Jamie waited impatiently for his wife at the stables. It was near midday and he was in need of her healing touch. His face visibly brightened when he saw the mess of brown curls traipsing through the grass near the paddock. He pulled her in for a hungry kiss and then hissed when her hand brushed over his. Claire stepped away from her husband and assessed the damage, a slightly crooked pointer finger. She glared at him for his carelessness.
“Dinna fash tis just a wee bit out o’ joint.”
“I can see that.” She took his hand into hers none too gently and a ‘pop’ resounded as the finger was put back into place. “You know you don’t have to fabricate some injury as occasion to see your wife.”
“It’s lovely to see ye too Sassenach. Ye look bonny.” He cupped her cheek with his uninjured hand and brushed over the smooth skin with his thumb.
“And you look like a bird’s nest.” Her fingers sorted through the mud, sticks, and leaves tangled in his hair.
“I suppose ye’d like to roost on me then?” A boyish grin flashed across his face; he was clearly proud of his joke.
“That was terrible.” She rolled her eyes but couldn’t stop the small tug of her lips.
“As long as my terrible jokes make that bonny smile light up on yer face I’ll be making them til’ I’m an auld coot.”
It had been a week since Claire had sent her father through the stones. She was mostly solemn and stern towards her patients and the residents who sat nearby the wedded pair at meals in the hall. She stopped crying after that first night in Jamie’s arms, and became numb to it. The sadness disappeared and transformed into the monster of guilt. She felt terrible that while she had a future of happiness and many years to come with Jamie, she had cut short her father’s to probably no more than ten years before disaster struck. Some days she felt happy and secure in her husband’s arms and her heart swelled with an almost painful love when he would caress her belly at night. She was relieved her father’s travel had occurred earlier on, so that she wouldn’t be tormented with what ifs. And then she would feel guilty for being relieved that it was all done and over with. Guilty for not being more distraught over her father. Jamie was glad to see the spark of humour return to her eyes. Claire loved him all the more for being so patient while she muddled over her conflicting thoughts.
“And who is this handsome lad?” She brushed the snout of the black steed who had occupied Jamie’s attention before she arrived.
“Donas.” Jamie gathered the straw in his hands to flick at the horse’s flank. “Dinna tell me ye prefer his company to mine. He’s the devil who did this to me.” He lifted his hand and frowned in mock pity for himself.
She smiled at Jamie before returning her gaze to the horse. “Oh you poor thing, poor Donas. Do you want some carrots? I’ll have some bought just for you.”
“Dinna coddle the creature, Sassenach. He’s grown soft now and yer attentions will only make him more of a daft numpty.”
She ignored his comments. “Yes, I know that brute of a Scot wants so much from you. You really do deserve a break hauling that big clot-heid around.”
“Oh he’s the one suffering? He threw me clear across the paddock before I calmed him.”
“Oh really? And what were you doing that caused him to do such a thing?”
“Well Donas is like the devil himself, hence the name, and he willna let a soul ride him. But I’ve been persuading him to trust me.”
“It doesn’t seem like your persuasions are successful.”
“Och, give it time Sassenach. He’ll love me in no time. Ye ken Brimstone and him are something of a pair themselves
“Well I’m going down to visit the fiscal’s wife. Perhaps I’d take this devil off your hands.” She pretended to grab the reins from his fingers.
“No way Sassenach. And ye’ll be taking Murtagh wi’ ye. Or Willie even.”
Donas protested his master’s commands and nuzzled his snout into Claire’s shoulder with a snort. He eyed her with appreciation and almost instantly warmed up to the faerie’s presence.
“Well Donas seems like a respectable enough horse to escort me.”
“Sassenach. No. I dinna want ye to get hurt. Take Brimstone and Murtagh.” His tone shifted from playful to serious in an instant and she nodded in agreement.
Jamie put Donas away into his stall and led Brimstone out of hers. He tugged the saddle and equipment needed to ride the horse out of a shelf and readied the mare for his wife’s short departure. He prepared another horse for his godfather and left Brimstone’s reins in Claire’s hand. Murtagh was soon in the doorway of the stables after Tammas Baxter ran like the wind to send word to him. Jamie placed a chaste kiss onto Claire’s lips before hoisting her up into the saddle and wishing her farewell.
Claire spent the day conversing with Geillis over different methods and theories of medicines and herbs, while she took stock of all that Geillis had stored in her house. Arthur was unable to receive her properly and wasted away his day in bed. They stopped once to check on him and to give him medicine for his despair. The sheets around him were soaked in his sweat and he muttered incoherently to the ceiling. The foul stench of the room messed with Claire’s sensitive nose and she fought the urge to vomit in front of her friend.
