June 12, 1754
The sun had nearly reached its pinnacle as Jamie passed the first structures. Modest farms with small huts and grazing cattle and sheep and goats, hinting at the approaching seashore town. Wisps of transparent clouds floated overhead like unrolled gauze in a clear blue sky. They reminded him of the trails he'd seen behind the airplanes on the other side of the stones.
One hundred eighteen days had passed. Almost four months to the day since he'd seen his family. Thousands of hours since he'd felt his heart, trampled and limping along by sheer stubbornness and the barest hope, beat. But it pounded now against his chest. Anticipation made his hands shake.
Awaiting a boat in Ayr had been the easy part; within weeks of his arrival, the Redcoats had thinned (though did not disappear entirely), and with his scraggly, unkempt appearance, no one paid him much mind. But it also meant very few harbored much kindness for him, either. Without his skill as a fisher and his fair hand with snares, he may well have starved before buying passage to France even became a question.
The next ship had arrived one dreary morning in late March. Without much more than a shilling to his name, he had watched it sail again the next day with streaming tears of frustration. As it had grown smaller in his sight before disappearing altogether, he'd imagined it pulled a piece of his own soul along with it, stretching it to the snapping point. He'd returned to his little camp in the woods. For three days, he could hardly bring himself to move.
But, as he'd soon learned, that had only been the first. By April -- well and truly spring now -- the port saw two, if not three ships coming and going on any given day. Hope buoyed in him again, as did determination. He set himself to the task of trapping and skinning, peddling the meat and furs throughout the port; his wild-looking countenance, while not stirring the sympathies or charity of its residents, lent a certain credibility to his skill as a hunter, he wagered. He saved every coin he earned and lived off the wilderness. And, the third week of April, Jamie finally purchased his way on board.
So distracted as he was by the excitement and relief, he didn't notice it at first. Even as he stood at the ship's rail, watching the shore fall behind him, steady of feet and wame. Even as the ship lolled on choppy seas.
He wasn't seasick anymore. The realization washed over him as sure as the first raindrops that dampened his skin. It was no wonder, really. What was the sway of a boat compared to the reality-distorting passage of Craigh na Dun? Perhaps his traveling to and fro through them had inoculated him somehow.
Whatever the reason, as they chased the horizon out into the dark waters, heavy rain clouds unleashing its burden upon them, Jamie stood upon the deck, face upturned. And for the first time in weeks, he smiled.
This voyage is blessed, he thought to himself, laughing with elation. I will find them.
Newfound sea legs aside, his heart still ached for Claire and his lads. In his lowest moments, terror would seize him. Doubts would whisper to him. That they'd never made the original boat. That it had been lost before reaching the safety of shore. That he'd never catch up with them. That some other misfortune would keep them separated forever.
Every time, he shook them from his mind. He'd simply never stop searching. Eventually, he'd find them.
The shadows of a distant settlement came into view, trails of smoke from various chimneys and the jumbled edges of close-packed buildings. Jamie sped his horse toward them. Every so often, carts or pedestrians passed in the opposite direction, no one sparing him much attention or, at most, a nod or polite smile.
Of course, they would look on him more kindly than the folks in Ayr, with him being bathed and clean shaven and wearing something more seemly than rags. For that, he was grateful. If today were the day he found them, if his suffering were near an end, he hoped to stand before them looking like the man who could -- would -- provide for them, do them proud. He was so desperate for them he would've gone to them in any state. Still, he was glad he wouldn't have to.
The boat had docked in Le Havre the last day of April. Bad luck that Jared wasn't there and, according to the men of his warehouse, likely wouldn't be for weeks more. With a churning stomach but little choice in the matter, Jamie made his way to Paris. Entering the city filled him with dread and fresh mourning. But his cousin would be most likely to have news of Claire, and he'd brave far worse than his own memories to find her.
Jamie took every precaution, avoiding any place where someone may remember or recognize him as he slunk his way to his cousin's home where he received more bad news: Jared was away from Paris as well, conducting business in Portugal and not expected home for another fortnight at least. None of the staff from Jamie's previous stay had remained in the intervening decade, the strangers now in his cousin's employ wary of a seeming beggar knocking on the door and demanding audience with the owner. Even wrestling the itinerary information from the new doorman had been a job of work.
