You could smell it from a mile away. The warm, smoky scent of whisky. Even when I was a child, the smell of it was a comforting thing to me. It made me think of Uncle Lamb, sitting in the parlor with his cigar, a newspaper, and a finger or two of whisky. I remembered the first burn of it when he offered me a sip after I showed curiosity at eight years old. The hot toddies he made for me when I was ill.
Now, the smell made me think of Scotland, of cold castles made warm by merriment, of riotous Highlanders and ribald stories, and most of all, a devastatingly handsome redhead with smiling blue eyes and a beguiling smile.
That devastatingly handsome redhead was no less so now in his fifties than he was as a twenty-something stableboy with a price on his head. As I approached the whisky still, I watched as he bent over his work, red-faced and sweating, the muscles in his shoulders flexing in full view thanks to his having abandoned his shirt. Normally he wouldn’t do such a thing save for the privacy of our bedroom, too uncomfortable showing his scarred back, but he was at ease here in Fraser’s Ridge. Even if someone other than me, or Murtagh wandered up, I didn’t think he minded so much anymore.
And just as well, because if anything, he was even more devastatingly handsome now than he was back when we first met...and that was saying something.
Jamie looked up as I approached, smiling widely. “Afternoon, Sassenach.”
Smiling back, I shook my head. “I’m afraid you’re too late for that. It’s well into evening.”
Jamie blinked then peered up at the darkening sky where it was shielded by trees. “So it is. Apologies, Sassenach, th’ time got awa’ from us.”
I turned to Murtagh, and propped my hands on my hips. “It’s your job to be sure he’s home by supper, you know,” I teased him.
Murtagh glowered at me, but I knew him well enough by now that I knew the difference between his usual grump, and his playful one that tended to be aimed at me more than anyone else.
“Hmph. It ceased being my job when ye marrit him, lass.”
“You go on,” Jamie said to Murtagh. “I’ll finish up here.”
“Jamie,” I said in exasperation. “It’s getting late. Can’t you do this tomorrow?”
“Ye ken I’ll no rest wi’ a job unfinished. I’ll only be a wee bit longer.”
“Well, come on,” Murtagh said. “It’ll go faster wi’ the two of us.”
“No, you go,” Jamie insisted. “I’d rather Claire have an escort anyway. There’ve been painters about.”
Murtagh sighed and put down his tools. “ Fine . But if ye’re not home by th’ time Claire’s finished setting th’ table, I’m comin’ and draggin’ ye by the ear.”
“Aye, a ghoistidh,” Jamie said, grinning.
While I didn’t doubt that there were mountain lions around, or that Jamie worried about them, I knew that he’d said that mostly to convince Murtagh to go, and I didn’t dispute him because no matter that Murtagh was healthy and fit, he was still pushing seventy.
Looping my arm through his, I started us back toward the house. “He seems to really enjoy this, doesn’t he?” I asked.
Murtagh smiled, putting his free hand over mine where it rested on his arm. “Aye. Th’ lad is finally home, after all this time. It does a heart good tae see it.”
“Mine too,” I agreed, leaning my head on his shoulder. In the back of my mind was the constant thought of the coming war, like a looming storm cloud, but I didn’t say what I knew we both were thinking. Sometimes it was simply better to live in the moment.
“And it’s good tae see you so settled and happy as well,” he continued. “I dinna ken what those years away were for you, but I ken you and Jamie enough tae ken that neither of ye could have been fully satisfied wi’out the other.”
“Quite right,” I said. “It wasn’t...easy,” I continued, wondering how much Jamie had told his godfather of the twenty years I spent back in my own time. “Nothing like what you or Jamie endured, though. I was happy raising Brianna, of course, and becoming a doctor was a dream come true. But it was all so...hollow, without Jamie.”
“And your first husband?” he asked. “Randall?”
I nodded, answering the question he was tip-toeing around. “Yes, I went back to him. Jamie made me promise that I would. And even though being a single mother in my time wouldn’t have been as devastating as it would be now, it would have been very difficult, and he was willing to accept and raise Brianna as his own...and he did. He was a good father to her.”
