful.”

However, it was not Murtagh outside the door to their chambers, but Angus and Rupert, who both hollered and cheered as the three emerged. Angus slapped Jamie on the back and congratulated him while Rupert leered at Claire, muttering in Gaelic under his breath.

Whatever was said in Gaelic was enough to have Jamie’s face turn red all the way to the roots of the hair on his head. John apparently understood enough to look shocked. John was bristling and ready to reprimand Rupert, although it did appear that Jamie would tackle him first. However, the ruckus had roused Murtagh who appeared from his own room, a face like thunder at having been disturbed.

“What the hell is all the bloody noise about, ye bloody fools?”

“It’s Jamie!” yelled Rupert, triumphantly. “We’re just celebrating that he’s managed tae-”

“Enough!” growled Murtagh, noticing how the boisterousness of the younger lads was making Claire uncomfortable. “Will ye no’ show some respect tae Mistress Claire? She’s the Lady of the Broch now, no’ just some farm lass the pair of ye are leching after. Dinna force me tae come out and knock yer heads together!”

Rupert and Angus looked bashful and apologised profusely before shuffling off as Jamie dismissed them.

Murtagh raised an eyebrow and looked past Jamie and Claire to their companion.

“So ye’re still alive are ye, Lord John? Good – I’m glad ye’re no’ dead.”

“So am I, Master Fitzgibbons, so am I,” responded John, smiling broadly at Murtagh’s words, accepting the sentiments with gratitude.

“As fer the marrit couple,” added Murtagh staring at Jamie. “I assume from the noises ye were making last night that ye’ve consummated yer union. Yer bride has a good set o’ lungs on her, I should reckon half the household could hear the sounds she was making along with yer loud grunting, mo ghille.”

As Jamie and Claire looked at each other, mortified to think they had been quite so noisy, John busied himself inspecting a tapestry hanging on the wall. However, Murtagh raised an eyebrow at the tell-tale flush of pink at the back of the man’s neck, creeping up and over his ears.

“Aye. Well ye were sae vocal, I dinna think the auld women will be wanting to inspect the sheets,” observed Murtagh, revelling in the further embarrassment he was causing all three.

“What?” blurted out Claire, suddenly recalling the practice of checking that a bride’s maidenhood had been taken on her wedding night. All to make sure that any heirs born were not planted in the mother’s womb by a previous bedding. Their sheets bore no bloodstains at all – not even from John’s wounds, although they were far from clean.

Before Claire could say another word, Jamie grasped her hand and tucked it back into the crook of his elbow. Patting her hand, he smiled at his foster father and winked. They were both aware that the walls in the corridors had ears and that any details concerning their Laird’s new bride would spread through the castle faster than flames in a haystack.

“We both ken the problem with that – the assumption that the groom can wait until he gets his bride between the sheets.”

With another wily wink, Jamie gave the gossips the fuel they needed.  

“Aye – just like yer father before ye.” Murtagh shook his head. “Ye’d all better be getting some breakfast, I dare say ye’ve all developed quite an appetite since last ye broke bread together.”

With one last smirk, Murtagh disappeared back into his room, chuckling to himself.

“Well, that was awkward,” said Claire, brushing invisible lint from her skirt in an effort to avoid looking at either of her consorts without blushing again.

“Well, at least no one will question the consummation of the marriage between you two,” observed John, a smile teasing the corners of his mouth.

“Come on, let’s see if we can get something tae eat before I have tae face my sister.” Jamie tugged at Claire’s hand and beckoned for John to follow. “No doubt she’ll have tae have her say as well.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

They were fortunate in managing to eat their fill before word got to Jenny that they had eventually made an appearance.

“Ye had me worrit, Lord John,” she observed, eyeing John warily as she approached the table. “Ye were cursed by witchcraft and cured by sorcery – I had visions of ye disappearing like a sprite up the chimney overnight.”

“Thankfully not, Mistress Fraser,” replied John courteously. “Indeed, your brother and his wife kept me bound to the mortal realm.”

Almost choking on a mouthful of fruit compote, Claire gratefully took the beaker of ale pushed towards her by Jamie and gulped it down.

“How are ye feeling, sister?” Having established that John had recovered and was still himself, Jenny turned her attention to Claire. She crouched down and whispered in Claire’s ear: “I hope my brother was not too much of a brute-”

“Not at all,” countered Claire quickly, cutting her sister-in-law off, before she had another choking fit. “He was most respectful, I can assure you of that.”

“Aye, well – I did hear yer screams and wondered if all was well.” Jenny narrowed her eyes at Claire, whose mouth had gaped open. “As fer yer Lordship, I’m surprised ye got any sleep at all, not with all the clamour these two were making.”

“Ah, thankfully, whatever Master Raymond invoked to heal my injuries, had me sleep deeper than I have ever slept in my life.” John took a long draft of ale from his tankard and smiled pleasantly at Jenny. “I certainly was not bothered by anything that took place between Jamie and his delightful wife. When I set eyes upon them this morning, they both looked nothing but content, and there was absolutely no sign of distress in the dear lady’s appearance.”

Meanwhile, unseen by Jenny, Claire had slipped a hand under the table and was clutching Jamie’s knee, all the while smiling serenely and hoping her face did not give away her astonishment at John’s casual misdirection of Jamie’s sister.

A hammering at the main doors to the hall prevented the conversation descending into any further awkwardness. Jamie called back the young girl who was running across the hall and went himself to lift the bar in order to open the door. It occurred to him that it had probably not been unlocked since he had carried in John’s unconscious body and ordered the door to be barred.

“Who goes there?” he called out, standing back, his hand on the hilt of his sword in case of trouble.

“Ian Murray – d’ye no’ recognise me, bràthair?”

“Ian!” exclaimed Jamie, wrenching the door open to let in his sister’s husband. “What are ye doing here? I thought ye couldna leave the farm fer the wedding?”

“Ifrinn – ye give a man less than a week’s notice and expect him to drop everything!” responded Ian, slapping Jamie on the back. “Ye can introduce me tae yer bride now – I take it she’s no’ the one with a beard!”

Jamie turned in time to see John scowling, even as he rubbed his chin to gauge the extent of the stubble.

“Claire, lass, this is Ian, Jenny’s husband. Ian – this is Claire Beauchamp, now Fraser. Lady of Broch Tuarach.”

“She’s a bonny lass, Jamie, ye lucky bastard,” declared Ian, appraising Claire from head to toe.

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” said Claire, stepping towards Ian and dropping into a curtsey.

“No’ another bloody Sassenach,” grumbled Ian, shaking his head. “If I didna ken better, I’d say ye had an unhealthy fondness fer the accent.”

“Ye do ken me better than that,” responded Jamie, his voice clipped. “I’ve had enemies with the same tongue as my kin, and now I have a wife as well as good friend whose kin come from beyond the Roman Wall, but whose hearts I trust more than those of certain clans.”

As Jamie glared at his brother-in-law, the petite form of Jenny got between them, wagging a finger in her husband’s face.

“Stop that, nonsense, Ian Mòr! She’s a bonny lass and will make Jamie a good wife. She’s no’ just a pretty face either, I’ve seen her roll up her sleeves tae stitch wounds and stand by my brother’s side despite provocation from our bloody uncle and that bitch Geillis Duncan.”

“Dougal MacKenzie?” enquired Ian, his head snapping around.

“He’s no’ here.” Jenny shook her head. “He’s gone back tae his wife at Leoch.”

“I ken. He stopped by at our farm on his way yesterday. It’s no’ him I came here looking for.”

“Who is that you are seeking, Ian Mòr?” asked Jamie, concerned at his brother-in-law’s encounter with Dougal.

“Ian Òg! The wee bastard disappeared overnight and this is the first place I thought tae look, after all he’s always running tae his favourite bloody uncle who lets him do as he pleases and willna use the belt on him.”

The acrimony between the two men had soured the atmosphere at the table, and Claire was grateful that John had quietly come to stand by her side. He gently nudged her and whispered:

“Don’t get involved – they have a long history and at the end of the day, Ian Murray will defend Jamie to the death, that’s how he lost part of his leg.”

Claire dropped her gaze and saw for the first time that the man had a wooden leg strapped to the stump below his right knee.

 “He’s no’ here!” stated Jenny. “What’s got into the lad since I left the house a few days ago?”

“Ye may well ask!”

“Will ye no’ sit down and have something tae eat and drink with us, Ian?” asked Jamie, his brow furrowed in concern. “Then ye can tell us what Young Ian has got into his head this time.”

Ian Murray reluctantly let Jamie lead him to the table and pour him a beaker of ale. After downing the contents, he slapped the beaker down, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and explained.

“Dougal MacKenzie, that bastard. Came by as I said and had a wee chat with Young Ian. I overheard him talking about the poor tenants tae to the east whose farms had been attacked, cattle stolen and women defiled.”

“That’s all sadly true, mo charaid,” confirmed Jamie. “It’s part o’ the reason fer getting the clans to work together.” However, Jamie frowned, hearing nothing that would have caused their youngest son to run away from home.

“Aye – and that’s why I thought it would be alright tae leave him in the lad’s company while I made sure his men had food and drink. It was later that evening the lad told me what his uncail mòr had talked about.”

“What’s that bastard done now?” asked Jenny. “If any harm comes tae mo mhac because of him, I’ll personally put paid tae him planting his seed in any more lasses he takes a liking tae.”

As if to reinforce her promise, Jenny reached down to rest her hand on the hilt of the dirk she carried in the belt around her waist.

“And I’ll hold him down fer ye, mo phiuthar,” stated Jamie. “What did he tell the lad, Ian Mòr?”

“The lad’s eyes were glowing, ye ken how he gets when someone captures his imagination?” Ian looked from Jenny to Jamie as they both nodded their heads. “Dougal told him that there was a hoard of treasure stolen by the faeries and hid on Silkies Island. He told him that no boat can moor on the island and that only the strongest of swimmers could get there. Ian Òg was excited at the idea that the gold would help those whose farms had been destroyed.”

Ifrinn!” Jamie struck the tabletop with his fist. “That bastard has given the lad the idea he can be a hero!”

“Aye – like he did with ye when ye were a bairn, Jamie,” stated Jenny, bitterly. “Had ye training tae fight before ye’d learnt how tae keep yer kilt on.”

“Damn him,” declared John. “The channel between the coast and that island is dangerous – it can only be crossed at low tide.”

“Ye ken the island well then, John?” demanded Jenny, eyes narrowed suspiciously at John.

“Yes.” John glared at Jenny, understanding what she was implying, yet refusing to acquiesce to the suspicions surrounding his association with the sea. “The invaders we chased to the northern shore tried to cross to that island to regroup. We watched on from the cliffs as their boats were dashed on the rocks as soon as they got close.”

“I was with him, Jenny.” Jamie gave his sister a stern glare. “Dinna make me chastise ye fer harbouring unkind suspicions about Lord John.”

“Even a strong swimmer could only approach the island at low tide,” explained John. “The currents and the rocks are treacherous.”

“Jenny, fetch Master Raymond will ye? Ask him to bring his charts for predicting the times of the tides. I’ll ride out tae fetch the wee bastard before he gets himself drowned.”

As Jenny reluctantly left at Jamie’s request, John got to his feet.

“I’ll come with you,” stated John. “If your nephew is in trouble in the water, I can swim faster than you.”

“Aye – but what about yer shoulder?” asked Jamie.

“It was only bruised, it will be fine.”

“I shall ride with you,” added Claire, pushing back her chair and joining the two men.

“No!” commanded Jamie, stabbing a finger at Claire. “Ye’ll stay here!”

“I shall not.” Her chin jutting upwards, Claire’s defiance took Jamie by surprise. “Lord John is barely recovered and if the boy is hurt it will help if you have a healer along with you. I can pack herbs and ointments, bandages too.”

“I canna allow it – ye’ll no’ be safe!” protested Jamie, shaking his head angrily.

“I shall depend on my husband and my champion to protect me, if necessary, as both have sworn to do.” A glint in Claire’s amber eyes spoke of a greater bond than the one she referred to out loud.

Ian Murray watched on in admiration as the new lady of the house laid a challenge at the feet of the men whose prowess in battle was exemplary, yet who seemed prepared to back down at the demands of the fiery lass. It appeared to him that his brother-in-law’s new wife was made of the same stern material as his wife, even though she was a Sassenach.

If Jamie’s scalp was not already prickling with anxiety, the fact that he heard the tutting of Master Raymond, who had just appeared as if from nowhere, confirmed his fears. Taking Claire along with them would be courting disaster, yet they were being pushed into following a hazardous path as one.

“Raymond – tell her it’s no’ safe!” demanded Jamie.

“What’s no’ safe, brother?” asked Jenny, wondering what she had missed.

“Claire wants tae ride with me and John.”

“Madonna, you are risking too much!” The smaller man was furious as he stormed across the hall, his cloak sweeping behind him like a dark cloud. “Stay here! If you want to be useful, pick herbs and flower buds, make lace, or cordials, but know this, that no one rides out with warriors thinking they will return unscathed!”

“I know the risks and I’m not staying here.” Claire crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s obvious that Dougal MacKenzie is plotting vengeance on the Clan Fraser because of me. Now I am part of the clan by marriage. I shall not stand by and do nothing.”

“Master Raymond – time is of the essence. When is the next low tide?” asked John, pinching the bridge of his nose, trying to avert a headache. He held out a hand to take the scrolls and laid them out on the table, weighting the edges down with beakers and bottle.

Jamie glared at Claire, while they hovered around the table listening as Raymond and John worked out the likely time of the low tides.

Straightening up, John nodded his head in Raymond’s direction.

“The moon is waning, yet still strong enough to cause a very low tide – the next one will be overnight before dawn and the following one tomorrow afternoon.” Raymond addressed Jamie, ignoring the others in the hall. “Lord John does not believe the boy could have got far enough to venture out to the island today and despite the blood of his forefathers, I doubt he is foolish enough to swim among rocks at night.”

“Good,” said Jamie tapping his fingers on the Fraser family crest carved in the table. “We should be able to catch up with him before he attempts tae cross the strait. But we must leave as soon as possible. John – will ye go tae the stables and get them to have our horses ready. Also, have them saddle one fer Mistress Claire.”

“Not the Shetland pony I take it?” asked John, glaring at Claire, as unhappy about her insistence on accompanying them as Jamie was.

“Nae, there’s a bay palfrey will suit her well.”

“You’re agreeing?” asked Claire, warily. “What changed your mind?”

“Nothing has been said tae convince me this is not a stupid idea. However, I have a vision of ye riding behind us on yer own if we dare set off without ye, lass. At least if ye ride between us we can keep ye safe on the road.”

“You are all fools! Imbeciles!” Raymond walked right up to Jamie and stamped his staff against the flagstones.

"I thought ye wanted us to work alongside each other?" hissed Jamie. "Ye said we were all on one path!"

“Working together, oui! Blindly leading each other over a cliff edge - non!" responded Raymond petulantly. "No good will come of this. Indeed, you are already travelling one path and now all three of you insist on taking a detour that that leads straight into the jaws of a trap! You act like foolish children and fail to listen to me.”

“Would ye have me abandon my own flesh and blood?” demanded Jamie, towering over Raymond.

“Yes! For the sake of what will be lost if you don’t, I would sacrifice the child myself!” Raymond roared, and spun around, wrapping his black cloak around him as he pointed at Jenny and Ian Murray, whose fists were clenching in anger. “They have others – he is just one more mouth to feed.”

“Ye bastard!” yelled Jenny, shoving chairs aside as she advanced on the diminutive Frenchman, wielding her dark bladed dirk. Before Jamie could intervene she had grabbed hold of the long silver braid and cut through it. Then with a furious snarl she tossed the braid into the fire.

All present were aghast as the silvery strands melted into one and took the form of a snake that slithered across the burning logs and then melted into a puddle of quicksilver that evaporated in the heat, leaving nothing behind. Ian Murray looked ready to hold Raymond down and let his wife cut his throat, Claire was being supported by John, who was looking as pale as he had the day before. Jamie stood between them – his kin to one side, his lovers to the other, and his advisor before him, whose face was incandescent with rage.

“You have brought down the anger of the serpent with your insistence on going against the natural order.” Pacing to and fro, from the table to the hearth and back again, Raymond gathered his scrolls, scattering bottles and beakers as he did so. He swung his staff around to prod Jamie in the chest with it. “You are in too much of a hurry, always demanding and never listening. I have warned you, again and again. Well, I hope you are prepared to face what comes without my advice. It seems you believe you can do better without it. Adieu.”

Throwing a small flask to the ground, a thick cloud of gas appeared which seemed to engulf Master Raymond in sheaths of mist. By the time the clouds dissipated there was no sign of the man having been there at all.

“Damn,” murmured John, gripping hold of Claire’s shoulders tightly. “I think we have just been cursed.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

While they had been hastily dressing in suitable attire for a cross country journey, John had been shocked when Claire snatched the pair of linen breeches that he had taken from the chest that had been returned to his room whilst he had been recovering the day before. Astounded he had turned around to see her pulling them on underneath her skirts. Jamie had also been dumbfounded but with no time for questions, John had just got another pair to put on instead. It was only later, when they stopped briefly under cover of the forest canopy when the skies had opened, that Claire revealed her reason for wearing men’s breeches. Standing up in the saddle, she hoisted her skirts up around her waist, freeing her thighs to grip the sides of her horse and explained that she had no intention of embarrassing herself by falling from her mount because there were too many layers of fabric between her legs and the horse. Jamie was about to ask what was wrong with bare legs, and then changed his mind. He had felt her inner thighs for himself and knew the skin there was far more delicate than his own hairy legs. And having worn a kilt for long rides he was familiar enough with the effects of chafing to understand her reasoning.

When the rain died off, Claire insisted on taking her turn to lead the pack horse, laden down with rolled sheepskins and oiled cloth to form a shelter when they had to stop overnight. There was also a small cooking pot and a few bags of provisions slung either side of the animal’s back. Jamie had raised an eyebrow and shrugged. It had not occurred to him that she would want to share in the tasks. A quick glance at John made him grateful – if John had to swim out the island, it was best that he did not have to do too much on the way there.

Despite Jamie’s initial annoyance at Claire’s insistence on accompanying them, wanting nothing more than to gallop like the wind as fast as his mount could carry him, he had to admit that if he had instructed her to stay behind, she would probably have followed them and ended up in need of rescuing as well. He resigned himself to them making slower progress in the knowledge that at least she was safe. It also occurred to him that making steady progress would be better for John too, as despite what he would protest, it was quite clear that he was not fully recovered.

The sun was setting as they turned off onto a track away from the river valley they had been following. The track was narrow and caused them to ride in single file through woodland, until they reached a clearing. When Claire asked if they were going to set up camp there, John had merely smiled and raised an arm to point uphill, drawing her attention to a ruined tower poking up above the treeline. As they rode on, drawing closer to the ruins, they passed through a gap in what had once been a defensive outer bank. The undergrowth made their progress slower, as did the remains of walls emerging behind trees and scrubby hawthorn bushes, walls long reclaimed by nature – ivy and honeysuckle clambered over the crumbling stonework, while saplings of birch and hazel sprung from cracks, their roots driving clefts in the foundations.  

Riding further amongst the ruins, they entered what would have once been an inner courtyard, an area that provided a sheltered location in which to set up camp. With one main entrance to the front and a gap in the wall behind, leading down a steep bank to the stream, it provided a site that could be defended and escaped from if necessary.

After telling Claire to stay in her saddle while they checked that the area was safe, the two men dismounted, and whilst John held onto their horses’ bridles in readiness to make a speedy departure if necessary, Jamie scouted the area looking for signs of recent inhabitation, either by his nephew or others.

“Here ye go!” Jamie called out triumphantly, pointing down at the half-burnt logs and ashes from a recent wood fire. He crouched down and used a stick to drag a few scattered rabbit bones from the ashes. “Remind me tae have words wi’ that lad about covering up his camp fires when we catch up wi’ him, won’t ye John?”

“I shall, with pleasure. Although at least he made it easy for us to determine he got this this far.” John looped the reins of the horses over a convenient branch and proceeded to walk around the perimeter of the enclosure, gently moving the longer grass aside as if seeking some sign.

“How do you know it was him?” asked Claire, sceptically. “It could have been anyone!”

“Nae lass. Only someone on foot, avoiding being seen in the open would take this route.” Jamie paused to look to John for his opinion, which was delivered with a simple nod of the head. “There are no signs of horses having been here recently and anyone else heading fer the coast would ha’ stuck tae the river-”

“No hoofprints?” asked Claire, looking down at the ground, trying to work out what evidence they were looking for.

“No shit,” stated Jamie and John simultaneously, before grinning at each other.

“Again, surely it could have been anyone-” started Claire, looking exasperated. “Why are you so certain-?”

“Ah weel,” Jamie looked sheepish as he opened his fist to reveal a fragment of woollen cloth. “I suppose the piece of Fraser plaid snagged on the bramble by the entrance helped.”

Jamie burst out laughing as Claire glared at him. She could only shake her head in despair.  

“Shouldn’t we keep going then – surely we could catch up with him?” asked Claire, wondering why John was starting to remove bags and saddles from the horses’ backs. “You said he’s on foot.”

Jamie chuckled softly as he took a bundle of sheepskins from John and shook his head. He looked to John to provide a response.

“No, my dear,” answered John, patiently. “A man on foot is slower, that much is true, but he can also disappear into the ground overnight and remain unseen, even by a man standing right next to him.”

“You’ve done that, haven’t you?” asked Claire, looking from John to Jamie, as they shared a knowing smile. “Both of you.”

“Aye, lass. There’s more to survival than skill with a blade. Knowing young Ian, he’ll have hunkered down fer the night, in a place secure from beasts that hunt at night. Perhaps even up in a tree – he’s wily enough to climb into the hollow of a tree out of sight. We’ll find him easier on the day when he’ll be on the move.”

“An early start tomorrow then?” asked John, holding out a hand to help Claire dismount. He was even courteous enough to take hold of her skirts and smooth them out over her hips.  

“Aye –as soon as the sky lightens,” agreed Jamie, picking up the cooking pot.

“Let’s hope for a cloudless night.” John cast an eye around the overgrown courtyard and sighed. “We’d best eat before it gets dark and then get settle down to get some sleep.”

“Are you feeling fatigued?” asked Claire, her eyes narrowing as she observed John stifle a yawn as he stooped down to pick up a saddlebag.

“No more than I should be,” came his curt reply that told her nothing and everything. “I’ll set up camp in the far corner shall I, Jamie?”

Without waiting for a reply, John threw a saddle bag over his right shoulder, wincing slightly as he forgot the bruising bestowed by Dougal Mackenzie, and headed for a corner well protected by mostly intact walls.  

Just as Claire was about to pursue John, she felt a hand on her wrist.

“Can ye light a fire, lass?” asked Jamie, preventing her from following John. “It will help while I set up a shelter with John.”

“Yes, of course I can,” stated Claire, slightly put out that her new husband seemed to be assuming she was used to having everything done for her. “Shall I light it in the ashes of the other fire?”

“Aye, may as well, leave us only one tae cover up in the morning.”

However, Jamie’s concerned glance in John’s direction did not go amiss by Claire. She conceded that perhaps Jamie just wanted to speak to John on his own for a while.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

By the time it was fully dark, they had shared a meal of potage: oats cooked until soft in a pot of water fetched from the stream, with pieces of dried meat and slivers of root vegetables added to make a thick soup. They passed the bowl around, taking it in turn to use the spoon. Jamie caught Claire’s frown and explained that the less equipment they used, the less they would have to pack away if they needed to move on in a hurry.

Before settling down to sleep, John gallantly offered to stand guard while Claire relieved herself behind some bushes – steering her away from the clump of nettles that would have stung the cheeks of her arse. He even handed her a bunch of soft dock leaves to wipe herself clean with.

Claire gratefully accepted the arm offered to guide her back to the corner where they had constructed their shelter. John lay down first, his back against the wall as he patted the soft sheepskin indicating that Claire should lie next to him, he then pulled the layers of their combined cloaks over them both, pulling her close to him so that there was room for Jamie. Being the last to take his place in their bed for the night, Jamie lay on the outside – facing out into the courtyard, alert for sounds other than those to be expected at night. He had insisted on taking first watch.

Lying between them, Claire felt a twinge of guilt in enjoying the feel of the men’s bodies surrounding her, protecting her as they had both pledged. She slipped an arm around Jamie’s waist and heard him mutter as she did so.

“Is this alright?” she asked, feeling Jamie squirm as if trying to get comfortable.

“Aye, but dinna distract me.” Jamie grunted and took her hand in his to kiss the backs of her fingers gently, before placing it upon his chest. “Get some sleep, lass, we’ll no’ dally long in the morning if we’re going tae catch up with that wee bastard before the afternoon tide.”

Cocooned between the muscular bodies of her two lovers, Claire felt safe and warm. The sheepskins beneath her and the woollen cloaks around her shoulders, insulated her against the chill of the night.

Feeling John’s soft lips on her neck, she leant back into his embrace.

“Goodnight, my dear,” he murmured against her ear. “Sweet dreams.”

Gently humming with contentment, Claire let herself drift off to sleep, not waking until she heard the sound of the two men’s hushed whispers in the early light of morning. They were moving around their campsite, covering up the remains of the fire after having cooked a pot of porridge. Sniffing the air she could smell the cooked oats and heard her stomach grumble loudly.

“Ye awake now, sleepyhead?” asked Jamie. “In time fer parritch?”

“I need to …” Claire frowned and wrinkled her nose as her full bladder made itself known.

“Relieve yourself?” asked John, a cheeky smile tweaking at the corner of his mouth. “Would you like me to stand guard again?”

“No – I’ll be fine,” insisted Claire. “After all, it’s daylight now, I can see where I’m going.”

“Accept his offer, lass. There are wolves in the woods hereabouts and other beasts as well as men that could cause ye harm. If it makes ye feel any less awkward, when we’re in unknown territory we’ll keep watch fer each other if we need tae take a piss or a shit. There’s nothing sae embarrassing as being caught with a bare arse in the wind by a sneaky enemy. Is there, John?”

“Definitely not,” replied John with a grimace, before crouching next to Claire and offering her his hand. “Come on, my dear, let me fulfil my pledge as your protector.”

On their return to the campsite, stumbling through the dew-damp long grass, Claire was grateful to take John’s arm once more.

“I do hope I am not proving too much of a burden to you both.” She knocked her head against his arm and looked up to him, hoping for an honest answer.

“Not at all. I’m glad you’re here,” replied John coming to a stop. He leant down to gently cup Claire’s face in the palm of his hand and pressed a soft kiss to her lips, his mouth lingering for only a moment. Smiling at her, he ran his long fingers through the cascading curls that framed her face and felt his heart soar.

Clasping John’s hand in hers, Claire smiled back. There was part of her that felt as if she had known John forever.

Neither were aware of the time they stood there, gazing into each other’s eyes, until they heard Jamie call out to them.

“What’s keeping ye both?” yelled Jamie, grinning once he saw a pair of dark-haired heads emerge from under an overhanging birch tree. He had already finished eating his share of their breakfast and was licking the spoon. “Were the pair of ye up tae nae good in the bushes?”

“Certainly not, you of all men should know that Lord John is far too much of a gentleman to take advantage of a lady,” declared Claire as she eagerly accepted the bowl that Jamie held out to her.

“Aye, that I ken,” said Jamie, as he started to roll up the sheepskins. “But are ye too much of a lady tae tempt a man?”

“For the love of …” sighed John, rolling his eyes. “Please don’t make me challenge you for questioning my lady’s honour.”

“Never,” came Jamie’s instant, solemn reply. If there was one man he never wanted to raise his sword in anger against, it was John.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

They took what appeared to Claire to be the scenic route, but Jamie explained that they intended to follow the path that Ian would have taken just in case he had been waylaid before reaching the coast.

They could smell the sea long before they saw it, the wind whipping in from the north-east was bringing the salty scent of the ocean far inland. It was when they reached the brow of a hill that the sea eventually came into view. The white horses riding the crests of waves were to be expected, the wind reaching far enough inland to have Claire’s long curls streaming behind her as they carefully rode made their way through the rock-strewn grassland towards the cliffs.

Silkies Island rose up from the waves, its steep sides resisting the force of the crashing waves. Claire could not see how anyone could possibly clamber from the sea onto the island itself and said as much. John pointed to the more sheltered western side of the isle and explained that a small cove was exposed at low tide, guarded by rocky outcrops that prevented a boat from getting close, but allowed an approach by a skilful swimmer, who took heed of the currents and judged their timing with care. By the look of the frown on his face, she surmised that he doubted Young Ian possessed those talents.

Carefully leading his horse closer to the edge, Jamie peered downwards and swore as he saw a heap of clothing on the strand line, weighted down with a smooth boulder.

“Ifrinn, we’re too damn late, the wee bastard has already swam out there.”

“Damn!” cursed John, biting his lip. “Hold my horse and I’ll go down.”

“John!” exclaimed Claire. “You’re not seriously considering swimming out to the island are you?”

