The letter brought news of her death.
It had arrived via messenger from the convent, after Hogmanay, mere weeks before the sailing season ended and no more ships came between January and March. Dougal had called him and his godfather Murtagh into his study and delivered the news—simple and brutal. Like Claire’s end. Jamie had been unwilling to believe it, but Dougal had shown him the ring—the ring he had placed so lovingly on her finger, once in promise, then in marriage. His uncle had pressed the silver circlet into his hand. Numbly, he clutched it, and refused to let go.
Murtagh had held him up as he staggered back to his chamber. Murtagh had tried to stop him as he punched the stone walls repeatedly, furious tears coursing down his face. His godfather had held him while he wept like a child. Mrs. Fitzgibbons had bandaged his torn skin, sympathy in her eyes. He did not want their pity. He wanted Claire.
Jamie held his battered left hand gingerly. It was likely he had broken something inside; the fingers refused to stretch out properly, twanging with constant pain. Claire would have known how to fix it. Claire… he curled up in the bed, too tired to rise now. He recalled every small detail about his late wife. Jamie reveled in her beauty; even in her usual homespun, knee-deep in mud from the convent’s garden, or stained and fierce with the blood of her calling, the curve of her bones spoke to his own marrow, and those amber whisky eyes had made him drunk with a glance. How the mad collieshangie of her hair had made him laugh…
How he raged and wept and cursed his very existence. Then the dreams came, with a vengeance. If this was his punishment for leaving her, for letting her die, then he would take it, and be glad. Glad that he could at least see her again, if only in his imagination.
Jamie became a ghost, wandering the halls of Castle Leoch. He interacted with no one, save the horses. The horses did not know, did not care that he had left his wife alone, defenseless, and had done nothing more to prevent his uncle Jared to put him on a ship like worthless cargo, bent on following Dougal’s orders.
He barely remembered the trip, even though he did keep track of the days. One day away from her, two days away from her… His head had ached something fierce; there was a sizeable bump on it after Jared’s thugs had clubbed him. It had felt like the world was rocking sideways constantly, and nausea overtook him. All that had sustained him was the thought of her. The cloud of her hair in his nose, the vivid green scent of her, her alabaster skin under his hands that single night they had shared. The endless nausea and seasickness that made him pray for a swift end. He was guarded at all times by Rupert MacKenzie and Angus Mohr. Once he disembarked in Scotland, the overland trip to Castle Leoch seemed fraught with opportunities to escape, but his kinsmen were always there, shadowing him, thwarting every attempt, even now. Jamie had been punched and beaten, kicked, and finally restrained, until the devastating news took the fight out of him. Now there was no one to go back to.
Now they wished him to remarry.
To cement his status as chieftain of clan MacKenzie, Dougal had arranged a marriage with one of his tacksmen’s daughters – Laoghaire. When Jamie had first arrived, his uncle had made the announcement at dinnertime in the great hall. It hadn’t mattered that Jamie had immediately protested, citing his marriage to Claire made it impossible for him to marry another. He had been dragged from the hall to his uncle’s study, to be berated and bellowed at.
“’Tis done, uncle. We were handfast weeks ago.” Jamie’s face had flushed in triumph. “I gave her my mam’s pearls.”
“Aye. Jared said as much. It was yer right to give out Ellen’s necklace to yer wife. But such marriages are only valid for a year and a day, lad. I can wait.”
In the end, waiting hadn’t been necessary. Claire was dead.
Jamie did not wish to hurt the lass Laoghaire’s feelings. She was young yet, seventeen, and eager to be married. She followed after him some days, like a puppy, and Jamie was civil and courteous to her, like he would be to any woman. But he did not wish to encourage her, or make her think she had a chance at winning his heart. He had given that up long since to a sassenach.
February came. Tired of his moping, Dougal called him once more to his study to discuss details for a spring wedding. He would be given the small stipend that was owed to him upon his marriage, as per MacKenzie family tradition. A symbolic amount, really, Dougal clarified, but enough to help them at the start. Jamie fiddled with Claire’s ring. He carried it with him always, in his waistcoat pocket, the feel of the metal and the thistle pattern grounding him in the grim reality that was his life now.
“Ye could do worse, lad. Take Laoghaire and be done with it. Stay here at Leoch, be my second in command. Yer parents would have been pleased with the match as weel.”