“But what about you ?”
I shrugged. “I tried, I really did. Frank he...none of what happened was his fault. He loved me, and I did love him, too. Just...not the way I should have, and it wore on us after a time. By the time Brianna was eight we were husband and wife in name only. He fell in love with someone else, and I threw myself into my work to ignore how unhappy I was. I regret that, now, because it impacted my relationship with Bree.”
“Ye seem close now.”
I smiled. “Yes. In the end, I think it was more the fact that I was lying to her that made me distance myself from her, even more than work. Once I could be fully honest with her about who she was, and who I am, that wall came down. I’m so happy she’s here, even though I worry for her something dreadful.”
Murtagh nodded, and helped me step over a fallen tree. “Aye, I ken ye are, but she’s a strong lass, like you.”
We walked along quietly as the shadows grew longer, until he looked at me with another question written on his face. “Whatever happened tae Frank?”
“He died,” I said. “Several years ago. He was leaving me, finally, but he wanted to take Brianna with him to England, and we fought. He had a car accident...a...like a carriage, you see.”
“Car...” he mumbled, before turning outraged. “He was going a tae divorce ye?! And leave ye in shame?”
I chuckled. “Again, divorce there doesn’t hold quite the same weight as it does here. I was perfectly happy to give him the divorce, just not Brianna.”
“Hmph. He was good tae ye, at least?”
“Oh, yes. He was a good provider, and at least tried to be a good husband. He always was...before. But I think part of it…” I trailed off and bit my lower lip.
“I’ve never mentioned this to Jamie. He knows...well...he knows that Frank bore a family resemblance to Black Jack. What I didn’t tell him was how very striking that resemblance was, or how when I first returned, I could barely see Frank at all without seeing his fucking ancestor.”
“Christ,” Murtagh breathed. “Can I at least say I’m glad that particular family tree is gone? Or...or did he have children?”
I shook my head. “No, Frank couldn’t have children. And yes, you’re perfectly entitled to feel that way. Be careful, the ground here is slick.”
At the hill leading to the house, the recent rain had washed part of it away, leaving muddy inclines that could sneak up on you if you weren’t careful. I picked up my skirts, wary of having to clean the hems again . Jamie would take the longer way down on Gideon, but at our rate, he could have finished at the still and beat us home.
“What’s for supper?” Murtagh asked, releasing my arm so that I could proceed him down the hill.
“Good ol’ bangers and mash,” I said, with a cheeky grin over my shoulder. “And I’ll have you know I…”
I didn’t get to finish what I was saying, as suddenly the ground slid out from under me and I went tumbling down the hill, scrambling for purchase as my body ricocheted off rocks and sticks before landing with a hard thump that turned the world black.
My head felt like it was going to split apart into two. It was even worse than the hangover I got after playing a drinking game with some of the other nurses during the war...and won.
I tried to open my eyes, but my vision swam and it was nauseating, so I shut them again.
“Christ! Are ye alright, lass?!”
I frowned at the sound of the unfamiliar voice, until suddenly it all came rushing back to me in a sickening wave.
Driving along the roads of Scotland with Frank.
Watching the women dance around the stones.
Going back to the stones alone...hearing that strange hum...touching them...then waking up in a nightmare with a man who looks just like Frank...but who tried to rape me.
I’d been saved from rape but immediately bashed in the head by an erstwhile savior, who was currently trying to shake me awake.
When I opened my eyes this time, my vision was clear, and my “savior’s” face was inches from mine.
“Get away from me!” I screamed, shoving him back and scrambling backward.
“Claire, it’s me!” he exclaimed.
I paused, staring at him in alarm. “How...how do you know my name?”
I looked around, confused. How long had I been unconscious? It had been morning last I remembered, and now it was nearly night, and he seemed to have taken me to another location.
“I must be dreaming,” I muttered.
“Come on, lass,” the man said, reaching for me. “We’d best let Marsali take a keek at ye, I think ye’ve hit your heid.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you until you tell me who you are, where I am, and why the hell do you know my name?!”
