There were three things Claire was keenly aware of in that moment. First, that they were weeks behind Jamie and the gap of time seemed to stretch out ahead of them like the horizon ‒ something they’d never quite reach. The second was the gentle weight of Fergus’s head resting against her shoulder blade while he held loosely to her as their horse kept pace just behind Murtagh’s. She hated to move Fergus, and to stall their progress in closing the gap, but the third thing she was aware of was her bladder getting squished ‒ yet again ‒ as her body tried to accommodate its steadily growing inhabitant.
“Wait!” she called ahead to Murtagh as she started to slow her horse’s pace. Murtagh’s head whipped back frantically, but seeing no present sign of danger, there was a flash of irritation on his face ‒ but only for a moment. He slowed to a stop.
“I’ll be quick.”
Fergus slipped off the horse first and grabbed the reins so Claire could dismount. She did hurry, but the frequent breaks surely weren’t helping them catch up.
Inverness had been a bitter disappointment, to learn that Jamie and Faith had left the very next morning after Culloden and taken Mary with them. They were chasing after ghosts, not knowing the plan or final destination. The matron of the boarding house had only been able to give them the direction that the carriage left in, and from there, their search party stopped at every village, small town, and tavern along the way to inquire if a coach had passed through about 3 weeks ago.
The faint thrill of confirming Claire’s suspicion that Jamie had gone to Inverness first had quickly waned as they cobbled together some sort of trajectory to follow.
Only days before, in their trek through the war-torn Highlands, they’d caught on to the coach’s trail, with confirmed sightings of it that matched the time it should have passed through.
Still… as hard as it was to chase after Jamie and Faith, weeks behind them, they did so knowing that by all indications, Jamie and Faith were still alive and free, traveling under a guise with Mary Hawkins. That kept them pushing forward.
They started to build a map in their minds, comparing the direction the coach was traveling with potential destinations on the other side of that. Like Aberdeen or Dundee, or perhaps even further, into Perth or Edinburgh or Glasgow. And though Mary traveled with them… surely they wouldn’t cross into England…
“There’s a village no more’n half a day’s ride,” Murtagh said as Claire mounted her horse again and held steady while Fergus clamored up behind her. “We should aim tae make it there before dark. See if there’s anyone in town we can talk tae.”
Claire nodded briskly. “I’m sure we can manage that.” She glanced over her shoulder at Fergus. “All set?”
“Then lead the way, Murtagh.”
And amidst all of this was a fourth awareness, ever-present since she’d opened her eyes that morning. Something never far from her mind and that kept her heart heavy even as they chased desperately after her husband and child.
This day was Faith’s second birthday. And Claire was missing it.
“Ye’d swear th’ whole village was blind…” Murtagh groused, mostly to himself. Then his gaze locked with Fergus’s and this time he directed his next words to the boy. “No’ a single intelligent person anywhere to be found.”
He proceeded to prepare the fresh-caught game for their dinner, not expecting a reply. Fergus stayed silent and swung his gaze over to Claire, checking her reaction.
She smiled slightly, all that she could muster in the moment.
“Where will we go now?” Fergus asked her.
“We’ll still keep pressing southward along the most likely route they would be traveling.” She tried to look more confident in that plan, but caught Murtagh’s frown and figured it hadn’t been too reassuring to Fergus. “Not the first place we’ve stopped without getting answers,” she added as a reminder.
“I suppose,” was all Fergus said to that. He’d built a fire and stacked the wood how Claire had taught him, so that a new log would feed into the fire once the one before it had turned to ash.
They’d made it to the village well before dark and after their rather unsuccessful encounter with the locals, they’d had time to head out to the woods and set up camp. With limited funds that they weren’t sure how far would need to be stretched, they rarely ate in town or stayed at a tavern for the night.
When the food had been cooked over the fire, Claire divided up the portions, giving Murtagh the largest. He tore off some of the meat from his portion and pushed it back into Claire’s hands. “Ye dinna eat enough,” he said in response to her bewilderment.