Jamie bristled at the mention of his parents. His father, Brian, had never been accepted by the MacKenzies; illegitimate, impoverished, he had not been good enough for Ellen. After losing his wife, much of his spirit had gone out of him, and he had passed away a few years after that. An apoplexy, the tenants said. A broken heart, thought Jamie and Jenny.
“Uncle, I have no desire to be married again, so soon after… after I am widowed.” Jamie swallowed hard. “Need I remind ye, a wedding’s no wedding but that I say yes.”
“Ye will,” replied Dougal emphatically.
That evening Jamie crept into the great hall for supper. He caught Laoghaire craning her neck, seeking him out. He preferred to bide at a corner trestle table, out of sight. Perhaps he should just take bread and cheese and go to his chamber. But before he could leave discreetly, Dougal stood with wine cup in hand to make an announcement.
“We are most pleased to welcome a traveling healer, who will set up in Davie Beaton’s former quarters for the season, should anyone have need. I offer ye Castle Leoch’s hospitality freely, Mistress Julia Beauchamp.”
Jamie nearly dropped his own wine at his wife’s mother’s name. It couldn’t be—he was afraid to hope, even the tiniest fraction. His heart raced in overtime. He pushed through the crowd frantically as they milled around, waiting for dinner. He spied the top of a curly head walking in a stately manner towards Dougal. Jamie reached the front as the woman faced Dougal directly, her back to him. Jamie’s chest seemed full to bursting with joy and relief, expanding infinitely, as he recognized the shade of brown in her hair, the graceful curve of her neck, her slender hands gripping her skirts as she curtsied.
It was Claire.
The walls of Castle Leoch loomed before me. I trudged through the muddy yard in search of the head steward or housekeeper. I hoisted the bundle that held a spare set of clothes, a medicine box of dried herbs and tonics, some money, and a letter of introduction. Jamie’s pearls were sewn into the hem of my skirt. The thought that he was near spurred me on.
I spotted a blonde waif of a girl, carrying a basket of eggs. I approached her with a cautious smile. “Good evening. Might I ask, do you know where I might find the head housekeeper?”
“Aye, mistress, she’s my grandmother,” she responded courteously. “Are ye selling something?”
“No, child,” I said. “I’m a healer. I wondered if perhaps there was need of my services here.”
“Perhaps, but ‘tis the laird makes these decisions.” She pursed her lips. “Follow me, mistress, we’ll see if aught can be done.”
I walked behind her to the castle kitchens. Inside, it was warm, a welcome respite from the early spring chill in the air. Setting the basket carefully on a table, the girl went in search of her grandmother. I looked around; the kitchen was large and extremely clean. This seemed like a good sign. A few girls lingered in the corner, kneading bread and giggling.
“Ma’am?” The girl was back with an older, stout lady with grizzled hair in tow. “Here’s Mistress Fitzgibbons, my granny.”
“Och, dearie, ye can call me Mrs. Fitz like everybody else. My granddaughter says ye’re a healer. Are ye a Beaton?”
“Pardon, a Beaton?”
“The Beatons are a long line of distinguished and rare healers. One of them, Davie Beaton, bided here, but he passed away recently. Lockjaw—nasty thing.”
I cleared my throat. “I am not a Beaton, but I have recently come from an apprenticeship as a healer, in Paris. I am skilled in midwifery as well. If you would care to present the matter to the laird directly.” I felt a cold sweat break out underneath my dress.
“I think he’ll be glad to have ye, lass. The Gathering is near, and I cannot manage the food and the cleaning as well as tending to all the folk that need care.” Mrs. Fitz gestured for me to sit. “After Davie’s death, we have Father Bain to rely on to heal bodies and souls, but he’s all the way out in Cranesmuir. Ye’ll have passed through the village?”
I nodded. The village had seemed small and drab, all muddy lanes and leaning houses. “I’ve never traveled this far north in Scotland.”
“All I have are home remedies and old wives’ lore, and that does for a turn. In the woods…” here she lowered her voice to a whisper. “There’s a wise-woman, ye ken? She has medicines too—but only if ye’re desperate enough.”
I shivered. “I hope no one will be desperate, now that I’m here. If the laird will have me, of course.”
