Murtagh stood in the quiet stillness of the L’Hopital graveyard, his teeth clenched painfully, his knuckles white at his sides, his eyes locked on the simple stone.
1715 - 1744
“She was…alone, then?”
“Not entirely, Monsieur ,” the soothing tones of the one called Mother Hildegarde filled his ears. “We prayed over her daily, nightly. I myself hardly ever left her side.”
Murtagh nodded, his throat constricting any words he attempted.
“And she would not let go of the child,” she continued. “She held her in her arms until she could not any longer. She was…we were all worried the child would be lost.
“The boy was with her as well,” she said softly. “The one called Fergus. He brought her flowers.”
Murtagh hadn’t thought it could sting any more, but then the thought of that wee lad holding her hand as she wasted away in front of him nearly had him gasping for air. He was a pesky wee thing, always finding some way to get under Murtagh’s skin. But the thought of him experiencing such horrors…
“Was he…there? When she…?”
“ Non, Monsieur .”
Murtagh wasn’t sure if that was a comfort or another dagger to his chest.
“He was here, but he was asleep. It was the middle of the night,” Mother Hildegarde explained. “I was praying over her, she’d already been given her last rites, she and the child. She was growing weaker by the second. I knew she would be gone soon. But something strange happened…just before.”
“She was looking at the child, always, of course, but something…changed, suddenly. She seemed to come alive again…for the briefest moment I thought we had been granted a miracle.”
Murtagh looked up from the delicate lettering of her name for the first time since laying eyes on it, bushy brows furrowed together as he looked upon the old nun.
“How d’ye mean…?”
“The color returned to her cheeks, her eyes opened up and sparkled, and she smiled.” The woman’s eyes seemed to sparkle themselves, in quiet amazement at the brief miracle she’d witnessed. “She looked at the child as if it were her first time laying eyes on her, and said: ‘My God…it was her.’”
Murtagh felt all the more confused.
“Who was who…? What does it mean…?”
“I do not know, Monsieur , I wish I had the chance to ask her. Before I could, her eyes slid shut, and she leaned back, all her strength leaving her again. I heard the softest whisper, the last thing she ever said: ‘She’ll be alright.’” Her eyes held calm seas of sadness as she went on: “And then…she was gone.”
Murtagh sighed heavily, running a hand over his face, taking with it several lingering tears.
“She… is alright? The bairn?”
“ Oui , Monsieur . That is a miracle that did last,” she confirmed. “Madame de La Tour came for her. She helped with the burial as well. She brought us the dress she is buried in.”
As if he’d forgotten, the reminder that she was indeed buried beneath his feet nearly had him crumbling to the ground.
“As far as I know, she is still in her care,” she went on. “As is the boy.”
“I…I thank ye, Mother. Ye’ve been…most kind.”
She nodded solemnly. “I will leave you now. My deepest sympathies. She was…a remarkable woman.”
“Aye,” Murtagh breathed hoarsely. “She was.”
He lowered himself to one knee in front of the short headstone, crossing himself and kissing his fingertips.
“Oh, lass…” he muttered, his shoulders trembling. “I ken I never said it, and I’ve no reason other than my being a damned fool…but I loved ye, Claire. Ye were my own lass, sure as Jamie is my own lad.”
How am I gonnae tell him…?
He didn’t believe him.
Rather, he refused to.
Murtagh told him in the carriage that was taking them directly from the Bastille to L’Hopital . All he said, or rather growled , was a terrifying:
It wasn’t until Murtagh dragged him through the graveyard and practically shoved him in front of the stone that something finally registered. He fell to his knees at the sight of her name carved in stone, his eyes unblinking. His hands fisted the grass, his fingers drilling holes into the dirt, as if he could rip the ground apart and drag her back to him.
“Her last…” Jamie stuttered, his beard trembling fiercely. “Her last…moments. Tell me.”
Murtagh stood behind him, not touching him, calmly relaying everything the sisters had told him: Claire had spent every last conscious moment breathing life into their child, singing to her, feeding her. She didn’t let go of her until life was gone from her arms, and she passed with a smile on her face.