“Puir soul. I dinna think he’ll last much longer.” Something in Geillis’ tone made her blood run cold.
“Excuse me.” Claire held the back of her hand to her mouth and rushed outside to be sick.
Geillis was right behind her and patted her back. “Oh, I ken how that can be. Puir lass.”
Claire finally took in the features of her friend. Her face was rounded slightly with a sort of radiance glowing off of her skin. Her stomach was hidden under the layers of skirts, but she had a feeling if she looked closely enough she could spot a small rise where the fabrics pleated.
“Congratulations Geilie. Though I’m sorry your baby’s father doesn’t seem long for this world.”
“Oh Arthur? I havena lain wi’ that bastard in years, though I’ve convinced him it happened on a drunken night. The bairn doesna seem to be motivation enough for him to live. A tragedy, truly.”
Claire blanched. All of Arthur’s symptoms aligned with those of gradual attempts at poisoning. Her eyes scanned the table full of potions and herbs before her and landed on the culprit. Was she an accomplice now? And why was Geillis being so transparent with her? She certainly couldn’t tell anyone of what had transpired, save her husband.
“Who’s the father then?”
“Dougal?!” Claire nearly shouted in shock.
“Aye, and we will be marrit soon. Our son willna be a bastard.”
“But isn’t he already married? He said in no uncertain terms that he would have married me if he wasn’t already.”
“Mhmph.” The high pitched noise was the only confirmation. The comment on his lascivious nature didn’t seem to phase Geillis.
“I trust ye’ll keep what I’ve said close to ye. It wouldna do any good for ye to go blethering as well, else what would anyone think o’ all yer visits here?”
“Of course.” Claire was still stupefied by the revelation.
“Here, my friend, it’s past dark and ye should return to the castle now.” She grabbed the basket of vials and plants off of the table and placed it into Claire’s hands with a peck on the cheek.
“Thank you. And once again, my condolences for your husband.”
“We must do this again Claire. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had company of the female persuasion.”
“Yes.” Claire stared blankly before her and descended the stairs to the cool breeze of the town square.
Her head swiveled in search of Murtagh, but she found no trace. Brimstone was alone by the fence she was tied to and his horse was nowhere in sight. The moon and stars shone brightly with a dark blue haze down on her and she untied the reins from the post. It was still summer and nearing the end of August, but her breath still caught in billowy crystals in the air. She tightened her cloak close around her body and shivered slightly. With Brimstone’s saddle and bridle already secured, she placed her foot into the stirrup and pulled her body up onto the mare’s strong back.
Brimstone trotted slowly through the narrow path in the forest. The horse and rider were nearing the stream near Leoch from the tell tale gurgles of water, when Claire heard a wail from inside the woods. The horse’s ears flicked back in recognition as well and she stomped her hind leg impatiently. Claire veered her horse off the path into the direction of the distressing sounds and swiftly jumped off the horse. The impact jolted her ankles but she walked it off. She hurried up the hill and the cries became louder.
A tall tree stood before her, with a giant hollow near its trunk. Inside the hole, layed a small bundle of a crocheted blanket. The wails had turned into pitiful whimpers by the time Claire had reached the baby. She took the poor thing into the crook of her arms and felt the rattling breath stutter through its lungs. Her tears clung painfully to her face as the cold slowly froze them. The baby could live, with her help, though it would take a herculean effort to do so. Without it, he would most certainly die. Determined to keep him in the land of the living longer, she frantically searched his body for injury besides the battered lungs. The last of his breaths were slowly slipping out of his mouth. Her hand pressed over the small beat of his heart, and with a resolute nature, she placed her mouth over the almost lifeless body and breathed life into it. Her hands surged with warmth. She felt his lungs slowly expand and the damaged alveoli and epithelial cells healed one by one. As she traced the healthy cells from his trachea, down to the separate lobes of his lungs, her own energy waned while his gained. A full, diaphragm breath filled his body and his cries returned. She slumped against the tree in relief. Her hands slipped the baby underneath her cloak and placed him near the warmth of her skin. She didn’t realise she had nodded off with the baby contentedly snuggled to her chest until she felt a hand roughly shake her shoulder.
“Christ lass yer shivering.”
“It’s so cold Jamie.”
He wrapped his arms tighter around her waist. A head of blond hair peaked from the bundle she was holding.
“C’mon, mo cridhe. We must get ye both to some warmth. Can ye get up.” Jamie felt the hot tears stain his shirt.