They ate the bird and some of the potatoes Jenny had provided.
“It’s Faith’s birthday,” Claire said softly over the crackle of the fire. “She’s two.”
Her statement was met with resounding silence from Murtagh and Fergus, except for the soft Scottish harrumph from the older man that she couldn’t quite interpret.
She wasn’t sure what she expected out of telling them, other than it felt wrong to let the day pass without acknowledging it in some way.
Fergus wiped one greasy hand on his pants and reached into his bag propped next to him. He fished out his wooden horse and set it to stand in the grass between him and Claire while he chewed. “Sometimes we have to wait for things, Milady,” he said kindly ‒ sagely, even ‒ while talking around the mouthful of food.
She locked eyes with him and felt her vision swim with tears when he nodded encouragingly. They’d asked him to wait when it was his birthday ‒ smack dab in the middle of a war ‒ and he was still waiting. Still believing that his wish would come to fruition ‒ that it would be Jamie who picked out the horse for him. And in order for that to happen, Fergus had to believe that they would be reunited.
“We will see le petit again.”
“Yes, we will,” she murmured in agreement.
And she did believe that. It was only… she was desperate to find them and had hoped to be reunited with them swiftly. But the reality was setting in… of how long and how far they might be searching still.
And all the while, Claire was missing more days, more moments in her daughter’s life that she’d never get back. How many days had she already lost… and how many more would be swallowed up in the time it took to find her?
That night, Claire couldn’t sleep. She gave up after a while of lying there in the dark, listening to the soft crackling of a dying fire and the rustling of the wind through the trees, and finally pulled herself into a seated position facing the fire instead.
She caught Murtagh’s gaze across the fire instantly. “Not you too?”
“Aye,” he sighed.
“What’s keeping you up, then?” she asked, mostly so he wouldn’t ask her first.
He paused, linking his fingers together over his propped up knees. “Was thinking o’ the wee lass,” Murtagh admitted hesitantly, and Claire felt an instant pang in her heart. “The last time I saw her… and better times, too. Before the rising. At Lallybroch.”
She smiled against the urge to cry ‒ lately, she seemed on the verge of tears at any moment, the cause of which could never be determined between her raging pregnancy hormones or the pain of separation from Jamie and Faith. More than likely, it was some tangled-up knot of both things, she reasoned.
“She is a canny wee lass, and sae bonny and sweet.”
She knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Murtagh cared for Faith ‒ had seen firsthand at Lallybroch how the baby could draw a smile out of the dour old man better than anyone else ‒ but she’d never heard him articulate it so.
And god, it hurt like nothing else ever had ‒ missing Faith and knowing she had other loved ones who were missing her just the same.
Murtagh breathed in deep, and let his breath out slowly, his gaze on the dwindling flames. “I’m only sorry and heartsick for my role in all this… that I played a part in why ye canna see yer lass now, on the anniversary o’ her birth.”
She felt her throat constrict and shook her head. How many rounds of the blame game had she played for herself? “No, Murtagh… I’m sorry,” she managed in a hoarse whisper. “For what I said when I came back. For striking you. I don’t blame you for any of this. I was terrified and angry that they weren’t back at Lallybroch like I’d hoped, and I took it out on you.” She thought of her conversation with Jenny, and the words they’d repeated to each other in reassurance, in absolution. “None of us knew. None of us chose this outcome.”
She stared across at his hardened face, the lines of it appearing sharper in the fading light of the fire. He didn’t speak, and she wondered if that meant he wouldn’t accept her words for himself.
“Please forgive me?”
“Och,” he said immediately. “There’s nothing tae forgive, lass.”
They fell quiet for a moment, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Had her words made any difference, or did he still blame himself even if she didn’t?
There was a strange sense that they were merely retracing steps they’d already taken during the rising. That’s how it felt to Claire at least as they entered Kingussie, near where they had started training Jamie’s men back in August of last year.