Jamie didn’t seem to be listening. He was dragging himself on all fours closer to the headstone until his knees touched it, and he began running his fingers over the lettering of her name.
“There’s something ye’re no’ saying.”
It made Murtagh jump.
“Tell me. Now.”
Murtagh swallowed thickly, knowing full well that what he’d deliberately left out should have stayed left out.
“The sisters said that she…she cried out to ye. In her fits and fevers.”
Murtagh may as well have plunged a dirk through his stomach; Jamie doubled over as if he had.
The great man trembled violently, bringing his forehead to rest on the cool marble of her headstone. He gripped the edges with white knuckles, the way he’d seen him grip the lass’s shoulders.
Oh, Jamie, lad…
And then he screamed.
After Murtagh had pulled some strings and granted some favors, the King had been quite gracious in allowing them a few weeks to get themselves together before the banishment from France was put into full effect. Time was running out, however, and there were several issues left unaddressed.
Murtagh had assumed that Fergus would be coming with them regardless; even before this whole ordeal he’d fully expected to find the lad bounding about Lallybroch when he returned from his now abandoned wine venture in Portugal.
None of that mattered now anyway.
Murtagh had already thought ahead of perhaps signing oaths of loyalty to the king of England, lest Prince Charles try anything foolish that would endanger Lallybroch or take Jamie away from his child.
To Hell with that blathering fool now.
But it would appear Jamie didn’t need to be given a reason to be away from his child.
The lad was a ghost, a shadow moving from room to room through Jared’s house. No one could blame him, of course. The Bastille had left him thin as a corpse, and it seemed to be getting worse since he’d gotten out, much to Suzette’s dismay.
Murtagh had fully expected the lad to demand to see his child much in the same way he’d demanded to see Claire’s body, her grave. He expected him to sleep on the floor of the nursery, or even never put her down at all.
But he didn’t even acknowledge that she existed.
Murtagh made it a point to spend time with the wee thing every day, which Suzette found endlessly endearing (not that either of them had the heart to pick up where they’d left off after everything, but there was still a tender fondness there). The more time he spent with the bairn, the more it gnawed at him that Jamie would not. Murtagh was already in love with the lass, had been since he’d laid eyes on her and seen the son and the daughter of his heart in her every feature. She was precious to him.
And every day that passed where Jamie would not appreciate the gift he’d been given, Murtagh saw more and more red.
Jamie was wallowing alone in his bedroom, pointedly not the same bedroom he’d once shared with his wife. The bairn was crying, and had Murtagh not heard the wet-nurse already scuttling to tend to her, he would’ve been up to the third floor two steps at a time himself.
And yet Jamie remained in his chair by the window, staring unblinking at specks of dust on the curtains.
“D’ye no’ hear her, lad?” Murtagh suddenly burst, unable to keep it in any longer. “Is that it?”
Jamie didn’t move, didn’t make a sound.
“Does it no’ bother ye even a bit to hear yer child cry and no’ even ken what she looks like?”
“Leave me be.”
“No, Jamie. I willna any longer. Enough is enough.”
Jamie abruptly stood up, every vein in his neck protruding, freshly shaved face red as a beet. “I said, leave me be .” His voice was gravelly, low and dangerous.
“Have ye gone daft?” Murtagh went on, regardless of the fact that Jamie was more than capable of killing him with his bare hands. “Have ye plain forgotten that ye’ve a daughter sleeping above yer head?”
Murtagh jabbed a finger upward at the ceiling to emphasize his point.
Jamie braced himself on the wall with one hand.
“What d’ye want, Jamie?” Murtagh said bluntly. “Ye’ve been home fer two weeks now and ye’ve avoided the nursery like the bloody plague.”
Jamie’s jaw was hard, his eyes unfocused, unblinking, staring at the floor.
“D’ye no’ wish to keep her?” Murtagh continued, his voice harsh and accusing. “D’ye wish tae leave her wi’ strangers, never to ken her father?”