Thus he passed his days on the nearby streets of Paris, watching closely for his cousin's return amidst rummaging for food and guarding his identity. It mattered not. Jared would come home eventually. Until then, Jamie waited, and he prayed.
The village was quaint. Picturesque, as Claire may have said. An active market was bustling in the main square, carts and booths and people milling about for wares and gossip. From the square, he could see a stone church on the cliff top in the distance, the cross at the steeple top hardly more than a pinprick in the distance.
After a few well-placed inquiries at some of the stalls, he continued on foot, too antsy to ride any longer as he guided his horse onward by the reins. Following the offered directions, he came to a row of cottages near the cliff side. Flower boxes adorned the windows, vibrant blooms and greens spilling out. A gray cat paused its walk down the road to look at him over its shoulder before, disinterested, disappearing around the corner.
Jamie counted himself to the fourth home in the row and secured his mount to a post out front. Sweat dappled his forehead, and not just from the brisk pace he'd set for the last mile. His heart pattered in his chest, a light but rapid beat that made him dizzy. Stepping onto the wooden porch, he blew a slow exhale through pursed lips, bracing himself as he approached the door. He raised his fist to knock with a last frantic prayer when a sound on the wind stopped his arm in midair.
Laughter. A baby's laughter.
It was too soon to allow his hope to become gratitude; even so, he had little choice in the matter. Try as he might to quell the giddiness in him, to reason with his mounting euphoria that it may not be his baby that was near, it rose mighty as a wave.
The giggles continued, shrill and gleeful and glorious, a lullaby soothing his soul. They drew him in like a siren's song he succumbed to happily. Jamie stepped from the porch and followed the sound to an alley running alongside the cottage. The adjacent home, two stories tall as opposed to the single of his destination, cast the narrow opening into deep shadow.
Another squeal echoed down the long pathway, funneled to him by tall walls, and Jamie followed it. Step by step, the sound grew stronger, more distinct, music even to his tone-deaf ears.
The alley opened before him into a small, enclosed courtyard, but he avoided the revealing sunlight, not yet ready to make himself known. But as he took in the scene before him, tears sprang to his eyes.
Shirts and rags and clouts swayed on the line, shadows on the grass mirroring their movements as they dried. More clothes sat in a heap near the table and basin in the center of the yard. They'd been abandoned, though. The erstwhile washer, instead, sat on his knees in the grass, back to Jamie. Dark curls hung to his collar, shoulders hunched over as he cooed and teased in soft French.
You think my songs are funny, mon petit? I should give you a bite for laughing at me so!
And so the speaker bent, fingers tickling at the squirming body and nuzzling at the tiny neck with faux chomping sounds. A fresh chorus of joyous laughter filled the air. The speaker sat back up, a hand and a forearm braced beneath the babe's arms to sit him up.
Jamie stood, unable to breathe and vision swimming. He must have made some noise, for the brown curls jumped as their owner swiveled his head around before freezing perfectly still. Jamie couldn't make out the lad's face through his blurred vision. Even so, he stepped into the light, inching his way toward them both with the last shred of control he had.
It was Fergus's disbelieving, "Da?" that sent him over the edge. With three steps, he closed the gap between them and collapsed to the ground, arms going around his thin shoulders and one hand cupping the lad's head into his own shoulder. Fergus didn't pull back, didn't ask any further questions. Only reciprocated in kind, locking arms around Jamie so tightly he lost his breath. Or perhaps it was simply the overwhelming relief and joy exploding in his chest that stole it.
Finally, though, they did part, green eyes and blue staring back at each other through still-thick tears. Jamie smiled through the emotion, the corners of his lips turned downward as he inhaled through his nose to hold the sobs at bay.
A gurgling coo near his left knee tore his focus from Fergus. Brian wobbled as he tried unsuccessfully to push up onto hands and knees, rocking back and forth between his rear and his wee hands splayed on the grass, each little bounce punctuated by a babbling noise.