“If he’s there, I am the strongest swimmer of the three of us, and Jamie will need to stay with you.”

“Ye think it’s a trap as well, don’t ye, John?”

“Yes – for all we know, those aren’t his clothes, or there’s someone on the beach out of sight, holding him hostage, or worse.” John swallowed hard as he met Jamie’s eyes, sensing that his doubts were shared.

“Just take care, will ye?” asked Jamie, as John dismounted and took off his cloak to lay across the back of his horse. “I’ll use the telescope Master Raymond gave me and call down if I catch sight of him.”

“Good – hopefully, he’ll have thought twice of risking being devoured by one of the mythical water horses to venture out into the sea today.”

“Aye – there’s always a sliver of hope, but he’s no’ more scared of the each uisge than ye are, John Grey.”

Before Jamie could wish him luck, John smiled fondly and dashed off.

Claire held onto her reins tightly, the wind taking hold of strands of her hair and flicking them painfully into her face. She watched as John scrambled down the steep pathway to the sandy bay, taking the rocky steps in his stride. It was far too steep and treacherous for a horse, so if he got into difficulty, they would have to abandon the horses to go after him.

Turning she saw Jamie holding the brass telescope to his eye to scanning the sea, desperately looking for any sign of a head bobbing above the waves.

A call from below signalled that John had come to the conclusion that the clothes were Ian’s and that there was no sign of the boy on the mainland beach.

It seemed like hours but was only minutes before Jamie spotted a head of fair hair heading back towards the shore. He shouted down to John that all was well, only to yell again as soon as he saw a small rowboat follow around from behind the island.

Calling down to John, Jamie saw his dear friend hastily unstrap his sword belt, shed his breeches and boots before wading out into the ebbing tide. Not wasting time, John quickly plunged into the water, and swam strongly towards the western side of the island, his arms ploughing through the waves as he sped towards Ian.

Her heart in her mouth, Claire watched on as John raced with the rowboat to reach Ian. Fortunately the oarsmen had to steer further out to avoid the submerged rocks more easily avoided by the swimmers. John reached Ian first and took what appeared to be a heavy bag from one of his hands allowing him to swim unimpeded towards the shore. The boat chased them and it was clear to Jamie and Claire that the men inside the boat would be upon both Ian and John as soon as they emerged from the sea.

Jamie leapt down from his horse and quickly tied to the same tree where John’s was tethered. He gave Claire his dirk and told her to ride like the wind if it was clear that they were not coming back. Ignoring her protests, Jamie ran towards the cliff path and was gone from sight before she could suggest going with him.

“Stupid bloody man!” she called after him. “If either of you get injured I am not leaving you!”

By the time he got down to the beach, Jamie heard the sound of steel on steel, John was under attack. He waded in, wielding his mighty broadsword mercilessly, taking down two of the men who were about to drag Ian back to their boat. He then joined John in the fight with the remaining two, yelling out:

“Try to spare one of these bastards, I need to ken who sent them!”

“If you insist,” replied John, fighting barefoot on the sand, in nothing but his wet shirt, smeared with blood from where he had suffered some superficial cuts from his opponents.

The men from the boat were retreating along the beach, further away from where they had landed, causing Jamie and John to pursue them, their backs to the cliffs and to Ian.

It was the blood curdling shout from Ian that alerted them to the trap they had unwittingly fallen into. While they had been occupied with the half dozen men who had leapt from the boat that had pursued Ian, a second rowboat had been beached further along the shore to the west and two men were dragging a screaming woman towards it.

Claire.

After the men shoved Claire, shouting and kicking, onto the deck, they pushed the boat out into the waves and the oarsmen who had been waiting onboard started to row back out to sea. Towards a large ship that had emerged from behind Silkies Island. An ominous looking ship with dark red sails, bearing the unmistakable red pennant with black insignia. Randall.

“Bastards!” screamed Jamie, plunging the tip of his sword into the chest of the man he had been fighting. “Kill him, John, we’ve nae need of them now.”

John did not need telling. He ran his opponent through and flung his sword to the sand as he ran out into the sea, swimming out in a vain attempt to catch up with the boat carrying Claire away.

Running through the waves, Jamie reached the abandoned decoy boat and dragged it out into the waves, before rowing frantically towards John.

Trying to outswim or out-row a boat rowed by six oarsmen proved impossible, and John was tiring as he struggled against the current. As Jamie came up alongside him, John let himself be pulled into the boat. Helplessly they watched on as the other boat drew alongside Randall’s ship and rope ladders were flung over the side. There was no way that they could catch up with the ship once its sails were full.

Silently, they rowed back to shore. They took out their despair on the sea, furiously swiping the blades of the oar through the dark green water, as if slicing into the men who had stolen Claire from them.

By the time they reached the shore, Ian had gathered their swords and clothes and was guarding them fiercely. His eyes were red rimmed and he looked totally despondent.

“Before ye say it, lad, it’s no’ yer fault. It was Dougal Mackenzie behind this – he set us all up. Him and that bastard, Randall.”

“But if I’d no’ come here-”

“He’d ha’ found another way, a bhalaich mo ghràidh.”

John did not speak a word, he merely got dressed, ignoring the fact that his shirt was dripping wet and cold against his skin. Strapping his sword belt to his side, he wiped the blade of his weapon clean and sheathed it.

It was not until they reached the clifftop that John spoke, his face grim.

“We know where they’re taking her. Slains Castle. I shall ride there immediately.”

“No. I want ye tae take Ian back tae Lallybroch – I’ll go to Slains.”

“We both know that neither of us can take on Randall alone – not when Claire’s life is at stake.” John’s countenance was stern and he was already in his saddle, ready to ride off. “We’ll need reinforcements, and you are the one who can rally the men to join us. Not me.”

“Ifrinn,” swore Jamie, knowing in his heart that John was right. “Ian, take the palfrey and the packhorse and head fer the valley, I’ll follow shortly.”

Waiting until Ian was out of earshot, Jamie walked over to John and grabbed hold of his hand.

John leant down and let Jamie kiss him, tasting salt and fear, along with righteous anger.

“We’ll get her back, Jamie.”

“I ken, it’s just .. just dinna do anything reckless.” Jamie wrapped a hand around John’s neck, holding him in place as he kissed him once more, unleashing all the love that there was not time enough to express in words alone. “I couldna bear to lose both of ye.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t do anything you wouldn’t.”

“If I wasn’t worrit before, now I’m terrified.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 11

Despite the darkness of the hour, Jamie pushed himself and Ian to keep riding. There was enough moonlight to discern the track along the river that caught the light marking a slithering pathway for them to follow.

It had only been after he had caught up with Ian that it struck him like a knee in the gut - John was pursuing the very quest he had demanded in return for staying at Lallybroch for the wedding. In exchange for accepting the role of ridire bean-bainnse. John had specifically asked for Jamie’s permission to vanquish Randall. It had taken the joint efforts of himself and Claire to dissuade him from setting off any sooner, on account of his weakened state, arguing that he needed to recover from his wounds and return to full health before taking on that monster. Jamie swore to himself, John was neither fully healthy, nor as strong as he needed to be.

Afraid that John was riding to certain death, Jamie was of a mind to head directly for Slains to make sure he did not try to take on Randall on his own, but he knew their only chance of success was to rally reinforcements to take on that bastard and his loyal minions. He cursed himself for not realising earlier, for not seeing that grim determination on John’s face for what it was. If he had, he would have forced him to return to Lallybroch at his side.

Digging his heels into the sides of Donas, Jamie imagined what could happen. If John had to sacrifice his life in order to save Claire or to destroy Randall for good, Jamie knew that he would willingly do so. Although John had seemed resigned to the probability that he would not survive his quest, Jamie was not prepared to let him die.

Bitterly, Jamie recalled the warning from Master Raymond. John had been right, they had brought a curse upon them – and it was up to him to find Raymond, to beg for his forgiveness and seek his help. To succeed they would require the forces that only Master Raymond could call upon. Without them, all was lost. He only hoped that Raymond’s powers did not dwell in the long silver braid that his sister had cut off in anger. He needed the man’s wisdom, counsel and whatever sorcery he could conjure up that would deliver both Claire and John back to him, whole and well.

Baring his teeth as he wrapped the reins tightly around his fists, Jamie bellowed in anger. Regardless of Raymond’s warnings of the trap the jaws of which they had sprung, it occurred to him that even if Claire had not ridden with them, Randall would have arranged to have her taken by force from Lallybroch. He pulled up short, sensing the dense forest closing around him. He knew all too well the hazards of tree roots to a horse’s hooves when galloping. As he exhaled angrily, the steam from his breath was echoed by that of Donas, whose nostrils flared, even as he leant forward to stroke the beast’s nose.

An anguished cry from behind him alerted Jamie to the fact that while he had been galloping away at full pelt through the long grass alongside the river, Ian, riding Claire’s palfrey and leading the pack horse, had no chance of keeping up.

“Sorry!” he yelled back, patting the flanks of Donas and noticing the flecks of foaming sweat that had been flying from the coat of his black stallion. He patted the neck of the powerful animal, apologising to him too.

He waited for Ian to catch up. It was not the lad’s fault – he was not to blame.  Dougal Mackenzie was. Watching Ian draw closer, Jamie realised that banishing Dougal had not been enough – the man had eyes and ears at Lallybroch. Geillis and Laoghaire. They could have got word to him, to let him know that all three of them were heading for his trap. Dougal would have sent word to Randall. There could be no forgiveness for such treachery.

“Uncle Jamie, we need tae stop,” said Ian, biting his lip anxiously, as he shivered slightly in the chill air. “The horses need tae rest. These two mares canna keep up with that beast o’ yours.”

“Aye,” sighed Jamie. “Ye’re right lad. We’ll no’ get verra far if one of them goes lame. We’ll rest up for a wee bit.”

They led the horses towards a shallow bend in the river and let them drink. Whilst the horses waded in to drink from the fast-flowing water, Jamie re-filled the canteens and shared some hard bread and strips of dried meat with his nephew. Jamie had not thought to ask Ian if he had eaten anything since the rabbit he had cooked for himself in the castle ruins.

“Here put these on, yer own sark is still damp. Just as well it didna rain on the clothes ye left on the beach.” Jamie handed Ian a dry shirt from one of the bags on the pack horse. He then clicked his tongue, before chiding the lad. “Whatever made ye think something yer Uncle Dougal suggested was a good idea, wi’out checking wi’ me first?”

“Ye were too busy getting marrit,” responded Ian, the sulky expression on his face showing his disappointment at not being invited. “Ma said ye only asked her so she’d fetch a dress fer yer bride.”

“Och, Ian Òg, it wasna because I think any the less o’ ye or yer family. I did ask Jenny tae be with me, as she’s my sister. She said Ian Mòr couldna come as he needed tae stay at the farm. She said ye’d been having trouble with some o’ the tenants.” Jamie sighed and rubbed his face wearily, wondering if the current predicament could have been avoided if he had not fallen for Dougal’s ploys in pushing him to wed in haste. “There was nae time tae plan properly or ask everyone – ye see it wasna something I thought I’d be doing sae soon. And …weel there was pressure tae marry quickly.”

“Is she with child?” asked Ian, his mouth falling open in shock. “Already?”

“Now ye’re sounding like John. No, she wasna with child when we wed.” Jamie then ran a hand through his hair, considering the possibility that his wife could have since fallen pregnant and that he would not be sure if the child was his or John’s.

“Aye, ma said she was surprised – said she never thought ye’d actually ever get wed at all.” Ian shrugged as he pulled his tunic over the clean shirt. “She said that all that mattered tae ye was bringing together the clans. Ma told me that any woman would have tae compete with Lord John fer yer company.”

Jamie smiled wistfully. Jenny knew of their closeness, but never questioned him on it.

“Anyway, what made ye decide tae hare off when ye did – yer ma is beside herself wi’ worry and as fer Ian Mòr…”

“He’s angry isn’t he?” asked Ian sounding bitter. “I just thought if I could get the Silkies jewels, ye’d think more highly o’ me and maybe consider us as proper family. That ye’d no’ be ashamed tae invite us all tae yer wedding feast-”

“I didna think it would be something I’d want tae celebrate wi’ family, ken,” explained Jamie. "The betrothal was only meant tae be a political arrangement –– I was led tae believe it was all about protecting some wee lass and gaining control over her late father’s land and men.” Jamie snorted and shook his head. “That’s what yer Uncle Dougal told me.”

“So, ye trusted him as well? If I’m a wee fool fer doing so, what does that make ye?” challenged Ian, shuffling away to make sure he was not in striking distance should his uncle take offence to his audacity.

“A massive gommerel, mo ghille.” Jamie laughed bitterly. Ian was right, he had also trusted Dougal’s word. “Claire was no’ a wee lass who would appreciate the Shetland pony I’d got fer her. Nae, she was a full-grown woman, with a fierce temper and a sharp tongue tae match.”

“And ye still married the lass?” asked Ian, relieved at his uncle’s laughter and bemused at the fact that he had got wed even after being deceived.

“Aye,” sighed Jamie. “She was still in need of protection – I had tae keep her from Randall’s clutches. Only it seems that didna work out sae well after all.”

“I’m confused, Uncle Jamie.” Ian scratched his head as he tried to work out what was going on. “If Uncle Dougal wanted ye to marry her, why did he set us up so she could be taken?”

“If there’s one thing that Dougal wants, mac peathar, it’s power. He sees himself as rightful chieftain and leader. He’s a braw man tae lead a troop tae battle, but he canna keep the peace. Dougal is willing tae wait tae seize power, and he’ll support the clans while he sees an advantage tae the MacKenzies. But he canna abide being slighted.”

“What happened?”

“He thought tae have me banish Lord John fer seducing my wife, a false accusation. He forced a challenge during that wedding feast ye were sae annoyed at having missed. The next day, they fought and John won. Dougal was humiliated in front of his men and those he seeks to control. If there’s one thing he canna stand it’s tae be made a fool of.”

“He did all this out o’ spite?”

“Partly – I wonder what Randall has promised him? Dougal must be hoping that we confront Randall, are defeated and then he can swoop in and take control o’ the clans from Leoch.”

“I didna think it would cause sae much trouble.”

“Dinna fash, lad. If he’d no’ persuaded ye to go to the island, he’d ha’ thought of another ruse tae draw us out. He has spies in Lallybroch, who’d only too happily let him ken where and when to act to steal away Claire.”

“Yer wife?”

“Aye – yer new auntie. Ye’ll like her.”

“What about you? D’ye like her?”

“Aye – I didna think I would, but I do. I felt bad about the marriage – she didna have any choice in getting wed. It wasna fer love and I think the lass deserves tae get marrit fer love.”

“But ye do have feelings fer her don’t ye? Otherwise ye’d no’ ha’ sent Lord John to rescue her.”

“Och – she’s a bonny lass, spirited and fiery, yet also loving and passionate. She’s stirred my heart tae find room fer her. I thought tae start with she was just grateful – or felt trapped. But she’s proved herself tae be loyal in a way tha’ yer uncle has not.”

“Ye love her – don’t ye?”

“Against my best instincts, I do. I just need to ken she loves me in return.”

Jamie thought back over the previous few days. It was obvious to him that she loved John – they had formed an instant bond and it pained him to think that if it were not for treaties and arranged betrothals she could have married John out of love, not obligation. She was obliged to him in a way she was not to John and their love for one another shone in their eyes, for all to see who bothered to look. He knew that John’s feelings for him had not changed, but he had seen something new in his lover – and now John was riding to the aid of the woman he loved.

“And as fer sending John? That was no’ my decision. He had already pledged tae deal with Randall. From before the wedding. He insisted on riding to Slains Castle.”

“But isn’t that dangerous? On his own. Surely he’d be better off with a group o’ men at his side?”

Jamie looked into the swirling waters, eddying around clumps of reeds near the river’s bank and felt the chill in his spine – of course John would be in danger. That was why it was imperative that they got back to Lallybroch as soon as they could to muster a force to take on Randall. He looked at Ian and wondered if he could get the lad to ride onto Lallybroch alone. But he knew that only he could command men to join him in arms.

“Aye. It is dangerous. That’s why we need tae make haste so I can fetch reinforcements.”

“Shall we ride through the night?”

“If this wind keeps up and blows the clouds south, there should be enough moonlight tae light our way, as long as we follow the river inland. We’ll go as far as we can safely. Are ye fit tae ride, Ian Òg?”

“Aye, uncle Jamie – will I take the pack horse again?”

“Nae, mo ghille, let me. She’ll slow down Donas if he gets as headstrong as his rider.”

Just before Ian got back in the saddle of the palfrey, he reached into the bag he had tucked into one of the saddle bags. He weighed it up, biting his lip as he looked from the palm of his hand to Jamie and back again.

“I am truly sorry – I never thought these would cost sae much.” Ian held out a drawstring bag, sagging under the weight of its contents.

“What are ye talking about lad?” Jamie frowned, looking up from the pack horse’s hoof that he held between his knees as he checked for stones. 

Ian loosened the drawstring to reveal the glittering contents – gems of every hue of the rainbow, glistening amongst strands of golden chains.

“Maybe ye can use it to pay ransom-  if that’s why Randall took yer bride?” With sad eyes, Ian looked up at his uncle hoping to have appeased him to some extent.

“Thank ye, lad. If only that was the sole reason he’s stolen her.” Jamie sighed as he took the small bag of jewels, pulled the cord tight and then tucked it into a pocket of his cloak. The treasure from the island had already cost more than it could possibly be worth in terms of danger to those he loved. But if he needed them to secure the services or aid of anyone to help him rescue Claire they could compensate for the trouble they had caused. “Come on, the horses have had time enough tae rest. I intend tae ride as far as the light will allow before we have tae stop.”

 

~~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Meanwhile, on a ship rolling and heaving, its timbers creaking as it was tossed from wave to wave, Claire sat with her back to its hull, her knees tucked up to her chest. She had looped her arms around her legs, her wrists tied in front of her. She had been locked away in a cabin unable to see where she was going, but from the sounds of feet running to and fro above her head and the calls drowned out by the wind lashing at the sails, she was glad to be below decks.  

Tears ran down her cheeks as she cursed herself once more for her carelessness. It had been her own stubbornness that had her insist on accompanying the men. They would have managed well enough without her and she would not have been taken hostage. She closed her eyes, recalling the scenes she had observed from the top of the cliffs, neglecting to watch her own back. She had been caught unawares, too busy following the fight on the beach, her hand to her mouth as John and Jamie fought valiantly against a group of what looked like pirates, armed to the teeth and dressed in dark leather. She especially feared for John who was wearing nothing but a wet shirt, much as he had that day when she had first laid eyes on him, when he had emerged from the millpond.

Having not witnessed Jamie raise his sword in combat, Claire was struck by the differences in the men’s fighting styles. John was more tactical, ducking and diving, spinning around to catch his opponent unawares, whilst Jamie was more forceful, the power of those arms that had cradled her so gently unleashed in wielding his broadsword with power. The two complemented each other as they fought side by side. She had got down from the palfrey and lain down close to the edge to get a better view, using the telescope that Jamie had flung aside when he had leapt from his horse to rush to John’s aid.

It was her own foolishness and lack of care that had allowed her to be caught.

The men from the ship had snuck up behind her and held her down, one clamping a stinking hand over her mouth to keep her from calling out for help. She had sunk her teeth into the thin skin that stretched to his thumb, causing the man to cry out. Hoping his scream would attract the attention of her husband or lover, she had desperately kicked out, earning herself nothing more than a punch to the stomach, causing her to double over in agony. It was only as she was in the boat, her wrists tied to prevent her from jumping over the side, that she heard shouts from the shore and then the sounds of the men in the boat jeering. Scanning the shore and looking into the sea, she had seen that John was in the water again, swimming towards her and that Jamie was in close pursuit in the other boat, dragging the heavy oars through the white topped waves. Their energy drained by the skirmish on the beach and the sea battering at them, they started to fall behind.

She had hoped they would reach her, but they had not.

The chances of Jamie or John being able to follow the ship that had set out to sea as soon as she was onboard were minimal. For all she knew her captors could be taking her across the sea to the lands of the Norsemen or worse. She had caught sight of a red flag before being pushed down a ladder, a frighteningly familiar flag.  

As bells rang on deck and a coil of rope slid across the floorboards past her feet, she felt completely helpless and beside herself in grief for what she had lost. The sounds and smells of a ship at sea brought to mind something that lingered at the edge of her memory – a porpoise swimming alongside the sleek sides of a ship and a man at her side. A man whose hand on her wrist to steady her reminded her so much of John. Yet they had never met before. Had they?

Claire had come to enjoy the company of two men she loved in a way she never thought would be possible. In such a short time, she had developed feelings that eclipsed those she had once had for Francis – a gentle soul in many ways and so unlike his twin brother. She wondered if she would ever see Jamie or John again. They had only made love together that one night, John still recovering from the wound that had pierced his side, yet he had apologised for his lacklustre performance. She could only imagine what it would have felt like to have been made love to either or both men when they were at their peak.

Ducking her head down so it rested on her bound hands, she let her hair fall around her face like curtains keeping the world at bay. A month previously she had been furious when she had been told she was to be betrothed to a Highland chieftain. She had argued with the abbot and declared that she would never marry. Chuckling to herself, despite the tears dripping onto her skirts, she recalled her threats to take holy orders and enter the convent as a novitiate – in the vain hope that she could take permanent refuge amongst the nuns. It would never have occurred to her that she would be married by the end of the month and desperately missing not one, but – for all intents and purposes - two husbands.

Claire wept, torn between the worry that they would not know where to look for her and anguish for them if they did.   

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Listening to the owls calling to each other from one side of the wood to the other, Jamie curled up in the hollowed-out trunk of an ancient oak tree. The sheepskin under him smelt of lavender and lemon verbena – of Claire and John. He had kept them safe the previous night, lying awake all night to guard them from harm. A day later and the three of them were separated – their paths wrenched apart. His heart ached like never before.

Just as the pull of sleep started to tug at his eyelids, a vision came to him of John riding away from him. Then, on the edge of sleep, it came to him, what was amiss. They had failed to repeat their oath to one another as they had parted company. That was a very bad omen.

In a desperate attempt to avert any misfortune, Jamie muttered the blood oath under his breath:

“Is tu fuil ‘o mo chuislean, is tu cnaimh de mo chnaimh. Is leatsa mo bhodhaig, chum gum bi sinn ‘n ar n-aon. Is leatsa m’anam gus an criochnaich ar saoghal.”

 

~~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

John had reluctantly dismounted, for the safety of himself and his horse. The coastal road was too hazardous to ride at night. The track was rocky and erosion of the cliffs meant that in places it was perilously close to the edge. He would be of no use as a rescuer if he were dashed to the rocks along with his steed.

Karolus gleamed white in the moonlight, a magnificent beast and a gift from an old friend – the Landgrave Stephan who he had met when they were both training in France. If he had not met Jamie, he could have learnt to love him. Stephan had probably known that gifting him a powerful, pale stallion would make sure he haunted John’s thoughts whenever he had the horse between his thighs. As the horse nuzzled at his shoulder he reached around and fondly stroked the animal’s flank.

“Yes, we’ll rest for a while, old boy. Stephan would never forgive me if you were to break a leg due to my foolhardiness.”

Leading Karolus away from the cliff edge and towards a sparse copse of twisted hawthorn trees, John took a deep breath. An ache in his chest warned him that there was a strong possibility he would never see Stephan or Jamie again.

“You’ll take her to safety if I can’t, won’t you?” he whispered to his trusty steed. “Just take her home to Lallybroch. To Jamie. That’s all I ask of you.”

Once he had removed the saddle and bridle, he slung a soft rope harness around the horse’s neck and tied him loosely to a tree close by. As Karolus gracefully bent his legs and lowered his muscular frame to the ground, John sat beside him. When the horse laid down his head, John curled up alongside, feeling the animal’s warmth ward off the chill air.

Just as he was about to rest a hand on the small dagger at his side, ready to defend himself, he paused to look at the scar on the underside of his arm from where Jamie had used his dirk to draw blood.

It then struck him that he when he and Jamie had parted, neither of them had repeated their oath.

He slid his dagger from its sheath and drew the blade across the meaty part of his thumb, waiting for drops of blood to well up before solemnly whispering:

“Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone.
I give you two my Body, that we might be One.
I give you my Spirit, 'til my Life shall be Done.”

He was barely aware of the transpositions of some of the words, he was weary and in need of sleep. Drawing his thick cloak around him, he took comfort in the warmth and the sweet smell of lavender oil that Claire favoured, along with the undefinable scent of Jamie.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

By the time Jamie and Ian arrived at Lallybroch, they were exhausted and relieved to let the grooms take care of the horses.

They had intended to enter via the kitchens, but it seemed that someone from the stables had been sent to give word that they were back. Murtagh flung open the door to the main hall to greet them as they wearily trudged towards the back of the building, his face beaming expectantly as he pulled Jamie inside and hugged him to his chest. From behind him, Jenny dashed out to grab hold of Young Ian, almost smothering the boy in her bosom as she held him close. Once assured he was alive and in one piece, she shoved him away, swung back her arm and then slapped his face, causing his head to spin.

“Ye bloody fool, ye’ve had me worrit sick!”

“Ma!” moaned Ian as Murtagh laughed at his expense.

Jenny then proceeded to drag Ian into the hall with her until all four stood in the shade near the Round Table. It was as Murtagh looked past Jamie, to where Ian was standing, rubbing his face, with Jenny shaking her head at the lad, that he realised that there were only the two of them that had returned.

“Where is Lord John and yer lady?” He scowled as if suspecting the two of having absconded together. “Please dinna tell me those two-”

Staring at Jamie he saw the moment his jaw muscles clenched. The glowering look either confirmed Murtagh’s suspicions or spoke of far worse.

“Tell me, mo ghille. What’s become of them?”

“Master Raymond was right.” Jamie’s upper lip curled over his teeth as spat out the words. “As always. It was a trap. Claire was taken.”

“What? How the hell did that happen?” demanded Murtagh, his face like thunder, cheeks red and eyes starting to bulge. “The two of ye are lauded as the finest swordsmen and ye let the lass be snatched from under yer eyes!”

Jamie breathed out through his nose sharply and lowered his head, all the while glaring sharply at his stepfather. His fists clenched at his sides, he looked as though he wanted to kill someone. Before he could articulate his own anger, Ian timidly stepped forward in defence of his uncle and John Grey.

“It wasna like that, Mister Fitzgibbons – I swear tae ye,” said Ian. “It was all my fault. They were saving my skin when Uncle Jamie’s wife was captured.”

“Saving ye? What the hell-” started Jenny, swivelling around to fix her attention on Jamie. “What happened?”

“The lad was swimming back from the island. He was being chased by a boatload of brutes. John swam out to help him get tae land safely – ”

“Like a fish I suppose? Or a seal?” asked Jenny, narrowing her eyes.

“No, ma, like a man. With arms and legs, no’ a tail and fins! Those tales ye hear and spread are all lies!” Ian corrected his mother, his brow furrowed with indignation. “If Lord John had no’ reached me those bastards would ha’ drowned me. Either that or taken me as a slave. He rescued me, ma and I’ll no’ have ye say a word against him.”

“Neither shall I,” added Jamie, who had steadied Young Ian with a hand on his arm. He could feel the narrow shoulders shaking as the events were starting to catch up with the young lad. “Take a seat, Ian Òg. Ye too, Janet.”

Taking the hint that Ian needed support, Jenny took a seat next to the boy and held his hand.

“Uncle Jamie and Lord John had tae fight the men when they reached the shore,” added Ian, his lip trembling as he recalled the bloody skirmish on the sand. “There were six o’ them – ugly bastards, armed tae the teeth-”

“Dinna tell me they killed Lord John!” gasped Jenny, horrified that the man may have died while saving her son’s life. “Was his life the price that Master Raymond spoke of?”

“I hope not, mo phiuthar,” said Jamie, grimly, leaning against the edge of the table. He rubbed his face with one hand, feeling the grime of the journey clinging to his skin. “Nae – we killed them. Every last one o’ them. But they were only sent tae distract us while another boat came tae shore. The other group of men had dragged Claire away before we could get tae them.”

Murtagh had remained on his feet, and on hearing what had transpired, he bristled visibly, his hand instinctively resting on the hilt of his sword.

“Who were they?” demanded Murtagh. “Did ye manage tae find out who sent them?”

“Aye, I ken who sent them,” growled Jamie. “They took her tae a much larger ship. The pennant on the mast bore Randall’s colours.”

“Bastard!” Murtagh spat on the flagstones. “So they’ll be taking her tae Slains Castle.”

Ifrinn,” muttered Jenny. “And what of John? Was he captured too?”

“I hope not,” muttered Jamie, as it came to him that there was a possibility that John, too, could yet be taken captive by Randall. Or worse. “He’s riding around the coast tae Slains Castle. I’m only here for as long as it takes tae assemble a group of men together to ride there myself.”

“John’s gone tae Slains alone? What does he think he’ll do?” Murtagh rolled his eyes in despair. “Surely he’s no’ intending tae storm the bloody castle and rescue the lady single-handed?”