The voice was weak. “Please Jamie.”
“What do ye need mo nighean?”
“Hold me.” She whimpered.
Her hands tucked into the fabric dangling open on his chest and gripped feebly. Her hands shook. The blood inside of them had flown away, like the crows perched on the trees above and weighing them down with their considerable mass, wisping away what command she had over her own anatomy.
“I had to Jamie. He was dying. Forgive me. I had to.” She mumbled incoherently before slumping in Jamie’s arms.
“Forgive ye fer what lass?”
The child wailed into his right shoulder. He reached a hand towards her clammy forehead and frantically rubbed her back.
“Claire, lass. Wake up, please mo nighean donn.” He kissed her curls and held both of them tight to his chest, sheltering their bodies from the cold.
He steadied himself to carry them both back to his horse. It would be difficult to maneuver them both up onto Brimstone’s back, but he would move heaven and hell itself for the woman in his arms, a little thing like carrying her up onto the horse and keeping her steady with his strength seemed an inconsequential task to him.
He gently moved the blanket up around her and hovered where their child lay. His hand trembled and he sent a silent prayer for his bairn, that his wife would have the strength to survive this ordeal. He brushed some stray curls away from her ear. She whimpered at his touch and his heart nearly shattered then.
“Oh, mo nigheann donn. Rest your head, I’ve you.”
The night passed in a somber silence and Jamie watched over his wife closely, his only relief the comforting rise and fall of her chest. His eyes were red and burned from the lack of sleep but he didn’t dare even have a wink of sleep. One hand was always on her beating heart, and the other was always where their child lay safe within her. His eyes pricked with tears as his mind drifted to how lifeless his wife felt in his arms at that hill, but he shook his head; he would not entertain those thoughts.
“Mo ghràidh, wake up. Ye canna lay in bed all day or the whole castle will be banging on the door for yer healing hands, though I’d let ye if ye wanted.” Claire laid stiff on the bed.
“Claire?” He shook her with a mad fervor. He sat back against the headboard and gathered her in his arms. His lips peppered her face with gentle kisses and he rubbed his warm hands along her arms. Panic seized his heart and he wanted more than anything to be able to physically fight the weakness in her body himself. A duel he could do gladly for her, but he couldn’t save her from herself. Her body stirred and he exhaled a breath of relief, slumping back near her on the bed.
“Jamie?” She croaked.
“Oh thank Christ. Ye scared me, Sassenach. I thought ye were gone to me forever.”
“Is it the bairn? Is she alright?” Jamie placed his hand gently on the very slight bump that was beginning to show. Claire always said it just looked like she was constantly bloated though.
“The baby’s okay. I-how long was I like that?”
“Christ lass, long enough for me to go mad wi’ worry.”
“Jamie, I want you with me always. Please. Stay with me today.” Her grip was weak on his arm.
She felt like a slug. That’s the only comparison her muddled brain could conjure. A useless pulp of blood and bone.
“Where is he?”
“He’s wi’ Mrs. Fitz right now, dinna fash, mo ghràidh. We’ll see him safe.” He paused. “Something so wee made yer healing drain ye so?”
“Yes.” She didn’t have the energy to reply with more, so she just snuggled into his chest.
“I want ye to stop yer work down in the surgery.”
“What?!” Those words gave her the energy to spring up and meet his gaze.
“Ye might be tempted again to do something like that. I do not want to ever see ye like that again.”
“What if when I do work in the surgery you come down with me? I’m sure you’d be able to stop any ‘temptation’ as you see fit.”
“And what happened with that poor baby was a rare occurrence. Yes it drains me to heal sometimes but not at that level. I brought him back from the brink of death, that's very different.”
“Ye can work for one month more, wi’ either Murtagh and me watching ye. But then, I don’t want ye to step foot there again.”
“And your job at the stables?”
“Not as important as being yer husband. I’m sure my uncles will take pity on their poor nephew.”
“Where’s the baby?” She was becoming delirious with fatigue, making her forget his previous statement regarding the boy. “I need to see him!” She panicked but her words came out as no more than a whisper, and her feeble attempts to crawl out of the bed only had her floundering on the sheets like a fish out of water.
Jamie pulled her further into his chest and brushed through her hair with a soothing hand. “Shh. It’s alright mo cridhe. Rest now. When Mrs. Fitz comes ‘round again I’ll ask for him.”