To see his bairn, grinning and drooling at him nearly drove him to hysteria once more. Not wasting another second, Jamie scooped him up and crushed him into his chest, swaying left to right. Christ, he was so much heavier now, more solid somehow in his arms, small as he still was. He smelled of soap and herbs and milk. But beneath those fragrances, he smelled the essence of his child, that natural aroma that linked them together, proof of their shared blood. Somehow, more than anything else, this assured him that they were here, actual and real before him. That he'd found them.
"O' course the lad's run off," a voice mumbled from the doorway. Sitting and kneeling as they were, the table with the washing blocked them from view of the entry. "Well, if he sees fit tae act like a bairn, I'll tan hi--"
"Murtagh!" Fergus said, jumping up. Jamie couldn't move still, frozen into place with a new surge of anticipatory joy.
"Christ, ye gommerel, what're--"
He stopped talking then, having stepped close enough to the table to see over. Jamie climbed slowly to his knees and then his feet, Brian still in his arms. Godfather and godson locked eyes, the former's face going slack. They simply stood for a moment on either side of the table, Fergus between them and Brian babbling and twisting in his father's arms.
Jamie broke first, stepping toward the older man and circling his arm around his neck. A few seconds later, Murtagh returned it.
"Thank ye, a ghoistidh," Jamie whispered into his collar. The words spilled from his lips over and over. He willed his tears to cease, his throat and head already aching with the force of them so far. And there was still one more reunion to come.
When they drew apart, a million questions danced behind Murtagh's eyes. But Jamie cared about the answer to only one. "Where is she?" he asked, pulse racing so fast he could hear it behind his ears. "Where is Claire?"
She was lost. She liked it best this way.
Sitting on the grassy cliff overlooking the sea, Claire allowed the white noise of crashing waves to hypnotize her away from consciousness. The sound was deafening even from this distance, so much so she couldn't hear her own thoughts over it. A welcome gift from the channel to her.
In her hands, she held the photograph. The one snapped at their second wedding day, the one he'd brought back without her even knowing. The one she'd found their third day on the boat, tucked away into the satchel of items Fergus had saved from the fire.
Her husband before her eyes, and the hiss and boom of the water in her ears insulated her from the outside world. Claire could almost pretend it hadn't happened. That he hadn't been caught, left behind, then...imprisoned? executed?
She abandoned those thoughts with a shake of her head and breathed deep, letting her mind drift and lose focus once more.
A finger traced over the edge of the photograph. Mrs. Graham had been ever so slightly behind him when she'd taken it so that his face was partially obscured by the angle as he leaned his forehead against her own. Claire longed to see him in full, but it was the barest comfort to have the look of pure, blissful love shining from him memorialized, a memento she could lose herself in whenever the burden of her loss became too great.
The boys made her days bearable. Fergus, who'd once grumbled at having to assist in women's work in the field hospitals along the war path of the Rising, took on such chores now without her even needing to ask. And her sweet, precious Brian, who'd begun to show signs of trying to crawl. Those were moments she could forget the coinciding agony and emptiness within her, those exuberant moments where she and Fergus and even Murtagh were crouched to the floor, calling to Brian from across the way, clapping and smiling and watching him puzzle out this mystery of movement. Not yet, but very soon.
But those moments couldn't be every moment. And sometimes, when she wanted to claw her skin straight from her bones with frustrated grief, Murtagh would take the cooking or the washing or the baby from her hands and lead her to the door. From there, her feet would take her up the path of the grassy hilltop, around the edge of the church, and on a ways further, where she'd plop down at the cliff's edge and stare into the water far below. The stone edifice shielded her from view of the path and the town. She could find true solitude there.
Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she screamed. Sometimes, like today, she sat quietly and breathed evenly, pushing all thought from her mind until awareness itself receded like the waves.
There was a thud of rushing footsteps somewhere to her left, but she hardly noticed it. She, instead, remained swaddled in the numbness and the not knowing, pulled it around her like a well-worn quilt. Ensconced in its warmth and safety, she closed her eyes as the corners of her mouth twitched up. So she didn't see him stepping closer.
The first time she heard the name that only he could imbue with such adoration, it was but a whisper on the wind. A tear slid down her cheek. It sounded so real.
Louder this time, but shaking. Unsteady, as though spoken through trembling lips. So unlike the smooth and calm voice she usually imagined.