“Ye ken John well enough, Murtagh,” replied Jamie, understanding his concern. “D’ye nae think he’ll just scout out the castle fer weaknesses and wait fer back up tae arrive?”

“Oh aye, I ken the lad well enough and he’ll no’ stand by and wait while a lady’s honour is in danger, as well we ken.”

“Aye, I do and that’s why I canna stay long.” Jamie bit his lip, before quietly adding: “Donas needs tae be rested, so I shall need a fresh horse and a dozen of our best men. Lads we can trust.”

“Count me among them,” said Murtagh immediately, lowering his voice as well. “I’ll get Rupert and Angus tae rally men they can personally attest to. Are ye sure a dozen men will suffice?”

“I dinna want tae alert Randall by taking a whole army – or Dougall fer that matter.” Jamie continued speaking softly, pausing to look around the Great Hall: “Meanwhile, I’ll no’ discuss my plans here, no’ where we can be overheard-”

“D’ye mean Laoghaire and Geillis?” interrupted Jenny. “Dinna fash. We’ve had them safely confined to rooms in the attic. Separately, with guards on their doors. Fer their own safety, ye ken. It was Murtagh’s idea- ”

“I told them that with ye and John away from Lallybroch, it was my responsibility tae keep the women safe.”

“And they accepted that?” asked Jamie, incredulously.

“We made sure they had nae choice, a brathair,” answered Jenny. “After ye all left here, Ian Mòr, Murtagh and I spoke in private – out in the paddock. We figured that those wee bitches were feeding Dougal with information concerning the comings and goings, sae we agreed to put a stop tae that.”

“Thank goodness ye did.” Jamie sighed with relief. “It had tae be one o’ them, unless Dougal has more spies here than I suspect.”

Jamie sank into his chair at the Round Table and looked around at the clan names inscribed in the wood.

“Which of the clans d’ye think would be prepared tae go to war with Randall if it comes tae that?” pondered Jamie out loud.

“What is the bastard up to? It’s no’ just about the woman, is it?” asked Murtagh, pulling out a chair to sit next to Jamie.

“Nae – I dinna think so. I suspect he’s in league with the forces from beyond the seas. He’ll have made a deal with them, I’m sure of that.”

“Ye’re probably right.” Murtagh nodded in agreement. “I can see that bastard making sure he keeps hold o’ his islands and lands in exchange fer information on the weaknesses and strengths of the clans. If we could prove that, the clans would fight alongside us.”

“D’ye have evidence of that?” asked Jenny. “Any proof that’s what he’s up to? He’d no’ be able to take on the combined force of all the clans fighting as one.”

“I wish we did,” said Jamie forlornly. “There are letters we’ve intercepted – encoded. I was hoping that Master Raymond would interpret them fer us. He refused– said it was fer us to do.” Jamie held his head in his hands. “Is Raymond still here? Or did he keep tae his threat and leave?”

“If he left Lallybroch, it was no’ by mortal means, a bràthair.” Jenny stroked her brother’s head, as she had when he was a child. “That damn spellmonger could ha’ turned himself into an owl and flown out a window, or into a fish and leapt down the well fer all I ken.”

“Jenny-” grumbled Jamie, although he would not have been too surprised if Raymond could change himself into an animal.

“We think he’s gone underground tae sulk in one of those caves under the hill,” said Murtagh. “He went tae the cellars after yer sister took a blade tae his braid and he’s no’ been seen since.”

“I need tae find him. He must ride with us.” Jamie slapped a hand down on the table, having made a decision. “Have a cart readied, Murtagh – tae carry extra weapons and whatever Raymond needs. He canna ride a horse, sae we’ll need the cart. A small heavily armed band of men, chosen fer loyalty and bravery, along with the aid of a powerful sorcerer will fare better than a whole army against the likes o’ Randall.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Descending into the darkened caves, with a solitary oil lamp to light his way, Jamie shuddered as the cold air coiled around his legs, seeping under his kilt and up his spine.

There was a sulphurous smell to the caverns, one he associated with myths he had read of the underworld and demons. Down a set of steps carved long ago, he could see candlelight flickering and reflecting on walls that dripped with water that seemed thicker and almost gelatinous as it crept down the surfaces of the rock, polished over thousands of years by the passage of water.

He thought he was being stealthy. But apparently not stealthy enough to evade the sharpened senses of Master Raymond.

“If you have come to me with your tail between your legs comme un chien mauvais, do not trouble me.” Raymond’s voice echoed through the caverns. His words cold and uncaring. “You were warned. With arrogance you ignored my words. Do not dare come to me begging for help – not now.”

“It’s Claire. Randall has taken her.”

“La Dame Blanche?”  Raymond appeared from behind a tall stalagmite, his face drawn in concern. “But, I thought it would be…”

“Ye thought it would be John?” demanded Jamie. “Is that what ye’re about to say?”

“If you know the answer, why bother asking,” huffed Raymond.

“Why did ye think it would be John?” persisted Jamie.

“Randall wants to possess what means the most to you – I assumed he would take Le Chevalier Blanc.” Raymond paused to scratch his head, evidently confused. “Unless – yes, I suppose that is possible.”

“What? I dinna have time fer yer riddles!” shouted Jamie, his patience already thin. He would have stormed off if it was not for his suspicion that they would not succeed without Raymond’s help.

“And I do not have to tolerate your insolence, boy! Tell me - where is John?”

“Don’t ye ken? I though ye knew every man’s movements!”

“Come with me.” Raymond commanded Jamie, all the while shaking his head as if a swarm of bees were buzzing around his ears.

Jamie followed him across the slippery stones towards a deep pool and crouched down next to the him when prompted to do so.

“Think of John – I can see in your face that he did not return with you.”

While staring into the pool, Raymond muttered words in a tongue that Jamie could not understand.

Looking into the pool, Jamie’s eyes widened in horror. From the darkness, images appeared, motionless figures.

He saw John lying up at the side of his horse, asleep. Then the figures transformed before his eyes, the white stallion no longer curled around comfortably, but rigid, his limbs twisted, hooves dug into the earth as if trying to gallop away from whatever it was that had struck him down. John was on his knees next to Karolus, desperately trying to calm the animal. Wanting to reach down into the water to support his lover, Jamie almost touched the surface as the waters swirled around of their own accord, revealing John still on his knees, but no longer with his horse. Either side of him, grasping his arms were two red-cloaked men. John’s head was bent forward, but just as he began to look up, there was a loud splash as a stone was dropped into the pool and the visions were broken apart by ripples, never to reassemble.

“What was that?” demanded Jamie as he scrambled to his feet. “Has it happened, or is it yet to take place? Is it something that we can avert? Raymond, tell me!”

“It is a possible future,” murmured Raymond. He was rubbing his eyes as if to seek clearer vision. “Nothing is ever certain where Le Chevalier Blanc is concerned.”

“Will ye no’ help me now?” begged Jamie. “Whatever ye want is yours. I have gems – the jewels from Silkies Island.” Jamie pulled the bag of gemstones from his cloak and held them out.

Raymond stood up and took the pouch. He smiled to himself before tucking it away in a bag he carried over his shoulder.

“If this were a concern of men alone, I would leave you all to your own devices. But I sense the work of a necromancer here. The horse that John rides is no ordinary beast. Only the most wicked of spells could cause such a noble beast to collapse in such a manner. There is one I know of who could – but I thought she was lost. Destroyed by her own magic.”

“Who?” asked Jamie.

“You do not need to know her name and I shall not speak it." Raymond shook his head vehemently. "But you will need more than the steel of weaponry and minds to defeat your foe now. If he takes possession of both your heart and your soul, he can force you to do whatever he wants – with only one in his possession, you are weakened but not defeated.”

“I want them both back!”

“Do you not recall my warning?” asked Raymond, exasperation in his voice. “When your paths entwined I warned you that a peril to one is a peril to all. And, against my advice, you rode out as three, only to be split apart. One taken over the sea, and the other riding off to his – ”

“Dinna say it!” yelled Jamie, not wanting to hear whatever Raymond was going to say, but the harm was done, all he could hear in his head was the word ‘death’. “How d’ye ken she was taken by sea? Were ye watching through that damn scrying pool? Ye ken what’s happened, don’t ye? What about John? Is he safe?”

Arrête de me demander!” Raymond swung his staff around until it clipped Jamie’s arm. “That’s not for you to demand. All I know for certain is that the white horse will reveal to you which of your loved ones is most in need of rescuing.”

“Karolus?” asked Jamie, thinking immediately of John’s beloved stallion. “But-”

“Hush! You must focus on what is within your domain – recruit men who are able to wield a sword and act fearlessly, yet with caution.” Sighing to himself, Raymond gathered his cloak around him and sniffed the air. “Leave me. There are matters I must attend to alone. We shall leave at dusk – trust me. Under cover of night I shall ensure our path is lit.”

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

While Murtagh held the reins of the horse harnessed to a small cart, the back of which was laden down with supplies – weapons, food and tents, Raymond pushed his way through the muttering throng. He raised his staff and brought it down with a mighty crack on the ground, and from the earth erupted thousands upon thousands of glow worms, the eerie green light emitted from the tips of their bodies illuminating the route he decreed that they were to follow.

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

The following morning, the sky was dark with towering clouds.

~~~

Jamie had been riding throughout the night, following the trail lit up through the trees. A route that led through deep leaf litter that allowed him and his men to ride quietly and unnoticed, even by the beasts of the night. Nothing had troubled them on their journey through the endless forest that he had not encountered before in all his travels in the Highlands and beyond. He thought he could taste the salt of the sea in the air. It did not seem possible for them to have travelled so far in such a short time, but the cries of seagulls overhead suggested they were indeed close to the coast.