“Aye, I’m sure he will! Here, lass.” Mrs. Fitz set out bread and cheese for me. “I shall return presently with an answer.” She bustled away, pulling her shawl tightly around her shoulders before stopping abruptly and turning. “Silly me, dearie. I never asked for yer name!”
“Beauchamp. Julia Beauchamp.”
* * *
Sister Madeleine had found me an hour or so after Malva disappeared. She had warmed me up with mulled wine and a dry shift. I told her what the evil salope had done with Mother Hildegarde and myself. The sister had apologized profusely for leaving me alone; but I knew that Malva would have bided her time for the perfect opportunity. I was lucky she had wished to make it seem like a natural death—she could have just as easily stabbed or strangled me.
We realized that Mother Hildegarde and I had not had smallpox at all; we had never broken out in spots. The symptoms of the illness corresponded to typhoid. In the panic of the epidemic, we had just written off the disease as smallpox. Slowly, gradually, I regained my health. My recovery was sluggish but steady. I spent weeks rebuilding my appetite and strength; I nagged the nuns so much eventually they relented and allowed me to care for a few patients for short periods.
My heart ached fiercely for Jamie. I wrote to him, letters that would likely never make it to Scotland. Few messengers went there, but most went through Jared—and I knew I could not trust him for the world. By the time I could stand without becoming dizzy, it was the end of January. I wondered what Jamie was doing every hour of the day, every moment. The hurt was always present, like a wound that would not heal. I missed my courses that month, but thought nothing of it; I had been ill and undernourished, which was cause enough. I would not think the unthinkable—that I was alone in Paris, with child, and without my husband. There were no other symptoms. I did not dare hope.
At first I thought Jamie would come back for me soon. Surely, he would not let his uncle keep us apart. He must have escaped at the first opportunity. It was obvious what I was up against: the might of the Fraser and MacKenzie clam, who did not approve of our marriage and who had ruthlessly taken Jamie away from me. So I lingered in Paris, uncertain of what to do next. I worked at l’hôpital, picking up the pieces the smallpox epidemic had left behind. The city woke up piecemeal, but soon recovered most of its bustle and vibrancy. Weeks passed, but Jamie did not return. My courses did, once I had regained some of the weight I had lost. There was no child then, nothing to tie me to Jamie but memories and a string of pearls that were almost as precious to me as Jamie himself.
Mother Hildegarde had called me into her study, stout and imposing once more. It was impossible to imagine the convent and l’hôpital without her. I sat with a cup of tea poured by the abbess herself.
“Ma chère, qu’est-ce que tu faites ici?”
“I am working, finishing the apprenticeship,” I said cautiously.
“I meant, why have you not gone to your husband?”
I felt a twinge in my chest and looked down at my idle hands, chapped from the vinegar and constant washing. “A woman traveling alone—”
“That had been your mother’s fate, and yours until you came here. You are more than qualified to make your way in the world, with your husband by your side. God gave James Fraser to you, and you to him. Go, seek your husband.”
Seek the red man.
Mother Hildegarde gave me a purse of money, part wages and the donation Jamie had made on the day we parted. You’ll have need of it, she said. I booked passage on a packing boat down the Seine, and journeyed to northern France. At Le Havre I sailed across the channel on a larger ship. Safely tucked into my bag was a letter of introduction Mother Hildegarde had written for me, should need arise – I had a feeling it would.
Bordering the coast of England, we stopped briefly at certain ports along the way. I acted as the ship’s physician as soon as I had proven myself competent. I made friends with a young lad called Elias Pound.
We were only a few years apart, but we bonded quickly, each of us lonely and yearning—Elias for his mother, myself for Jamie. Elias’s company provided certain protection as well from unwelcome advances by rude sailors.
We made landfall at Inverness. I bid Elias goodbye, with instructions to eat green things to prevent scurvy. He squeezed my hand and with a reverent Godspeed, Mistress Beauchamp, we parted. I breathed in Scotland, its green and rolling hills dominating the view. This was the landscape that held my husband’s heart, and I could see why for myself now. The pure air was so different from the scents of Paris. It was now the end of April.
I joined a caravan of entertainers, mummers and musicians, who welcomed me heartily upon learning my trade. They would travel to small towns, including Cranesmuir near Leoch—I had asked specifically, heart pounding. Jamie was so close. During the journey north, I had delivered a healthy boy for a performer’s wife, and had joined them in a dram of whisky to celebrate. That had been weeks ago.