She calmed at his touch and settled into the curves of his body. Her breath evened out and she was asleep once again, tired just from that small interaction. Mrs. Fitz knocked on the door soon after and brought in a tray of stew and bread for them to eat once she woke again. Jamie asked about the child found on the hill and she hastened to find the maid who was nursing him with spare goat’s milk and flour. The wetnurse was away. Laoghaire grumbled when Mrs. Fitz took the babe from her hands, instead of allowing her to bring him up and see Jamie once more. She had been thinking of what a child of her and Jamie’s makeup would look like. Maybe he’d have blonde hair like hers, like the child she was holding. Mrs. Fitz brought the child, and the bottle in tow, along with the skein of strings made from wool and some knitting needles to their room. Jamie sat up against the headboard of the bed and tugged a sleeping Claire to his side. He brought up the needles and began his task, casting on the first stitch.
Claire occasionally woke to drink, eat, and use the chamberpot. She was embarrassed when she had to rely on Jamie’s strength to even go to the bathroom. It had been three days that Claire stayed in this state and Jamie never left her side. He took out his frustrations on the small creature his hands were creating out of the yarn. The baby was never alone, he would be in either Claire's arms, or Jamie's, the wooden bassinet, or Mrs. Fitz's hands when she brought up her formula of goat's milk and flour. Jamie never left either of their sides, and the baby never left their room. He looked terrible, to say the least. When he did sleep it was fitful, and he woke up in fear that his wife had faded from him and he would squeeze her unconscious body closer to him, though that was practically impossible with how close their skin was flushed together already. Slowly, the colour of her cheeks began to return and she could stand steadily without shaking. She rose for more sustainable bouts of wakefulness and ate the entirety of her food.
She was cheerful on the third day of their self-imposed vacation from the world, when loud knocks bounded off the wooden door to their room. Rushed Gàidhlig flew through the cracks in the varnished pine. Jamie was holding the baby and she nearly burst into tears at the sight. He became annoyed when the banging never ceased and slipped the infant into his wife’s arms. Jamie opened the door with such force it was a surprise that it didn’t fling off the hinges.
He opened the door to see one of Colum’s servants determined to follow through on his orders. His eyes widened in fear at the tall man before him before he composed himself. Jamie smiled at his unease.
“What do ye need?”
“Himself requests yer presence. And Mrs. Fraser as well.”
“Tell him Mrs. Fraser is unwell, and we’ll no be seeing him for some time.”
“He requests it immediately, sir.”
“Tell him Mrs. Fraser is unwell, and we’ll no be seeing him for some time.” His voice deepened, balancing on the edge of threat towards the short boy before him.
“Verra well.” He rushed away from the door, flustered.
Jamie resumed his seat on the bed next to Claire and put away the finished knit creature under the bed out of the line of sight of his wife’s prying eyes. Not even five minutes later, a fist banged against the door again, this time belonging to a stronger and larger hand. The door almost shook with the force and Murtagh called out for the door to be opened. Claire woke and began to shift off the bed but Jamie stopped her movements, tucking her further into the bed. He walked the short distance to the door and whispered under his breath to the intruder a few choice words that roughly translated to a ‘fuck off’ in Gàidhlig, and so much more. Murtagh was red in the face when Jamie finally released the lock on the door and let it swing open.
“Are ye daft boy? Colum’s this close to throwing ye out. Do ye not know how much trouble ye and yer wife have gotten him into?”
“Weel it’s nothing that time canna fix.”
“Father Bain, and the parent’s of that changeling child are furious. The whole town’s behind them as well in support. Colum’s thinking of making ye leave MacKenzie lands, Jamie. Well, not you, but Claire.”
Claire shrunk under the sheets, not ready for confrontation then. “Help me dress Jamie.” She didn’t need his help now that most of the energy she had spent was recovered, but she did like the idea of her husband touching her skin as he tugged on each layer.
“Aye, Murtagh we’ll be out shortly.”
“We’ll leave now Claire. Take Donas and Brimstone and be on our way.” He began tying the ribbons on her stockings.
“And go where?”
“I’ve cousins in France. Or we could bide our time in Italy, where catholics have an easier time of it I hear.” He slipped over the last layer of her skirts and then pulled the bodice onto her. She pinned it together, ready to face whatever came their way.
“What about him?” Claire held the baby tightly to her and he began rooting at her breast. She laughed but quickly shifted him out of reach from her breast, so his face was pressed against the top of her shoulder.
“I’m sure Mrs. Fitz will find a good woman to care fer him.”
“If his parents are the ones angry, I don’t want to leave him. They could easily take him back. I can’t just give him back to the people who abandoned him to die. We just have to face the music. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Aye, but if someone so much as thinks to threaten ye, we’re on our way.”