~~~

At the sheltered quayside, Claire was dragged through the narrow street towards a steep slope leading upwards towards the castle. She knew where she was. She had visited before, when the current incumbent’s brother had been ruler.

~~~

In a cluster of trees, one of few in the barren, rocky landscape surrounding Castle Slains, John prepared himself. He tied Karolus to one of the trees loosely, so that if the animal needed to escape he could. He smeared his face with mud from the stream that ran through the hawthorn copse. His final approach would have to be on foot, as a pure white horse would stand out on the moors and alert Randall to his presence.

With a heavy heart, John took the head of his beloved horse in his hands and sighed deeply.

Although he knew that Jamie would want him to wait, he was also aware that he would expect him to do whatever he could to secure the release of Claire from Randall’s clutches.

“I serve my Laird and my Lady, above all else. I give them my Spirit, 'til my Life shall be Done.

 

~~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Chapter Text

 

Castle Slains clung to the top of a rocky promontory, surrounded on two sides by steep cliffs high above the raging sea. A sheltered cove to the east was occupied by a deep harbour and a cluster of small dwellings built into the hillside, the occupants all employed in the service of the master of the castle, supplying him with servants and provisions. To the landward side of the castle the forest had been cleared to prevent enemies approaching unseen, leaving moorland and treacherous marshes.

John was left with little option but to approach on foot across the marshes. Fortunately, he was not afraid of water wraiths. He turned his cloak inside out, the inner lining of undyed wool blending in better with the wind burnt vegetation. Before putting it on, he dragged it through some shrubs ensuring it was covered with dead leaves, pieces of twig and seed heads from the heather and sedges.

Tucking his saddle bags into a hollow at the base of a tree, he covered it with a pile of stones, arranged like a cairn, reducing the chances of his belongings being discovered. He had yet to meet any Highlander who would risk disturbing anything resembling a resting place for the dead.

Resolved to set off before the sun rose much higher in the sky, John took his leave of Karolus, kissing the noble brow of his horse as he stroked the animals nose once more. He was confident that Karolus could neither be approached, nor ridden, by a stranger having seen how he would lash out with his hooves if threatened. Although John knew he would have been less vulnerable on horseback, he decided that It was better to give the stallion a chance to escape should he fail in his quest, than placing him in danger. The fates of others who had attempted to challenge Randall were well known, along with those of their steeds: impaled by hails of arrows, dying in agony as their riders fell to their own doom. The thought alone made John shudder in horror.

With weapons secreted under his cloak, John leaned on the twisted branch he had crudely fashioned into a staff. Bending over, to disguise his youth and height, he began the lonely trudge in the direction of the castle that had been the final destination for so many before him.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Leaning back against the trunk of a stout birch tree, Jamie used his spyglass to study the castle. Some of the walls had been damaged from previous assaults by siege engines, and the hollow windows bore testament to those parts set fire to and no longer used for habitation. Despite the appearance of dereliction, he knew that within the ruined walls lay impenetrable barriers. He squinted into the rising sun as he scanned the expanse of hostile territory between him and Castle Slains. Thinking he detected movement, he quickly focused on one of many tracks leading towards the coast but was disappointed to see that it was just an elderly peasant slowly picking his way through the clumps of vegetation. He sighed wistfully, hoping that the absence of a white horse meant that John had yet to arrive and not that he was already at the castle.

“You won’t see what is not meant to be seen,” murmured Raymond, cryptic as ever. “Even with that spyglass I gave you.”

“That’s what ye said about the tents,” commented Jamie, looking over his shoulder at the cluster of canvas tents set up beneath the trees.

“Don’t worry, your camp is shielded from view by the witch’s eyes – your men need to sleep.”

Jamie sighed and shook his head, willing time to go faster.

“Ye ken Murtagh is itching tae storm Slains now and tae hell wi’ yer strategy.”

“Bluster – nothing more, he is putting into words what you are thinking to spare you from appearing foolish. He’s happy enough for the men to rest,” countered Raymond. “Even an old warrior such as he knows that although a soldier can eat and ride at the same time, to sleep while in the saddle is asking for broken limbs.”

“Aye, that’s true and I ken that none of the men chosen by Rupert or Angus will be keen on riding through those marshes just yet.” Jamie bit his lip as he surveyed the barren, tree-less landscape. “Ye can see the skulls and bones, gleaming white in the streams.”

“Their fears are not unfounded,” agreed Raymond, brushing dead leaves from a large rock that he chose to sit on. “For many centuries, the land between here and the castle walls has witnessed carnage and death. The ghosts of those slaughtered without mercy wander restlessly, even in daylight. But, you dear boy, should not be afraid. They will rise up to aid the one who will bring them final rest and will not trouble any whose hearts are pure.”

Jamie gazed out onto the marshes and thought of John. He had a feeling in his gut that the man was not far from him.

“John’s heart is the purest I ken,” murmured Jamie. “I shall be relieved if those ghosts dinna bother him, he has enough trailing him as it is.”

“Hmmm…” murmured Raymond, running the tip of his tongue over his gums as if considering something risky. He shook his head as if dismissing the notion for the time being. “Any traveller intent on defeating the cruel reign of the lord of Slains passes safely. Every man who has ruled from Slains has been ruthless and without mercy. All but one, and his reign came to end before he had the chance to make any difference.”

“Aye – the man that Claire was originally betrothed to,” said Jamie, frowning. “What happened tae him? It’s rumoured he didna just fall tae his death in the mountains.”

Raymond tutted as he drew patterns in the dust with the end of his staff.

“Would you believe that a man, raised here, deliberately chose to ride so close to the cliffs that his horse lost its footing and they both fell to their death?”

“That doesna sound plausible. So, it’s true then, what ye told Claire, his brother did have him killed?”

“Oui, Le Chevalier Noir – the Black Knight himself. He was leading the pack of hunters that pursued the elder brother, forcing him over the edge of the cliffs. Afterwards, they all swore his horse had taken fright and that they were chasing to try to save him.” Raymond spat on the ground. “Any man who would have his twin brother slaughtered has cruelty in every sinew in his body and every drop of his blood.”

“I’ll no’ argue with ye there. I just canna understand how he came tae be so evil.”

“All men possess the potential for good and for evil. Two sides of human nature.” Raymond took two coins from a pouch and tossed them high above his head. As the spun around they caught the dappled sunlight. “But when that one was growing in the womb he drew all the evil from his twin and rejected the goodness.”

Raymond then snatched the coins from the air and grinned as he showed them to Jamie. Whether they were already like that before he threw them up in the air or not, the fact that one had two tails and the other two heads demonstrated his point.

“I dinna like tae think of any child being bad from birth,” mused Jamie, scratching the stubble on his chin. “But I heard a rumour that he was born with teeth and as a suckling babe, he bit the breast of his wetnurse. They say he drank her blood along wi’ her milk.”

Raymond laughed to himself and drew a symbol on the ground in front of where he sat. A symbol to avert evil.

“Like all tales told by gossips and soldiers alike, there is some truth in all of them – take your Lord John. You know not all of the gossip is true concerning him, but we both know he is more than he appears to be.”

“That is true enough, but I have good reason tae believe every tale of evil associated with that bastard Randall.” Jamie pressed his lips close together, the scars that still adorned his back and ate into his very soul were a constant reminder of his own encounter with Randall. “That’s why I shall do whatever it takes tae rescue Claire.” And John too if need be.

“Do you mean that?” asked Raymond, narrowing his eyes as if he would gaze into Jamie’s soul. Behind him, the sun was slowly rising above the horizon, setting the sea afire with vivid crimson streaks. Like blood. “Will you approve the use of whatever dark arts are required to defeat him? Even if it entails waiting until nightfall.”

“Nightfall? That could be too late!” protested Jamie.

“Pshaw! If you go any sooner, you will join the bones in the marshes to lie in warning to others!” hissed Raymond.

“But if John is already there, he will be on his own - ”

“Le Chevalier Blanc is not there… not yet.” Raymond looked uncharacteristically confused as if caught out by an unexpected event.

“Where is he then?” demanded Jamie, picking up on the implication that Raymond had knowledge that he desperately wanted. He waved his hand around, encompassing the forest behind them and the rocky land in front of them. “Behind us, or in front of us?”

“He is on his own path!” snapped Raymond, stabbing a short finger at Jamie. “If you had not wanted to be parted from him, you should not have allowed him to ride alone.”

“But-”

“The lady was in danger?” scoffed Raymond. “Yes and there you have it – your love for her is stronger than you will admit, even to yourself. I warned you not to sacrifice one for the other, and at the first opportunity, you have!”

Jamie closed his eyes, tightly trapping the treacherous tear that was seeking to escape. Raymond’s words were true. If he had insisted on John riding back to Lallybroch with him, he would have done so, perhaps reluctantly, but he would have accepted Jamie’s authority.

Mon fils, do not blame yourself.” Raymond used his staff to point at Jamie’s head and chest. “Your mind is at war with your heart. You wanted him to go. You needed your champion to accept his duty. Lord John is part of you and you wanted to send that part of your soul to her side.”

“Ye’re right,” acquiesced Jamie, his mouth dry. “The thought of Randall laying a finger on mo nighean donn curdles my wame and brings bile tae my throat.”

“And what of John?” asked Raymond feigning innocent enquiry. “You know that Randall – ”

“If he lays a finger on either of them- like that- I shall make his death a slow and painful one.” The blue of Jamie’s eyes reflected the crimson-streaked sky and sea, aflame with the promise of dire retribution.

“Yes – I believe you shall.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

“Come any closer to me and I shall kill myself!” threatened Claire, holding a broken shard of mirror to her throat, her hands held together by the rope that bit into her wrists. “You have no claim on me. I am a married woman.”

She had leapt to her feet on hearing the key in the lock and was standing on the other side of the table she had previously dragged across the room in an attempt to barricade the door.

With a sneer, Jonathon Randall leaned on edge of the table and shoved it into the room, pushing Claire backwards. She was not surprised that her measures would prove little deterrence to the man facing her. He looked so much like his brother, but the vicious curl to his lip distinguished him as the notorious Black Knight. His hair was swept back to reveal a face lined with scars and pale blue eyes empty of warmth.

“My dear Claire, surely you realise that any ritual conducted at some Pictish stone is worthless.” Randall kicked the door closed behind him, before starting to edge around the table, moving closer to Claire. “You were legally betrothed to my brother. On his death, you became mine.”

“Get back, you bastard!” Claire moved away from Randall, keeping the table between her and the man she loathed above all others. Raising her chin defiantly she stared him in the eye. “You may keep me as your prisoner but shall never possess me as your wife. Not today, tomorrow or ever.”

His eyes narrowing, Randall came to a realisation that caught him unguarded.

“I would have respected you, but it seems there is no need. You are nothing but a harlot! You’ve allowed that… that creature to rut with you, haven’t you?”  Randall’s lip curled with disgust. “I assumed it was just a ruse to claim the marriage consummated. But that’s not true is it? You let that filthy barbarian sully your body with his cock!”

He is my husband!” growled Claire, her eyes fierce. “I let him bed me willingly and shall do so again when he comes to reclaim me!”

Even though her hands were tied, Claire was ready to defend herself, the sharp edge of the shard cutting into the palm of her hand reassuring her of its potential to cause harm. She was emboldened by the fact she had taken her captor by surprise. He had not expected her to break the looking glass to acquire a weapon.

“All the more reason to flay him alive when he does turn up! I shall make a better job of flogging the bastard this time.” Randall paused to study the revulsion on Claire’s face, noting the way her lower lip trembled. Placing his hands flat on the table, he leant towards her, moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue before continuing to goad her. “I look forward to making you watch as I have him chained and begging for mercy. You will bear witness to the beauty of the cuts I shall carve in his flesh.”

Riled rather than subdued with fear, Claire leant forward and spat in the face of her tormentor. The sight of the scar tissue on Jamie’s back had shocked her when she had first seen it the morning after they had first made love. John had told her who was responsible. Thinking of her two lovers gave her the courage to stand up to Randall.

“I’ve seen the damage you inflicted,” she hissed. “What those scars bear witness to is not beauty, but brutality – and you have the audacity to call him a barbarian!”

“Not brutal enough,” responded Randall, grimacing as he wiped the spittle from his cheek with his sleeve. “This time I shall kill him.”

“Like you did my parents, my uncle and your own brother?”

“I see your feeble mind is already poisoned against me,” growled Randall. Claire noted that he was not rushing to deny her accusations. “Do I detect the malicious whisperings of the wretched toad that lurks in the cellars of Lallybroch?”

“Anyone with eyes in their head can see that you are a vicious bully– you rule by fear, not respect.” Her head held high, Claire could see that her frankness was unsettling her captor.

“Your sharp tongue will bring you grief one day. In the meantime, while you insist upon being uncivil, you may remain here, unmolested.” Randall took a step back and shrugged as if not bothered by Claire’s antipathy. “Alone. Unfed. Perhaps a week without sustenance will persuade you to adopt a amenable temperament.”

Randall turned and placed a hand on the latch as if he were about to leave the room. Claire lowered her hands, blood dripping from the palms where she had been clasping the shard of glass so tightly. Her lapse in attention caused her to miss the moment that Randall spun around, grabbed the edge of the table and tipped it over, causing her to stagger back. He then dashed forward and grabbed hold of her from behind. Seizing the sharp weapon from her grip he flung it to the ground and smashed it underfoot into tiny fragments.

Pulling her close to him, one arm tight about her waist and a hand over her mouth, she could feel the buckle of his sword belt pressing into her back. However much she struggled she could not loosen his grip. She felt sick as he started to bunch up her skirt in his fist, groping at her legs as he sought out a touch of skin.

“What the devil? Men’s breeches!” His voice dripping with disdain, Randall let her skirts drop back around her legs, evidently appalled at the garment preventing him from accessing her flesh. Taking his hand from her mouth he wrapped it around a hank of hair and pulled it hard. “I’ll not ask why you would choose to wear men’s clothing, but you will get rid of them before the end of the week.”

“For you? Willingly?” snarled Claire. “Never.”

“Let this be your final warning not to test my patience too much, my dear,” whispered Randall, the warmth of his breath on her bare neck. “The longer you have me wait to claim what is mine, the more pleasure I shall take in having you. If I have to tie your hands and feet to the bed posts, have no fear, I shall.”

Angry tears leaking from her eyes, Claire tried yet again to break free, only to find herself lifted off the ground and dumped onto the bed. Randall then proceeded to wrap a length of cord around the ropes on her arms and then tied it to one of the bedposts.

“One week. That is all I shall give you. However, should you change your mind beforehand, let the servants know. I shall have them remove any other objects your devious mind may choose to use as weapons.”

Claire twisted her head away from Randall’s face so that his mouth missed her lips, smearing a wet kiss on her cheek instead.

Rubbing her face on the pillow, wishing she could scrub all trace of Randall from her skin, Claire screamed – unleashing all the pent-up emotions roiling inside her. Hatred of Randall, anger at her own carelessness in being captured and the conflict of wanting to be rescued, while hoping that neither of the men she loved ended up being tortured or killed coming to her aid.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Having successfully traversed the marshes, respecting the bones of his predecessors as he stepped over and around them, John drew the hood of his cloak over his head and affected a more pronounced limp as he wandered into the settlement at the foot of the cliffs. The sea was as wild as it had been the day before, possibly more so, as the waves battered at the sea wall, cresting high above it and then receding. He was glad of the rough weather for it kept people busy, rushing to and fro, unloading the ship in dock before it had to set sail once more.

John moved through the throngs of people unnoticed. He watched the overall movement of men and saw that a group were gathering near a fortified gate, queueing up with bundles and sacks of firewood. It was clear that the pathway was too steep and narrow for a wagon to transport goods, so it was left to the labour of men, women and children to haul the essentials required by the castle on a day-to-day basis. After having their loads checked before being paid, the men shuffled to one side, apparently waiting for the gate to be opened. Occasionally one of the men would ask another to save their place while they disappeared behind a wall to take a piss, each time taking their firewood with them.

When he was convinced that no one was paying any attention to him as he sat with his back to the wall, taking the weight off his feet, John slipped away to lie in wait. He did not have to wait long before one of the serfs came into view, hastily dropping his load to the ground as he fumbled with the string holding up his breeches. John waited until the man had emptied his bladder and then struck.

Apologising as his victim slumped to the ground, courtesy of a blow to the head with his staff, John quickly divested the man of his dark red tunic that identified him as a serf obliged to serve Slains Castle. He removed the sword in its scabbard from his belt and tucked it deep inside the sack of firewood, hiding it amongst the long branches of wood. Straightening his back and adjusting the hood to reveal more of his face, wiped clean of most of the grime, he walked to the back of the queue of men who were slowly walking through the gate that had been opened in the meantime.

After emptying the firewood into the designated area under the battlements, John tucked the sack, still containing his sword, inside his cloak that he had removed and rolled up. He mopped his brow as if overheating and caught the eye of a young house maid filling a basket with smaller pieces of wood from the pile. She blushed and ducked her head.

Bonjour, mademoiselle,” he greeted the girl, having already heard her address another girl in French.

She looked surprised, but answered in kind, confirming his suspicions.

Je m’appelle Guillaume,” he introduced himself, affecting a shy smile. “Comment t'appelles-tu?”

“Giselle,” she whispered. “It is better to speak in English. Our master does not trust any who speak in other tongues.”

“I know,” replied John with a grimace.

“Why is a man like you serving as a serf?” she asked quietly. “I can tell you are a nobleman by the way you speak.”

Taking a sip from his canteen and sighing as he turned it up and shook free the last few drops, John spun a story explaining how he had fallen on hard times. He told her that his mother, had been taken from France by men from the castle on one of their pillaging trips overseas. He explained how she had died and that he was working to earn enough money to pay for voyage back to his homeland. A tear in the corner of Giselle’s eye indicated that her actual story was not so different. John felt a pang of guilt in misleading the young girl who was so far from home.

With a wink he asked her if there was any chance of getting a beaker of ale in the kitchen as he was parched. She looked torn and started to shake her head, only to be persuaded when he offered to carry her basket saying that as he could carry twice as much as she could, it would mean less work for her.  

As he followed her a large outbuilding, John was relieved to find that Slains castle was no exception to the rule that in every large household the kitchen was the hub of all gossip. Listening quietly from the floor near the door, sipping the beaker of ale Giselle had given him, it did not take long for John to establish that Claire was not only in the castle, but making her presence felt.

The housemaids were complaining about being tasked to clear her room of all fittings and furnishings except the bed. One of them had deposited a pail of broken glass at her feet, put her hands on her hips and demanded to know what sort of woman would destroy a perfectly good looking-glass, to which the cook suggested the girl might do if she had ever saw her own face in one. As the ensuing laughter died down, John cleared his throat loudly and politely offered to help carry any heavy items in exchange for some bread and cheese. The housekeeper who was overseeing the work schedule for the day beckoned him over and had him flex his arms so she could feel how strong his muscles were. With her approval, accompanied by a slap on his rear, he was deemed adequate for the task.

“But mind ye dinna take any liberties wi’ any o’ the lasses,” she issued her warning ominously. “Or ye’ll be heading home with yer balls in yer pocket.”

“I was brought up never to dishonour a lady, whatever her station in life.” John found himself replying with such honesty he could see that his words were taken as sincere.

“Aye, well, get on wi’ ye then. The master is out hunting, and he’ll no’ be happy tae see a stranger wandering around the keep.” She bit her lip as she considered her words carefully. “However, as housekeeper, I dinna take kindly tae my lasses being set tasks tae break their backs.”

Unsurprisingly, it had been Giselle who had volunteered for the job of emptying the guest room. Relieved that he would be able to enter the main stronghold of the castle with minimal risk of encountering Randall, John accompanied Giselle to the room where Claire was being held.

“So, what is it that we have to remove?” he asked, making conversation as the girl opened the cabinet to extract a key.

“Table, chairs, candlesticks, jugs, basins, firewood – anything she can use as a weapon. She went for him with a piece of broken glass, you know! Fiona said she’s a wild woman.”

“Oh dear, how dreadful.” John tried not to show how proud he was of the woman he loved.

“I would be grateful if you could hold her fast, monsieur, when I go in, just in case she attacks,” asked the girl, nervously. “The master warned us to keep away from her – he said she may bite, so you must keep your fingers away from her mouth.”

“I shall do my very best,” promised John, trying not to visualise the way that Claire had sucked upon his fingers when the three of them had lain together at Broch Tuarach.

After the door was unlocked, John followed Giselle into the room. He pulled his hood over his head, not wanting to be recognised immediately.

Claire was sitting on the edge of the bed, her hands held in front of her, secured with a long rope tied to a bed post. On seeing two people entering the room, she had got to her feet and was glaring belligerently from one to the other.

“Get out!” she yelled at them. “And you can tell your bloody lord and master that I shall never change my mind!”

The vehemence of her words startled Giselle who took a step back suddenly, bumping into John. He gently placed a hand on her waist and steered her towards the other side of the room. He whispered to her in French, telling her to start in the corner of the room, furthest from the bed, so he could restrain the prisoner.

Hearing John’s voice made Claire gasp involuntarily. Fortunately for them both, Giselle took the look of shock on the woman’s face as fear of the tall, dark-haired man. Relaxing, she quickly started to gather all the loose objects that could have been used as weapons or projectiles.

“You will do as I ask, madam and not even think of attacking either of us,” said John aloud, his voice stern. “We mean you no harm.”

“Why should I?” Claire stood up and closed in on John, her eyebrows raised as if asking him what he thought he was doing. “Who the hell do you think you are that you can give me orders?”

“Me? I’m no more than a lowly serf,” replied John, explaining his disguise to Claire. “I’m just here to help with some heavy lifting. However, my hands are not tied, and I am not locked away in a tower.”

John circled behind Claire and put an arm across her shoulders pulling her close to him. Manoeuvring them both so that she was pressed up against the frame of the bed, John slipped a small knife into a pocket in Claire’s skirt, before whispering into her ear.

“Be ready at sunset – I shall return for you then.”

“How dare you?” Claire exclaimed, turning her head around quickly as if insulted.

As piercing blue eyes looked into amber orbs, a whole conversation was exchanged in the brief moment in which their eyes met, Claire’s filled with a mixture of hope and fear, John’s with love and reassurance.

“My apologies madam, I hope I did not hurt you,” said John out loud, loosening his hold on Claire. “I was told you were dangerous and just want to make sure a defenceless maid comes to no harm. You are perfectly safe, Giselle.”

“Thank you,” said the maid, as she carried the baskets to the door. “I’ll wait outside while you fetch the table and chairs.”

John moved what was left of the table to one side so that Giselle could get to the door more easily. He could see that the table top had a jagged split across it and that two of the legs were snapped in half.

“This table is damaged beyond repair. Would you like me to break it up for you?” suggested John, his brow furrowed in thought.

“Yes, you may as well.” Giselle shrugged as she looked at the damaged piece of furniture. “Thank you, we can use it for kindling in the kitchen.”

“If you close the door, I’ll have room to break it up,” replied John. “I’ll pass you the chairs first.”

John stacked the two small chairs and carried them into the corridor outside. Giselle smiled and shut the door as he returned for the table.

“What are you - ?” started Claire, wondering what John was planning.

“Hush!” John held a finger to his lips and proceeded to snap off one of the unbroken legs. He smiled at Claire as he slid it under the covers of the bed. He then untied the rope from the bed post, and loosened the cord around her wrists, enabling her to pull her hands free once he was gone. She nodded in approval and then pulled him down for a kiss, her loosely tied hands around his neck. It was, by necessity, brief, but tender.

“Where is Jamie?” asked Claire urgently. “Please tell me he’s not been captured?”

“No – he is safe.” John held Claire’s hands in his, stroking the backs of her fingers with the pads of his thumbs. “But, he will be here. I know he will.”

Noticing blood on her hands, John tutted and inspected the cut on the palm of her right hand. He paused to tear off a piece of linen from her underskirt, which he then used to bandage her hand.

“Sunset – be ready, my love,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to the dressing. “I shall knock three times so you will know it is me.”

John kissed her forehead and reluctantly left her side to make quick work of breaking up the remains of the table into enough pieces so that no one would miss the sturdy table leg he had left for Claire to use to defend herself.  

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, Jamie paced restlessly, constantly looking into the depths of the forest where he had seen Raymond disappear many hours previously. In the meantime, the men had taken the time to set up tents, eat and rest. The horses had been relieved of their saddles, fed and watered. Like any battle, the time preparing was always the most nerve-wracking, fraught with anxiety, checking and re-checking, waiting and fearing the action yet to take place.

Feigning nonchalance, Murtagh was whittling away pieces of wood, all the time glowering at either the castle walls in the distance or the unnaturally quiet forest overhead. He had complained several times that there was something unnatural about the place. Jamie found himself in agreement. Not a single bird, deer or squirrel had been heard or seen throughout the day. There had been no dawn chorus and no sharp-eyed raiders of unattended food or crumbs.

The only time the quiet had been disturbed was when Young Ian had arrived mid-afternoon, riding Donas and bearing a message from his mother. He had dutifully recited the instruction to Jamie that he was not to be allowed anywhere near any ‘bloody fighting’.

With the day nearing its end, Jamie had given orders for horses to be saddled, fires smothered and weapons readied. All but one of the tents had been struck and packed in the back of the wagon. In the remaining tent, the bed rolls had been piled on top of one another next to a tree stump upon which sat the casket in which Raymond carried his medicinal supplies. If anyone was wounded, they could treat them on site before attempting any journey home. Murtagh had delegated Jamie’s nephew the task of overseeing the setting up of the facility. Jamie had been grateful to him for giving Ian Òg responsibility for a meaningful task, one that made him feel valued and reassured them both that the lad was not going to sneak out to prove himself and get killed in the process.

Wandering once more to the edge of the forest, Jamie looked out over the hinterlands of the castle. Mist was starting to collect in the hollows of the marshes, adding to the eeriness of the plain. He could sense Murtagh, Rupert and Angus not far behind him, all eager to set out, to rescue the Lady of Broch Tuarach and then to wreak bloody revenge on behalf of their Laird.

It was just as the sun slid out of sight, among the trees behind them, that Raymond appeared from the dense forest. He cleared his throat and then pointed his staff at Jamie.

“Be ready to ride when I give the signal – just you, mon fils. Tell your men to wait for my orders. This is not a battle that can be won by brute force alone. Cunning will be needed to defeat a weasel in its lair.”

Even without Raymond’s ominous words, the air felt colder as the mist rose higher and the breeze changed direction, bringing cold air from the sea.

Jamie moved aside to let Raymond past, watching as his advisor walked out into the mist until only his head was visible, floating above the swirling miasma. All was muffled in silence as the mists grew denser. Then, he heard the distinct sound of hooves, beating on the ground with the same rhythm as the blood he felt pulsing through his own veins. Suddenly, deep in the fog rising up from the ground, a white form emerged, causing someone to cry out that it was a ghost, only to be hushed by his comrades.

The mists slowly parted to reveal Karolus. John’s horse. The reins were dragging clumps of vegetation and the beast’s eyes were wild, rolled back to show the whites. There was no sign of John.

Raymond’s words came back to chill Jamie to the core – “the white horse will reveal to you which of your loved ones is most in need of rescuing.”

“John!” cried Jamie, ignoring Raymond’s demand for hush.

Raymond sighed and holding out his hands, drew the animal’s focus. He then muttered words of an unknown tongue under his breath. As he did so, the horse settled and Jamie was able get close enough to take hold of the reins and whisper words of calming into the flared nostrils.

“Karolus – where is he?” asked Jamie. “Where’s John?” He frowned when he noticed that the saddlebags were missing. There was no sign that the straps had been broken, indicating that John must have removed them himself.

“The beast knows how best to serve his lord,” stated Raymond, enigmatically. To Jamie, it seemed that Raymond had been expecting the horse to turn up at the exact time they were to set out for the castle. “The creature still lets you ride him?”

“Aye,” murmured Jamie, stroking the animal’s long mane wishing he could tell him what had become of John. “He’s finally forgiven me fer breaking him in.”

“Good. His appearance is an omen. Not necessarily a bad one-“

“How can ye say that?” hissed Jamie. “Damn ye, Raymond, I said we should ha’ gone sooner!”

Raymond grunted in frustration and glared at Jamie.

“Tell me, if you can, how often have your hasty decisions proved wise? And how many times have you regretted not following my advice?”

“I ken,” grunted Jamie, frustrated at the logic that was at odds with his heart. “But, surely-”

“If you had gone to the castle in daylight, you would have all been captured and killed!” countered Raymond. “Now, we must act and without delay. Take the white beast and Mister Fitzgibbons will ride that brute of yours.”

“Why-?”

“No more questions!” snapped Raymond. “Do as I say, or all is lost!”

High above them, the heavens had taken on the violet hues of dusk, with dark purple ribbons of cloud high in the sky. It had grown dark quickly, they could see stars starting to sparkle in the darkening firmament overhead.

Something in the air had all become hushed. The only sound to be heard was the snorting of the horses and the occasional scrape of hoof on stone as they jostled restlessly.

Raymond held out his arms, planted his staff firmly into the soft ground and began to chant:

“Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha!”

While he repeated the words over and over again, the mists around him began to swirl violently. The sorcerer’s words resonated through the ground and up the trunks of every tree, as if travelling down through the soles of his feet and into the very roots of the twisted oaks and birches. The mists thickened and coalesced, growing outwards, over the land and towards the castle.

The horses were becoming more skittish. Murtagh was holding on tightly to the reins of Donas and Karolus, beseeching every deity he could think of to protect them all from sorcery. However Jamie drew strength from the power flowing from the air, the water and the earth. As the horses snorted, it looked as though steam was issuing forth from their nostrils, representing all four elements.

“What must we do?” asked Jamie as soon as Raymond fell silent.

“Rupert and Angus must take your men towards the village, with burning torches and as much noise as they can muster.”

“But we’ll be seen!” protested Angus. “Can we no’ sneak up on the bastard?”

“On the contrary - it is essential that you are seen. Ride to the cliffs south of the castle. You will take on the appearance of a vast army.”

“Just the ten of us?” asked Rupert, unconvinced. “I ken Angus is fat enough fer two – ouch!”

Rupert winced as Angus punched his arm.

“Just trust me and do as you are told!” grumbled Raymond. “Go now!”

“Ye heard him, lads – ride on!” ordered Jamie. “Rupert, Angus – be brave and be strong!”

Waiting until the sounds of swords rattled against shields and galloping hooves faded into the distance, Raymond stepped up onto a stone and pointed his staff at Jamie. Glancing down, Jamie noticed the swirling Pictish carvings on the rock and wondered why he had not seen them before.

“Close your eyes!” commanded Raymond, before he started to recite his spell once more. “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha!”

Jamie squeezed his eyes tightly shut, fearing what he might see – John’s broken body, or Claire abused by that bastard. Gritting his teeth, he saw nothing, just a thick fog. Until something appeared. A dark shape – from myth and legend.

“Tell me what you see.”

“A dragon!” exclaimed Jamie, his eyes snapping open. Beads of sweat had appeared on his brow and he shuddered. He had not only seen the beast but had felt heat on his face and had smelt the sulphurous stench of its breath.

“I have awoken him,” said Raymond smugly. “Can’t you see all around you the dragon’s breath?”

Jamie noticed that the mist had become darker and denser, obscuring the woods behind them and reaching out across the plain until it wreathed the castle in the distance.

Raymond pointed in the direction of Castle Slains. Pinpricks of red could be seen as fires were lit and echoing across the intervening marshes came the echoes of men’s voices shouting and hooves on cobblestones.

“We have drawn him out – Le Chevalier Noir has come out to pursue your men.” Raymond spoke as if the scenes were unfolding before his eyes. “There he goes. Good.”

Jamie gaped – whatever plan Raymond had in mind was not one he could fathom. He was not sure if it would have helped if he had known of it beforehand.

“Mount the horse of Le Chevalier Blanc.”

Without argument, anxious to ride to the rescue of those he loved, Jamie immediately got into the saddle, noting that Murtagh was already seated on Donas.

“Forgive me,” muttered Raymond apologetically. “But I must now transform you into the semblance of Le Chevalier Noir. The guards will think their lord has returned.”

Jamie blanched at the mere thought of taking on the appearance of his vile foe.