I finished my food. Mrs. Fitzgibbons returned at length, and heated up a basinful of hot water for washing. She lent me a brown ribbon for my hair. “You’ll want to look presentable for dinner in the hall,” she said. Would Jamie be there? I hoped so. I didn’t dare ask for him by name, not even to Mrs. Fitz—it wouldn’t be seemly to ask after a man, until I knew the lay of the land.
We made our way to the hall. At the appropriate time, Mrs. Fitz pushed me gently forward, and I heard my new name as I was introduced—Mistress Julia Beauchamp. I walked the length of the hall, my knees shaking but my back straight. Dougal was tall, almost as tall as Jamie, with a fierce countenance that brooked no disobedience. This was the man that had separated us. I met his stare steadily, even as I curtsied. Defiance.
I rose, eyes boring into my back. My neck prickled and my heart seemed to sink and rise at once. I turned my head and met his sapphire gaze. Jamie.
I could see it on his face. He’d thought I was dead.
Jamie’s eyes were wild with relief. My heart pounded with much the same feeling. I lowered my own gaze demurely and backed away from Dougal. Mrs. Fitz took me by the arm and I felt more than saw a commotion as Jamie pushed his way through the crowd to get closer to me. I spared him a single glance over my shoulder before I was seated at a trestle table. Food was piled high in front of me. I half-listened to Mrs. Fitz’s chatter as she served me a plateful before I heard his voice.
“Mistress Beauchamp.” Jamie’s voice trembled. The Scots lilt was like balm to my heart.
I swallowed hard and turned to him. “May I help you, sir?”
“I expect ye can. I havena been feeling at all well for a few months now. Is there perhaps… something ye can give me?”
Jamie’s eyes were shining, and I felt myself breathing easier just to have him near. I nodded, a lump in my throat. “Tomorrow, sir. I am told I will occupy the former Beaton’s surgery, wherever that may be.”
“Aye, I ken where they are.” He took my hand gently in his and I thrilled to his touch. “Until tomorrow then, mistress. Your servant, James Fraser.” He kissed my hand in a courtly manner and lost himself in the crowd again. I caught sight of two burly men, one tall and one short, who shadowed him closely. He was being watched, and my identity was better kept a secret for the moment.
* * *
Mrs. Fitz and a couple of the girls who had been in the kitchens led me to Davie Beaton’s quarters. It was a sort of dispensary, similar to the apothecary stores at the Hôpital des Anges, but filthy. Mother Hildegarde would never have allowed such conditions. The housekeeper seemed to realize this as she apologized for the mess as she and the girls cleared away some crates and broken glass bottles. There was a bed in the corner by the fireplace; more of a cot, really. It was wiped down with a cloth and fresh blankets were laid on it. They made short work of the large wooden table, leaving at least one surface clean enough to begin tending to patients.
Mrs. Fitz promised to lend me the girls the next day so they could help me put things in order. A fire was lit in the grate before they left me alone. I stripped down to my shift, and unpacked my bag. I found a hiding place for my letter of introduction: inside a book belonging to the late Beaton. I tucked myself beneath the blankets, grateful for their warmth after sleeping out of doors for weeks. My mind whirred relentlessly with thoughts of Jamie, wondering how we would manage life at Leoch, if we could leave for Lallybroch soon, and how to face what was certain to be a battle against Dougal for our right to be together.
I fell briefly asleep thinking of his hands only to be startled awake by the sound of a crash and a muttered, “Ifrinn!” The fire had banked itself and I could barely see in the light of the embers’ glow. I gripped the blankets tight until I heard Jamie’s voice whisper, “Sassenach? Are ye awake?” I breathed in relief and rose from the cot, making my way over to him.
“I’m here.” I glimpsed Jamie leaning on the table, fully dressed, holding his hand gingerly. There was a small cut on the back of it, and I couldn’t help but shake my head in despair. Jamie, the battle-hardened warrior, accident-prone and clumsy in the dark.
“Claire.” He stepped away from the table and clasped me to his body. I gripped him tightly about the waist, my face burrowed in his chest, breathing in the scent of him, longed for and dreamt of. Jamie buried his fingers in my hair, unspooling the curls and pushing them back from my face. He held it lightly in his hands, reverently as though it might disappear in smoke. “Ye’re alive, mo nighean donn.”