He stared at me in obvious concern, and something that almost looked like heartbreak, which only served to confuse and alarm me more. It was dark, and I could only make out his basic features, but I definitely knew him for the man who’d saved me.
“Claire,” he said lowly. “It’s me, Murtagh. Don’t ye know me?”
“No, I don’t!” I pushed myself to my feet, wincing and holding my head as I did so. “Why did you have to hit me?”
“I didn’a hit ye! Ye fell, ye daft wee thing! Why th’ devil would I hit ye?!”
Gritting my teeth, I took a step closer. “Listen, I don’t know what sort of game you’re at. If I’ve stumbled into some sort of...of...I don’t know, cult commune, I’m sorry, and I’m very grateful to you for your help before but my husband will be looking for me and he will not be happy to learn what you’ve done.”
“Aye, I ken he’ll be looking for ye,” he said. “And he’ll no’ be happy that I let ye fall, but I promise ye lass, I’d never hurt ye.”
His utter sincerity caught me a little off guard, but I tried to stand firm. “You know where my husband is?”
“Aye,” he said patiently, pointing over my shoulder. “Judging by Gideon o’er there, he’s beat us home. Ye were out for several minutes.”
I turned around to see a large house sitting in a clearing beside a stream. I was wary, no matter how warm and cheery it looked, but even if this...this Murtagh was lying, perhaps there was a telephone inside I could call for help with.
I knew even as I thought it though, that there was no phone. Besides there being nothing in the way of phone or power lines, there were no cars, and no road. Just horses, and a wagon.
I refused to believe what my mind was whispering to me.
“You say my husband is inside?” I asked cautiously.
“Aye, and he will be coming looking soon. Let’s go.”
He took my arm, but this time there was no suggestion as to where we were going as he led me firmly toward the house. I decided it was probably in my best interest to go along.
When we stepped through the front door, we were greeted by a warm, homey place, with a roaring fire, herbs and flowers hanging from the ceiling, and the smell of something cooking that had my mouth watering even despite my nausea.
A tall... very tall man came around the corner, looking concerned. He was older, in his late forties perhaps, but handsome, and looked strong as an ox. He had light red hair tied back in a ponytail and clothes that looked straight out of a storybook.
“What th’ devil,” he murmured, rushing to my side and taking me by the arms. I flinched back in fear, but he didn’t hold me tightly, just looked me over where I was covered from head to foot in mud. “What’s happened to ye?”
“She fell,” Murtagh answered for me, which was a good thing, because I found to my disconcertment that I’d been struck a bit speechless by this other man’s intensely blue eyes. “She’s taken a bump tae th’ heid, and I think it’s rattled her brain a bit. She’s acting like she doesn’a ken me.”
“I don’t ... ken him,” I said, giving myself a mental shake. “And I didn’t fall! He struck me on the back of my head and knocked me out!”
The redheaded gentleman reared back, his face scrunching up. “Murtagh? Striking you ? Sassenach, he’d no sooner lay a hand on ye than th’ White Sow would grow wings and fly, ye ken that.”
Finally snapping out of my slight daze, I broke out of his arms and took a large step back. “I don’t know that! I don’t know him and I don’t know you!” I whirled back on Murtagh. “You told me my husband was here!”
“Claire, I’m right here,” the redhead said, grabbing my arms again. “Ye’re scaring me, mo nighean donn!”
“Get your goddamned hands off me, you brute!” I exclaimed, resisting succumbing to panic. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but you’re not my husband!”
“Murtagh,” he said lowly, releasing me. “Go get Marsali. Now.”
He took a few steps back, giving me space. I didn’t feel particularly threatened by him, despite his enormous size and obvious strength. The worry in his eyes though...the uncanny feeling that he knew me...that was bloody well terrifying. That it seemed like I was somehow back in time was only the beginning of the strangeness around me and I had no idea what to do.