She gripped the frame in her fingers as she returned to herself, panting, staring straight out into the expanse of sky and water before her.
"Look at me."
A demand spoken with such desperation in the voice that she was powerless to disobey. Breath caught in her chest, blood whooshing in her ears, she turned to the left.
He looked so lifelike. The mist from the sea clung to his hair, his damp curls windswept and unruly. Reddened cheeks paled as their gazes met, and his chest inflated and deflated visibly even from afar.
But he couldn't be real.
When he moved, though, the grass beneath his feet shifted. She heard the crunch of dirt and gravel beneath his boots. She heard, too, his jagged breaths as he began to run, legs pumping on the incline.
She wasn't aware of standing, nor of stowing the photo in a pocket. Wheezing and gasping as the pain overtook her anew, Claire implored her feet to stay rooted to the spot. They ignored her, stumbling blindly in his direction.
This was bad. A bad idea. The kind of idea that breaks you in the end. Whenever she reached him, when her body passed right through her vision come to life, when she failed to collide with that form she missed so terribly and it dissipated like smoke from a candle, it would--
The force of him would've knocked her flat had his arms not immediately circled around her, holding her upright. Her breath rushed from her in a keen, and her arms enveloped him by instinct more than command.
She couldn't even hear the ocean anymore, not over the sound of him panting and sobbing, broken Gaelic vibrating against her ear. She would bruise, she knew, from the five points on each shoulder where his fingers dug in like he wanted to bury himself beneath her skin.
With a sudden inhale, Claire pulled back. Eyes bright and cheeks shining with tears, Jamie looked back at her, chest rising and falling with the force of his breaths. The hands gripping her shook. Hers did, as well.
She took inventory of him. Palms glided up his arms, firm beneath the rough fabric of his coat. Fingers ghosted over the contour of his neck, the edge of his jaw, the hollows of his cheeks and the arch of his brow. His eyelids fluttered shut as she combed through his locks, feeling their coarseness. She twirled a piece around her finger and let it slide off.
Then, to finish, she leaned in again, her nose resting at the juncture of his shoulders to his neck. A droplet leaked from his outer eye and dropped down his cheek onto hers, angled just so beneath his chin.
She breathed him in, and at once she was whole.
"Jamie?" she whispered against him. She felt his nod, and his arms encircled her again.
"Aye," he choked out. A hand rose to cradle her skull. They rocked together for several minutes, neither speaking again. The thump of his heartbeat took over the job of the waves, lulling her to a state of near meditation.
Finally, she stood back again. "How..."
His lips crooked into that smirk -- God, that perfect, gorgeous, cocky smirk she loved so dearly. He swiped the tears from her cheek even as his flowed freely. "'Tis a tale, mo nighean donn. I'd rather tell it the once wi' all of ye."
Nodding, she swallowed, unmoving. Jamie suffered no such paralyzation. With a near-animal growl, he launched forward and took her lips with his own. Lights exploded behind her eyes as she welcomed him, grabbing his coat and pulling her body against his. Lips and tongues reacquainted themselves with fierce hunger. A hand at her back and another at her neck precluded any escape, though such an idea seemed blasphemous just this moment. If anything, she wished they could be closer.
Devouring became savoring after some moments, tenderness inserting itself between them. Her pulse never slowed. Only when he broke contact at last, both of them gasping for breath, could she temper the fire raging in her.
"I promised ye," he breathed against her lips, planting feather-light kisses against them that stoked her embers. "Be it within my power, I shan't be parted from you."
The familiar words, spoken in a century distant from this one, landed with force in her soul. "Every day from this day to be spent at your side," she choked. She raised her hands up to frame his face. His breath hitched as she did. Chills exploded over her body at the depth of his eyes gazing into hers. They seemed endless as the sky, and Claire wanted nothing more than to float into them, falling forever upwards.
Seventeen days in Paris, starving and hiding and praying, for naught. Jared didn't know where Claire was. She hadn't come. She hadn't written. Jared had offered him shelter and succor as long as he needed (and admonished his staff for not doing so in his absence), though Jamie could hardly bring himself to care.