They walked into Kingussie on account of Murtagh’s horse needing a new shoe. Upon arriving, Claire handed Murtagh a few coins for the blacksmith and considered out loud how much food she should purchase to replenish their stock.
It was then they all seemed to take notice of a handful of Redcoats exiting the tavern.
“Fergus, stay close to me,” Claire instructed as they parted with Murtagh.
She’d thought Fergus was right behind her as she walked through the small market and picked out some grains and vegetables to pair with the fish or meat that Murtagh usually provided for their meals.
She turned a corner and nearly knocked Fergus over. “Oh. Where have you been?” She set her basket down and her hands went instantly to her hips.
Fergus shook his head as if to indicate that was of little importance.
“Here, Milady.” He reached for her hand and dropped several coins into it.
Her eyes went wide with shock. “Fergus!”
He turned defensive at her tone, seeing she wasn’t exactly pleased. “I will not let you starve! And there is le bébé as well. I heard Murtagh say you need to eat well enough so it can grow.”
“Yes, but do you understand that there are very real consequences to stealing if you are caught?” she snapped at him in a harsh whisper. There was a flash of indignation in his eyes at that.
“I will not get caught.”
She grabbed him by the shoulder and tugged him over to a more secluded spot away from the market stalls.
“You might! There’s always the risk and ‒ for Christ’s sake, Fergus, there are British soldiers right here in town!”
“Where do you think I found those coins?”
She was horrified at what he’d just admitted, with the sudden urge to sequester him out of town immediately, should any of the Redcoats realized what had been done.
“Milord would not have doubted me,” he added accusingly, clearly in response to whatever he’d read in her face.
She recoiled from his words. “It’s not a matter of doubt, I‒”
There was a flicker of movement in her periphery and when she glanced over, what she found made her blood run cold.
Murtagh, on the other side of town from them, surrounded by the soldiers.
Fergus’s head whipped around and Claire had barely enough time to slip a hand over his mouth and hold him back with the other arm before he did something truly stupid.
“Don’t, Fergus,” she pleaded in a desperate whisper as he struggled to break free and rush toward Murtagh. “He’ll be alright. Don’t provoke them. He knows what to do.”
You’ll get yourself killed…
All the while, her heart thundered in her chest, and she hoped that what she’d said would remain true; Murtagh was a stubborn Scot through and through, but he wasn’t stupid. He was outnumbered five to one. Should these soldiers happen to have rosters of Jacobite soldiers, they wouldn’t find Murtagh’s name on it. Jamie had had the foresight to keep Murtagh and the Lallybroch men off of any records during the war.
And with a month having passed since the battle, Murtagh had put away his kilts at Claire’s insistence and now wore breeks. He didn’t look the part of a Jacobite soldier and there was no way these men could prove that Murtagh had fought.
Unless one of them recognized him…
Claire tried to steady her breathing and when she felt as though Fergus had gained some semblance of self-control, she let her hand fall away from his mouth, but still held him anchored in place beside her.
They watched the exchange between Murtagh and the soldiers but were too far away to catch what was being said.
But she took in the way the soldiers acted, the glances they shared, the way they held themselves tall and proud.
And the way Murtagh had to shrink in their presence.
The Redcoats were the recent victors, having put down the Jacobite rebellion. And to them, that meant they could assert their superiority over the people of Scotland as they saw fit.
Finally, the soldiers appeared to be ready to move on, some of them shifting their weight from one foot to the other and beginning to turn and break off from the group.
But one soldier still spoke to Murtagh until suddenly and unexpectedly, Claire and Fergus watched as he spat in Murtagh’s face.
Fergus flinched with his whole body. Claire subconsciously tightened her hold on him and something between a cry and a sound of disgust slipped out of her.
The soldiers moved away then, nothing escalating from them, but it was the sight of Murtagh standing tall and refusing to wipe his face in front of them that finally broke Claire.