“Is there nae other way?” he demanded, shaking his head from side to side.

“No. If there was, do you think I would resort to such dark magic?”

“I dinna think I can bear it, Raymond,” pleaded Jamie. “How can I hold my head high, with his face?”

“Your love will hold you up, mon fils.” Raymond patted Jamie’s leg. “Let yourself float upon the dragon’s breath!”

Slapping the rump of Karolus, Raymond shouted out: “Ride!”

Digging his heels into the flanks of the large white stallion, Jamie rode forth, tears in his eyes. The ground seemed smooth under them, no stones or roots to trip the animals, it was as if the fog were thick enough to ride on. Rubbing the tears from his eyes, he could see that a path through the marshes had opened up to him and Murtagh, allowing them to gallop at speed across the land towards their goal.

Echoing behind him came the words of Master Raymond. The charm of making. He felt his spine contract and his posture change as he sat back in the saddle.

“Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha!”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 – The Rescue Part Two

It was as Raymond had foretold – with Jamie wearing the guise of Randall, they passed the gates unhindered, but not untroubled. The guards informed him of a disturbance within the keep but were keen to reassure him that it was being dealt with and that the intruder’s head would soon be hoisted on a spike above the gate.

Swallowing bile, Jamie refused to let anyone take Karolus from him. He led the way into the bailey, closely followed by Murtagh, who had taken the precaution of donning a thick cloak and having the hood down over his eyes.

Riding  into the open expanse of grass in the midst of the torch-lit bailey, the nature of the ‘disturbance’ was immediately apparent. On the wooden bridge leading up to the entrance of the imposing stone keep, Jamie could see sparks in the gloom as blades clashed. Two figures were facing away from him, a slight figure wearing a long cloak behind a taller figure, whose fighting style he would recognise anywhere. As he feared, it was John.

A crowd of servants parted to let Jamie through and as he grew closer, he could see that the figure in the cloak was Claire. She was wielding a knife, finishing off the men that John had incapacitated. The narrowness of the steps fortunately meant that no more than two men abreast could attack them, but Randall’s men had the advantage, bearing down on them both and it was clear that John was tiring.

Before he could intervene, a soldier ran towards him, bowing low and then addressing him deferentially, not daring to look him in the eye.

“Sire? The archers are ready – they can kill the intruder without harming the woman. Shall I give them the order to proceed, or would you prefer to deal with him yourself?”

“Tell them to stand down,” commanded Jamie, shocked at the sound of his voice. “Leave him to me.”

However, from a low building under the battlements, a group of Randall’s men were already dashing towards the bridge. There was no way that John could hold them off – if attacked from both sides he would not survive.

Galloping across to intercept the reinforcements, Jamie pulled on the reins, causing Karolus to rear up on his hind legs.

“He’s mine!” Although Jamie hoped he still sounded like the soldier’s commander, he was also afraid that John would see Randall’s face and attack him.

Hearing the commotion from the bailey behind him, John ducked to avoid a wildly slashing sword that would have sliced through him and then quickly glanced over his shoulder. He recognised Randall’s voice and felt that his time had come. Believing he had nothing to lose, he pushed Claire behind him, shielding her with his body, as he prepared to face the man he had sworn to kill.

Then he saw his own horse. If John did not know that Karolus would never suffer that monster upon his back, he would have wept. Indeed, he still felt tears come to his eyes. As he stared at the rider, he saw the stern face change, the jaw becoming wider and the cheekbones stronger. Then it seemed that flaming red curls tumbled loose across those stubbled cheeks framing the face of the man he loved.

“Jamie?” he mouthed, confused.

Seeing his two loves in peril, Jamie quickly dismounted and charged up the rickety stairs. Although they had despatched the men who had tried to prevent them from escaping, they were still in danger. Crashing sounds could be heard coming from within the keep. The body of a man that John had evidently killed was slumped against the wooden door, keeping it shut, but pressure from inside was forcing it open.

Seeing the imminent threat, John spun around, took Claire in his arms, kissed her quickly and then pushed her into Jamie’s arms.

“Go with Jamie!”

“John!” yelled Claire, trying to twist around, even as Jamie pulled her close. Understanding her reluctance to leave John’s side, Jamie hugged her close and then firmly guided her down the stairs towards Murtagh who had hold of the reins of the two horses.

Kissing Claire on the mouth, Jamie hoisted her up onto the back of the white horse before turning on his heel, hoping to see John behind him.

“Come on, John!” called Jamie, horrified to see that John had headed back towards the stone tower.  “Dinna tarry, man!”

John had ignored Jamie’s plea and was bracing himself against the door, holding it shut with grim determination.

“Please mo chridhe!” hissed Jamie. “Come, stand by me - we’ll take them on together!”

From across the bailey, they could hear the sounds of men approaching, not threatening yet, as they had not witnessed the transformation and dared not disobey the man they thought was Randall.

“I can’t!” Breathless from the exertion needed to keep the door shut, John shook his head. “The risk of us all being killed or taken is too high. Take Claire and get out of here while you still can!”

Even as he stared at Jamie, willing him to understand, part of the door was hacked through with an axe, the wood splintering violently. The force used threw John forward, off balance. As he attempted to scramble to his feet, two red-cloaked soldiers grabbed hold of him and forced him to his knees.

Jamie rushed forward as he saw John being dragged back towards the tower. Desperately struggling, John freed one of his arms and snatched up his sword from where he had dropped it and threw it towards Jamie. The sword flew, tumbling through the air, tip over hilt, wheeling overhead until it came to land in Jamie’s left hand. A fragment of cloth brushed against Jamie’s wrist and a quick glance showed that it was the remains of the lace scarf that Claire had bestowed upon John as her favour. It was drenched in fresh blood. Tightening his grip on the hilt Jamie held the sword in front of him and caught a glimpse of his reflection. He was relieved to see that Raymond’s spell was fully broken.  

“Take her to safety!” called John. “Don’t – ”

Whatever John was about to say next was cut off as he was struck on the head from behind. Dazed, he slumped down, hanging from between the two soldiers.

A scream from Claire had Jamie freeze to the spot, despite his urge to run forward and cut down the men who had incapacitated John. He spun around to see both Claire and Murtagh staring up at the sky above the tower.

Overhead, a dark cloud hovered, a coalescence of dark shadows coagulating above the keep. The sound of crows cawing suddenly filled the air. Like starlings coming to roost, a group of shadows broke free and spiralled downwards to land on the steps behind John. Melding together, the dark forms took on the shape of a man. Not just any man.

Ifrinn!” muttered Murtagh, holding both horses steady and preparing to take flight with Claire whenever Jamie gave the word.

Randall appeared looming behind John. At least it looked like Randall. There was an outcry from the ranks of men gathering closer, confused as to which man was their true lord and master. Jamie stormed up the stairs, wielding a sword of vengeance in either hand, determined to hack his nemesis into pieces.

Randall hauled John up in front of him, using him as a shield, which immediately had Jamie halt his assault, snorting in disgust. As far as he was concerned only a coward would use a prisoner as a shield. Grabbing a fistful of John’s hair, Randall twisted his head to one side and then smiled as he saw the expression on Fraser’s face.

“If you insist on stealing what is mine by law,” said Randall, his voice cold and bitter. “I am entitled to take possession of something that belongs to you.”

“Let him go!” snarled Jamie.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Randall snaked an arm around John’s waist and pulled him back tightly, in a move that made Claire flinch.

“If it’s me you want-”  Claire started, intending to offer herself in exchange for John.

“No!” John lifted his head, revealing a trickle of blood running down his temple. He stared at Claire and then at Jamie. “Go… go now!”

“What an excellent suggestion,” said Randall, his thin lips curling into a smile. “I’m feeling relatively benevolent – either that or even more spiteful than usual. You may leave unharmed with your henchman and the woman. If you go now.”

“I thought you wanted what was yours by rights?” demanded Claire. Not trusting Randall, she slipped the blue topaz pendant from around her neck and was cupping the gem in the palm of her hand. She saw the clarity diminish and the gem become cloudy. Even without Master Raymond’s gift, she perceived the deception in Randall’s words – she had known him long enough not to trust a word he spoke, unless it was a threat. “Why are you so willing to take him and let me go?”

“Why Lord John Grey?” scoffed Randall, stroking John’s hair as he would that of a lover. “What I desire more than anything is that which will cause Fraser the greatest anguish. Your brute of a husband will never forgive himself if he abandons his champion to my mercy. As for your marriage, he shall not be able to bear looking at you, my dear. Your lives shall all be blighted. The allegiance of clans will disintegrate and it shall all be your fault, my dear woman. You will have brought ruin upon the clans of the Highlands and the Fraser dynasty.” 

Clenching her jaw to keep her gasp of horror from being heard, Claire had watched as the cloudiness in the gem had dissipated, leaving a brightly shining jewel. Not only were Randall’s words heartfelt, but they prophesied a future that would come to pass if they could not thwart him in his plans.

With a thin-lipped smile and eyes glinting with evil, Randall wrapped a hand under John’s chin and tipped his face upwards.

“I must say I am looking forward to being served by such a handsome and noble fellow – once I’ve broken him in of course.”

“Get yer hands off him!” growled Jamie, rushing up the steps, two at a time. “Or I shall kill ye.”

Randall laughed as he produced a narrow-bladed knife as if from thin air and held it to John’s throat.

“Don’t be ridiculous – he’ll be dead before you get a step closer and my offer will be rescinded. It will then be my pleasure to have you hanged, drawn and quartered in front of your stolen bride and then that bitch will be mine to do with whatever I damn well please.”

The lascivious look that Randall bestowed on Claire made Jamie’s blood boil, as did the way his fingers lingered on John’s throat. Behind him he could hear Murtagh warning Claire not to dismount and her response which was indecipherable, yet furious.

“Of course, if you wish to trade him for that vixen, I will consider making an exchange.” Randall gestured in the direction of Claire with the point of his knife. “If you can’t tame that shrew, trust me, I shall.”

“Go to hell, ye bastard!” Jamie paused to take a deep breath. “They’re both mine and I’ll no’ leave here with only one of them!”

Trembling with anger, Jamie dared not look in Claire’s direction, but he did shift his focus from Randall to John. His lover was smiling at him in a sad, detached manner, as if surrendering to what he believed to be his fate.

Slowly, John shook his head and fixed Jamie with a resigned look in his eyes.

“I forgive you. Now go.” Then as a tear slid down his cheek, John mouthed the words that were for them and them alone: “I love you.”

Looking from Jamie to Claire, sitting on Karolus, her hand to her mouth, John swallowed hard and proceeded to recite their oath, in perfect Gaelic:

“Is tu fuil ‘o mo chuislean, is tu cnaimh de mo chnaimh.

Is leatsa mo bhodhaig, chum gum bi sinn ‘n ar n-aon.

Is leatsa m’anam gus an criochnaich ar saoghal.”

Even though the words seemed to stick in his throat, Jamie repeated them along with John, fighting to keep his own tears from spilling. He would not give Randall the pleasure or deny John all hope by weeping as they parted.

After completing their oath, Jamie added:

“I shall return for ye. I’ll no’ let this be the end. Be ready.”

Jamie’s fists were clenched so tightly on the hilts of the two swords that the metal work dug into his palms. He was not going to sacrifice one love for another. He was going to return to rescue John. And then he would kill Randall.

“I shall make ye pay fer this, Randall. Make the most of the dawn, for it shall be yer last on this earth.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Randall had not kept his word entirely – he may have waved them on to leave, but Murtagh and Jamie had to fight their way back to the gate. Once outside of the castle walls, they found the blanket of fog awaiting them. Galloping into the opening that appeared they were rapidly hidden from view to those pursuing them. Jamie had clung to Claire all the way back, his hold so tight, it made her ribs ache. But that was nothing compared to the pain deeper inside her chest.

When they reached the camp, Raymond was waiting for them, a grim look on his face. Jamie ordered Murtagh to find Ian and to take him to fetch Angus and Rupert back, along with their men. He hoped they were all still alive.

Murtagh grimaced as he got down from Donas and called out for Ian. Shaking his head quickly when Ian dashed out from the tent, eager for news, he steered him away to where his own horse was tethered. It was not until both were out of earshot that Raymond spoke to Jamie.

“It is the doom of men that they forget,” he said sadly. “I warned you not to choose one over the other.”

“It was not my choice – but John’s, damn him!” spat Jamie.

“You let him!” snarled Claire, twisting around, unable to dislodge his arm from her waist.

“D’ye really believe that of me? D’ye have such a low opinion o’ me that you think I’d choose to leave the man I love above any other in the hands o’ that depraved monster?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he raged at Claire, livid that she was under the impression that he had any choice.

“I don’t know what to think!” sobbed Claire. “Let go of me, now!”

As Claire struggled free, Raymond stepped forward and took her hand in his.

“Madonna – look to the pendant. Does he seek to deceive anyone?”

Claire held the topaz in front of her and saw that it was clear. She rubbed her face and grunted in reluctant agreement.

“He may not be lying, but he could have fought for John. He could have done something!”

“I shall go back, dinna fash, but trust me, if I’d have attacked Randall then, it would ha’ been John’s body I’d ha’ brought back with me.”

Jamie shook his head and released his hold on Claire, helping her down from the saddle.

“Madonna – there is food and water in the tent.” Raymond grabbed hold of Claire’s arm as she rushed past, intent on putting distance between herself and Jamie. “You must eat. You will need your strength.”

“How can I?” asked Claire, swiping at an errant tear with the back of her hand. “While John is – ”

Raymond held up a hand signalling that his patience was wearing thin.

“Enough! Your pity will not save him and nor will your tears! Lord John and your Laird need your strength and your vision, Madonna. You are of no use if you are weakened from hunger. Come with me.”

While Raymond ushered Claire into the tent, leading her to the low bench where provisions had been set out by Ian for the return of the men that had ridden out with Angus and Rupert, Jamie dismounted and checked Karolus for injuries. He stroked the horse’s muzzle, muttering words of calm, the tension he had felt transmitted through the bit and the reins had not dissipated at all since he had fiercely tugged on the animal’s head and forced it to gallop away from its master. Jamie could tell that Karolus was angry at him for making him leave without John. That made three of them. On their ride away from Slains, he had felt the hostility of the horse beneath him and the resentment  emanating from the woman clasped to his chest. Galloping through the fog, he had made no attempt to avoid the stinging lashes of her hair as salt encrusted strands of it had lashed his face.

“I’m sorry, lad, but we shall go back fer him, I swear tae ye.” Sighing as he attempted to comfort John’s horse, the emptiness inside him ate at his soul.

By the time Raymond returned, Jamie had hobbled the horse close to a stream so the beast could rest and drink its fill of fresh water. While waiting, he had sat down on the ground and cleaned John’s sword – for the second time in the space of a week. He fully intended to place it back into his lover’s hand and see him wield it once more. He was carefully sliding it into the same scabbard of his own weapon when Raymond appeared in front of him.  

“What happened, mon fils?” asked Raymond, sensing Jamie’s distress. “Why have you returned with your heart and not your soul?”

“My heart hates me,” muttered Jamie, reluctantly looking up from his task. “I would ha’ rescued them both if it weren’t fer witchcraft. Ye promised me that Randall would be gone-”

“He was. I saw him leave,” replied Raymond, scratching his head and frowning. “Madonna told me that he returned from the sky- ”

“Aye, he did. Ye were right about there being dark magic practised at Slains.” Jamie stared past Raymond’s shoulder and fixed his gaze on the top of the tower rising above the blanket of fog that still surrounded the castle. “Yer diversion did no’ keep that bastard away fer long enough. He descended out of a flock of crows like a demon -”

“A murder of crows. How apt,” mused Raymond as he corrected the collective term for the harbingers of doom. “It must be her. She was always very proficient at transformation spells. She has excelled herself it seems.”

“Ye’ll forgive me if I’m no’ as impressed as ye are – thanks to that witch, I was forced tae leave John behind!” snarled Jamie. “Ye will do whatever it takes tae destroy her powers–”

“Are you truly willing to fight fire with fire?” demanded Raymond. He thrust his staff down into the ground, setting off a cluster of sparks that scattered into the dry vegetation. “No matter who may be burnt or what may be laid to waste?”

“Ye can burn the whole castle tae the ground as soon as I get John out of there!” yelled Jamie, getting to his feet and stamping out the small fire that had taken hold of a clump of tussock grass . “Ye ken who she is, don’t ye? That means ye ken how to defeat her. Who is she?”

Sitting down heavily, Raymond tilted his head to one side.

“Knowing her name won’t help you. She has many. In the past some called her Nimue, others Vivienne. When she was Seer for the Old Fox she went by the name of Maisri.” Raymond paused to await Jamie’s reaction.

“The Old Fox? Simon Lovat? My grandsire?” Jamie’s mouth fell open. “That auld bastard who betrayed his own kind fer a pot o’ gold?”

“Yes, that infamous traitor.” Raymond nodded as he saw the disgust on Jamie’s face. “He insisted that she tell him his fate, even though she warned him not to ask – and then refused to believe her. He had her thrown out of Castle Beaufort. Later, when he fell ill, he accused her of cursing him and making him impotent. She was tortured and found guilty of witchcraft.”

“Did she curse him?” asked Jamie.

“It would not have surprised me if she had. She would have sought vengeance.” Raymond gazed into the distance as if trying to perceive the presence of the woman he thought had died. “All this time, I thought she had perished at the stake. I should not have been so hasty in dismissing tales of a raven with white feathers rising from the ashes.”

“Are ye saying that she cheated death?” asked Jamie, astounded.  

“So it would seem. She deceived those who underestimated her, me included.” Raymond tutted, admonishing himself. “Lord Lovat was a foolish and greedy man who never understood what she was capable of – all that time he had her concocting love potions so he could entice whoever he wanted to into his bed, she was busy studying and perfecting her arts-”

“How do ye ken this?” asked Jamie, suspecting that he would not like the answer.

“I was the one who tutored her. She was such a quick student, learning everything I knew,” admitted Raymond ruefully. “Alas, I thought she would use that knowledge wisely, yet if she is now serving Le Chevalier Noir, she has chosen a dark path instead.”

“Why would she ally herself tae him?” asked Jamie, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. “What would she have tae gain from such an unholy alliance?”

“Perhaps for power or maybe she still wishes to exact revenge for the way she was abused at the hands of the Lovats. The Old Fox may be long dead, but his blood runs through your veins, mon fils.”

The connotations of what Raymond was implying terrified Jamie.

“If she is in league wi’ Randall … there shall be no peace until both are vanquished.”

“I have to agree with you. However, there is only one force strong enough to defeat them both. It has lain dormant for so long. None have dared attempt to harness its terrible powers since the ancients and it destroyed them. It will take everything I possess to control  it.”

“What is it ye speak of?” Jamie narrowed his eyes as he tried to imagine what could be so dreadful. “A demon?”

“No – it is the only force able to defeat a demon!” Raymond seemed anxious in a way that Jamie had never witnessed before. “And that is what we are facing. A demonic partnership, cruel and ruthless.”

“What the hell is it then?”

“A dragon.”

“But ye said ye’d roused the dragon already …?” Jamie frowned and pointed at the fog that still hung heavy in the air.

“I merely disturbed his slumbers – his breath is all around us, yet he still sleeps. For him to awake fully and take flight will require much power.”

“I gave Randall until daylight – if ye canna help me by then, I shall ride in alone.” Grim-faced, Jamie wrapped a hand around the hilts of the twin blades. He would use both to avenge John if that became necessary.

Brushing off his cloak, Raymond pressed his lips close together and pointed into the woods.

“There is a circle of stones close by, hidden amongst the trees. Let no one disturb me.”

“Aye, I’ll make sure ye’re left alone” agreed Jamie. “If ye need a sacrifice tae be slaughtered – ”

“I can do that myself.” Raymond scowled and patted the athame tucked into his belt. “Use your time wisely, go and make your peace with Madonna. Your paths have split apart and you need to travel the same route to succeed in claiming your hearts’ desire.”

Jamie turned towards the tent, glancing over his shoulder just in time to see Raymond disappear amongst the wisps of mist that swathed the trees.

As he lifted the flap of canvas to enter the tent, he could see Claire sitting on a stool, her head in her hands. An empty wine flagon lay on the ground to her side.

“Sassenach?” he called out softly but received no response.

Sighing wearily, he took off his sword belt, the scabbard bulging with both his and John’s swords. Crouching down, he gently laid them on the ground. It was as he was about to stand up that he felt the sharp burn on his cheek. Claire had slapped him with as much force as she could muster, so much so that the cloth around her hand was stained red with blood from the reopening of the cut to her palm.

“You bastard!” She spat the words out between clenched teeth.

“I warned ye never tae raise yer hand tae me again.” Rubbing his cheek, Jamie’s straightened his back as he stood up. After what he had heard from Raymond he was feeling on edge and being attacked by the woman whose rescue may have cost John his life was not something he was prepared to tolerate.

“I thought you loved him!” Tears streaming down her cheeks, Claire pummelled his chest with her fists. “I would have willingly given myself up – ”

Jamie grabbed hold of her wrists and held her still as he glowered down at her.

“Don’t ye dare say that! Aye - I do love him and it’s tearing my heart out o’ my chest tae ken he’s alone with that bastard.” His face red with fury, Jamie squeezed Claire’s wrists tightly in one hand. “D’ye really think Randall would ha’ let him go if ye’d given yerself in exchange?”

“It would have been worth the risk!” Claire shouted in his face, her expression defiant.

“No, mo leannan, it would not have been!” Sliding his hands down her arms until he could grasp her by the elbows, Jamie slammed her against his chest. “D’ye no’ understand that it would ha’ killed me tae see ye both in the hands o’ that devil!”

Swallowing down a sob caught in his throat, Jamie pressed a kiss to her head, and rocked against her rigid frame.

“I do understand,” she murmured, finally relaxing against the body she had come to know so well. Reaching up to rest her hands on his broad shoulders, she pulled him closer. “I’m angry with you. But I blame myself, too. It hurts so much to know that John sacrificed himself for me. But if Randall had captured you as well, I would have thrown myself off that damn cliff.”

“Hush there.” Jamie stroked her hair, letting his fingers run through the curls, attempting to comfort himself as well as Claire. “How could ye arrange our rescue if ye’d done that?”

Claire chuckled despite her sorrow, and let Jamie wrap his arms around her.

 “We will rescue him won’t we?” pleaded Claire. “It breaks my heart to think what that bastard will do to John.”

“Mine too, lass.” Jamie admitted as he felt Claire melting into his embrace. “Dinna fash, Raymond has a plan and no matter if it works or no’, I’ll be riding at dawn and will kill any that get in my way.”

Cupping Claire’s chin gently, he tilted her face up so he could see the fire in her amber eyes – sparks flashing at him. Knowing that the fire there was kindled by a love for John that matched his own allowed his heart to open fully to hers.

Gazing into each other’s eyes, they could feel the other’s breath. Taking a deep breath, Jamie closed the gap and pressed his mouth to Claire’s, softly at first and then with growing urgency, fingers lacing into her hair to keep her from moving away. As their tongues entwined amidst the clash of teeth and the bruising of lips, Jamie manoeuvred them towards the roll of sheepskins on the ground and gathering Claire up in his arms he laid her down and then covered her body with his. Reaching under her skirts he unfastened the lacing on the breeches and tugged them over her hips. Her hands, meanwhile, were reaching under his kilt, searching for his cock. It was as if a force was infiltrating every cell of their bodies, having them seek a union to affirm their love for each other and for the one who was missing.

Tearing at the fabric of the woollen breeches, Jamie ripped open the seams allowing his probing fingers access to their goal. Easing her thighs apart he settled between her legs and pushed his way into her body, which welcomed him into its warmth.

Their coupling was rough and frantic, sweaty and sticky, accompanied by groans and grunts, gasping for air and crying for more. It was as if they were punishing themselves for being free while John was not. Thrusting furiously, Jamie barely kept his weight off Claire. He braced himself, their fingers interlocking. Chest to breast, their hearts hammering, they felt a third heartbeat between them, as chaotic as their own. Claire felt the stretch as a girth much wider than Jamie alone was penetrating her and Jamie juddered as she seemed to grow tighter around him.

As their climaxes shook their bodies, the name on their lips was the same and as they each took a breath, they smelt lemon verbena in the air between their bodies.

Clasping one another tight as they rolled onto their sides, their tears mingled. Kissing each other slowly, they tasted the bitter saltiness of their shared grief.

 

 ~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

A short distance away, in the midst of a pentagram drawn in the bare earth at the centre of the circle of stones, stood Master Raymond. Atop each stone sat a sparkling jewel from the pouch Jamie had handed over to him back at Lallybroch. Gems stolen from a dragon’s hoard.

An enigmatic smile graced his wide mouth as he watched the play of shadows cast by candlelight against the canvas of the tent. He observed three figures making love to one another – a woman upon her back and two men above her.

“Good,” he murmured. “That should summon the energy required.”

Using his staff he pulled on an overhanging tree branch and rain trickled down the leaves and fell into a small puddle at the tip of one of the points. A gust of wind made the long grasses sway at the next point and an earthworm burrowing its way to the surface deposited a cast of finely milled soil at the third. Chuckling to himself, Raymond tapped his end of his staff on the fourth and a bundle of twigs caught fire. At the point facing the tent, he drew the blade of his athame over his hand and let blood drip onto the point of the star.

Murmuring words he would not wish to have overheard, Raymond then aimed the carved head of his staff at the canvas wall lying between him and the lovers. A bolt of lightning traced a jagged line of incandescent light from the tent, all the way through Raymond’s body and into the centre of the pentagram. A moment later the air crackled and rumbled, and the stones appeared to tremble, the gems sunk one by one into the stones and disappeared from sight.

A thundering of hooves echoed through the trees and Karolus stood there, his legs freed of the rope that had tethered him.

“Oh, of course! I always said there was more to you than flesh and bone!”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Bruised and bloodied, John stood defiantly against the wall of his cell, his arms outstretched to either side, immobilised by manacles and chains.  

“He chose her,” drawled Randall, wiping his hands clean on a pristine white cloth. “Now it is your chance to choose.”

“On the contrary, we both chose the lady of Broch Tuarach,” replied John, sensing their presence on either side of him, holding him up and keeping him strong. “As men of honour, it is our sworn duty to protect the defenceless and fight on behalf of those weaker than ourselves. I have pledged fealty to my Laird and Lady. My loyalty is theirs and theirs alone.”

“You owe him nothing, neither your loyalty nor your body.” Randall took a step closer to John and ran a long finger along his collar bone and down his chest towards his groin. “If you choose to… shall we say stand by me, I shall give you whatever you want, the finest clothes, the most exquisite of wines – your own wing of my castle. Even servants of your own to do with whatever you desire.”

John merely laughed at his captor’s attempts to seduce him with promises of gifts he had no desire for.

“You shall never be able to give me a fraction of what I have been gifted by those whose servant I shall be for the rest of my days.”

“Such pretty words – I wonder how they shall sound on your lips when they are split and your teeth shattered.”

John turned his head sharply away as Randall rubbed the pad of his thumb over his lips.

“It matters not. The words of devotion are in my heart and in my head, far beyond the reach of your vile touch.”

“Perhaps, but there is one in my service who can delve into the minds of men and drive them insane.” Randall stepped away from John and smiled cruelly. “In fact, she has foretold a potential future for you that would have you running naked and filthy through the woods, maddened by grief and guilt. I can have her make that a reality.”

“Do your worst.” John raised his chin and fixed Randall with an unblinking stare. “You can do what you wish with my mind or body, but the love in my heart will not surrender to your will.”

“So be it.” Randall shrugged and bit his lower lip as if considering what to do next. “I do admire your spirit and you are very pleasing to the eye. I would hate to have to inflict permanent damage, so I shall give you until sunset tomorrow to decide. After the sun has left the sky, I shall either welcome you to my bedchamber or break you. I shall look forward to either eventuality.”

Stopping once more at the open door, Randall turned to openly admire John’s lean body, having had him stripped of every item of clothing but his long shirt and torn breeches.

“Choose wisely. Trust me, that woman will be the death of you, one way or another.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

The bright light and the sound of thunder had Jamie and Claire running from the tent, hand in hand. Jamie had paused only long enough to grab hold of his sword belt, ready to fight if required. Heading for the source of the disturbance in the woods, they came upon a stone circle and were startled to see Karolus rearing up and snorting angrily as Raymond watched on entranced.

The horse shook off his saddle, his expanding girth having snapped the leather straps. Then ferociously biting down, he shook his head from side to side, snapping the bit and shaking loose the bridle.

Free of all harness, Karolus seemed to grow in stature, towering above them as he scraped at the earth with his hooves. The magnificent white stallion threw back his head, mane flowing free as he snorted and squealed. As his feet crashed back to the ground, cracks appeared in the earth. From the horse’s back sprung stubby growths that gradually unfurled to reveal leathery wings and his strong neck elongated as the vertebrae down his back broke out of the skin to emerge as spines.

Jamie held Claire close by his side as they looked on in wonder as the beast transformed into something simultaneously terrible and wonderful. As the long tail swished from side to side, it grew much longer. Slender legs shortened. Hooves became sharp claws.

Lastly, the beast’s eyes grew larger and took on the same hue as John’s – a sea blue that glittered like sapphire. Stretching its wings out above them, the dragon ducked its head down, as if inviting them to ride upon its back.

“Do as you are bid! Both of you – now!” exhorted Raymond, his eyes shining with the power that still ran through his veins.

“What nature of sorcery has brought this about?” demanded Jamie, scanning the circle for signs of sacrifice, yet only seeing splashes of blood and no carcass.

“The only power that Randall cannot harness – the power of love!” Raymond was laughing hysterically – barely able to believe what he was witnessing. “You three have lit the flame, now it is time to fight their puny flames with the inferno ignited by the forces you have released.”

“Claire?” Gripping onto her hand tightly, Jamie looked to the woman he loved and asked her if this was a risk she was willing to take. The fierceness in her eyes answered him.

“It does seem fitting to ride his white steed to the rescue of our White Knight.”

“Aye, sassenach!” Grinning from ear to ear, Jamie took John’s sword from the scabbard he had grabbed when they had fled from the tent. “I think ye’ll be able to handle this until ye can return it tae John.”

“My father and uncle both taught me how to use a weapon,” replied Claire, the blood-stained lace adorning the hilt tangling with the bloodied bandage that had come loose from around her hand. “Let’s go!”

Jamie was the first to clamber up on the neck of the dragon, pulling Claire up to sit behind him. Karolus arched upwards, causing them to slide back to the point where it seemed he was comfortable with carrying them.

“Anál nathrach, orth' bháis's bethad, do chél dénmha!” chanted Raymond, directing his staff towards the marshes, watching as the fog thickened once more.

Then the beast ran, faster and faster, along the thick bank of fog across the marshes and as he did so, the remains of those defeated by Randalls for many generations started to stir. As dragon claws dug into the soil, bones were brought to the surface that assembled to form entire skeletons. Some with scraps of clothing and flesh, others without, but all plucking rusty swords, spears and lances from their watery graves. The army that assembled in the dragon’s wake held these weapons aloft and as the red water ran from them, sharp, shiny metal appeared.

Having gathered sufficient speed, the dragon that had once been John’s horse launched itself into the air. Circling high above the mists and the wraiths that had come to life, Karolus roared and his sulphurous breath caught fire and glowed in the night sky.

The heat of the unearthly flame could be felt by Jamie and Claire as they held on tight to each other and to the beast that was taking them back to Castle Slains.

Back to John.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Chapter Text

 

Shackled and in semi-darkness, save for the faint flicker of a torch somewhere beyond the barred door of his cell, John sat with his back to the wall. Ironically he was grateful to the small mercy shown by Randall in that he had instructed the gaoler to unfasten the manacles from the hooks hanging from ceiling and attach them to a ring embedded in the floor instead. Perhaps the monster was keeping his word, not wanting him to have two dislocated shoulders by daybreak. As there was nothing else he could do, he tried once more to loosen the ring in the floor, wrapping his fingers around the cold iron chain and yanking it hard, in the vain hope that perhaps he could wrench it from the stone floor. And yet again, it failed to shift. All that he achieved were more abrasions to his wrists from the heavy bands of metal, the interior deliberately roughened to discourage any attempt to make unnecessary movements.

Knocking his head back on the wall, he cursed Randall and himself. He had caught that resolute expression on Jamie’s face before he had turned away and had wept knowing what it meant – he would come back for him. In Jamie’s place he would have promised the same. Sighing with resignation, he could at least be assured that Claire was no longer captive, Jamie and Murtagh would have taken her to safety.

With knees drawn up to his chest in an attempt to retain some body heat, John inspected his cell and considered his options. He was cold and hungry, disarmed and alone. It occurred to him that death by his own hand or Randall’s might be preferable to servitude at the whims of the latter. However, he owed it to Jamie not to have him storm the castle only to find nothing more than a corpse to recover. He would do whatever it took to stay alive in the hope that there was a chance that one or other of them could put an end to the fiend’s reign of terror. He curled up on the floor and closed his eyes, saving his strength for whatever was to come.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