I cupped his face, reading the urgent hope and desperate fear that was likely mirrored in my own. I felt warmth radiating from his body, his hands in my hair, and I buried my face in his shoulder, where I went quietly and thoroughly to pieces. I wept, and I was certain Jamie did as well. Once I was reacquainted with the safety of his embrace, I calmed down; Jamie procured a handkerchief, and gently blotted the tears off my face.
“I thought ye were dead.” His voice trembled. “Ye came to me in dreams, Sassenach, and I dinna ken what was worse—that I couldna touch ye, or knowing I never would again.”
“It wasn’t without a fight.” I quickly recounted my illness, watching his face blanch when I told him of all that had transpired between Malva and me. “She… she took my ring, Jamie. I’m sorry, I tried—”
“Dinna fash yourself.” Jamie reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out the silver circlet, placing it on my finger once more with a kiss. “This arrived from the convent, with a letter that said ye had—that ye were gone, Claire.”
“There was no supervision at the time; I’m sure it was easy for Malva to forge the letter and use Mother Hildegarde’s seal to make my death official.”
His blue eyes misted over briefly. “I want verra much to kiss ye… May I?”
I nodded, anticipating. He held me close again and set his mouth on mine; reassurance for both of us that we were truly here, together. He grabbed at my shift, bunching up the fabric before releasing it with a small cry.
“Jamie, what is it?”
“I hurt—my hand was injured. When I thought ye were dead. I… I punched a wall in my chamber.” He looked sheepish. “And when I stumbled in, like a clot-heided idiot, I tripped and shoved one of the boxes that are laying around. That’s the cut right there.”
“Let me see.” I prodded at his hand gently. There was still bruising, meaning the bones had not mended properly. Parts of his skin were still mottled, with barely healed scrapes and the fresh cut. I led him over to the cot, bidding him sit while I rummaged in my pack for a jar of salve. I massaged his hand gently, until I became aware of our proximity. I could feel the heat coming off him like a brazier. Jamie’s breath came harder and I looked up to find him gazing at me with a burning intensity.
“Claire, I must ask yer forgiveness.”
“Whatever for?” I still held his hand in mine, and I rubbed soothing circles on his skin.
“I failed ye,” he insisted, shaking his head. “At the first true test of protection, I left you alone and in danger. If I hadn’t left—”
“Jamie, I asked you to leave. For your own safety. If anything, I should also apologize to you. If we had just sailed as we had planned…”
“Ye had yer duties as a healer. I could not have asked ye to be anything but what ye are.” Jamie touched his forehead to mine. “Am I forgiven, lass?”
I tucked the red curls of his hair behind his ear, and kissed him softly. “There is nothing to forgive.”
Jamie brought up his hand to cup my face, his eyes asking the question that I had longed to answer all these months we had been apart. He laid me back on the cot with exquisite tenderness. I fisted my hands in the lapels of his waistcoat and brought him on top of me. I shivered at the feel of his arousal cradled against my hips. He divested himself of his clothing quickly; I tugged my shift over my head and soon there was nothing between us but skin.
Our hands roved everywhere with need. He trailed heated kisses along my neck, touching the most secret part of me with gentle fingers. I mewled, wanting him inside me. I urged him on with my hands on his lower back, spreading my legs and crossing them around his waist. I could feel the traces of the scars on his back. Jamie laughed softly as he teased me, his cock sliding in my folds over and over, creating delicious friction. Just when I thought I would burst with impatience, he slid inside, both of us gasping at the contact.
We moved together slowly at first, savoring the stolen moment. There was no guarantee of when we could be together again like this. We clung to each other desperately, striving to reach our mutual goal of possession. Jamie increased the pace, my nails digging into his back and his own uninjured hand hitching my leg higher. All the while his mouth was at my ear, alternating between Gaelic phrases, “I love ye”, and breathless panting.
I felt pleasure building and building, like standing on the edge of a cliff about to tumble into the ocean. I pulled at Jamie’s hair, crying out as I fell over the precipice. I had never known it could be thus between a man and a woman. Shortly after, he fell too, spilling himself inside me. His lips nipped at my earlobe, with a whispered, “Sassenach?”