Jamie’s face softened a bit at that, but he didn’t move. “Perhaps that’s best.”
“Ye canna be serious!” Murtagh shouted, his face redder than it had been in a long time. “Ye’d truly abandon yer flesh and blood? Claire’s flesh and blood?”
“ Don’t .” Jamie finally turned, throwing his arm down from the wall, the vein under his eye straining against red skin. “Do not say her name.”
“What would she say, Jamie? To ken that ye’ve rejected the last thing she ever gave ye?”
“No! Enough!” Jamie roared, his hands clenching into tight fists.
“What is it? Can ye no’ bear that she’s the thing that killed her?” Murtagh dared a step closer, despite knowing it could end with his face bloodied. “D’ye curse the bairn fer taking yer wife away?”
Jamie’s face grew impossibly redder, one fist loosening to run his fingers through his hair, trembling like mad.
“Answer me, lad! D’ye accuse yer child of killing her?”
“No…God, no …”
Rather than the anger, the boiling, shouting rage Murtagh had expected, Jamie’s voice was cracked and small, as if the anger was swelling up in his throat and then dying on his lips.
“Then what , Jamie?” Murtagh pleaded, taking more steps toward him. “What is stopping ye from holding yer child?”
“I canna face her!” he suddenly exploded, fist slamming into the table at his side, knocking over the vase, landing in shattered pieces at his feet. “I canna look at her wee face and ken that I… I …”
“That you what, Jamie?”
“D’ye no’ see…? The bairn didna kill her… I did .”
Murtagh was taken aback, stunned into silence.
“I dinna deserve to hold her in my arms after I’ve taken her mother away!” Hot tears were streaming down his face. He was holding his hands uselessly in front of him in little cups, as if picturing what it would be like to hold her, and yet trembling, as if the thought horrified him.
“These hands…dinna deserve to touch that sweet wee thing…it’s my fault that she started bleeding in that field…”
“And then I wasna there!” He brought his shaking hands to claw at his face, as if to cover his tears, and yet unable to cease punishing himself. “She screamed …God…she screamed my name…and I couldna go to her…and they took me away…and she was all alone…” A sob tore through him, and he took a deep, shuddering, sputtering breath. “She brought my child into the world, and she died wi’out a comfort in the world…”
“She wasna alone, lad.”
“No one was even there to name the bairn!” He exploded again, fists colliding with the wood with a force so great that Murtagh thought the table itself would shatter. “Her own mother didna have the strength to do it, because of what I did to her, and her own father wasna there because…” His voice was getting thinner and thinner, as if he was running out of air in his lungs, until it finally only came out as a hiss.
“Jamie…ye couldnae known that they were in danger.” Murtagh chanced another step closer. He could reach out and touch him if he wanted, but he didn’t.
“Don’t ye see…?” Jamie hissed, his face itself trembling now like his hands. “I canna…I canna look at her, a goistidh …I failed her. I failed her all the months her mother carried her, I failed her the moment she came into the world, and I will keep failing her fer the rest of her puir life.” He ran out of air again, and Murtagh genuinely thought the lad would collapse.
“Claire is dead,” he said woodenly, as if to convince himself more than anything else. “She is gone, and she is never coming back. My child is motherless because I was a selfish, worthless fool.” More tears spilled out of his eyes as he closed them for a moment, breathing. “She deserves to be brought up by people that havena hurt her as I have. By people that…that didna kill her mother.”
Murtagh’s chest ached more fiercely than it had in years, perhaps for the first time since poor Ellen left this Earth. He’d never known such pain as losing her, until seeing the pain of her son losing the love of his life.
He had no words, nothing to say that would convince Jamie to let go of his guilt. There was no denying that perhaps if the lass had gotten help sooner instead of rushing to the duel, things may have been different. No matter how he worded any rebuttal he tried, it would not ease the lad. She was gone, and he would feel that loss for the rest of his life.
But the child was not gone. And Murtagh would be damned if he let her be lost to him as well.
Only one thing came to mind to say:
“She has her eyes, Jamie.”