The higher the dragon flew, the colder the air became. Tiny crystals of ice collected on Jamie’s eyelashes and his breath came out in forced puffs of vapour, nothing compared to the snorts of steam produced by Karolus but coming from a similar place of internal rage.

Jamie was grateful for the feel of Claire’s arm around him, her hand tightly gripping the folds of his kilt. He had not questioned her desire to join him on this quest – they were of a like mind in that respect, if it was destined for failure, they would die together, as one. ‘I give you my spirit till my life shall be done.’

Having no harness or saddle, all they could do was hope that their steed knew where to take them. It was an uncomfortable experience for Jamie, the only times he had ever been on horseback and not in control, he had been either unconscious or so badly wounded he was unaware of the fact. He was also unaccustomed to hearing the steady beat of wings instead of the thudding of hooves.

They had nearly slid off the animal’s back as it had veered away from the marshes, which seemed to writhe with a greenish glow, and took a detour to the north of the castle. Jamie had been startled when the beast flew over the cliffs and swooped low over the sea. It seemed that Karolus had set his own course and was intent on approaching from the clifftops that would otherwise have been impenetrable. All that Jamie and Claire could do was to cling tight to the back of the dragon and to each other.

“Ye clever wee beastie,” said Jamie, catching his breath as the dragon eventually hovered over the seaward wall, its wings arched back and claws outstretched. Alighting gracefully on the battlements he delivered them directly into their enemy’s stronghold. Looking over his shoulder he saw Karolus fold his wings neatly and tuck them to his sides. Shaking his head in wonderment, he shared a relieved smile with Claire as he placed a hand over hers holding her in place. “Dinna move, lass, not until we see what we’re dealing with.”

Looking along the torchlit walls, Jamie scanned for any sign that their arrival had been noticed. There were only two guards close enough to pose a danger and their attention was intently focused on the activity within the bailey. Wishing he had his telescope with him, Jamie narrowed his eyes as he tried to work out what was engrossing the guards so thoroughly they had failed to detect a large white dragon land not twenty yards from where they stood. From what he could see, reinforcements had been drafted in from the village, an uncoordinated jumble of men being jostled and pushed into position as they had spears forced upon them, they looked like men more accustomed to working the land than fighting for their lives. Men attired in the same red cloaks as the guards were shouting at the conscripted men as they hauled them into regimented lines facing the entrance to the castle.

Jamie was sickened to see the sight of untrained men being forced into the most vulnerable position to face an incursion. If he had chosen to storm the accursed place with an army of warriors, those poor souls would have been the first to be slaughtered and it disgusted him that their ruthless overlord considered them expendable.

“Where is that bastard? I canna see him out there.” Jamie squinted as he scanned the massed ranks of villagers and those giving commands. There was no sign of Randall and that made him uneasy.

Karolus seemed to sense his rage and reached out to grasp and crush a piece of masonry with one of his clawed feet. Unfortunately, a loose fragment of stone skittered noisily across the narrow walkway alerting the guards. Before either man could throw a spear or call the alarm, they were reduced to piles of smoking cinders by a fiery exhalation from the dragon.

A Dhia – that was…”

“I know,” agreed Claire, torn between being impressed and appalled in equal measure.

“At least it would ha’ been a quick death, mo leannan,” said Jamie. “More than some occupants of this damned place deserve. Come on then, let’s go.”

As Jamie lifted his leg, intending to climb down, the dragon lowered its neck until they were able to step down with ease. Crouching low, to keep their heads below the parapet, they peered between the crenelations to observe the preparations in the bailey beneath them.

“It looks as if they’re expecting an assault on the main entrance,” whispered Jamie. “Claire, how well d’ye ken the layout of this place? Ye said ye’ve been here before.”

Draping a protective arm around Claire’s shoulders, Jamie held her close as she pointed out various areas to him.

“Servants live and work in the huts built under the walls over the far side,” she whispered. “Soldiers are quartered in the barracks under these walls. It seems as if most have been roused.”

“Aye, I agree – over there, I can see bows poking up above the parapets. They’re stationed all around the battlements facing the land. Readied in case of attack by siege engine I suspect.”

Claire nodded and nestled into Jamie’s warmth. She was beginning to shiver in the cold wind blowing in from the sea.

“It wouldn’t occur to him that anyone would attach from the cliffs, they can’t be climbed.” Claire glanced over her shoulder towards the raging sea, the waves of which could be heard crashing onto the rocks below. “And no one would expect an attack from a vengeance-seeking dragon!”

Jamie looked towards Karolus and saw that the white dragon had flattened its body to hide its presence from below. He appeared to be waiting for something.

“Where d’ye think he’ll be keeping John?” asked Jamie, biting his lip anxiously.

Claire tilted her head as she pondered the possibilities.

“Somewhere secure. I was locked up in a room on the floor below his chambers, which are on the uppermost level. I suppose he may have put John or maybe in one of the cells.”

Neither wanted to voice the fear that John was in Randall’s private quarters.

“The cells are under the tower, aye?” asked Jamie, tearing his gaze from the lit windows at the top of the tower.

Catching the troubled look in Jamie’s eyes, Claire could tell he was fighting his instinct to head straight for where Randall would most likely be and working strategically from the lower levels upwards.

“Yes, we can access them from the servants’ stairwell.” Claire brushed her fingers along Jamie’s jaw, feeling the muscles clenching tightly. “What else is troubling you? There’s something on your mind. Tell me.”

“Aye, lass, ye’re no’ wrong.” Jamie took her hand in his and gently held it to his lips. “We’re no’ the only ones aided by mystic forces. Raymond told me of a powerful witch now in league with that devil. She’ll be somewhere in there. Tall and thin, with hair like the plumage of a magpie. D’ye recall ever having met her?”

“Not this time.” Claire shook her head. “However, I do recall a seer – matching that description. Her eyes were older than her face. She had long black hair and I remember wondering what traumas had brought about the streaks of white, because she did not seem old enough for it to have lost its colour naturally.”

“That’s her. She was called Maisri when she served as my grandsire’s seer– until he had her burnt at the stake fer witchcraft.”

“But-” Claire frowned. “If she was-”

“She was able tae fool even Raymond that she’d perished.” Jamie rubbed a hand over his face as he considered the threat the witch posed their quest. “Anyway, she’s still verra much alive and she has a vendetta against those wi’ blood of the Lovats – that includes me.”

“And now she’s allied herself to our common enemy?” Claire was aghast. “And they have John!”

“Aye.” Sighing noisily Jamie looked towards the imposing stone tower. “Where to then, sassenach? The dungeons or Randall’s chambers?”

“If we announce our presence to Randall and John is not with him, he could have him killed before we can get to him,” said Claire, her forehead creased with worry. “Whereas if we check the dungeons first – ”

Jamie grunted, the same dilemma having occurred to him. He took his sword from its scabbard with his left hand and felt the strength flow from it into his arm. If he had to cut through every man in the castle to get to John, he would. He then glanced at the sword being clutched by Claire. John’s sword.

“It’s no’ too heavy fer ye is it?” he asked, wondering if he should have found a smaller blade for her.

“Not at all – which is quite peculiar.” Claire lifted the sword, noting how the hilt fit around her hand perfectly. “It seems lighter than it did before and the grip is like a hand around my own, holding it and giving me strength. Does that make any sense?”

“Aye,” whispered Jamie, reaching out touch the fragment of blood-stained lace. “It’s a sword o’ power, sassenach, much like my own. And it bears yer token, it serves ye as well as John.”

“Let’s go find our man,” said Claire, speaking softly as she twisted around in Jamie’s arms to kiss him. As she did so, she sensed the tension still in his body. “What is it?”

Shuffling around to face her, Jamie tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and let his fingers trace a line around her neck and under her chin.

“If anything should happen tae me… if we canna free John, I want ye tae-”

“On no you don’t soldier!” Claire took hold of Jamie’s hand and interlocking their fingers held it over  his heart. “No talk of failure. We are going to succeed.“

Clasping hands, they got to their feet as one, fire in their eyes and turned towards the tower.

Behind them, as if taking their movement as a signal, Karolus uncoiled his tail and stretched out, much like a cat. He then crept over the wall, much like a lizard, before diving down towards the crashing waves. The sea boiled beneath him as he skimmed over the surface of the raging ocean, gathering speed as he then soared upwards into the sky, until he disappeared from sight.

“He’ll no’ go far,” said Jamie, staring up into the sky. “I feel it in my bones that he’ll be here fer us when we need him. Come on, let’s go.”

Keeping their heads down, they ran towards the tower, all the while watching the lookouts stationed on the opposite battlements. They were half way to the tower when Jamie saw the archers suddenly raise their bows and start to unleash arrows - towards the marshes. When he saw what was causing them to call out in alarm he pulled up sharply and dropped to the ground, holding Claire close. Spectral figures, glowing with a pale green gleam, were pouring over the ramparts, holding aloft glistening weapons. Wave after wave of them advanced from the direction of the marshes.

“Raymond told me they’d come – I never believed him!” Jamie stared in astonishment  at the sight of the ghosts flowing over the walls, completely unaffected by the arrows raining upon them. From their vantage point, they could see that the weapons wielded by the wraiths were decimating the archers, who were falling either from injury or fright.

“What the hell are they?” asked Claire, transfixed by the sight.

“Shades of the men slaughtered by the Randall dynasty over the centuries, rising from the places their bones were scattered.” Jamie shuddered as he recalled the skeletons assembling from those bones as they had flown over the marshes. “They’re here tae seek vengeance so they may rest in peace at last.” Swallowing hard, Jamie put an arm around Claire’s waist and pulled her up. “Come on, they’re providing a distraction. Run!”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

It was not only the troop of archers that were panicking. The ranks of men drafted in to protect the castle were terrified and had begun to run forward, towards the gate, using the spears they had been given to ward off anyone trying to prevent them from leaving. Elsewhere, the servants had ventured out of their quarters to see what the commotion was about and they, too, were running for the entrance, fearing that hell had been visited upon them. The guards posted by the gateway were overwhelmed. Beaten back and trampled underfoot, they gave way as the frightened serfs and servants streamed forward. A group of manservants ran into the gatehouse to raise the portcullis and lower the bridge over the moat, allowing the others to stream out – a tide of humanity more afraid of the ghosts of the dead than Randall or his witch.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

The chaotic screaming and fighting below enabled Jamie and Claire to run fast without drawing anyone’s attention. However, as they neared the tower, Jamie and Claire were once more brought to a halt as a bolt of lightning shot through the air from the top of the tower.

Walking back several paces, they were able to see a lone figure standing high above them, arms held wide, a torch in each hand. As the wind whipped through long dark hair, the flare of the torches lit up the white strands that flew alongside the jet-black tresses.

Chanting words of making, words of magic, the woman arched her back and flung the torches aside. The black cloak that swirled around her body appeared to take on a life of its own. From the woman’s back grew wings – long, leathery wings. And then spinning around too fast to observe, she transformed herself, growing longer limbs, sharp claws and an elongated, sharp-toothed head.

The increased levels of screaming and yelling from below caught the beast’s attention and it swooped down on the panicked hordes, blasting them with gusts of flame, causing them to scatter and run for shelter. It then it banked around and soared over the army of the dead, but its scorching breath had no effect on the ghostly figures which continued to swarm into the bailey, moving through doorways and windows alike, as if searching for prey.

Thwarted by the unstoppable host of wraiths, the dark dragon circled overhead twisting its head from side to side seeking out whoever was responsible for wreaking such havoc. Suddenly the beast’s scarlet eyes homed in on Jamie and Claire as they stood atop the seaward battlements, each holding a sword up high and standing strong. Side by side, undaunted and unafraid.

Taking a sidelong glance at each other, they smiled sadly. Around Claire was an aura of purest blue, and Jamie was emanating a fierce red aura, the power that Raymond had spoken of manifesting itself when the peril seemed greatest. In between them, where their auras merged, could be detected a band of amethyst purple, sparkling brightly as they stood hand in hand, ready to take on whatever tried to stop them in their quest.

Ignoring the dark shape that was hurtling directly at them, Jamie leaned down slightly so their lips could meet in a kiss.

“I love ye,” said Jamie, speaking the words against Claire’s mouth. “Blood of your blood.”

“I love you, too,” replied Claire, recalling the words of the oath. “Bone of your bone.”

At the very moment their lips joined, from high above a bright spark, like a falling star plummeted down, screeching like a banshee. The dark dragon reared back, wings flailing as it pivoted around to gaze heavenwards. From out of the night sky appeared a pure white dragon, with piercing blue eyes, coming towards it with claws out and jaws open wide, emitting a roaring flame the colour of the sea.

The collision of the two beasts in mid-air reverberated as a crash of thunder that shook the walls of the castle. The fight was vicious and relentless. Clawing and biting. Snorting jets of flame. Hideous sounds. The stench of sulphur. No one present had ever witnessed anything quite as terrifying as the brutal battle between those otherworldly creatures.

With mouths open and hearts beating faster than ever, Jamie and Claire rushed towards the door to the tower, not daring to look back.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Having heard the sounds of battle, John assumed it was Jamie and his clansmen attacking the castle and readied himself. The chain securing his manacles to the floor was long enough to allow him to stand, so he did. Whatever was to happen, he was determined to face it on his feet.

The cold floor sapping the heat from his body, he stood bare-footed, head held high.

Light flooded in as the door was flung open by one of the gaolers clutching a torch. It revealed the bones of a skeleton propped up to the side of the door. He was glad he had not been able to see his cellmate earlier or his hold on hope would have become more tenuous. As it was the bulky man advancing on him with a cruel glint in his eyes did not inspire confidence in his chances of surviving the night.

Thoughts and fears tumbled through his mind the man held a knife to his throat. But it was apparently just to keep him from moving as a wretched looking servant dropped to the ground with a bunch of keys and removed the chain that prevented him from escaping. As the young boy, probably no older than twelve, scuttled away, the gaoler circled him and moved the knife to his back. He was prodded sharply, prompting him to walk out of the cell and down towards the open area he had been dragged through earlier that night. It was there that he saw Randall, glaring at him with unguarded animosity.

“I thought I had until dawn to make my decision,” said John.

“You do,” snapped Randall. “Assuming you’re still alive by dawn.”

“What’s happening?” asked John, observing soldiers rushing out of the dungeons, torches held high and swords in hand. “Is your fortress under siege? If so I think I’d rather take my chances back in the cell. Besides being safer, the company is preferable.”

“I’m sure you would.” Randall took a step closer to John, cupped his cheek and leaned close to whisper to him. “However, it is my experience that, when under attack, the safest place to keep a prisoner is close to me.” Randall smiled without humour as he turned to address the gaoler behind John. “Bring him to my room. Try not to kill him, but feel free to make him pay for any dawdling or attempts to run off.” 

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~~

 

Making their way down the narrow spiral staircase towards the cellars and dungeons, Jamie switched the sword to his right hand and took out the few men who tried to get in their way. Leaping over the bodies and stumbling down the steps in a chaotic downward race, they eventually reached an open area lit by torches. It was deserted. There was no one left guarding the cells.

“John!” called out Jamie, heedless of whoever may hear him. “John – are ye here?”

The unanswered echoes gave him cause for concern, but he tried to hide his anxiety from Claire.

In an alcove beneath the stairs they came across a rickety table and several stools thrown over in their former occupants’ haste to leave. Scattered on the table were several coins, battered pewter tankards, a jug of ale and an abandoned game of dice. There was also a bunch of keys of various sizes.

“Get the keys, we may need them,” instructed Jamie, grabbing a torch from its sconce and then running off towards the cells, calling out as he did so. “John, mo chridhe! Where are ye?”

Frantically searching for any sign of their loved one, Jamie kicked open one door after another.  Claire almost ran into the back of her husband when he came to a sudden halt at the end of the corridor. In front of him, hanging from hooks on the wall was an assortment of implements of torture: whips, a cat o’ nine tails, an iron mask and thumbscrews. Some bore evidence of recent use.

“I swear that if any of that is John’s blood,” snarled Jamie, visibly shaking with anger. “I shall drag Randall down here and use every single one of those damnable devices on him.”

“I’ll help you,” stated Claire, her face equally grim, before looking away to her right. “Over there! Look, aren’t those John’s boots?”

Claire had spotted a basket outside one of the cells. Poking out from the top were a pair of boots, and further exploration revealed a pair of stockings and a torn tunic.

“Aye, bring them along wi’ the keys. He’ll need them when we find him.” Jamie bit his lip and, facing the last unchecked cell, he called out softly: “John, mo charaid, are ye here?”

Fearing what he may find within, Jamie carefully pushed the door open. It was unlocked, like all the other cells, and also unoccupied. Holding the torch aloft, he searched every corner of the cell for any sign of what had been done to John. He felt his heart miss a beat when he saw the skeleton by the door – no doubt left there to strike terror into the heart of any prisoner. The light also caught a scrap of linen on the floor next to a rusty iron ring embedded in the stone. Crouching down to get a closer look, Jamie ran his fingers over fresh scratches in the flagstone, no grime had yet settled in them, showing them to have been made recently.  

“He was here,” said Jamie, frowning. “Chained tae the floor. Why the hell would they move him?”

“Randall must have had him taken from here when the alert was raised.” Claire stood by as Jamie took a moment to gather himself. “That bastard probably realised this would be the first place we’d look.”

“There’s no’ much blood, just a few drops,” muttered Jamie, rubbing a few stained stalks of straw between his fingers and thumb. “I pray that he’s no’ badly harmed.”

The dank, chilly air seemed to close in on them. Hanging over them, the fear that Randall may have had John executed the moment he realised he was under attack.

Gripping John’s sword in her right hand, Claire slipped her left arm around Jamie’s waist seeking and offering comfort. She could feel the rage coming off him in waves. With a sigh, he straightened up to his full height and looked down at Claire, steely resolve in his eyes. 

“It’s time I confronted that bastard, face tae face. Are ye ready fer that, lass?”

“Don’t even try to stop me.”

Jamie passed the torch to Claire and took John’s sword from her. He then stormed ahead, intent on killing anyone impeding them. However, as he hoped, the battle in the bailey had drawn out most of the fighting men and caused the servants to take flight. They met no one on their way up the claustrophobic stairwell to the top of the tower.

Even though their lungs were burning with the effort to keep climbing, they did not pause until they reached the highest storey of the keep. Beyond a small doorway, lay a grand corridor along which were arranged a series of large chests, the different designs indicating that they had been plundered from many different lands.

“Anyone would think he was a gentleman with fine taste and an appreciation of beauty,” grumbled Jamie, pointing at the opulent vases of flowers placed on the chests.

“He is no gentleman,” replied Claire, bitterly. “But he does have a taste for all that is pure and noble, wishing to despoil it and violate it.”

Without another word, they both knew each other was thinking of John.  

“The main staircase is at the other end of this corridor, on the other side of the doorway to Randall’s rooms,” whispered Claire, pointing towards a far corner. “We may need to use that-”

“Aye, the other way is too narrow for three of us, and I dinna ken what shape John will be in.” It had already occurred to Jamie that if he had to carry John over his shoulder, the wider stairs would allow him to move faster and wield a sword more effectively.

Claire had already tucked the gaoler’s keys into a pocket in her skirts and when they reached the large double doors, she set aside the basket of John’s clothing. Standing side by side, they shared a look and then faced forward.

“Es-tu prêt?” murmured Jamie. He was thinking of John, hoping he was ready, so was surprised at the gentle, yet firm answer from the woman at his side.

“Oui, je suis prête.”

At the nod of a head from Jamie, they simultaneously shoved the doors inwards, only to be taken aback by the sight confronting them.

The room was unsurprising in itself, luxuriously furnished with furs and richly coloured tapestries, much as they would expect from such an avaricious man.

It was the sight of Randall himself that was a surprise, calming sitting back in an ornately carved chair, his feet up on the table in front of him, sipping from a goblet of wine. He smiled at them as if not feeling threatened at all.

“Ah, there you are at last. You did promise you’d be back, although to be honest, I was expecting you a while ago.”  Randall gestured at the bottle of wine and glasses set on the table. “I’m afraid I started without you, but please do have some-”

“Where’s Lord John?” asked Jamie, bluntly, scanning the room and not seeing any sign of another occupant.

“Oh, him? Indisposed I’m afraid. I was disappointed that he declined my offer to join me for refreshments.” Randall shrugged and rubbed his nose. “Naturally, should either of you try to attack me in any way whatsoever, that indisposition will become permanent.”

Smiling to himself as if enjoying a private joke, Randall raised his glass to them.

“Where is he?” demanded Jamie once more, agitated but unwilling to put John’s life in further danger by acting rashly. As far as he could tell, Randall was on his own and his soldiers were deserting en masse. However much it pained him to engage in any form of discussion with Randall, he could see no alternative until he found out exactly where John was being held.

“You are an exceptionally tiresome oaf, did you know that?” Randall drained his goblet of wine and threw the empty glass at the hearth, letting it smash into pieces. “Where is he?” he mocked Jamie’s accent and laughed. “All you need know is that he is still alive. For now.”

Jamie turned to Claire and glanced down at the chain around her neck. Understanding his request, she pulled the blue gemstone free from where it nestled between her breasts.

“He speaks the truth,” she answered the unspoken question as she saw the stone shining clearly against her fingers.

Jamie turned sharply to face Randall. He planted his hands on the table across from the man whose main emotion seemed to be amusement.

“Ye’re sitting there as if ye have no care tae the fact that ye’re under attack and yer soldiers are either running scared or being burnt alive out there!” Jamie jabbed a finger in the direction of the open window, beyond which came the sounds of men screaming and beasts screeching as battles ensued. “Have ye no’ seen yer castle walls being breached by forces yer own men cannae defeat? Those men out there are sacred shitless and running, yet ye’re no’ out there leading them as a chieftain should. Ye’re sat there as if ye dinna give a damn!”

It was unconscionable to Jamie not to be in the midst of a battle where he was asking his men to put their lives at risk and he had no respect for a man who would not lead from the front as he did.

“Those fools? I can find more where they came from,” stated Randall, callously, making it clear that the lives being lost meant nothing to him. “Your attempts at intimidating me are getting you nowhere. You may as well take a seat. I assume you’re going to try to make a deal with me.”

“A deal?” scoffed Claire. “There is only one thing we want from you. One man- ”

“You can have him back if you call off those wraiths and that flying bloody demon!” snarled Randall, sweeping an arm across the table smashing the half empty bottle as he did so.

“So, ye have seen them.” Narrowing his eyes again, Jamie saw clearly that Randall’s shield of bravado had its weaknesses. “And ye’re afraid.”

“Are you frightened they will come for you?” asked Claire. “The ghosts of the men you’ve had tortured and murdered. A fierce dragon. An army of clansmen assembling on the hills to the south.”

Unseen by Randall, Jamie masked a surprised look. She had spied that chink in his armour at the same moment he had and was just as eager to prise it open.

“You were hoping to draw us here to stand between you and those who would repay you for every unspeakable act of treachery and torture,” stated Claire, bitterly counting herself among those foes. “You thought we would intercede on your behalf for the sake of Lord John’s life.”

“I’ve been haunted my entire life – they can’t harm me!” snarled Randall as he leapt to his feet. “I’m not scared of anything out there!”

“Liar!” hissed Claire, standing to one side of Jamie, dangling the cloudy topaz from her hand. “You’re scared to death and trapped here at the top of this tower – you can’t escape your fate even if you kill all three of us.”

“Nonsense!” snarled Randall, jabbing a finger at Claire. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, madam!”

“She’s right, and ye ken she is!” added Jamie, standing between Randall and the door. “There’s no way out of here! Yer enemies will come through that door and find ye cowering under yer bed!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, both of you!” shouted Randall, swinging his arms out expansively. “I can leave this castle whenever I wish. Do you really think I’d be foolish enough to reside in a tower without the means to escape if under attack?”

Jamie observed Randall carefully as he advanced on Claire, spittle flying as he denied their allegations of cowardice and stupidity. He suppressed a smile as he saw the way the cornered man’s eyes kept flicking to the far side of the room, the part of the tower overhanging the cliffs. He walked past Claire, brushing the backs of his fingers against Claire’s hand, prompting her to let him take over.

“So ye’re getting ready tae run. Like a cur with its tail between its legs. Which way will ye run? The marshes, maybe, where the ghosts are swelling in ranks all the time, or maybe the village, where the men you would have sacrificed are gathered, armed with spears your men forced upon them? Ye’ll no’ get far-”

“Of course not! I’ll be on board a ship to my allies’ homeland before they catch a sniff of me!” replied Randall, unable to keep from looking to the far corner of his bedchamber.

“A chute then, or passage taking ye from here down to the bottom of the cliffs?” mused Jamie, watching for tell-tale reactions in Randall’s face. “Verra sneaky. I imagine there’s a trapdoor hidden in here somewhere in the floor. Under one of those thick rugs maybe?”

Seeing the moment that Randall’s expression darkened, Jamie pulled his sword from its scabbard and ran at Randall, pinning him by the shoulder to the door.

“Claire – look under the rugs in the far corner!” Jamie called out over the sound of Randall’s screams.

Without asking for an explanation, Claire dashed across to the side of the room where the windows looked out over the raging sea. She set down John’s sword to allow her to use both hands to drag the heavy rugs away from the floorboards. As she did so, a round trap door was uncovered, with a neatly cut slot in the centre for a hand hold. Reaching into the slot, she lifted the trapdoor. Beneath the floorboards she could not see anything until her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, but she could feel a draft of cold, damp air that rose up from what seemed to be a pit of some sort. Tentatively, she reached down and her fingers came into contact with wet, slimy walls, causing her to gasp involuntarily.

“Claire?” a familiar voice called out. “Is that you?”

Getting up to quickly to take a lit candle from an elaborate stand, Claire returned to the edge of the pit and held the candle out to search for the owner of the voice.

“Is he there?” called out Jamie, not daring to take his eyes off Randall who was glaring at him balefully. “Can ye see John?”

“Yes!” Just below floor level Claire could see a narrow stone ledge upon which sat a rolled-up rope ladder fastened to two thick hooks set in the stone. On another hook hung a chain which was connected at either end to a set of manacles around John Grey’s wrists.

“Oh no!” Claire gasped as she saw John hanging onto the chain for dear life. It was all that was keeping him from plummeting to his death. “Jamie, you’ve got to pull him out of here.”

Scowling at Randall, Jamie lowered his sword and punched the man hard in the face, felling him with one blow. His priority was rescuing John, he would save killing Randall until that was achieved.

Dashing to Claire’s side, Jamie sheathed his sword and instructed her to hold the candle so he could see where John’s hands were. Lying down on the floor, he leaned down, stretching his fingers until they brushed the cold skin of John’s knuckles.

“Ye’re going tae have to let go, John, one hand at a time. Can ye do that?”

“I… I think… so.” John’s teeth were chattering and he shivered as he slowly loosened his grip on the chain one finger at a time. Finally he was able to grasp hold of Jamie’s warm hand.

Just as Jamie was wrapping his hand around John’s, ready to haul him to safety, a scream from Claire warned him of Randall’s silent approach. Turning his head, he saw Claire strike at Randall with John’s sword, but she did not have sufficient power to hold him off. Having no qualms about underhand tactics, Randall bared his teeth and kicked Claire in the stomach, winding her. Jamie had no choice but to let go of John’s hand as he scrambled to grab hold of his own sword. Before he could get to his feet he had to fall back to avoid the blade that swung through the air towards his neck. Rolling over and springing to his feet, Jamie launched himself at Randall.

“If ye want a fight, try me, I’m no’ a lass or chained up and helpless. If ye’re as strong as ye reckon ye are, fight me!”

Snarling in anger, Randall slashed at Jamie, who easily blocked his blow and then pursued him, parrying and thrusting alternately as his opponent fought back furiously. At every opportunity, Jamie manoeuvred the fight away from the trap door where he could see that Claire was crouching down, trying to help John to safety.

Kicking over furniture as he retreated, attempting to throw obstacles in Jamie’s way, Randall was beginning to struggle. His shoulder was bleeding profusely and he was weakening.  He kept looking towards the hearth and every now and then whistled, a high-pitched, penetrating sound. But his strange behaviour did not put Jamie off his brutal attack, his anger was incendiary and gave power to his sword arm as he hacked through the backs of the chairs that Randall held up in front of himself as shields. Advancing on his prey, Jamie bellowed out loud as he plunged his sword into the villain’s gut and watched him double over clutching his abdomen desperately trying to stem the flow of blood.

Stepping away from his foe, Jamie became aware of Claire’s screams and cries for help.

“Jamie! Get here! Now!” shouted Claire. “Damn it! John! John? Are you alright?”

Jamie ran back to where Claire was gazing down into the pit.

“What happened?” he demanded.

“I unrolled the ladder, thinking John could use it to climb up on.” Claire was gasping for breath, upset and frantic. “But… but as I let it go, it caught on the other hook and knocked the chain loose!”

“John!” yelled Jamie, equally distraught. “Mo chridhe? Speak tae me!”

 “Oh, please don’t let him be dead!” Claire was rocking to and fro at the edge of the pit, peering down into the depths and not seeing anything.

“I’m… not … dead!” came a voice echoing from below. John’s voice was strained. “I’m holding on … grabbed the … rope. Trying to climb up…”

“Thank goodness for that,” sighed Claire. She burst into tears as she saw the jerking movements at the top of the rope ladder indicating that someone was holding onto it and moving.

“John! Keep going, mo chridhe, we’re here!” called Jamie, encouraging John’s progress.

“So… heavy…” groaned John, evidently having difficulty lifting his hands to climb with the weighty manacles around his wrists.

A sound from behind them caused Jamie and Claire to tear their eyes from the top of the pit seeking the source of the disturbance. From the hearth came a sound like a large bird falling down the chimney, cawing and scratching as if it had been snatched from the air and dragged into the room of the castle. Giving each other a wary look, they slowly got to their feet. Claire picked up John’s sword and Jamie had his hand on the hilt of his own weapon.

A dense shadow emerged from the fireplace and then, before them, stood the seer, Maisri. Tall and thin, as Claire recalled, but the white strands of hair were more numerous and thicker. Her eyes narrowed at them and she spat into the ashes in the hearth.

“Set down those swords – they are powerless against me.”

Against their will, they found their muscles relax, releasing the weapons from their grip.

Maisri appraised Jamie from head to toe.

“The venerable master toad was right – you’ve become more powerful than ever. The red aura you had ever since you were a bairn is now enhanced with shades of blue and violet.” She then cast a glance at Claire and sneered. “From them. Without them you will be less than you were as a child.”

Unable to move from where they stood, they watched on in horror as Randall crawled towards them, leaving a trail of blood behind him.

“You can play with them later!” Pressing a hand to his bleeding gut, Randall glowered at Maisri. “Stop wasting time you bitch and heal me!”  

“I can stop the bleeding.” Maisri shrugged and muttered an incantation as she crouched down and laid a hand on the mortal wound inflicted by Jamie.

Jamie and Claire recognised the words from those spoken by Raymond when he had healed John. It seemed that the power required for healing meant that the witch’s hold on them weakened and they were able to move. Jamie shook his head sharply implying that they should wait their time.

Randall winced as he pulled his hand away from his belly, satisfied that no further blood was being lost from his wound. Picking up his sword, he staggered to his feet. With a grimace he walked towards them, slowly, his eyes cloudy, yet unwavering in their hatred.

“You will help me kill them,” he bit out a command at Maisri, who appeared bemused.

Jamie closed his eyes and thought of John. He could feel his presence. John was their only hope. But they would have to draw the attention of the witch and Randall away from the trap door. Stepping backwards, nudging Claire to do likewise, Jamie shuffled towards the main doorway, making it appear that he was seeking an escape. Randall followed them, his sword wavering in his hand. He had little strength of his own, but the witch was animating his body, helping him to stagger forward, placing one foot in front of the other.

Glad that his instincts were correct and that Maisri could not take her eyes off Randall while controlling his dying body, Jamie could see that behind them, John was inching his way slowly over the edge of the hole in the floor, grasping hold of the chain to prevent it from rattling. Observing what was happening, John nodded and then, crouching low, he steadily moved across the room, his bare feet making no discernible sound.

Needing to ensure that John’s appearance would remain unnoticed, Jamie started shouting:

“Ye canna defeat us on yer own, so ye resort to this – ye’d let yer own failing body be moved like a puppet!” Jamie then jabbed a finger at Maisri, hoping John would understand. “That witch is controlling ye fer her own evil purpose, she’s no’ serving ye, ye’re serving her! Have ye no pride, man?”