“Yes, Jamie?” I tucked myself into his side, his fingertips stroking my back into drowsiness.
“Promise me something, and I’ll do the same.” He kissed my forehead.
“What is it?”
“Dinna go anywhere I canna follow.”
“I’d have to fracture the bones again,” I said softly. “’Twill have to stay like this. Likely your hand will always hurt when the weather turns cold.”
I marveled at the stretch of the phalanges, his skin covering them. The calluses reminiscent of the hard farm work he had been used to and that drove me wild when I felt them against my body. Jamie was beautifully made, the long, lean lines of his body drawn against me.
“You’re a brave, braw lass,” he said, kissing my temple. “But despite yer formidable skills, I’d rather not have my hand broken again, I thank ye.” He shifted, cradling me from behind. He snuffled into my hair and I laughed briefly, lifting the mass of curls away from my neck.
Neither of us slept, savoring these hours we had together. We spoke softly in the small hours of dawn. He would have to go back to his chambers soon. Rupert and Angus watched him too carefully, and we could not arouse suspicion. Reluctantly, I gave him the ring back; Mistress Beauchamp was not married. Jamie wouldn’t have it. He told me to keep it, safely hidden away.
“Sassenach… I ken well why you chose to change yer name.” Jamie traced patterns on the skin of my belly. “I meant what I said, before. Ye have my protection, in whatever way ye may need it.”
“I know, Jamie. We will just have to bide our time, and get away to Lallybroch as soon as we can.”
“With the Gathering, Dougal has sentries posted all around Leoch. Afterwards, perhaps we can make our way out when all the clans leave.”
The sky outside the window was tinged with grey, signaling the oncoming dawn. With a groan, Jamie rose from the small cot. In between dressing himself, he placed kisses on my body, anywhere he could reach. Finally, he put on his boots and with a parting embrace, left to sneak back into his rooms. I dressed myself, and found a hiding place for my ring. I slipped it inside a green glass-stoppered bottle, corked and stowed behind similar bottles full of tonics and remedies.
Until it was safe to declare ourselves to the world, I would hide it and my feelings for Jamie. Until then.
* * *
With help from the kitchen girls—Iona and Morag—the Beaton’s dispensary was ready in no time. Already, that day, I had tended to the blacksmith with a nasty burn along the forearm, and a milkmaid with cramps. I set about claiming part of the kitchen garden to plant herbs, with Mrs. Fitz’s blessing.
“Some of these grow wild, ye ken, dearie,” she said, fingering the mint. “But others require a helping hand.” She lowered her voice. “The wise-woman in the forest, Maisri, has some rare herbs, should ye have need. I heard she helps the married lassies conceive, and does love-potions and such. A helping hand.”
I smiled. “I do not think I have a need for any of that just yet, Mrs. Fitz. But thank you.” I wiped my hands on my already grubby apron. “Is there anything I can do for you, ma’am?”
“Actually, dearie, if ye wouldna mind… I send food every day to the lads who work the stables. Can ye take the basket to them?” I jumped at the chance. I knew Jamie took care of the horses and had not seen him since he’d left at dawn. Wielding the heavy basket on my hip, I crested the hill beyond which the stables were kept. I could glimpse the glare of Jamie’s hair from a distance. He wore a shirt and kilt, pitching hay onto a cart. He spoke to someone I couldn’t see, his back to me, but I heard the soft murmur of his voice. A higher-pitched female voice responded. As I approached, I caught sight of a young girl, blonde hair waving in the wind. It was the girl who had welcomed me yesterday, a simpering smile on her face, clearly flirtatious. Oh, this would not do.
“Mistress Beauchamp!” She greeted me once more, and Jamie whirled, apprehension on his face. I nodded briefly at them and raised the basket.
“Mrs. Fitzgibbons sent lunch for the stable hands. Where shall I set it?”
“Och, here is fine, lass. Let me help ye.” Jamie took the basket off my hands, shaking his head minutely. I did not understand the meaning of this, but I turned to the girl.
“I am sorry, but I do not think your grandmother introduced us yesterday,” I said. “You know my name, of course.”
“Aye, mistress, the laird is fair pleased to have a healer on the castle grounds once more. I am Laoghaire MacKenzie.” She bobbed her head in half a curtsy. “Do ye ken Mr. Fraser?”