The lad staggered back like he’d been delivered a blow to the gut, his eyes shutting in pain.
“The color is exactly the same. Couldna tell the difference if ye looked at just her wee eyes.”
Jamie exhaled sharply, bracing himself on the table.
“What…what else…?” he stammered, eyes still closed.
“She’s started smiling.” Despite his sorrow, Murtagh’s chest warmed at the thought of her sweet wee smile. “Sweetest thing ye’ve ever seen. Does it in her sleep, as well.”
Jamie’s face screwed up, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed thickly.
“She has ears that poke out just the smallest bit. Tiny wee things.”
Jamie finally opened his eyes, swimming with turmoil and hurt.
“She’s beautiful, lad.” Murtagh didn’t expect the tightness in his own voice, but he couldn't say he was surprised. “Fergus, the wee gomeril, is quite attached.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, thinking. “If ye leave her behind, ye’d have to leave the lad, as well. He willna be parted from her.”
Jamie remained unchanged, lost in thought.
“Will ye leave wi’out saying goodbye to the lad? He’s grown quite fond of ye.”
“And the bairn,” he proceeded with caution. “Ye ought to bid her farewell as well. If no’ fer yer own sake, then fer Claire’s.” He waited for a reaction, for the anger he’d been met with the first time he said her name, but it didn’t come.
“I dinna begrudge ye wanting to leave her after what’s happened,” Murtagh said, despite how the very marrow of his bone argued against it. “But ye ought to respect yer wife’s memory. Just the same as ye bid farewell to her grave, ye ought to bid farewell to the only living piece of her left. That’s all.”
Jamie remained silent for a long time.
“Aye,” he said finally. “I’ll say goodbye. Fer…” His voice failed him for a moment, as if he couldn’t bring himself to say it. “Fer Claire.”
He hadn’t said no, nor had he acknowledged that once he’d seen her, he’d never be able to leave her. Which Murtagh knew to be true.
Apparently the lad’s resolve was not as strong as he’d like to think.
Murtagh hesitantly closed the rest of the space between them and put his arm around Jamie’s shoulders. “Come on, a bhalaich .”
Jamie had listened when Murtagh spoke of the bairn. He’d heard well enough about her eyes, her smile.
But, God, words could never compare.
He’d opened the door to see Fergus sitting on the rug in the center of the room, waving a rattle over the squirmy little thing laying there.
Fergus looked up, freezing immediately in shock. His blue eyes got impossibly wider.
Jamie could not speak.
Christ, look at that hair…
The squirmy little thing made a grunt of disapproval, apparently missing the rattle that Fergus had let fall limp at his side.
“Go on, Jamie,” Murtagh whispered.
Jamie could not move.
“It is alright, Milord,” Fergus said softly, sitting back on his heels. “She is healthy now.” He scooped her up and cradled her like it was the most natural thing in the world. “See?”
Murtagh had been right about her eyes.
Jamie, great, large man that he was, collapsed to his knees with a thud, never for a moment tearing his eyes away from her.
“Bernadette taught me how to hold her,” Fergus said proudly. Bernadette was the wet-nurse Suzette had sent for when she’d learned that Claire was not coming home with the baby.
“Do you want me to show you?”
The wee thing shoved a little fist in her mouth, and Fergus laughed, bouncing her a little.
Still unable to speak, Jamie just nodded.
Fergus stood up carefully, holding her close as he got to his feet. He slowly crossed the room to where Jamie knelt, nearly as tall on his knees as the lad’s full height.
“You must mind her head, Bernadette says,” Fergus recited as he transferred her weight into Jamie’s arms. “In the…the creux de ton coude .”
As the weight of her downy soft head settled into the crook of his elbow, Jamie’s entire world shifted.
She was staring up at him with those eyes, her eyes, wide and curious. Her wee fist wasn’t in her mouth anymore; instead, her lips were parted in a sweet ‘o’ shape, as if she were gaping at him.
