Like our own son.
Never in his life had anyone called him ‘son.’ Well, a priest, yes, or perhaps an older person looking to belittle him. But not in that way. The way that meant he belonged. That he was loved. Bonded, forever. To them.
Despite everything, despite the crippling fatigue from the harrowing days on the road, he couldn't help a smile from breaking as he knelt by the stream to drink in the morning light. He could remember every syllable. The exact way Milord had looked down at him. The weight of the massive hand as it cupped his cheek. I love you like a son. The way Milady’s fingertips felt against his scalp as she held him tight against her, her cheek pressed hard against his head. Our own son.
He looked around the clearing. He desperately needed to find a place to hide himself and get some rest, for the sun was almost up. It wasn’t safe to ride in broad daylight; he couldn’t risk being stopped or having his person searched. There was an outcropping of rock at the far edge of the clearing. Perhaps there would be a cave or shaded spot there where he and the horse could stay hidden until nightfall.
He cupped his hands and drank deeply once more, trying to to erase the pungent taste of the juniper berries he’d gathered and forced himself to eat slowly, though he was ravenous. They were the first sustenance he’d had since the bannock two days ago, given by a kindly itinerant priest. Milady would be pleased, he supposed, that he was eating plants. Good for your teeth, she would have said. At this moment, though, he’d have given every last one of his teeth for a loaf of bread, or even just a slice.
Suddenly, a short distance away, the horse raised its snout sharply from the stream and snorted. Fergus froze. He heard the voices, too; English by their accents. Soldiers, then? Close, and coming nearer. He could hear their crashing footsteps in the undergrowth across the stream, moving fast. He felt the deed crinkle under his knitted vest as he stiffened.
It is worth more than my life. Or yours.
There wasn’t time to hide the horse. He dove under the juniper boughs and pressed himself against the nearest trunk. His mind raced. He couldn't be more than ten miles from Lallybroch. Had the soldiers been raiding there? Would Rabbie and Jamie and the others be alright? Would he be alright, if the soldiers found him? He gripped the handle of the dirk Milord had pressed into his hand.
You're a soldier now.
Fergus swallowed. He had killed an English soldier at Prestonpans. He could do it again. For Milord. He closed his eyes and waited, blade ready.
“Oy, there’s a horse here!” came one voice, definitely English.
The sound of feet sloshing across the shallow stream. Only two people, it sounded like. Deserters, then?
Another voice, startlingly close. “Fair starved, it looks. It’s saddled and bridled, though. Somebody’s close about.” Leaves crunched close at hand.
Not daring to breathe, Fergus tightened his grip and opened his eyes to peer through the boughs.
//You're not what I ordered//
He gasped (the sound so loud to his own ears that he jumped) and squeezed his eyes shut again, as tight as they would go. It didn’t work. The image of the red coat was burned into his vision.
//But you’ll do//
//But you’ll do//
He pressed his hands to his ears and cowered against the trunk, curling his knees up to his chest.
//But you’ll do//
//But you’ll do//
Come here, she crooned in his ear. It’s alright.
When he regained awareness, it was past midday. The woods were still. The redco--the soldiers: they were gone, and the horse, too. He crawled out from beneath the juniper, every muscle in his body shaking madly as he stumbled to his feet and found the road once more.
He ran. Now heedless of the dangers of broad daylight, he ran. Ran from Culloden Moor. Ran from the scent of lavender. Ran toward the place he knew. Milord’s place. Milady’s place. Where they had all been happy. They would be there, the foolish part of his mind insisted. They will be there. They made it through the battle and came by another road. They will be waiting for you. You're their son. They said so. They wouldn’t abandon you. They’ll be there.
No, the knowing part wailed as the blood pounded in his ears from the exertion. They're gone. Gone…captured...dead. Both of them. Le petit, too. They hadn’t said anything of it...but he'd lived at Maison Elise long enough to know. Milady’s hair had been thicker and more lustrous than ever as he brushed it these last few weeks, like it had been in Paris. Would it have been a brother this time? Another sister?
Mile after mile. His feet ached and blisters formed, cracking and bleeding within minutes, but he ran, pounding the dirt road toward Lallybroch. Ran though tears obscured his vision. Ran even while his stomach screamed. Ran despite the deed, hanging so heavily over his heart, seeming as though it would drag him down to the road like a stone. Still he ran. I cannot fail Milord.
It was sunset when he staggered into the dooryard. Madame Murray was there. She saw him and dropped her basket, running toward him. “Fergus! What in God’s name--?”
He couldn't speak; just lurched the last few steps into her arms and buried his face in her shoulder. He could barely stand, and he clutched her around the waist as though he would fall off the face of the earth the minute he let go.
“Fergus? Fergus, why by heaven are ye here? And all on your own?” Her voice went suddenly sharp and high and her hands went tight on his back. “Where is Jamie? And Claire?” He could only shake his head and sob.
“Hush, laddie, it’s alright.” It was Monsieur Murray, now standing at his wife’s shoulder. “Are ye hurt? Do ye bring news from Jamie? From Milord?”
Slowly, Fergus pulled out the rolled paper and held it out, shaking so hard he nearly dropped it.
There was a long silence.
“Are they dead, then?” Monsieur croaked. “Jamie and Claire. Are they gone?”
Fergus couldn’t speak, only buried his face and clung tighter to Madame. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” she whispered, her breath coming thick and ragged as she locked eyes with her husband. “Jamie. Please, no, Jamie. Not now. Not yet. And God, Claire...”
Monsieur leaned in close to lean his head against hers, whispering things in soft Gaelic that Fergus couldn’t understand. The strange words made his stomach tie in frantic knots, for they reminded him of Milord; what he had said the last time they stood in this yard.
His place is no’ here without us.
He sobbed harder still, his burning throat seeming ready to tear apart from the inside. He didn’t belong here. Not without them.
But then Fergus became aware that both Murrays had their arms tight around him, holding him as the three of them swayed and wept in the yard.
“It's alright laddie,” Monsieur was saying, laying a hand against Fergus’ head and cheek. “Ye did your duty.”
“And ye made it home,” Madame said, her fingers shaking in his hair as she pressed her cheek against his head. “This is your place, now, Fergus.”