“Give up, Jack!” yelled Claire, who realised that Jamie wanted to make sure that no one heard or saw what was happening elsewhere in Randall’s chamber. “This is nothing but a vile abomination!”

As Randall snarled at Claire and Maisri focussed on her chanting, Jamie dared to stare directly at John. As their eyes met, Jamie mouthed the word ‘now’. Understanding the signal, after hearing Jamie’s instructions on who to attack, John stood up to his full height and threw the chain of his manacles over Maisri’s head. Pulling back on the chain, he tightened the iron links around her throat, throttling her. The metal seemed to burn her skin, red marks appeared where each link pressed against her neck and she screamed.

Hissing and spitting in outrage, her hands clutching at the metal around her neck, Maisri started chanting, forcing breath from her lungs to give sound to the words:

“Anál nathrach- ”

“John! Ye have tae stop her speaking!” yelled Jamie, urgently warning John. “Whatever it takes! Or we’re all dead!”

Without hesitation, John wrapped the chain around his hands and tugged harder, exerting as much force as he could muster. With a ghastly crunching and gurgling sound, Maisri’s voice was silenced and her twitching body finally went limp. At that moment, whatever was keeping Randall on his feet failed him and he crumpled to the floor just as John let go of the witch’s lifeless body. He was shocked to see that her hair had turned completely white and deep, blood-filled gouges had appeared on her arms and legs.

Staring at the witch’s body, wondering what he had done, John backed away. He would have stumbled and fallen but for Jamie running to catch his lover in his arms and pulling him to his chest.

Mo chridhe, I have ye.” Jamie held John close, running a hand over his back, wanting to feel that he was alive and whole. “Are ye unharmed?”

“Mostly,” murmured John. “Although these …” He held out his hands, showing the blistered skin under the manacles and winced.

“Claire, mo leannan, d’ye have those keys?”

Standing to one side, her arms around her waist to quell the way her body was shaking, Claire nodded quicky and then retrieved the bunch of keys from her pocket. While Jamie held John’s hands in his, Claire tried various keys that looked as though they would fit, until she succeeded. She smiled sadly – it had not been that long ago since he had untied the ropes that bound her and now she was returning the favour. Once the heavy irons were unlocked, Jamie flung them to the ground and kissed each of John’s wrists and then his mouth, relieved that he was alive and whole.

Stooping down to pluck John’s sword from the floor, Jamie handed it to him and together they turned to finish off Randall, who was desperately crawling towards the weapon he had dropped. Jamie kicked the blade away and stood over Randall, side by side with John, their swords positioned ready to carry out the coup de grâce.

“Let your love of that woman tear you apart,” Randall spat out the words, blood-tinged saliva frothing at the corners of his mouth as he cursed them. “May your sons grow to despise you … they will seek to destroy you both … as you have me.”

“You bastard,” muttered Claire as she sought out the knife John had given her, that she had tucked away in a pocket.

“May ye meet all those whose lives ye’ve taken as ye enter the underworld!” came Jamie’s response as he spat on Randall.

Plunging their swords into his body they watched as their blades took on an unearthly gleam. Next to them Claire was weeping, tears coursing down her cheeks as she looked from one man to the other – her husband and their lover.

“Master Raymond told me.” She sniffed as a watery smile graced her face. “He… he said that I should trust in those who will love me … he told me they shall avenge the deaths of my parents and uncle.” She paused to wipe her face. Then, holding John’s knife, she knelt down and plunged it into Randall’s heart. “Now all three of us have vanquished this monster.”

“Aye, mo leannan, we have,” said Jamie, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Not one of us could have done it on our own. Together we have destroyed him.”

All three withdrew their blades at the same time, shocked to see that the metal shining, unsullied by the blood of their enemy.

Helping Claire to her feet, they moved away from the bodies of Randall and Maisri and the pools of blood that had collected around each of them.

Exhausted and drained, the three sank to their knees, holding each other’s hands.  Claire turned to John and asked him to kiss her.

Watching John cup Claire’s face in one hand and gently kiss her on the mouth, Jamie smiled indulgently and then wrapped each of his lovers in his arms, drawing them close and kissing each of them deeply. Reunited at last, they closed their eyes,  unaware of the deep purple aura enveloping all three with a healing glow.

Chapter Text

 

 

Pressing his forehead to John’s, Jamie sighed softly.

“When ye said ye’d no’ do anything I wouldna, I didna ken how serious ye were – ye wee fool, ye nearly got yerself killed!”

“And you didn’t?” challenged John, his eyebrows raised in disbelief.

“I think ye got closer…”

“Are you two really going to argue about who came nearest to losing his life?” exclaimed Claire in disbelief, pausing to survey the carnage in the opulent chambers. Her heart clenched as she cast her eyes on the two dead bodies that could so easily have been those of her husband and lover. She squeezed their hands, reassuring herself that they were alive and kneeling on the thick rug to either side of her.

“Not argue, lass-”

“Really? I would much rather the two of you avoided such contests for the foreseeable future. Perhaps I should offer an incentive to whomever manages the most consecutive days without injury-”

“Days?” queried John. “Would you consider hours?”

“I’m not joking.” Claire frowned and looked nervously at the corpses of their vanquished foes, fearing they would twitch and come back to life at any moment. “Meanwhile, can we leave this room, please? Those bodies-”

Jamie wrapped an arm around her as she shuddered and held her close to his side.

“Aye, lass. I ken what ye mean. It’s as if they’ve already started to decay.” Jamie wrinkled his nose as a whiff of corruption assaulted his nostrils. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Is it safe to leave the castle?” asked John. “When I was brought up here, I heard fighting. I saw fires burning from the windows.”

All three paused to listen carefully and heard little above their own racing hearts.

“I’ll take a look,” suggested Jamie. Pressing the palm of his hand against John’s chest, Jamie made a move to get up but stopped in horror at the sharp intake of breath from John.

“What is it, man?” Jamie squinted at his lover, concerned that he had missed something serious. “Did ye hurt yerself when ye fell?”

“No … not that,” murmured John, sitting back on his heels, breathing out slowly, focusing on masking the pain he was evidently suffering from.

“John- what’s wrong?” asked Claire, inspecting John’s clothes and seeing blood stains that she assumed were from their attempt to escape from the keep. “Are you injured?”

John merely shook his head and refused to look either of them in the eye.

“Merely a few shallow cuts – nothing more.”

Mo chridhe – I ken ye far too well tae believe that fer a moment.” Jamie scowled. He could tell something was amiss. He had felt John flinch when he had pressed a hand to his chest. “Let me see.”

Ignoring John’s protestations, Jamie unlaced his shirt intending to take a closer look at the area that seemed to be the source of discomfort. What he saw as he pulled the sides of the shirt apart made him seethe with hatred. Inscribed on John’s chest were the initials of Jonathon Randall, seemingly carved with the tip of a knife, the blood congealed and the surrounding area inflamed.

“That bastard marked ye!” snarled Jamie, turning to glare at the cooling body of the man who had left his mark on his own back all those years ago. “If I’d known he’d done this tae ye, I’d have made him suffer fer longer before killing him!”

“It’s nothing, especially compared with …” John trailed off, not needing to say any more. He pushed Jamie’s hands away, before hastily refastening his shirt and clumsily getting to his feet. “Do we not have other, more pressing matters to attend to? Finding something to wear comes to mind- ”

“Your boots are just outside – I’ll go fetch them.” Claire offered, sensing that restoring John’s dignity would help him more than fussing over the wounds that were not life-threatening, but were troubling him. She had also picked up on the tension that had erupted between the two men and felt the need to allow them a moment to themselves in private.

Catching her wrist as she brushed past him, John handed her the knife she had returned to him. Traces of Jack Randall’s blood still stained the hilt.

“My Lady, take this – and keep it with you at all times.” John let his fingers linger in the palm of her hand as he gazed into her amber eyes. “I trust you to use it to defend yourself if necessary.”

“Thank you, I shall.” Gently brushing away the loose strands of hair from John’s brow, she pressed a kiss to his forehead before making her way to the door. Grasping the ornate hilt of the slender bladed weapon in her hand she felt that it represented more than a gift. It was an acknowledgment of her status as defender and not merely defended. John was thanking her for coming to his rescue – for being there for him.

After retrieving the basket of clothing from the corridor outside Randall’s quarters, taking a moment to breathe clean air, not tainted with the cloying scent of blood, Claire returned to find Jamie holding John close, so close that there would be no room for a blade of grass to pass between them. Jamie was stroking John’s back, as one would a distraught child. It was clear to her that Randall’s marking of John had a profound effect on them both – she hated Randall even more for the fact that he had the power to reach out from the land of the dead to cause yet more pain. She cleared her throat and they leaned apart slightly, foreheads still touching as they murmured something inaudible to each other. Finally parting, they turned to face Claire and while John walked towards her, Jamie offered her a sad smile and then walked away, towards a window overlooking the bailey of the castle.

After handing John the basket containing his clothing, Claire joined Jamie, who was surveying the area below. She could see that his eyes were watering, yet he was stubbornly refusing to let a tear fall.

“What’s going on out there?” asked Claire, after biting her tongue and not asking what was going on between him and John. There would be time for that later, but she felt an obligation to support him as her husband and laird, helping him to focus on his role as leader once more.

Jamie held a finger to Claire’s lips and quickly looked over his shoulder. He was relieved to see that John was busily occupied pulling on stockings and fastening the buckles on his riding boots.

“Look...” Jamie whispered into Claire’s ear, as he pulled her close to his side.

Although the sun had yet to rise, the sky at the horizon where it met the sea, was becoming lighter, providing just enough illumination to see bodies scattered across the ground below. They could make out pale figures busily putting out the smouldering remains of fires with pails of water. The only other movements visible were those of weary men, solemnly carrying away the dead, their heads bowed.

All fighting had ceased. The ghosts of soldiers long dead had departed, their vengeance sought and achieved. Scorch marks on walls too high up for any other flame to have reached remained as the only evidence of the aerial battle between the fearsome dragons.

But Claire realised with a start that Jamie had not wanted to draw her attention to the aftermath of the battle – at least not the impact on the inhabitants of Castle Slains. With a sharp intake of breath, Claire saw what he was staring at. In a circle of charred grass, lay the body of a pale horse –motionless, trickles of dark blood stark against the white coat.

“What are you looking at?” came John’s voice. “What is it, Claire?”

Spinning around to stop him, Jamie held out his arms as a barrier, but it was too late.  

“Dinna look, mo charaid!” he cried out, pulling John to his chest, desperate to keep him from seeing the body of his beloved horse.

“No!” John summoned the strength to pull free of Jamie’s hold enough to look down into the courtyard below. “Not him… not Karolus!”

Before either of them could stop him, John had pulled himself free from arms that they had tried to fling around him in support and comfort. He was running from the room and making for the stairs, unarmed and frantic with grief. They dashed after him, Jamie snatching up both swords before cursing loudly as he called out for John to wait.

By the time they reached the shattered door to the keep, there was no sign of John. Dashing towards the steps Jamie leapt over bodies of the men slain by his companion, who had fought so valiantly on that very spot only hours beforehand. Running towards John as fast as he could, hindered by the ground that had been churned up by hooves and feet, Jamie was dimly aware of  the clods of blood-stained mud, grass streaked with blood and singed fragments of clothing. Devastation wrought by one man’s actions. In the back of his mind he wondered if he was as guilty as Randall yet dismissed that treacherous thought when he finally reached John.

Sitting in the midst of the charred circle, cradling the head of his horse, John was silently weeping.

Hearing an exclamation from Claire as she caught up with him, Jamie reached out a hand to catch hold of her before she intruded on John’s grief.

Tugging at Jamie’s hand, Claire pointed breathlessly towards the entrance gateway. Looking down the slope, he saw, to his relief, Murtagh, Rupert and Angus leading their men into the castle grounds.

“What happened tae the bastard’s army?” yelled out Murtagh. “Every one of them we came across handed over their weapons and surrendered –”

“Aye,” interjected Rupert. “Begging tae be taken away from here. Muttering about ghosts, witches and dragons, fer heaven’s sake. I dinna ken what ye did tae them, Mac Dubh, but ye scared every last man o’ them shitless!”

“Where’s that bastard, Randall?” asked Murtagh, looking around frowning to himself, hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Dead,” stated Jamie sombrely, gazing towards the top of the tower. “But it wouldna hurt to check. I’m sorely tempted to cut him tae pieces and bury each in a different far-flung isle tae be sure he canna come back from the dead.”

“I’ll see what we can arrange, lad,” replied Murtagh, scratching his beard as he seriously considered Jamie’s suggestion. “Rupert – go find some sacks and then come find me up there. Angus – round up what’s left of the bastard’s army, lock up any that are no’ willing tae surrender. I’m sure ye’ll find a nice cell fer them under that bloody tower.”

Claire thrust a hand into a pocket in her skirts and fetched out the bunch of keys she had used to unfasten the manacles from John’s wrists.

“Here, take these, they’re from the dungeons.”

“Thanks, my lady.” Murtagh bowed low, raising an eyebrow as he spotted the knife tucked into the waistband of Claire’s skirt. “Ye’ll need a belt and scabbard fer that, I dinna want ye hurting yerself on an unguarded blade. I’ll see what we can find fer ye.”

As Murtagh and Rupert headed for the castle keep, Angus peeled away to give instructions to the rest of the men. But before doing so, he turned in his saddle to talk to a slight figure sitting behind him. It was only then that Claire and Jamie caught sight of Young Ian, who quickly clambered down, his eyes wide as he surveyed the scene in front of him. His eyes went from his uncle, holding his wife to his side, her skirts torn and spattered with blood, and then to Lord John, who was crouching over a horse that appeared to be mortally injured or dead. He swallowed hard and then ran straight to John.

“Lord John, Master Raymond said ye may have need of this!” Ian held out a small flask, clutching it tightly as if afraid to drop it.

“Ian Òg? What the hell are ye on about?” asked Jamie, darting forward to intercept his nephew. “Leave his lordship in peace! Can ye no’ see the man’s grieving?”

Ian frowned and held up the dark blue glass vessel.

“Master Raymond gave this tae me. It contains the breath of the dragon.” Ian screwed up his face as he tried to recall precisely what he had been instructed. “Ye have tae inhale it … the power of the dragon will make a stricken heart beat faster. I ken he meant it fer one of ye – in case ye were mortally wounded, but surely it would work as well on a horse as a man?”

Taking the flask and holding it up to the light of a fire still blazing nearby, Jamie detected movement within. He held the flask at arm’s length, sensing something alive and squirming within, eager to be released. Crouching down next to John, he placed a hand on his shoulder.

“John? Did ye hear the lad? Mayhap it’s worth a try.”

Turning to face Jamie, his eyes red-rimmed and his face streaked with tears, John looked heartbroken.

“He’s dead. There’s nothing that can be done …”

“There’s nothing tae lose from trying, mo chridhe. Master Raymond had the dragon’s breath fetch ye back from death’s door fer us, even though ye were already half-way through.” Jamie shuddered as recalled that awful moment when John’s life had been slipping away as he lay bleeding to death upon the Round Table. “Perhaps it will work fer brave stallions as well as courageous men.”

Wiping his nose on the sleeve of his filthy shirt, John shrugged sadly, but took the flask from Jamie. Holding the flask in one hand, his thumb pressed against the cork, John gently opened the animal’s mouth.

“Wait!” shouted Ian. “Not in his mouth, it’s no’ tae be drunk! Ye must uncork the flask and let him breathe the vapours. Master Raymond said it’s verra important for the dragon’s breath tae fill the lungs of the wounded.”

Following Ian’s instructions, John knelt down and, cupping the muzzle of Karolus in one hand, carefully unstoppered the flask, wafting the heavy vapours over the animal’s nose. As he did so, tendrils of the pale green vapour curled around and settled over the horse’s nostrils. Sighing softly, John shook his head and was about to move the flask away, only to be startled by the sight of wisps of greenish air streaming out of the animal’s flared nostrils. He held the flask closer and watched in wonder as the vapour was drawn in by a sharp inhalation. Mesmerised, he was caught out when Karolus suddenly sneezed, ejecting thick strings of mucus speckled with dark smuts of soot. John laughed out loud, not caring about the further ruination of his shirt.

“Karolus! What the hell have you been doing?” demanded John, reaching his arms around the horse’s neck to embrace his beloved steed.

“Ye’d never believe us if we told ye,” said Jamie, grinning from ear to ear as he held on tightly to Claire who was crying happy tears. “He saved us all – that’s all ye need tae ken. Without him, we’d all be dead.”

“But whatever happened to his harness and saddle?” asked John, confused.

Claire crouched down behind John and wrapped her arms around his waist.

“He broke free of them – such was his haste to fly to your side,” Claire kissed John’s hair and nuzzled her cheek against the side of his head. She may not have known him long, but the man’s love for his horse was widely spoken of and she knew it would have devastated him to have lost Karolus.

“Easy there, boy!” called out John, trying to calm down the horse that was no longer content lying on the filthy ground, but was struggling to tuck its legs underneath its body and rise up.

John scrambled to his feet and moved out of the way, pulling Claire with him. Like a phoenix, literally rising up from ashes, Karolus shook his mane and clawed at the charred soil, his soot-smeared body denying the earth its chance to claim it. Claire caught sight of Jamie grinning broadly, and appraising the powerful beast, apparently checking that the strong limbs ended in hooves and not claws.

“Those scratches look bad - like he’s been clawed by a wild beast,” observed Ian, who was crouching down low, fascinated to witness the horse reviving.

There were three jagged lines across the hindquarters of Karolus, deep wounds that had stopped bleeding but were still liable to putrefaction. Jamie looked at Claire – they alone knew exactly what had caused those injuries. They had also seen the damage Karolus had inflicted on Maisri in return when they had met in the air above their heads in fierce combat.

“Aye – that’s no’ far from the truth, young Ian, we’ll need tae have those tended to carefully.” Jamie then took a look at John, who had barely spoken a word. “Are ye alright, mo leannan? We’ll get ye and yer horse tae the camp and get Raymond to treat ye both.”

“I’ll help,” offered Claire, turning in John’s arms, to brush her fingertips gently over his chest.

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

Before they could return to their camp and rest, there was still much to be done at Castle Slains, despite Murtagh’s arguments to the contrary. Jamie had insisted, explaining that he wanted to be certain of the future of the castle and village before leaving as he had no intention of returning once he had left. He had suggested that John and Claire could ride back ahead of him, but both had refused to consider that suggestion, making it clear that they would not be separated again so soon.

As the sun slowly rose, activity within the bailey increased. A group of men wearing the regalia of the Randall family approached them just as Murtagh was reporting back on the progress he had made, yet again with the aim of persuading Jamie that he could and should take his wife back to Lallybroch. Rupert was in charge of the dishevelled bunch of men and he explained that they had recognised Claire as the woman once courted by Francis Randall, to whom they had been loyal.

“They said they trusted ye and wanted tae speak tae ye about Alexander Randall,” said Rupert, sounding sceptical. “If it’s a ruse and they’re just out to make trouble, just give the word, mistress and I’ll string ’em up by the balls.”

“No need, Rupert.” Claire moved forward and greeted the spokesman for the group, not recalling his name, but recognising him as a guard when her first suitor had been alive. “I recall your loyalty to my man to whom I was once betrothed. As for Alexander, I remember him with fondness – but I heard that he’d been exiled to an island off the coast after the death of Francis.”

“Yes, my lady, that is true. However, there are some of us who have been secretly watching over him. Disguised as simple fishermen, there are those who have been ensuring he did not meet the same fate as Lord Francis.”

“If you know where he is and he is well, you must bring him back,” urged Claire. “He is now the rightful heir and deserves your loyalty and support.”

“Sassenach…” murmured Jamie, a warning tone to his voice. “We’ve only just vanquished one corrupt ruler…”

“Alex is a good man – he is nothing like that bastard who sent him away from his home.” Claire looked from the man beseeching her to help them for the sake of her past allegiance to the Randall family, to her husband whose stern look made it clear that he would need convincing. “Will you let me explain?”

“Aye, ye can tell me why it’s a better idea than giving control of this estate to one of the loyal clans along the coast.” Jamie snorted in frustration and then barked an order to Rupert. “Take these men back to their barracks, guard them well and keep them from discussing this conversation with any of the others.”

Noting Jamie’s unease at placing another Randall in a position of power or trusting any of the men who had served their enemy, Claire acquiesced to his authority, understanding his need to exercise it in order to stay in control.

Shaking his head, Murtagh ducked inside the stables and came back with a thick rug that he lay down on a grassy area. He was about to walk away, when Jamie called him back to join them in listening to what Claire had to say.  Once they were all seated, she explained that the youngest of the brothers was a compassionate man, nothing like the monster who had taken control. She insisted that they had to give him the chance to rule with kindness, albeit admitting he would need support. There were men who had willingly assisted in the atrocities committed by Jack Randall who would plot against him and then there was the ever-present threat of invasion from those with whom Black Jack had made deals.

After listening to his wife, Jamie took counsel from Murtagh and John, men whose advice he valued above all others. Finally, he agreed to provide assistance to Alexander as long as the new ruler would accept the presence of a small contingent of men drawn from the clans. He feared that any perceived weakness would be exploited by those formerly in favour of Black Jack’s harsh regime, or the enemy from beyond the seas.

It was also decided that those men of Randall’s army who were willing to pledge loyalty to the new lord would cooperate with Murtagh and ensure any villagers willing to help repair the damage to the castle would be rewarded well for their labour. Claire approved of that condition and had seen for herself that it was the way in which Jamie treated any labourers at Broch Tuarach.

Meanwhile, they called for Rupert and Jamie instructed him to gather a handful of clansmen and accompany a group of the men who had approached Claire to the island where Alexander was being kept. They were to bring him back with them, safely, with assurances that his brother was defeated once and for ever.

After the discussions had been held on the ground outside the keep, Murtagh arranged for some trestle tables and stools to be brought out from the barracks and onto the flattened area close to the seaward wall, where least fighting and damage had been incurred. He then disappeared into the kitchens and before long servants appeared bearing freshly baked bread, rounds of cheese and flagons of ale and wine. Shaking his head in disbelief at how his foster father was able to engage in diplomatic discussions as well as ensure that meals were provided, Jamie took Claire by the hand and led her to the longest table and deliberately sat at the head. John took a seat a short distance from them, ready to intercept any unwanted attention.

After serving Jamie and Claire, a young girl shyly approached John, bowing low as she set down a tray in front of him upon which was a flagon of wine and some finely glazed beakers.

“I don’t suppose your name really is Guillaume, is it?” she whispered while carefully pouring some wine for him.

“I never intended to deceive you, Giselle.” John spoke softly. “One of my given names is William, and as a child I lived in France, so it was not all a lie.” John tilted his head to one side to catch the girl’s downcast eyes. “I hope you can forgive me for such subterfuge, but my mission was a virtuous one – saving a lady in distress.”  

“I knew you were not a simple peasant.” Giselle met John’s eyes briefly, then quickly looked away again, her cheeks flushed. “Your bearing gives you away, milord.”

“I fear I may have the outward appearance of a peasant, or perhaps a lowly serf,” said John, holding out an arm to reveal the tattered, soiled shirt that hung from his frame. “More so now than when we first met.”

With curls of fair hair escaping the cap she wore upon her head, Giselle shook her head, refuting John’s claim.

Jamais, mon seigneur! Any fool can see you have the heart of a lion and a noble spirit, even dressed in rags.”

“And you are much more than a kitchen maid, my dear.” John took the girl’s hand and gently kissed her reddened knuckles. “Merci, pour le vin, chère Giselle.”

Taking a sip of the fine wine she had been served, Claire watched on in interest as the young girl serving John blushed, picked up her tray and scampered back towards the building from whence she had come.

“Have you been charming the maidservants during your short stay at the castle, John?” she teased. “I can see she is quite taken by you, not that I’m in the least bit surprised.”

“You do not recognise her, do you?” asked John, throwing a quick glance at Claire as he toyed with his beaker of wine, running a fingertip around the delicate rim. “She was the girl sent to remove potential weapons from the room you were being held in. The other maids were too scared to face the vixen who had smashed a mirror and defied their ‘master’. If it had not been for her I may not have found you in time.”

“A brave wee lass, then, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.” Jamie sounded impressed. “Does she have kin in the village?”

“No, she has no one,” replied John, wistfully glancing at his lovers. “She has neither kith nor kin in this part of the world.”

“Not another waif and stray, mo charaid?” asked Jamie, noting the way John kept stealing glances in the direction of the kitchens. He understood John’s sense that he, too, had neither kith nor kin in the Highlands and was worried, not for the first time, that John would leave one day.

“Not stray or orphaned. Stolen from her family,” growled John, recalling her history that he had encouraged her to share with him when they had made their way to the room where Claire had been imprisoned. He had initially engaged her in conversation as a ploy to convince the guards that he was one of the regular staff. “Kidnapped from her homeland and then forced to scrub floors until her fingers bled because she refused to lie with her new master.”

“Would ye have her come back tae Lallybroch with us?” asked Jamie. “I am sure Jenny could find her a position in – ”

“From one form of servitude to another?” John bristled. “Her mother was a Lady in Bretagne – ”

“Weel … Claire will have need fer a lady’s maid. Whether she thinks she does or no’!”

Claire bit her lip as she had been about to protest.

“Whether ye like it or no’ Sassenach, ye should have a companion, someone more trustworthy than Mistress Geillis or young Laoghaire.”

“I would prefer to choose my own company,” stated Claire, emphatically, although she did understand Jamie’s motives in thinking of a way of appeasing John. “But I do agree that we should ask her if she would like to return to Lallybroch with us. I am sure she has dreadful memories of this place.”

“John?”

John looked troubled but nodded in agreement.

“I shall ask her.”

As he wandered off, his beaker full of wine left behind, Claire took Jamie’s hand and their eyes met.

“She’s very pretty. Do you think- ” started Claire, wondering if Jamie was having the same thoughts that were troubling her.

“Nae, no’ fer a moment.” Jamie shook his head and squeezed Claire’s hand. “The wee lass is half way in love with him already, that much I can tell, but John will nae have noticed that. Ye shall soon realise that he has never been able to abandon a damsel in distress. However, ye have nae cause tae fear ye’ll lose his affections, lass. Dinna fash on that account.”

Glancing across to where John was leaning against the scorched walls of the kitchen building, Claire’s eyes opened wide and she spun around to look at Jamie.

“Did you fear you would lose his love when he developed an affection for me?” she asked.

“Never,” stated Jamie, before rubbing his face with one hand. “Although I did fear he would leave Lallybroch thinking I’d taken ye as my queen tae the exclusion of all other lovers.”

“I can understand that,” muttered Claire. “Lovers?  I do hope you’re not going to make a habit of acquiring bed mates.”

“Ah, so this is not about me at all is it? Ye’re a jealous wee soul, are ye no’? Asking me how I felt and all along, ye’re the one who’s greedy tae keep two men to yerself.”

“Do I? Have two men to myself?” asked Claire, pensively. “You were happy before I arrived and I wonder if you’ll always love him more than me.”

“A similar thought has crossed my mind, that ye’ll always love him more than me,” responded Jamie, brushing a loose strand of hair away from her face. “I’m no’ sure if that’s because he’s more deserving o’ love, or because ye had no choice but tae be my bride. Ye chose tae love John, whereas I think ye learnt tae love me.”

“I’ve wondered the same- whether the circumstances of our marriage prevented us falling in love with each other as naturally as we both did with John.”

Picking at the hem of her muddied and torn skirt, Claire shyly looked up in time to catch Jamie looking at her at the same time. His eyes softened as he reached out to cup her chin in his hand.

“When I saw ye being dragged across the sands, my heart was in my mouth – I didna ken what I would do if they’d hurt ye. I swear, the pain in my chest was the same as when I saw that bastard take John – I love ye as dearly as I do him. In spite of the manipulations that had us become man and wife and no’ because of them.”

Holding hands they looked up to see John making his way towards the stables where he had led Karolus to recover. One of the stableboys had offered to clean and dress his horse’s wounds and it appeared that John was on his way to check on the animal.

“Will he be alright?” asked Claire.

“I hope so.” Jamie chewed the edge of his thumbnail. It occurred to him that John may take it upon himself to return the young lass to her family and if he crossed the channel to Bretagne he would be close to his own roots. He knew he had John’s loyalty and devotion – but there was always a lingering sadness in the man’s soul that worried him.

“Jamie?” asked Claire, not at all reassured by the answer to her question or the expression on her husband’s face.

“I dinna ken, Sassenach. He has always given more love than he expects tae receive – I think he doubts he deserves tae be loved, having lost his father sae young and being taken from his mother tae be raised by …” Jamie sighed and broke off from what he was about to say to drain the dregs of his beaker of wine. He smacked his lips, forced himself to smile and looked to Claire, who was waiting anxiously to hear more. “Och well, that’s his tale tae tell, and no’ mine.”

“Perhaps it will help if I talk to the young girl? You’re right, of course, I do need a companion and from what John says, I think I’ll have more in common with her than I have with Mistress Duncan.”

“Ye’d have tae be a witch after seducing married men tae have anything in common wi’ that bitch. And I dinna think ye’re a witch are ye lass?”

For a fleeting moment, Jamie saw a look of panic on Claire’s face and a chill wind swept across the bailey, taking with it scraps of cloth and half-eaten bannocks.

As a cloud drifted across the sun, Jamie shuddered. Something was amiss. The sooner he returned to Lallybroch, with both Claire and John by his side, the happier he would be.

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

All for one and one for all (Un pour tous, tous pour un)

As the sun rose, it seemed that the darkness that had hung over Castle Slains for so many long years had finally been dispelled. During the course of the day more servants and other villagers started to return. There was activity everywhere as they set about restoring order to the chaos left in the wake of the short, but intense, battle that had devastated the castle and its inhabitants.

It was mid-afternoon before Jamie was ready to take his leave of Castle Slains, intending to take Claire, John and Young Ian with him. Murtagh had offered to stay behind as Jamie’s emissary until the situation at Slains was settled. Not until Rupert returned with Alexander would Murtagh ride back to Lallybroch. In the meantime it was agreed that Angus would return to the camp at nightfall with sufficient men to stand guard and then accompany Jamie and his small entourage back to Broch Tuarach the following day.

On entering the stables, Murtagh led Jamie to the stall where he had his own horse readied and waiting, next to the stall where Karolus seemed to be making a remarkable recovery.

“Ian Òg?” Murtagh called over his shoulder while reaching up to unfasten one of the saddle bags. “Did ye fetch the oatcakes and smokies from the kitchen like I told ye to?”

“Aye – but I left them outside on the table.” Ian pouted petulantly and wrinkled his nose. “That haddock stinks something horrid- ”

“Go and fetch it now! Ye ken yer ma would be disappointed to hear ye’d been tae the coast and no’ fetched back some smokies. What’s more, ye’ll need the oatcakes fer the ride home tomorrow.”

As Ian spun around to fetch the foodstuffs he almost knocked John from his feet. Standing a short distance behind Jamie, John was scanning each of the stalls looking for Jamie’s horse.

“Where is Donas?” His eyes narrowed on seeing that Murtagh had saddled his own horse for Jamie. He looked thoroughly perplexed. “Where is he? Did something happen to him when you all rode away from here last night? You and Claire were on Karolus – why? I don’t understand.”

 “Dinna fash, John. All is well – Donas is back at the camp. He ate some … acorns… and was colicky. We left him behind tae recover.”

Noting the way Claire swiftly moved past Jamie to busy herself examining the contents of the saddle bags with Murtagh, and the shifty look on Jamie’s face, John was not convinced by Jamie’s stuttering explanation. John pressed further, wanting to know exactly how Jamie and Claire had got to the castle on Karolus, recalling leaving the animal safely away from danger.

“For that matter, how did Karolus get here at all?” Staring at the white horse who was nonchalantly chewing a mouthful of hay, John frowned. “I left him safely secured near water and food.”

 Jamie sighed, took a step closer to John and framed his face between two large hands. Having got John’s attention he then silenced his concerns with a kiss.

“Trust me,” he whispered against John’s lips. “Dinna fash - there’s nothing ye need tae fret over.”

“I shall always trust you. But there are times when I sense you do not trust me with the whole truth.” John was exasperated but trusted Jamie implicitly. He raised an eyebrow. “Will you ever tell me what really happened?”

“Aye, when we’re all back at Lallybroch. I dinna want tae tempt fate until I ken ye’re both safe.”

With a hesitant nod of acceptance, John stepped away and approached Karolus.

“Could you not find a saddle for him?” he asked Murtagh.

“The saddle wasna that problem, mo ghille. It was that bloody horse – he wouldna let any o’ the stable lads anywhere near him with any harness. Terrified the puir wee lads – rearing up in his stall, stamping the ground. It would no’ surprise if he’s possessed by a demon.”

Claire masked her nervous laughter with a feigned coughing fit as Jamie scowled at her.  

“John – are ye fit tae ride him with nae saddle?” asked Jamie, casting an eye over the bloodstains on John’s shirt. He had seen John wince as he had leaned into the horse’s body even though the others did not.