He stared back at her, hardly breathing, unblinking. Christ, she was so tiny. He had never held a living thing so tiny in his life. So tiny, so beautiful, and so his.
Unprompted, her lips curved into a gummy smile.
Jamie fell apart.
His entire body wracked with guttural sobs, his mighty frame trembling as he fought to keep his arms steady, to keep her steady. He found himself rocking back and forth, as if by instinct.
He could easily cradle her with one arm, so he did, and he used his free hand to sculpt the lines of her squishy face, to wrap her beautiful red curls around his fingers, to stroke soothing patterns on her impossibly tiny cheeks.
“Oh… mo chridhe …” he croaked, stroking her hair. “My bonny wee lass…” He sniffled pathetically. “I’m…I’m sorry, m’annsachd …Christ, I’m so, verra sorry…” He took great, shuddering, heaving breaths as he lifted her closer to his face. “Ye’re sae beautiful, a leannan … A Dhiah …” He pressed his trembling lips to her little forehead. She was so warm, her skin so soft, and she smelled like Heaven.
He hadn’t realized until just then, but Murtagh and the lad had long since gone, and he was alone with his daughter.
“I’ll never let ye go again, mo chridhe . Never, ever again.” He buried his nose in her curls, inhaling her sweet scent. “You are blood of my blood and bone of my bone. I’ll no’ be parted from ye. My sweet little lass…”
She cooed, reaching up to attach her little hands to his wild curls, curls that matched her own. Somehow, despite the jagged, sharp pain cutting through his chest, he laughed. It sounded more like a snuffling grunt, but the giddiness he felt was unmistakable.
“D’ye like yer Da’s hair, then?” he said softly, pressing his head down further so she could reach better. God, she could pull each strand out from the root, and he’d let her if it would bring her joy. She gurgled and tugged gently, not strong enough yet to hurt him.
“Ye hear that, lass? I’m…I’m yer Da.” His voice choked up again. “Aye, that’s right. I’m yer Da, and I will protect ye, always. I will never, never let anything happen to ye. I swear it on my life.”
She grew tired of his hair and moved on to grabbing at his cheeks, which made his eyes water fiercely.
“Aye…I’m here, m’annsachd . I’m no’ going anywhere, ever again. I’m…” His voice cracked, and he swallowed. “I’m sorry I didna protect yer Ma. I swore an oath before God to protect her…and I failed. But I will not fail you. Aye, I already have by no’ protecting yer mother…but, by God, I’ll spend the rest of my life making up fer it.” He stroked the back of one of her hands with his pinky, overwhelmed by just how tiny her wee fingers were.
“I’ll no’ fail ye again,” he said solemnly, looking into her honey eyes.
“Oh, Claire…” He started weeping again, pressing the wee thing into his chest. “Oh, mo ghraidh …Angel that ye are…you are my gift that keeps giving.” He could feel the little weight getting heavier with sleep, so he leaned against the wall and laid her on his chest, watching in complete amazement as she nuzzled into his sark.
“Thank ye…fer her.” He laid his head into the wall, craning his neck and looking upward. “Forgive me, Claire, I’m…I’m a coward. I’m sae weak wi’out ye,” he said helplessly, tasting his own tears. “I will be strong fer her, I swear it. She’ll no doubt have yer strength, mo ghraidh . Maybe she can make me strong again, as you did.” He silenced himself for a moment, hearing for the first time the sound of his daughter’s snores, her deep, sleepy breaths.
“I dinna deserve her, I ken that. Like I didna deserve you. And she deserves better than me. But she deserves to know you, her mother.” He swallowed thickly again. “So she will. She will know ye, and she will love ye. And she’ll know how ye loved her. How ye still do.”
He sighed, feeling his tears leak down his temples and into his hair. “I will never stop trying to be worthy of yer daughter, Claire.”
The wee girl in question whimpered and smushed her face into his chest, turning her head to lay the other cheek on him in her sleep. His heart felt like it would either burst out of his chest or break into a million jagged fragments. He pressed a fervent kiss to the crown of her head.
“Our wee Faith.”