There had been no reason for it; the man had spit on Murtagh simply because he could. Because he knew Murtagh wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
And to watch helplessly while these men degraded Murtagh left her with an emblazoned fury building in her chest. They weren’t better than him. And she knew if it wasn’t for Fergus right beside her just then, she would’ve been tempted to do something about it herself.
But she wouldn’t risk her boy. And Murtagh wouldn’t want that either.
Fergus himself was seething at her side and she had to tug him away and turn him so she could look him in the eye.
“I will slit their throats,” he said with such conviction that she was stunned into silence for several beats.
“Look, I’m angry too,” she assured him. “But Murtagh is alright‒”
“They had no right to‒” “I know. I agree with you.”
“They should still pay for what they did.”
She drew in a deep breath and fished out the coins from her skirt pocket. “Let this be your revenge, hmm?”
Fergus seethed in front of her, sorting through his thoughts. “I wish I had waited to rob them until now,” he said finally. “I would have taken much more from them. Bastards.”
With that, she realized they’d reached a resolution, and with a heavy sigh, she placed one hand gently on the back of his neck to tug his head forward into the cradle of her chest. He went willingly, his slight arms snaking around her waist to hold tight. “It’d be much harder to look for Jamie and Faith if we’re on the run from the Redcoats,” she said softly, hoping this idea above all else might take root with Fergus. He was so god damn cavalier sometimes, he had no idea how often he’d scared the living daylights out of her by doing something careless and risky.
Fergus sighed heavily, still vibrating with frustration. “I know, Milady.”
They waited for Murtagh to find them, having come to some unspoken understanding not to bring up what happened with the soldiers or admit that they had witnessed it. When Murtagh did join them, he was terse and itching to move on from Kingussie as swiftly as could be arranged, which Claire didn’t begrudge him for.
Murtagh’s horse had been giving a new horseshoe and Claire had enlisted Fergus’s help in gathering a few more necessities to augment their dwindling supply. But there was usually another reason they spent time in each village before they could move on and Claire hesitantly pointed that out.
“Dinna need to ask around. I already learnt all we need to know.”
“Someone here saw Jamie and Faith?” she asked, feeling a little breathless. Fergus perked up at this.
“No’ exactly. But the blacksmith had a lot tae say about a certain devilish black beast he had the misfortune o’ re-shoeing a few weeks ago.”
“Donas!” Fergus said brightly.
“Aye.” He smiled slightly as he grabbed Fergus’s shoulder and gave him a playful shake. “So we’re on th’ right path, aye? Dinna fash, laddie.”
“Let’s not linger about then,” Claire said decidedly.
She could tell there was something else going on with Murtagh, but chalked it up to the encounter with the Redcoats.
They’d ridden for as long as they could after leaving Kingussie before stopping for the night. Their evening passed in a similar fashion as it did every other night, with the one exception that Murtagh had found a moment when Fergus was out of earshot to ask Claire to wait up after the boy fell asleep.
Once he had, Murtagh jumped into his news without preamble.
“Black Jack Randall is dead.”
Her stomach dropped.
“What?” Her gaze flew to the outline of Fergus’s slumbering form under his blanket. He didn’t stir.
Of course she knew that bit of information. She hadn’t forgotten Frank’s discovery that Randall seemed to have died away from the battlefield, within a few days of it. The thought that he’d gotten to Jamie and Faith had haunted her, but she knew by the time she had traveled back here ‒ by the time she had learned the news even ‒ it would have been too late to do anything about it.
“Redcoats,” Murtagh muttered. “That’s why they stopped me.”
“I knew he was dead,” Claire admitted. “But the soldiers told you that?”
“Aye and there’s a bit more. They found his body at a tavern just outside Carrbridge.”
Carrbridge. They had gone through there as well, spoken with the owner of the tavern who confirmed that a carriage had passed through there. Said nothing of a dead body, though. Murtagh said as much and Claire shrugged.