Had they made it to France at all? And even if they were here, somewhere...France was no small country. He'd walk every inch of it without hesitation to find her, but what guarantee was there that she wasn't on the move as well?
He considered reaching out to Louise de la Tour as well but decided that Claire wouldn't have risked communicating with someone so entrenched in the French Court. And he sent a messenger to L'hopital des Anges, only for him to return and report that Mother Hildegarde was ill and, in any case, had not received any visitors in some while.
For the first time since his standoff with Grey, he considered the real possibility that they were beyond his reach for good. His heart hardened to the notion, unwilling yet to accept it. He'd walk himself into a grave before admitting defeat.
In Jared's house, he bathed and shaved, outfitted himself and stocked provisions. Then it was time to go. Time to begin.
His last morning in Paris, a tautness in his chest stopped him from leaving the city straight away. He'd thought it was simply the yearning for them. That was still present, the animal gnawing at his core. But this...this was something separate. Unable to settle, he departed on foot and allowed the pressure to guide him.
The closer he got, the clearer his destination became. A vice grip around his heart tightened as he walked through the gate and stepped through the grassy plots, carefully avoiding the square stones until he came to the right one.
Hers looked the same as it had ten years previous. Kneeling, he read his daughter's name in it, traced the shape of it with shaking fingers. Shadows from the surrounding wall and trees stretched and shifted as he sat there, staring. He spoke to her in his mind. Begged forgiveness for not being able to save her. Assured her that his love for her was still fierce, a permanent part of him. Implored her to grant him strength as he sought the rest of their family.
Unknown hours had passed when the voice spoke up behind him. "She has been well tended, Monsieur Fraser."
Jamie stood and whirled, unable to hide his shock at hearing that voice.
"Mother Hildegarde," he said, breathless. "I was told ye were unwell." And she certainly looked it. Her face was haggard. Lines that had, ten years ago, already spoken to her decades of experience now cut deeper into her skin. Sunken eyes and sloped shoulders spoke to constant exhaustion, and the shuffling of her steps even with the cane betrayed her frailty.
But still, she managed to chuckle as she stepped closer. "And I was told you were gone."
"Claire?" he gasped, closing the distance between them. "She was here?"
"Non, Monsieur," she answered. With heavy breaths, she eased closer. Her free hand reached into her pocket and drew out a parchment square. "I received this some months ago. She did not sign it, I presume in case it were to fall into unsympathetic hands."
Jamie took the paper with cold, trembling fingers. He recognized her hand immediately and sighed with relief, eyes scanning across each line as he hunted for clues as to her locale. She spoke of her new loss, seeking not only comfort from her one-time mentor, but also direction as to where her skills as healer may be most needed since, with regret, she simply could not bring herself to set foot in Paris.
Reaching the end, signed merely as "With Deepest Respect," Jamie looked up, the question in his eyes. Mother Hildegard's lips twisted into a small but kind smile, eyes equally soft. "The letter came from the Port of Brest. I wrote back early April, including a letter of introduction to an acquaintance priest in Étretat in whose discretion she may trust."
Étretat. Hardly twenty miles from where he'd begun in Le Havre. Ironic laughter bubbled in his chest and burst from his lips as he paced a small circle in the grass, face upturned as his hands rubbed at weary eyes. Were he not concerned about bowling the woman over, he'd have hugged her; as it was, he bid her profuse thanks and hurried from the cemetery.
He didn't care that the sun was nearly set as he sped from Paris. It had been two weeks' walk to Paris from Le Havre; if he rode hard, he could reach the seaside town in half that time. He felt joy, longing, and fear. With each clop of the horse's hooves, each bounce in the saddle, he begged God that this would be the final leg of his fraught journey.
"I promised ye," he repeated a moment later as he pressed their foreheads together. "And how I prayed to God every moment since ye left my arms that He'd allow me to keep it."
Silent darkness cloaked them that night. Claire fought sleep. She was terrified she'd wake to find him gone again. Even as she told herself that the warmth of his skin against hers and the release they'd chased with each other over and over as the sun disappeared from the sky was too vivid to have been imagined.