“Dinna be scairt, lass,” he said softly. “No one here will harm ye. My daughter-in-law is learning tae be a healer, and she’s becoming a fine one.”
“I’m not hurt,” I said, regardless of the pounding in my head.
“Something isn’a right, Sassenach, as ye canna seem tae remember how ye came tae be here.”
“I know how,” I said hotly. “Your father, or friend, or whoever he is struck me in the head and brought me here! I didn’t do anything wrong! That bastard attacked me !”
“Who?” he asked urgently, his eyes flashing. “Who attacked ye?”
I took a step back, a little startled by his intensity. “A...a redcoat. A man by the name of Randall.”
This time it was he who took a step back, staring at me in horror. “ What ?”
A rush of dizziness went through me, and he noticed, because he took my arm and led me gently to a chair.
“Easy, lass,” he murmured. “D’ye feel as ye might be sick?”
“No,” I lied, but he swiftly grabbed a wooden bucket from near the fireplace and set it near me.
Concussion , my mind informed me. A traumatic brain injury which causes temporary loss of function in the higher centers of the brain.
“Aye, I’ve had a concussion myself, lass.”
I blinked up at him, neither aware that I’d spoken aloud, or even how I came to know so much about concussions. Sure, I’d dealt with my share in the war...but in my mind was an image of a concussed brain and I didn’t remember ever seeing that before.
“Symptoms include headache, nausea, loss of consciousness and…” I winced with a particularly sharp pain. “Amnesia.”
A thunderous sound had me jumping to my feet in fear before the front door of the house flew open and a sea of people filed in. I found myself semi hiding behind the red headed man like a fool.
There were two men, in addition to Murtagh, several children, and two young women.
“I didn’a tell ye tae bring th’ whole ridge,” the redheaded man muttered between his teeth.
Murtagh snorted. “They were all at Fergus’s when I got there, did ye think I could stop them?”
“Da?” said a pretty redheaded woman, very clearly the large man’s daughter as she was virtually a carbon copy of him. “Murtagh told us…”
“Aye,” he broke in quickly. “We’ve a visitor…”
“Visitor?” she said, looking around him. “Mama, are you alright?”
I felt my stomach drop to somewhere around my toes when the woman made eye-contact with me .
“Mama?” I whispered.
A petite blonde woman approached me confidently, taking my face in her hands. “Where did ye hit your head, Ma? D’ye feel sick?”
I pushed away from her, scrambling to get away. Mama? Ma? By God, these women were around my own age! “What is wrong with you people?” I asked, hating how my voice trembled. “You...you must have mistaken me for someone else!”
“Milady, what are you talking about?” Asked one of the two men, a slender, dark-haired man with an unusual French accent. “We are your family!”
“Stop it!” I screamed, backing myself into a wall. “I don’t fucking know who any of you are! Now, I want to be taken back to where that bloody old man found me right this instant!”
“Aye, Mistress,” the redheaded man said softly. “It’ll be as ye say…”
“Da,” his daughter said reproachfully. “There’s obviously something wrong with her!”
“Aye,” he snapped at her. “She’s been frightened, and she’s lost. None of us are helping by crowding th’ poor lass,” he turned to me, and his expression was so gentle, I couldn’t help but be soothed by it. “It’s late now, we canna go anywhere tonight. But perhaps if ye tell us your husband’s name, I can get word tae him?”
I avoided looking at everyone else by keeping my eyes on him, somehow feeling like I could trust him, if no one else. “Frank,” I said, but I knew, deep inside, that there was no way they could possibly get word to him. Those stones had sent me...somewhere, and I needed get back now.
“Oh my God...” the redheaded woman gasped. “She doesn’t remember!”
“Remember what?! ” I cried, growing panicked again.
“It’s alright, lass,” the man murmured, approaching me as carefully as one might a startled horse. “As I said, you’re safe here. Dinna fash, we’ll get ye back to your husband. I swear tae ye.”
“But Grandpere,” piped up a little boy from the French man’s side. “ You’re her husband!”
Someone scolded the child, but I didn’t hear anything else before, once again, the world went black.