“Suppose that might be bad for business. What else did you learn about this?”
“No’ much, but they are looking for whoever killed him. That’s why they stopped me to ask about my whereabouts, where I was from.” He absently tossed a leaf into the fire and watched it burn up. “The good news is they dinna seem to have connected it tae Jamie.”
Neither of them had said it, but both of them knew. It had to be Jamie.
“Well, I guess that’s something,” Claire agreed. “Did they‒ I don’t suppose it would matter to the soldiers but… no one else was hurt?”
Murtagh’s gaze locked onto hers and he smiled sympathetically. “Didna say. But we do know they came through Kingussie afterwards. Blacksmith confirmed as much.”
A cold feeling had crept in and Claire hated to put it into words. “He said he saw the horse. He didn’t say anything about Jamie or Faith, did he?”
“He did say there was a rather large man who helped him wi’ Donas. I didna press for details, but I’m sure that was Jamie.”
That she could believe… but what of Faith?
“He wouldna have kept going if Faith was lost,” Murtagh said bluntly. “What reason would he have?”
“Well, Mary was still with him. I imagine he wouldn’t just abandon her to the wilds of Scotland to fend for herself, she being an Englishwoman after all.”
Murtagh grunted softly at that. “Ye’re tired, a nighean,” he said gruffly, in a way that Claire knew to mean that he cared. “Get some sleep.”
She smiled half-heartedly at that ‒ and did stretch out on her spot near the fire for the night. But sleep evaded her, as it so often had on this journey.
Even if Faith survived… had she been hurt? Had Jamie? And had she been scared, in whatever events unfolded when they encountered Black Jack Randall?
Claire had told herself so many times that they must’ve slipped away from the British ‒ and thus Randall ‒ as her way of coping with the unknown. But now… to know that he had found them… sought them out, even…
Until they found them and she could see for herself that they were alright, she wouldn’t have a moment of peace.
One day, a storm caught them unawares. Their last touchpoint to civilization was a day’s ride behind them, and they’d started their travel early that morning, when the clouds were only an unassuming, white canopy above them.
But then the sky darkened and thunder rumbled ominously in the distance, and by the time they were scrambling towards the trees, they’d already been caught in the torrential downpour of rain.
Fergus argued for the cause to keep going, even through the storm, but Claire was firm in stating the risks that that would pose, such as hypothermia and pneumonia. Murtagh was more concerned about the risk of mudslides with the horses, but the two of them were at least united in the cause to wait out the storm.
That was how they found themselves wedged tightly under a small shelter they’d constructed, huddled in a line in front of a small fire at the edge of the shelter.
Yet another delay in their journey.
She glanced down at Fergus and saw his face drawn tight with concern. Slipping an arm around his shoulders, she tugged him even closer to her. “You know, in my time… there are horseless carriages called automobiles. What I wouldn’t give to have one of those right now…”
Fergus’s brows furrowed as he considered this. “How do they move without a horse?”
“They’re motorized. They have something called an engine that makes them run. And they can go even faster than a horse.”
She passed the time describing everything she could of a modern car to Fergus, and then moved on to tanks, trains, bicycles, and aeroplanes. Much like Jamie, the concept of flying through the sky fascinated Fergus.
And once she’d run out of modes of transportation to describe, she fell quiet and let Fergus (and Murtagh, she assumed) ponder these oddities of the future.
“It sounds so grand, Milady,” he said at length, leaning his head back against her shoulder. The rain lessened some, but was still steadily coming down.
“Hmm,” she murmured softly. “Maybe some things in comparison to this time might seem that way…”
But she’d seen the ugliness of the World War in her time, and she’d found beauty in this time, considered to be crude and uncivilized in comparison.
“Do you miss it at all?”
“No,” she said easily. “Although… the hot baths, yes. Especially now.”