With the candle nearly burnt out on the bedside table, she traced her fingers over his abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, palm. She knit their fingers together, sighing. He was thin, muscles and bones standing out more sharply against his skin than she cared for; the hardships of the preceding months he'd shared with them all over supper had taken their toll.
"Ye ken," he whispered, apparently none too ready for sleep himself, "I've had much time tae think ower everything. And I realized something."
"Oh?" she asked. She shifted so her head lay over his heart, its rhythm further proof of his existence that she clung to. With a hum, she invited him to elaborate.
His chest rose and descended beneath her. "John Grey may have spared my life, but 'twas ye who saved it."
Claire lifted her head, frowning. "Saved you? Jamie, I...I left you. I sailed away, knowing -- or, well, suspecting at least -- what had happened. And I--"
"Ye did what I was prayin' ye would," he said, tone intense. He soothed his hand up and down her arm. "All the while in that room, I was beggin' ye to take them and go. Ye did right, mo chridhe."
Her curls splayed over him as she lowered herself again to his chest. "Then how did I save you?"
The smile that grew over his lips soothed her, as did his hand now caressing her back. "At Correyairack. When he came into camp, when I caught him, I was prepared tae do what needed doin' to learn whatever we could. And I would've, as much as I hated it." A ridge deepened between his brows. "'Twas ye who jumped in and began the farce that made the lad give up their position.
"So no' only did ye save me from havin' tae do violence on the lad to begin wi', but 'twas yer actions that led to the life debt that allowed me tae walk away free in Dundonald. And 'twas ye who pulled me through the stones and spared me from death at Culloden, as well.
"It's because of you, Sassenach, that I've been able to keep my family when, by all accounts, I should've lost ye many times over. And I am...so verra grateful to you for it."
A tear track chilled her cheek, and she pulled herself up to burrow into his neck. "We saved each other, then," she whispered against him. "Because I was trying so hard before you came. But...I don't know if...I'm not sure..."
"Aye," he agreed. His arms, warm and strong, tightened around her frame. Peace settled over her.
She'd begun to drift to sleep against her will when he spoke again. "I'm glad I didna have to harm him, both before and in Dundonald."
Claire wrested her eyes open and moved so she lay parallel to him. "I'm glad, too. I wouldn't want you to carry that, even if it had been necessary."
Roughened fingers brushed her curls over her ears then rested against her face, stroking at her temple in a motion so soothing she had to fight to pay attention to his words. "Aye, fer that. But also because he was a good man. I could tell it from the outset. 'Twas why I wasna scared."
"Well," he said with a shrug, "I was. I was scared of losin' ye and the lads, of the soldiers findin' you. And, aye, I wasna fond of the notion of imprisonment or hangin'. But I mean..." He swallowed, the bob of his throat just visible in the last gasp of the nearly spent candle. "Back in Inverness, I was afraid in the jail. It felt...it was too much like...like Wentworth, in a way. The place was bright and clean, but I was alone, and 'twas unfamiliar, and I didna trust the man who had me at his mercy." A choppy breath breezed over her face before he continued.
"But wi' Grey, even though I was shackled and weakened, even when it was clear he acted outside his station as...as happened before, ne'er did that thought enter my mind. It was a question of honor wi' him, I knew. I kent he meant to kill me, but never did I believe he'd have...have taken anythin' he wasna owed, if there's any sense to that at all."
Claire traced her fingers over his lips and along his prickly jawline. "It makes sense. And, for that, at least, I am glad."
They fell into silence again, and as the flame of the candle finally died and plunged them into full darkness, she felt his breath evening out into slumber. Sleepy thoughts rolled about in her head as she descended into oblivion herself. Thoughts of the very particular circumstances of events that had led them to this spot, to safety together at last.
Jamie's dream. Fergus's hand. Brian's birth. The Hogmanay raid. The Redcoat in the tavern. The fire. The boat. Mother Hildegarde. And, at last, John Grey.
The reason for the stones pulling them through to another mismatched year would likely never be determined with any real clarity. But perhaps that unique sequence -- only possible in this year, at this time -- had been the sole way they'd have ended up here.
Blackness creeped along the edges of her consciousness. As it overtook her, she planted one more kiss on his chest and, for the first time in months, fell asleep happy.