“Fine, but we’ll bring him with us. He’s still healing.” She slung a knit shawl around her and secured him. He made no words of protest, he couldn’t stop her if he wanted to.
His hand wrapped securely around her waist as they traversed the winding halls and staircases of Castle Leoch. His grip tightened whenever he felt her legs shake under her own weight. He offered to carry the infant in her arms, but she insisted she carry him. It seemed that night under the Faerie Hill had bonded her to him.
They climbed the tower to Colum’s study and Jamie’s hand rapped against the firm oak. The birds in their cages chirped excitedly at the sight of newcomers, a faerie being one of them. Colum spied the large lump on her shoulder and regarded her with suspicion. He gestured for them to take a seat.
“Uncle.” Jamie nodded shortly to him from across the desk.
He nodded in acknowledgment and then turned his head towards Claire. “Mrs. Fraser.”
“Ye can see nephew , there has been a lot o’ concern raised down in Crainsemur after certain incidents.” He looked pointedly at Claire again before he returned his attention to Jamie. “Not only has the fiscal died under rather mysterious circumstances, no less hours after yer bride was seen wi’ his wife, but she steals a babe from a faerie hill and ye slip away fer days on end.”
“I am sorry, Mister MacKenzie, but I have been unwell.”
“Well whatever’s wrong wi’ ye lass?”
“She had some o’ her own complications in saving the lad. The cold o’ the night caught her ill.”
“Be that as it may, Father Bain tried to return the puir child to his inconsolable parents, only to find him locked away in yer room, clinging to the lad as if he had put some spell o’er ye, a faerie child. But the parents have hope that the changeling child was returned to the faeries and that bairn ye have in yer arms is theirs. They wish him back in their arms.”
“He’s most certainly not a changeling child! His parents abandoned him on that hill, what did you expect, for me to let him just die there? I’ll never let them touch him again!” She brought her arms around him and hugged him to her body protectively.
“Aye, I’d no let them have the puir lad back again. But yer interference has caused quite unneeded trouble in the town and now up here in Leoch. Did ye ken the redcoats are already increasing their presence nearby because o’ the stunt Dougal pulled while collecting rents?” Jamie stiffened at this admission, it would be infinitely harder for them to escape Leoch now. “I’m dealing wi’ the fool later, but now, ye and yer husband ha’ made a fine mess o’ things too.”
“What will ye do wi’ the lad?”
“I’ll keep him on as my own ward. Leticia will be glad to ha’ another wean under her care. She’s written fer a wetnurse from the next town over. But of course the parents were quite dismayed to hear it, and so was Father Bain that we would take in a devil child. They’re all conflicted down at Cranesmuir, and the rumours are seeping into Leoch as well. They dinna like that yer wife has ‘stolen the babe’ away.”
“I’m sorry uncle, for whatever unreasonable reaction the townsfolk have had, but we have done nothing to warrant such a violent outcry. My wife has saved a life, she didn’t condemn it.”
“Aye, yer just a small piece in the grander puzzle that these people’s outrage have targeted. But a target ye are nonetheless. Ye’ll be working o’ertime in the stables and an extra hand is needed tae butcher down in Cranesmuir. Ye’ll fill that role, wi’out complaint, and ye’ll punish yer wife accordingly. The bairn will be under Mrs. Fitz’s care now, until Leticia has readied a room fer him. Now get out o’ my sight, before I decide against my course o’ action.” His face softened slightly from the stern expression he wore during the verbal lashing. “Be careful, mac mo pheathar .”
They carried themselves back to their room, and Claire choked on the sadness welling up within her. Jamie held her close as she cried into his shoulder. The boy was squished between them and he gazed up at Jamie’s eyes, giggling. He tugged a lock of Jamie’s hair, eliciting another bout of sobs from his wife and he rubbed circles on her back to soothe her. He cheered himself up over the sight of his wife with the thought that soon, it would be their own bairn held between them, and their hearts would be filled with joy, not grief.
Mrs. Fitz arrived to spirit the infant away a couple hours after their visit with Colum. Claire held tightly to the little boy as Mrs. Fitz surveyed the room with an air of caution. She set down their meals on a tray and brought some more water in the ewer.
“Promise me, he’ll be fine. That you’ll look after him. You’ll check up on him, even when he’s with Leticia.”
“O’ course, may I hold him?”
Claire kissed the tip of his nose and nodded. The tiny body slipped out of her fingers and into the matron’s capable hands. The departure was quick, like tearing off a bandaid. Her arms were empty and then instantly filled with the steady presence of her husband.