Fergus pulled a face at that. “You can take hot baths in this time, Milady…” he said slowly, and she bit her lip to keep from laughing at him explaining that to her.
“Yes, I know, but it’s not nearly as much work in my time. Just turn on the faucet and it’s already hot.”
“... faucet? And how is it already hot?”
“Before ye begin tae explain that one, I think my heid’s already done in wi’ everything else ye’ve given me to consider,” Murtagh interjected suddenly.
“We can leave indoor plumbing for another day,” Claire agreed with a laugh.
They had reached a long stretch of wild country with little in the way of civilization. A land they had traversed before, twice during the rising. And along with their trek through the remote Highlands wilderness was an impending sense of dread. What if they missed a checkpoint or overshot Jamie’s path? Could somewhere within this deserted expanse of land be where he would choose to hide out from the British?
They were steering towards the village of Kenmore, Murtagh having decided that was the most likely stop on the journey. And since he’d been right about Jamie’s instinct to flee to the north two years ago, Claire was inclined to trust his judgement on this. Especially since he knew the landscape of this place much better than she did.
The nights had become the only moments on this journey when Claire and Murtagh could speak without Fergus being awake and present for the conversation.
Not every night. But enough that it had become something of a routine more often than not.
“Strange, isn’t it?” Claire began one night when the howl of the wind coming down from the mountain kept her from sleep. “That we’ve found ourselves at this again… searching for weeks but never quite finding him.”
Murtagh grunted in acknowledgement, a cheerless smile in place. “Och, aye. Canna forget that silly tune you sang during that time even if I tried.”
“What? The one you taught me?”
“Nay, lass,” He fired back indignantly. “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
She laughed as the memory resurfaced. “I sang that to you once.”
“Aye,” he said sourly, “And it stuck.”
“Hmm, my apologies for all you’ve apparently suffered as a result. I happen to like that one.”
“Weel, it never would ha’ worked for our purposes,” he said as one last hit against her song.
The wind whipped through their camp again and Claire pulled her thick shawl tighter about her. With the wind, the mood shifted, bringing them back to their reality. They were hungry, tired, cold, on what seemed like an endless journey. Their small moment of joy dissipated, as if carried away on the harsh wind itself.
“What if we never find him?” Claire uttered the words just above a whisper. “He has no idea we’re looking for him.”
She had no doubt that if Jamie Fraser wanted to disappear into the night without a trace, he could do it. And what would stop him?
The difference between this time and before was that Jamie had been looking for a way to return to her. Now, he believed her gone.
“Found him once before,” Murtagh reminded her.
“Yes. Captured. I’m less worried about that this time, though.”
Claire shrugged, trying to appear more unaffected by her fears. “He has Faith with him. He thinks I’m gone. He knows the Redcoats will either kill him or imprison him if they find him… so he’d make sure they couldn’t be found, right? By anyone.”
Murtagh made that Scottish sound at the back of his throat and didn’t say anything else.
“And Fergus…” She drew in a shaky breath. “Well, I just worry. He loves Jamie so much… and I don’t know‒” She thought of that day in Kingussie, how he’d said Jamie would never doubt him. “If it’s just me that Fergus has… what if that’s not… enough?”
“Claire.” Murtagh said her name in such a way that it felt as though he was gently chiding her. “The lad loves ye.”
Her throat clogged with emotion and she wiped gingerly at the silent tears that spilled down her cheeks.
Murtagh sighed heavily. “Ye didna see him. After Culloden. When I came back wi’ the news that Jamie would stay to fight… there was still a hope, ken? That Jamie could survive the battle. We waited for news o’ him for days and days. But ye and Faith were gone for good ‒ that’s what we kent at the time. For two weeks, Fergus grieved ye. Ye’re his family too. He doesna just want Jamie back… he needs ye both, ken.”