“I suspect the main concern is whether or not he’s willing to allow me.” Ignoring Jamie’s discrete enquiry as to his physical state, John patted the animal’s neck and reached up to curl a hand around the withers to haul himself up while murmuring some calming words in a tongue that sounded suspiciously Saxon.

Murtagh shook his head, muttering ominously about fools getting their necks broken while glaring at Jamie. In turn, Jamie absently rubbed his shoulder and shrugged. Falling off a horse was nothing new to any of them.

“Stand back, my lady – I dinna trust that beast!”  Murtagh swiftly steered Claire out of potential harm’s way, leaving Jamie hovering close by just in case John was thrown and needed to be caught.

However, dispelling their fears, Karolus stood calmly and allowed John onto his back.

With a sigh of relief, Claire gingerly approached and as she was reaching up to stroke the horse’s cheek in gratitude, he gently nudged her arm with his nose, as if indicating that she, too, could ride upon him.

“John?” she asked, seeking permission. In some ways, Karolus was more terrifying as a horse than he had been as a dragon – especially with John upon his back.

“He does appear to have become quite fond of you, my dear.”

“He may be part demon, but yer horse is a good judge of character.” Jamie smiled knowingly as he wrapped his hands around Claire’s slim waist and hoisted her up into John’s waiting arms.

As soon as Claire was safely settled, her torn skirts tucked up and out of the way, Jamie nodded his head and led them out of the stables, followed by Murtagh. Once in the sunlight, Murtagh steadied his horse as Jamie got in the saddle, but just as Jamie reached down to take the reins from him, his stepfather caught his hand and fixed him with a beady eye. He spoke quietly, yet urgently:

“Rupert’s not the only one to hear from men here who say they saw dragons fighting in the sky and the bones of the dead pull themselves out of their graves. And I saw fer myself the way the marshes were churned up and I ken those scorch marks high up on the castle walls were no’ there before.” Murtagh’s eyes flashed towards the high tower upon which the blackened scorch marks stood out as the sun caught the lighter stone. He looked into Jamie’s eyes again, searching for truth. “Did ye witness any such foul spirits? Do we need tae be on our guard against dark sorcery?”

“Och, Murtagh, ye ken the people here were entranced by that powerful witch. I hope ye made sure she was dead.” Murtagh nodded. “Tales of what happened here and what was seen owe a great deal tae the wicked spells she spun. Now she’s gone there will be nae more sightings of ghosts nor dragons – ye can trust me on that.”

“I suspect ye ken more than ye’re willing tae share,” grunted Murtagh, reluctantly releasing the reins. He flicked a glance at the white horse that was trotting away from them and the two riding upon it. “Just watch over those two will ye?”

“Ye sound as if ye’ve been listening tae my uncle Dougal’s warnings.” Jamie scowled – disconcerted that Murtagh appeared to believe that John and Claire would seek to deceive him.

“I’ve a bad feeling about all three o’ ye. There will be nae peace fer any of ye until one of ye… well, let’s hope it doesna come tae that.” Tight-lipped, Murtagh stood back and called out for Young Ian to stop flirting with the kitchen maids and get on the horse with his uncle.

Dinna fash, m 'athair.” Fixing Murtagh with a stern glare, Jamie narrowed his eyes. “I ken what I am doing – and Raymond has foretold that I shall be stronger with both by my side.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

As the tents of their camp came into sight, the sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds and a fine drizzle set in, slowly permeating their clothing. Jamie had thrown his plaid across to John, who draped it around Claire’s shoulders without considering his own needs. Jamie noticed but said nothing. He would have put it down to chivalry had he not sensed a feeling of unease about John that he put down to the secrets that had come between them. Claire caught his eye and they nodded at each other slightly, knowing they had to tell John everything as soon as they had the opportunity to do so.

The rain was heavier by the time they reached the relative shelter of the trees. Claire gazed around at the campsite that had sprung up once more in their absence as the horses carefully picked their way around the treacherously taut ropes that secured the tents to posts driven into the ground,

“When we left there was only the one tent,” said Claire, squeezing John’s arm that circled her waist keeping her secure. “I wonder when this happened?”

“Aye, there was only that one left standing when we left under cover of darkness.” Jamie pointed at the largest of the tents, recalling how he had frantically made love to Claire the previous night, both of them desperately missing John. He glanced over his shoulder at his two lovers, murmuring John’s name under his breath, even as they had both called it out loud in the height of their passion as if he were there with them.

Pulling Jamie from his melancholy thoughts, Ian wriggled around in the saddle to explain.

“That was Master Raymond’s idea - when the men returned, he had them unpack them from the wagon and put them all up again.” Ian hoisted a leg and slid down from the saddle, taking the reins as soon as his feet hit the ground. “There was a lot of complaining – that much I can tell ye. But he offered a bottle of spirits tae whoever got a tent up first.”

“I hope that wasna my whisky.” Jamie grumbled loudly. “Because if Master Raymond touched that - ”

As if the mere mention of his name was sufficient to summon the sage, Raymond appeared from behind one of the larger tents.

“No, mon fils, I did not touch that, it was a bottle of my cherry brandy, much more palatable.” Raymond winked as he caught Claire’s eye. “Do not worry, madame, I have saved some for you. As for the tents - bien sûr, the men needed something physical to keep their muscles occupied, otherwise they would have gone looking for a fight.”

Master Raymond then approached Karolus and bowed to both horse and rider.

“I am glad to see you both returned to us whole and well.” He paused to inspect the horse’s nostrils before addressing Ian: “Good, I see you remembered my exact instructions Young Ian. I shall reconsider your request to serve as my apprentice – but only with your mother’s permission.”

If Raymond’s praise was not enough to have Ian flush with pride, the feel of his uncle’s hand on his head, ruffling his unruly curls, made him grin broadly.

Je suis très heureux que vous êtes encore en vie, Mon Chevalier Blanc.” Raymond spoke to John directly, a glint in his eyes implying that he had seen all that had befallen John since he had departed Lallybroch on the quest to foil Dougal’s scheme all those days beforehand. “I am glad that you were not required to pay the price you were prepared to make, although were you a cat, you would be long dead.”

Merci, moi aussi, Monsieur Raymond.” John smiled wistfully as he bowed his head in return. “I owe you the life of my horse – and I suspect my own. Again.”

“Not just me.” Raymond shook his head and pointed his staff at Jamie and Claire. “Milord and his lady brought you back. They would not allow for your life to be sacrificed.”

“For that I shall be eternally grateful.” John’s eyes watered slightly as he clasped Claire’s hand and turned his head to see Jamie’s relieved expression. “But I’ve had time to think now and it occurs to me that sorcery was needed to triumph over the demonic forces at large – and therefore you must have had a role to play in their success.”  

Raymond merely chuckled in response, neither confirming nor denying John’s suspicions.

Watching and listening carefully, Ian scowled as he watched the way John got down from his horse and held out his arms to help lower Claire to the ground, cradling her as if she were as fragile as the most delicate of flowers. Even when safely on her feet, Claire kept her hands clasped behind John’s neck, reluctant it seemed to let go. Ian twisted his head around to look up at Jamie, assuming he would not be best pleased to see his wife being held so closely in another man’s arms, only to be further confounded by the contented smile on his uncle’s face.

Jamie hitched a leg and dismounted, all the while not taking his eyes from Claire and John.

“Come now, Young Ian,” said Raymond, interrupting Ian’s train of thought abruptly. “Let us leave the laird, lady and lord to recover – they are in need of rest and privacy. We can look after the horses. I have just the remedy for those scratches on the side of that poor beast but will need your assistance in preparing and administering it.”

Prompting Ian to guide the two horses towards the area set aside for corralling the animals, Raymond turned to point his staff at the tent and then at Jamie.

“You will not be disturbed, mon fils. The others will not return until the sun is setting, so you have the rest of the day to recuperate. There is food and drink set out and such remedies as may be required.  La Dame Blanche will know how to use them, should there be need.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Inside the tent, just as Raymond had described there were ample provisions of bread, dried meat, cheese, fruit and wine. Jamie smiled as he saw a bottle of whisky and one of the cherry brandy he knew Claire was developing a taste for. Laid out on a cloth, were basins of water, strewn with herbs, along with strips of sun-bleached linen.  Bags of clothing had also been brought under canvas, which came as a relief to John, anxious to rid himself of the stained clothes that had the taint of dungeon and blood.  

Claire went straight to the copper bowls containing dried flowers of lady’s mantle, dried sage leaves and fresh sprigs of yarrow. Understanding her intentions, Jamie took John’s arm and led him towards a pile of sheepskins spread out over a canvas sheet that had been placed on the ground. He gently coaxed John to sit down with him. As Claire crouched down to crumble more dried herbs i to one of the bowls of water, Jamie removed the remains John’s sodden shirt, carefully inspecting the smaller contusions and cuts first of all until he was satisfied that the only significant injury was the carving of Randall’s initials on John’s skin. He swallowed down the bile rising in his throat – sickened to see the handiwork of the man who had left his own back permanently scarred. Taking hold of John’s shoulders he eased him down onto his back, moving to one side to make room for Claire to join them. He held the basin of herb-infused water for Claire as she dipped in pieces of cloth and used them to gently wipe the blood from John’s skin, soothing the inflamed flesh with the medicinal herbs.

John closed his eyes and turned his head away from them, apparently forcing himself to succumb to their ministrations but unwilling to see their faces – perhaps fearing he would see pity there. Claire tutted loudly but did not succeed in getting either John to open his eyes or Jamie to unclench the fist that was not holding the bowl of water. As the tension seemed to build, Claire looked from John to Jamie, wishing one of them would say something to break the awkward silence. Wanting to provoke some sort of reaction, she increased the pressure with which she was rubbing at the dried blood around the letters inscribed on John’s chest, only to be astounded as she saw the rounded part of the letter R fade as did the trailing tail that was more lightly scratched. She peered closely at the lines left behind and gently traced the remaining shapes with a fingertip.

“It’s … I don’t understand.” Frowning as she muttered out loud, she saw something that had her take a sharp intake of breath, before she poked Jamie in the side to get his attention. He appeared to be deliberately looking elsewhere. “Look, Jamie! … Your initials!”

Wincing from the more vigorous wiping around the inflamed skin, John propped himself up on his elbows to see what Claire was pointing at and despite it being upside down he could make it out. He smiled and took hold of Claire’s hand before she tried to wipe away any more of the blood.

“Leave it there. Don’t rub away any more. How ironic that he would claim me as his own, yet only succeed in leaving upon me the initials of the man to whom my heart belongs.” With a tear in his eye, John squeezed Claire’s hand. “Thank you.”

As Jamie stared, dumfounded at the change to the scars, tentatively reaching out with his own finger, John got up quickly and looked towards the collection of bottles set out for them.

“Did Raymond say there was wine?”

As John headed for the wine, Jamie shook his head. He knew John well and realised he needed a moment to compose himself.

“Your turn, lass – I think these herbs will make ye feel fresher.”

Turning his attentions to Claire, Jamie unlaced her bodice and removed the damp tattered skirts that clung to her thighs. Washing her gently with the scented water, he was pleased when John sat with them, drinking directly from a pitcher of wine that he passed to Jamie. They took it in turns to drink the warming, spiced wine, which relaxed their minds and limbs. After they finished the wine, Jamie set aside the empty pitcher and laid Claire on her back. John joined in and helped him use the herbal waters to wash away all trace of blood spatters from their vanquished foes. As Claire nestled down in the thick fur they proceeded to anoint her from head to toe with kisses and caresses, marking her as their own with lips and fingertips – gently and with love.

Eventually, all three were naked and clean, sharing the warmth from each other’s bodies even as the sound of rain on canvas grew ever louder, pattering down, punctuated with the louder sounds as larger drops coalesced from the tips of overhanging branches and fell more heavily. The rainclouds had darkened the sky and the interior of the tent was dim. But light was not required to touch, to feel, to stroke each other, to embrace one another. Lips reddened with wine met and tongues shared the flavours of cloves and cinnamon. Words were not needed where the sounds of lovemaking spoke volumes, from gentle gasps to deep grumbling groans, to urgent grunts and cries of bliss. Rolling over in the warm wool, that took on the smells of unguent oils pilfered from a medical cabinet and the musky aromas of sex, they pleasured each other.

Bodies sticky with sweat and seed, they clung to one another as the air became chill. Jamie dragged a plaid over the top of them and held on tightly to the two he loved as no others. Claire turned around in his arms to place her head on his chest, alongside John’s. He could feel the warm, sleepy breaths of his sated lovers on his bare skin, and as he closed his eyes, he imagined their love seeping through and flowing around his veins, swelling his heart.

Holding them close, he would also sleep in peace, under the protective charm he knew that Raymond had cast over the tent.

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

Drifting into the realms of sleep, Claire had felt Jamie’s solid frame beneath her, shielding her with a muscular arm draped possessively across her back. She had smiled hearing John’s breathing slow, as he finally allowed exhaustion to claim him. Pressing a hand to his chest, she had lazily traced patterns in the soft hair of his chest as she became drowsier and drowsier. Images came to mind of her first meeting with John by the millpond, and how her heart had gone out to him from that moment – so different to that first encounter with Jamie, both of them acting on misconceptions that tainted that moment with animosity. Yet, as she had spent more time with the giant of a man – both in terms of his physicality and his character, she had grown to love him dearly – his fierceness and passion equally applied in anger and in love. She heard him murmuring softly into her hair and, despite not understanding a word, she knew the meaning. She was his – to love and protect, just as John was his. Pressing a kiss to his chest and then to John’s she responded – ‘and I am yours’.

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

Waking in Jamie’s arms she felt reassured. It had not been a dream. Warmth surrounded her, but something was missing. She snuffled as tried to fathom what was not right. Reaching out with an arm, she flexed her fingers around the soft wool, pulling at the silky strands. It was then that it struck her. She opened her eyes with a start. John. He was not there.

Leaning across Jamie’s chest to check that John had not just rolled over, she accidentally poked an elbow in his ribs.

“Ouch!” With a grumble, Jamie tried to pull her back into his arms, not opening his eyes. “Come here, stop squirming will ye.”

“Wake up, Jamie!” She jostled his shoulder, which barely moved and then resorted to pinching the soft skin above his hip.

“Stop that!” exclaimed Jamie, his eyes snapping open. “What’s the matter, lass?”

“Where’s John?”

Rubbing sleep from his eyes , Jamie frowned as he looked around the tent.

“Maybe he had tae answer a call of nature. Dinna fash, he’ll be back soon. Come here, lass…”

Curling into his warm body, Claire let herself melt into his embrace as they shared waking kisses, lazy, soft-lipped slow kisses. Feeling his body respond to her closeness, Claire pressed in closer still, taking hold of Jamie’s hand and guiding it down between her legs. A deep throated groan emanated from Jamie’s chest and Claire rolled over onto her back, Jamie bracing himself above her, his sleepy eyes seeking permission as he slowly lowered his hips towards hers. She responded by arching up until their bodies touched, a smile on her face as she heard the sharp intake of breath as Jamie fought to keep control. Reaching down impatiently, she grasped his cock, the skin velvety smooth to the touch as she caressed him, drawing him down, between her thighs as she spread her legs further apart, inviting him in. The moment he slid into her body, they both exhaled, the connection fulfilling more needs than they were aware of – he felt her warmth wrap around him, clutching him tightly, while she felt his strength fill her. Unlike the fiery, fierce fuck of the previous day, when they had come together without John, this time they made love languorously, making the most of the opportunity to feel everything. Nuzzling her soft breasts, suckling on her nipples until they crinkled up to hardness between his lips, Jamie chuckled to himself, delighting in the soft flesh and sounds made by this woman he loved more each day.

“Those wee noises ye make – dinna hold back on my account,” he gasped as she seemed to be stifling her groans of pleasure.

After a smack across his taut buttocks, Claire wrapped her legs around his waist and urged him deeper into her core, all the time meeting his thrusts with her own, desperately rubbing against him as she came first, shortly followed by Jamie’s release.

Kissing messily, they rolled over onto their sides, Jamie brushing Claire’s hair from her sweaty brow as he cupped her face in his hands and lavished it with more kisses.

“I do love ye, mo leannan,” he murmured as he felt her arms slide around his waist.

So relaxed they were unaware of anything but each other’s bodies, pressed close together under a warm blanket, they almost fell asleep once more. Then it dawned on them both. John had not returned. Claire felt anxiety bubbling up within her as she feared that he had returned, seen them making love and had left unnoticed.

“Oh dear – I do hope John didn’t come back and think-”

“No, I’d have heard him,” assured Jamie, despite not being convinced of his assertion.

“Jamie – I’m worried. Perhaps we should-”

“Look fer him? Aye, lass, we should.” Jamie frowned as he felt Claire move out of his arms.  

Sitting up and stretching, Jamie scanned the tent for any indication that John may have returned. The fact that the John’s boots were missing indicated that he had left of his own will – as did the fact his sword was no longer sitting with Jamie’s.

“I’m wondering if perhaps he had tae deal with something.” That sense that something was amiss had returned to trouble Jamie and he could not shake it. With a frown, he turned to Claire, kissing the top of her head. “Dinna fash, I’ll get dressed – ”

“So will I.” Claire was already getting to her feet and starting to shiver as the cool air met her bare skin. She picked up the tattered skirt, the hem stained with mud and every part spattered with blood stains. Sniffing it, she held it away from her. “This is disgusting-”

Jamie paused in his admiration of her figure, beautiful as the candlelight bathed her curves in a soft light as if caressing her body as he had moments earlier.

“Clothes. Aye – ye’ll need to wear something, Sassenach, or ye’ll have puir Ian Òg’s eyes out on stalks.”

Scratching his head, Jamie pulled out plaids, shirts and breeches from the bags left out by Raymond earlier.  

“Sorry, lass, there’s nae skirts. Can ye find yerself something to wear out of these? Ye did wear breeks on the ride tae the coast-”

“Under a skirt and you tore that pair apart!” Claire glared at Jamie, even as she looked around to see what had happened to the breeches that had foiled Randall, yet not stood a chance against Jamie, especially as she had wanted him to get them out of the way of their mutual passion. “But there might be a pair here that I can get into.”

Jamie handed her a large pair, only to receive another glare.

“I was just thinking that they’d need tae get over yer … lovely round arse.” With a cheeky smirk, Jamie turned away quickly to avoid the rough woollen garment that came flying at his head.

“John was right then – you did say I had a large bottom!”

“I love yer arse, mo leannan. But speaking of John – I’ll be happier when I see him.”

“Agreed.” Claire plucked a few items of clothing from the pile and took a deep breath. “I’ll wear a shirt and breeks and then wrap a plaid around as a cloak – that should avoid causing too much outrage.”

“Aye – and wear that belt and scabbard Murtagh found fer ye, for that wee dirk John gifted ye with.”

Jamie handed her the slim leather belt with ornate gold fastenings that Murtagh had found in the castle. It was skilfully wrought and worthy of his queen.

After taking the belt, Claire turned around, tore off a strip from the top of her ruined skirts and discreetly used it to wipe herself. She did not want to face anyone with Jamie’s seed soaking into the fabric of the pale breeches.

As Jamie briskly shook out his own plaid and folded it ready to lie down on, he slipped a belt around his waist and pleated the kilt as he watched out of the corner of his eyes as Claire pulled a clean shirt over her head. Watching her slender arms slide into the fabric as it fell over her round breasts, he could not help but admire the way she looked magnificent, even in a shapeless, coarse linen sark. He frowned as he caught sight of some fading bruises, hoping none were caused by him, but even those could not take from her beauty.   

By the time they emerged into the campsite, it was early evening. A fire had been lit, but the damp wood was smouldering, giving off clouds of smoke that stung their eyes.  While they had been getting dressed, John had still not returned and despite his reassurances to Claire, Jamie was troubled.

Spinning around looking for the one person who may have had answers, Jamie yelled out:

“Raymond! Master Raymond. Your presence is required!”

From his position, perched on a rock resting against a broad tree trunk, Raymond looked up from under the hood of his cloak.

“No need to shout, mon fils, I am just here.”

“Have ye seen Lord John?”

With a slight shrug, Raymond responded curtly.

“Oui.”

“Where is he then?” demanded Jamie.

“Ah, so you have noticed his absence?” Raymond tilted his head to encompass Claire in his rhetorical question. “You must have slept very soundly.”

Spinning around at the sound of a familiar guffaw, Jamie was surprised to see Angus unload an armful of pine cones next to the fire.

“Merci! Those should burn well, so long as you dug out the dry ones.”

“I did as ye asked, Master Raymond,” replied Angus. “Now I’m having that ale ye promised me-”

“Angus?” Jamie grabbed hold of the man’s arm as he reached out for a tankard of ale set on top of a tree stump. “What are ye doing here? I thought it was agreed ye’d stay at the Castle until nightfall.”

“I was sent back early with a message.” Angus frowned as he shook the rain from his hair and joined them under an awning of canvas strung between the branches of the overhanging trees. “Fer Lord John.”

“The message – what was it?” prompted Jamie, aware that there was more to be said.

“I dinna ken – it was written on parchment and sealed!” protested Angus, holding his arms out wide. “Dinna blame me, MacDubh.”

“Raymond?”

“I did rouse Lord John to pass the message on to him.”

Raymond paused to raise his eyebrows at Jamie and then look to Claire, a subtle smirk upon his lips.

“He was not happy to be disturbed but he did understand why I did so.”

Raymond frowned as a gust of wind blew smoke into his face. He got up and wandered over the fire, shaking a handful of what looked like lint from his pocket onto the glowing wood. After a muttered incantation, the flames sprung up from the logs and cones, clear and bright.

“Ye couldha done that before, Master Raymond!” grumbled Angus.

“Hush, Angus!” snapped Jamie. “I want tae hear where John has gone, sneaking off wi’out a word tae me before he left! What the hell was in that bloody message?”

“Oh – it is here, if you wish to read it.” Raymond fetched a scroll of parchment from a pocket inside his cloak and passed it to Jamie. “It would appear that our gallant knight had offered his protection and assistance to a young damsel, and she sent word that she was in need of his help.”

“Giselle?” asked Claire, although she already knew the answer.

“Aye, lass, Giselle. She wishes tae return tae her home – to  Benoic.” Jamie swore under his breath as the name of the girl’s homeplace was well known to him.

“Oui, I see you realise the significance.” Raymond was studying Jamie’s reactions closely as he leaned on his staff. “Le Chevalier Blanc said he would accompany her there.”

“What? Now?” demanded Jamie. “But he’s tae return tae Lallybroch with us!”

Raymond shrugged as he took a seat on a log closer to the fire. With a wave of his hand in the direction of Claire he continued.

“Considering all that’s been happening, here and at Lallybroch, it may be better for you to return to Broch Tuarach without him. In triumphant procession, with La Dame Blanche at your side. Angus could go ahead to announce that you have rescued your wife and killed Randall.”

“But it was no’ just me – ” Jamie started to protest, feeling Claire’s hand on his arm.

“As far as anyone beyond you three is concerned, it was!” hissed Raymond. “It is vital that word spreads throughout the land. It must be broadcast far and wide that anyone who crosses the Laird of Broch Tuarach or takes what is under his protection – whether land, livestock or brides - will not survive your wrath.”

“So women count less than land or cattle?” spat Claire, outraged at the idea that any woman’s safety meant less than that of a herd of cattle.

“Tut tut, madame – you know that is not my belief,” retorted Raymond, wagging a finger at Claire, disregarding her complaint. “But that is precisely what is believed by those who need to be convinced of our Laird’s authority.”

Jamie had a face like thunder as he advanced on Raymond, snatching his arm from Claire’s hold, who was trying to restrain him, despite her own fury.

“Weel – John’s no’ going tae Benoic. He’s returning wi’ us. He can bring the lass wi’ him – she’ll be safe with us. I shall arrange safe passage fer her after the spring solstice – when the seas are calmer.”

“Who’s going tae tell him that?” asked Angus, after draining his tankard of ale. “Because that’s a mission I’ll no’ accept-”

“I shall. And I’ll no’ come back wi’out him,” stated Jamie. “Where’s Ian Òg? I need him tae fetch Donas fer me.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

The skies were dark but cloudless as Jamie rode into Castle Slains once more, despite having sworn never to come back. Murtagh was waiting by the gatehouse to meet him as he came through the archway. Although flaming torches lit the passageway and cast dark shadows, the place was calmer and more settled than it had been a mere day beforehand.

“I wondered how long it would take fer ye tae come after him.” With one raised eyebrow, Murtagh Fitzgibbons spoke volumes.

“Where is he?” grunted Jamie as he dismounted. “He’s no’ chartered a ship and left already has he?”

“No, I made sure of that. I’ve left instructions that no one sets sail from the harbour without my permission – even the fishing boats.” Murtagh took the reins from Jamie as he walked straight past him, looking from left to right.

“Aye – thank ye. So, where shall I find him-”

“Here.” John stepped out of from a doorway, wearing a dark cloak he seemed to emerge from the shadows themselves that clung to the castle walls. “Do you really think I’d leave without bidding you farewell? You may choose to keep secrets from me, but I keep none from you.”

“John…” Jamie pinched the bridge of his nose, acknowledging that he had still not told John all that had occurred concerning his horse, Karolus, and the events leading up to his rescue. “I promise I  shall tell ye-”

“Do not trouble yourself.” John held up a hand, bringing Jamie to a halt as he moved towards him. “ In the time it will take your truth to reach my ears, the most extraordinary tales have already made their way to my attention. Incredible tales of dragons, ghosts and witches.” John paused to laugh humourlessly. “Mind you, those tales came from those who believe me to be a changeling capable of talking to seals and growing a tail when I swim. I imagine I would find the truth quite disappointing in comparison.”

Jamie pounded the side of his fist against the door frame next to John’s head. Exasperated he muttered to John:

“Dinna seek reasons to break us apart, mo chridhe.”

John looked chastised and ducked his head down, apologising under his breath.

“Never- although there are many who would use our friendship to destroy you and others who would relish the idea of us as enemies.”

Jamie gathered John into his arms, relieved to feel him relax as he rested his head on his shoulder.

“I ken, mo chridhe. But we’re stronger together – and always shall be,” whispered Jamie as he held John’s head to his shoulder, before turning to his stepfather. “Murtagh – tell him he needs tae return home with Claire and myself-”

“I’ll tell him nae such thing.” Murtagh stepped closer and with a rueful grimace, turned to address Jamie. “Lord John spoke tae me of his discussion with Master Raymond. Ye ken it would send a stronger message fer ye and the Lady of Broch Tuarach to ride back without him.”

Pushing John gently away, Jamie held him at arms’ length and observed the resigned look on his face.

“That only makes sense to those who listen to vile lies. John – why would ye believe this?” pleaded Jamie.

“I’ve heard the men talking.” John took hold of Jamie’s arms that were trembling with tension. He paused to glance in the direction of the bailey, where a boar was being roasted on a spit, attended by men from both Slains and the clans, boisterously drinking together. “You never hear it, Jamie – they dare not speak of the rumours in earshot of you, but I go unnoticed and hear more. Your uncle is still spreading falsehoods. Since nightfall, I’ve already knocked the heads together of two MacKenzies I heard claiming Claire is a witch that has cuckolded you and bewitched me.”

“Murtagh? Have ye also heard these lies?” demanded Jamie, his mouth agape.

“Aye, lad,” admitted Murtagh, following John’s gaze, knowing exactly who he was talking about. “Those and others. Ye ken that ye can put those rumours tae rest if ye go back tae Lallybroch with yer bride on yer arm. With Slains under the control of the clans, a united front will only serve tae strengthen yer power.”

“I dinna want- ”

“It doesna matter what ye think ye want, lad! It never has been,” growled Murtagh, momentarily losing his patience. He had been reminded of the day Jamie had finally, reluctantly, accepted his destiny. “D’ye no’ ken that yer position as Chief of the Highland clans is more important than yer own personal desires?”

“Can I no’ have both? Do I no’ deserve both? Respect and the love of - ”

“Dinna be a fool!” Murtagh spared an apologetic glance at John, who had taken a step back, letting his hands fall from Jamie’s arms. “Of course ye deserve both, and ye can have both, but only if ye’re careful. Och, it’s just as well Lord John does understand that.”

“John, mo charaid - why did ye no’ speak tae me?”

“Because I knew you would try to dissuade me,” said John simply. “Why don’t you take Claire back with you to Lallybroch. Just the two of you – nothing to distract from your victory or to feed the rumours.”

Jamie leant back against the wall, staring up at the stars in the sky. He had been right to sense something was amiss. He may have conquered Randall, but there were still enemies closer to home.

“Jamie, there are other tales, nae doubt also coming from Leoch.” Murtagh had settled a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Some are saying that John and Claire – as Sassenachs – are manipulating ye. That they’re seeking tae overthrow ye - ”

“What? That’s ridiculous!”

“Really? No’ so unbelievable while he is seen ever gazing at your lady with love in his eyes!” Murtagh pointed at John, who had the grace to look guilty as charged. “Ye’re fortunate that his loyalty tae ye is strong – greater than his own desires.”

Jamie stared at his stepfather before turning to catch John’s eyes. Biting his lip, his chin jutting out defiantly he shook his head.

“I dinna care what anyone may say, John will return with me tae Lallybroch – “

“What if I wish to travel to Bretagne? And on to Benoic?” John put the question quietly and solemnly.

Jamie swallowed hard before grabbing hold of one of John’s hands, keeping him close.

“Why would ye wish tae do that, John?”

“Revenge.” John spat out the word as if it tasted of poison on his tongue. “For my father.”

“But ye were only a bairn when yer father was killed.” Jamie shook his head. He felt sick to his stomach – it was the one quest he could not deny John permission to pursue. “Ye dinna ken who it was-”

“I do now. The stories of what happened in Benoic – after the over throwing of my father – I’ve heard from the servants at the castle. A few lived nearby. I’ve spoken to one who knew of the men who set my family’s fields and orchards on fire and laid siege to the castle before burning it to the ground.”

“I swear tae ye, John, I shall sail with ye tae seek vengeance fer yer kin– and ye ken how much I hate travelling by ship. But, not until after the winter storms have died out. Return tae Lallybroch wi’ me and Claire. Ye can bring the lass with ye and any others who want to join us there. But I will no’ have us three separated again sae soon. Ye are my right arm, John. I’ll need ye by my side – not torn from it in the months ahead.”

“But what about-”

“We face them together.” Jamie’s face was set in a grimace as he considered what they would need to take on. “We’ll no’ let Dougal or either of those witches he has working for him, divide us. Come here, mo leannan…”

Murtagh could not hear what was being said as Jamie dragged John into the gatehouse, but the cold wind whipping in from the sea had him clutch his plaid tightly to his chest. He shuddered as a chill crept around his legs. He cast a sidelong glance through the window to the gatehouse and saw that his stepson had Lord John pushed against the wall, no doubt persuading him that his way was the only way. He tutted to himself as he shook his head.

“There’s nae keeping love-blind fools from wandering too close tae the bloody cliffs.”

Meanwhile, out of sight, with his hand clasping the back of John’s neck, Jamie pressed his lips to John’s sealing with a kiss, an oath he would fight to uphold.

“As ye are my champion – ready tae fight any who would dispute my right tae rule, I shall serve as yours, and shall defend yer honour and yer name. Ye shall return tae Broch Tuarach and take yer rightful seat next tae mine at the Round table and should any man question yer right, I shall challenge them-”

“But-”

“Nae, John. We’re stronger together – and that means all three of us.”

“Un pour tous, tous pour un?”

“Aye.”

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~

 

Meanwhile, back at the campsite, Claire sat huddled up close to the fire listening to the drips of water falling from the leaves above them. The rain had stopped, but still the trees wept on them. She was anxious to hear news – to see Jamie return with John. Gnawing at her lip she looked to Master Raymond who sat close by, his eyes closed and his lips moving in silent incantations.

A ghostly shape appeared sweeping in from under the tree canopy. A barn owl,  wings spread out wide as it alighted on the top of Raymond’s staff.

Opening his eyes, the sage smiled and patted Claire’s knee.

“All is well. Wisdom has triumphed for now.”

“You mean John will not return with us?” asked Claire, on the verge of tears.

“On the contrary, he is already on his way back.” Raymond replied, his eyes twinkling with mirth.

“But you told him and Jamie that it would be best – ”

Claire flung out her arms, at a loss to say what was on her mind. The sudden motion disturbed the owl, that ruffled its feathers in irritation. Master Raymond stroked the bird’s head to appease it, producing a dead mouse from a sleeve to feed to it. As it swallowed the offering, leaving only the end of its tail protruding from its beak, Raymond turned to Claire and winked knowingly.

“There are times when it is necessary to sow a little division to bring people closer together. It takes the threat of a loss to make a person – or two people – realise the damage such a separation would cause.”

Claire paused for a moment, before turning to Raymond. She tugged on the chain around her neck to pull out the pendant – the crystal was not only clear as spring water but sparkling.

“I think you have the capacity to be extraordinarily cruel at times,” she whispered. Then looking Raymond through the gem, she continued: “I also suspect that your motives are governed by factors other than the well being of the two men I love dearly.”

The crystal distorted the expression on Master Raymond’s face, but the heat emanating from the gem had Claire drop it from between her fingers. She narrowed her eyes and glared at the diminutive man, whose powers she would never underestimate and issued him a warning:

“I swear I shall not allow you to hurt either of them.”

 

~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~@~~~