April 15, 1746 | Craigh Na Dun
“I can’t leave you… I won’t,” Claire wept, pushing away from Jamie’s chest. “What about Faith?”
Her question struck his heart anew as he continued to hold her despite her protests. He wouldn’t just be losing Claire the next day. He was asking her to leave and take his heart with her. His wife, and both their children. His energetic two-year-old, rambunctious despite being small for her age. Their miracle. And the bairn that still slept in Claire’s belly. He had known the child was there perhaps even before she did. Or before she admitted it, anyway.
“Dinna fash about Faith,” his voice was weak. He had no desire to say these words, but fate had left him no other choice. “Murtagh’s fetching her now. They’ll be here by first light.”
Claire went boneless in his arms, balling his shirt in her fists, tugging his chest hair as she did so. “No! What if something happens along the way, Jamie—”
Her voice was shrill, eyes bloodshot.
He silenced her with a kiss. How many did they have remaining, before morn? “Ye dinna trust Murtagh?” he chastised. “Ye ken he loves her as his own, wouldna let her come to harm.”
She nodded slowly as they dropped to their knees together. She allowed him to hold her as her body shook with sobs. Once she calmed, she let him love her once more. Their movements were hesitant but thorough, prolonging their last time together.
Jamie rested his chin on her shoulder as she slept fitfully. He wouldn’t surrender to exhaustion when he had the chance to observe her for a few more hours. To make sure he had committed to memory the array of freckles on her nose. To rub the line of worry over her brow until it disappeared and she burrowed closer into him.
He stroked her still-flat belly with his beaten and weary hands. His fingers dug in as he felt her pulse there. He could almost imagine that it was instead the heartbeat of their child, the one he would never see in life. So Jamie imparted all the wisdom he could think of as he spoke to the natural swell guarding her insides, and far below, their son. He begged the lad to look after his mother and sister. He reminded him to be brave and honorable. Things he wouldn’t be able to demonstrate himself.
As the pink glow of dawn shone through the window, Jamie stroked his wife’s face until her eyes flew open beneath his hand.
Claire’s face fell as she realized the time. “Why did you let me sleep?” her voice trembled, her fingers clawing at the ground below her as if she could grasp hold of time before it passed by them, relinquishing their final moments.
They clung to each other. They each dug his sgian dubh into the other’s flesh. Not to hurt. But it brought on a different sort of pain as they marked each other.
She held his face between her palms as he stared into her wet whisky eyes. He rested their foreheads together as he laid his palms over her abdomen once more. Neither wiped their tears until their view of the other was obstructed.
Claire sat in his lap and wept as he held her, a poor imitation of their first night at Leoch. How high his hopes had been that evening! He had wished to provide for her for the rest of their days and see a houseful of bairns nurse at her bosom. To give her his arm to lean on as they grew old and frail.
The only thing Jamie could provide his wife and family now was a chance at a safe future. The rest was up to her, once she passed through the cursed, blessed stones. Up to her and him.
Claire tensed at the sound of an approaching horse outside the cabin in which they had rested the night. Though she tried, they could prolong it no more. Her bull of a husband, the joy of her soul, was pushing her towards heartbreak.
Clutching her hands, Jamie led her out the door of the shack.
How ugly it was, in the light of day, as it held their pain inside it. How dark her future seemed once she would leave it behind.
She turned to intercept Faith as Murtagh grew closer. She was ready to lose herself in the soft form of her baby girl, not only because she missed her terribly after months on the road, but to have something to hold on to as her world fell apart.
It would be selfish to keep Faith to herself when the girl was unknowingly about to lose her father. To not allow him to hold her under his chin once more and whisper his love to her before she was sent to a time and place of which she knew nothing.
Claire knew all these things, deep down. She couldn’t decide if she cared at the moment, though regret may overtake her later.
But no wild curls bounced in front of the rider. No sweet, tiny hands gripped the horse’s mane. No joyous shouts of “Mama!” traveled to her over the wind.
Only the grim form of Murtagh was slumped in the saddle of the approaching horse. His jaw was clenched, mouth set in a straight line.
Another horse followed close behind him. A rider with brown curls, to be sure. But the head they grew upon was too tall, too boyish. The child of her heart. But not the one she was to take with her.
Claire’s stomach dropped.
Jamie released her hand and ran ahead of her, his face set as he crossed the final steps to meet his godfather.
As Claire caught up, she noticed the pallor of Murtagh’s face as he dismounted from the steed. The way he fiddled with the end of his plaid as his head hung low, refusing to meet either set of eyes before him told her something terrible had happened.
“Where is she?” Claire could tell Jamie was trying to keep his voice steady, but the words were strangled as they escaped his throat.
“Christ, lad, I’m so sorry…” Murtagh spluttered. “She – she’s gone.”
Jamie dropped to his knees, head in his hands.
Claire wanted to follow him. She wanted to sink into the earth and be buried alive until she could no longer feel the pain pressing upon her heart.
But before she knew what she was doing, before the words had fully left Murtagh’s mouth, she had lurched forward, grabbing him by his shirt collar.
“What the bloody hell does ‘gone’ mean? She growled.