She nodded solemnly, still too choked up to speak as fresh tears clouded her eyes. He did something then he hadn’t yet in any of their late-night conversations; she watched as he stood and made his way over to her side of the fire, plopping down next to her. His arm went about her shoulders and gave her a gentle squeeze.
“S’alright, a nighean.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder, feeling more emotions in that moment than she could put into words, but taking comfort in Murtagh’s support and steadfast loyalty while everything else in her life felt shaky at best.
“I’m glad you’re here, searching with us.”
“Aye. I’m glad ye came back,” he said with tenderness in his voice. “And we’ll find Jamie and wee Faith. Dinna fash yerself.”
They were just departing from Sterling when the choice had to be made. Before them laid two potential paths with no indication of which one the carriage had traveled.
Should they go west towards Glasgow? Or East along the river towards Edinburgh?
Jamie’s end goal was still hazy to them, but they were fairly sure by now that he wouldn’t proceed much farther south than either of those cities.
“The lowlands were largely on the side of the British, so either place is risky,” Claire pointed out.
“Aye,” Murtagh sneered, none too pleased to have left the Highlands either way. “But Glasgow wasna a point of conflict during the rising. Edinburgh is likely still crawling with Redcoats since they recaptured it months ago.”
Claire considered this, wondering what Jamie would choose. What would be safer for Faith. “So Glasgow?”
“Glasgow,” Murtagh agreed.
“And how fast can they go, again?” Fergus’s curiosity had circled back around to the topic of cars, and Claire indulged him, having little else to pass the time while they traveled.
“There were some cars that could travel 80 miles per hour.”
“Eighty?” She knew he couldn’t really grasp it, having never traveled that fast before, but the number was very high. Much faster than they could manage on horseback.
“Oh, yes. Dangerously fast.” She couldn’t explain what prompted her next words, perhaps born out of her desire to protect those she could while struggling with the separation from Jamie and Faith. “They can be terribly dangerous. That’s how my parents were killed when I was young. A car accident.”
Fergus was quiet for a moment and she wished he wasn’t seated behind her so she could see his face.
“I did not know that, Milady,” he said softly, with an undercurrent of compassionate understanding she didn’t expect most eleven-year-olds possessed. His arms gave her waist a gentle squeeze and she patted his hands where they rested overlapping on her stomach.
“Didn’t seem relevant exactly when I was giving everyone the truth of the stones and where I’d come from. But yes, I should’ve told you. I lost them when I was five. After that, I went to stay with Uncle Lamb.”
She caught the slight chuckle from Fergus. Yes, those stories he had heard, some even before the truth of her origins, though those were always carefully constructed. He’d heard a few more on this journey and always delighted in them.
“I didn’t realize you were a girl then. With Uncle Lamb,” Fergus admitted and then, after some consideration, added, “I can’t imagine you as a child, Milady.”
“What, this whole time you thought I was an adult in all my stories with Uncle Lamb?”
“Yes,” he admitted with a laugh.
“I guess that makes sense. I always had trouble picturing my parents as younger than I would’ve known them. My Uncle Lamb too, for that matter.”
Their conversation lapsed in a comfortable sort of way. There was an intimacy in their shared experience and though Murtagh was only a few feet ahead of them, he felt miles away from their small bubble. And what Murtagh shared about Fergus’s grief was never very far from her mind.
“I used to play a game when I was little. After my parents died and I went to live with my uncle. I would pretend that they were out there in the world somewhere, still alive, and they would come get me eventually. It felt easier sometimes, if I could just pretend that I was waiting on them.”
“I used to play a game,” Fergus began quietly and Claire strained to listen, “that I had ended up at Maison Elise by mistake and my parents were looking for me all that time. I would imagine what it would be like to have them show up and take me away, to a home.”
“What was it like? What did you imagine?”
“It was one of those big houses that I would pass on my walks through Le Marais. Of course I’d never been inside a house that grand until Milord brought me to Monsieur Jared’s house. That house was more beautiful than any of my imaginings.”
She felt his head come to rest against her back again. “Of course, by then I did not need to imagine such things anymore.”
Her heart leapt to her throat and she gave another reassuring squeeze of his hands within her own.
They’d lost the trail.
By now, they’d learned to not give up if they came up empty at the first and second stops, but by their sixth time coming up empty, the doubt began to set in.
“Do we double back?” Claire asked. “Head for Edinburgh?”
In some part of her brain, the question rolled around that maybe this had been Jamie’s plan all along. For weeks, she’d feared reaching a point where any trace of them simply vanished.
Murtagh seemed to catch that look of despair in her eyes. “We head back to our last confirmed sighting. Go from there.”
Back to Sterling. From his spot behind Murtagh, Claire watched as Fergus’s face fell at the realization of the time they’d wasted since choosing Glasgow.
Fergus’s bedding was angled in such a way that when he curled up for the night, his head rested close to Claire’s.
“You’re quiet tonight,” she said softly to him, propping her head up on one hand. She studied his young face, glowing orange from the light of their campfire. “Are you feeling alright? You’re not sick, are you?”
“Oui, Milady, I am just tired.” He said all of this half-heartedly and without taking his gaze from the fire.
She reached out and brushed a hand over his messy curls. His eyes slid shut and he sighed. She thought of all he’d gone through in the last month and a half, from war to loss and disappearances of loved ones, to having one returned to him unexpectedly. And again she thought of his grief ‒ it struck a chord deep within her that she wasn’t soon to forget ‒ and wondered if Fergus was already bracing for some sort of loss with Jamie.
And that thought broke her heart clean in two. Because she couldn’t protect him from the hurt if anything did happen to Jamie, or if they failed to find him.
“Look at me, love.”
She waited until he had listened and tilted his head back to look at her. “I know we’ve been at this for a while. I’m tired, too. That’s alright.” She kept brushing back his curls from his forehead as she spoke. “And I know I can’t make any guarantees, but for what it’s worth, I believe we’ll find them. But no matter what, you have me. You have Murtagh. The baby, too, eventually,” she said with slight laughter in her voice. She was rewarded with a small smile out of Fergus.
“You have me, too, Milady. No matter what happens.”
She leaned across and kissed the top of his head. “It’ll be alright, love. Try and get some sleep.”
Claire laid there in the dark looking up at the stars, long after Murtagh’s snores had begun and Fergus went still and quiet. Her thoughts swirling around Jamie and Faith, the heavy fears of losing them or never finding them, the worry over Fergus and how he was faring‒
She breathed in sharply and one hand flew to her stomach, though there was nothing to be felt under its palm. But there had been a quickening in her belly ‒ the first movement she’d felt of this baby from within.
“Oh…” she breathed out. Tears sprouted in her eyes and spilled over gently. She was scared to move in that moment, like she might startle the small thing somehow. It was so quick, she wondered if she had imagined it. But no, she knew that feeling from when she’d carried Faith. “Hello, you little darling,” she whispered into the night. “I’ve been so worried about you.”
Her hand rubbed slow circles over the firm, small bump. “Thank you for letting me know you’re still there.”
Claire knew it was coming ‒ had remembered well enough from when she’d traveled through here with the Jacobite army ‒ and careened to the side in her saddle, trying to see around the bend.
Yes ‒ there it was!
“Fergus,” she called out, pulling her horse up alongside Murtagh’s. He looked at her, bewildered, and she grinned. “Look up ahead.”
Though they’d lost time in misjudging Jamie’s next steps, they had eventually caught the trail again after starting fresh from Sterling. Now, they were quite certain that Jamie and Faith were in‒
“Edinburgh!” Fergus exclaimed as the first sights of the city came into view. His gaze flew back to Claire’s. “We’re almost home, Milady!”
She felt her vision burn with tears and had to face forward to keep from crumbling as Fergus’s words landed.
This place had never been home to them, but Jamie and Faith had… and they were almost home again.