Jamie had been bustling about, spreading the heavy hamper’s contents on a clean plaid blanket and calling down the stable boys. His eyes were wary when he heard Laoghaire’s words. “James Fraser. A pleasure, Mistress Beauchamp.”
“Jamie is my betrothed,” said Laoghaire.
My heart stopped. Jamie’s own countenance flushed dark red, and it seemed his whole head was on fire. My hands shook, and I hid them in the folds of my skirt. “Indeed. Congratulations.”
“Laoghaire… ye ken it’s no’ official yet. Dougal has not—”
“But my da has accepted, and so have I!” Laoghaire smiled smugly, crossing her arms stubbornly across her chest. I felt like slapping the grin off her face.
“Laoghaire, I’m afraid your grandmother wants you in the kitchens.” I gave her a smile of my own, and she nodded, scampering off; as she swept past Jamie, she caressed his shoulder in a proprietary way that was not lost on me. He shrugged off her touch, his pleading eyes on me. Two scrawny boys fell upon the food with alacrity, and Jamie gestured for me to follow him to the stables.
Once inside the fragrant coolness of the stables, Jamie took my arm gently and led me inside an unoccupied stall. “Alec is off in the pasture fields, we shouldna be disturbed for awhile yet.”
I yanked my arm out of his grasp, and he backed away, hands held up in the air. “So, when exactly did you plan on telling me about your betrothed, James Fraser? After you bedded me, your wife, or not until you stood before the priest and married Laoghaire?” I could not keep the venom from my voice.
“Sassenach, ye ken I—”
“Do not call me that!” I burst out, kicking hay out of my path and folding myself into a corner of the stall. I heard snorting and stamping from the adjacent stalls, the horses uneasy in the presence of a stranger such as myself.
“Claire. Ye must know, I would never play ye false. Yes, Dougal wishes me to marry Laoghaire. I told him when I first arrived that I was already marrit, to you! When I received the letter with news of your death, he pushed harder still for me to be wed. I have refused time and time again, Claire, ye have to believe me!” Jamie approached me slowly, like a skittish mare.
“I went through hell and back to get to you, Jamie. Perhaps I should not have bothered.” My voice was small and hopeless. I thought I could go back to l’hôpital, I thought Mother Hildegarde would receive me with open arms. And I could begin to forget. “I’ll leave tomorrow.”
“Sass—Claire, heed me. I thought I lost ye once, I dinna think I can do it again. Do ye not trust that I will do right by ye?” Jamie said desperately.
“I trust what I see—that all odds are against us, your own family wishes to see you wed to another, and that there is no place for me here.”
“Do ye have errands to run in the village?”
“What?” I was caught off guard by his non-sequitur.
“There is a man called Ned Gowan. He’s a solicitor, and an old friend of my father’s. I bid ye go to Cranesmuir tomorrow at noon to his offices. He will draw up a marriage contract. We will be wed in the eyes of the law as weel, and naught Dougal can do about it.”
I was rendered speechless. Jamie stood before me, arms crossed, regarding me warily. There was nothing I could say against his plan; it gave us what we wanted, a degree of protection that could prove indissoluble. I covered my face with my hands, and rubbed my eyes.
“How will you get away from your keepers?” I asked finally.
“Dinna fash about that, Sass—Claire.” He stepped closer, and put his hands on my arms carefully. I will make them drunk tonight on my uncle’s good whiskey and they will sleep it off come morning.”
“Of course I fash, Jamie, as you so charmingly word it.”
“Trust, Claire. I love ye. I will let nothing harm ye.” Jamie pulled me into his arms, his hands smoothing over the unruly curls and kissing my hair. “Now, dinna mind Laoghaire and her ideas. Like I told Dougal, a wedding’s no wedding if I dinna say aye.”
“I am willing to try anything. I will meet you in Cranesmuir tomorrow.” I gave him a brief kiss, as delighted shrieks came from outside. I assumed the lads had discovered the sugar buns Mrs. Fitz had so thoughtfully included in the basket. I walked out of the stable, pulling my hands away from Jamie’s, who did not want to let go, with a playful grin on his face.
“Alright, Mr. Fraser,” I called out loudly. “Come fetch coneflower salve later for the sore on the mare’s leg.”
“I will, mistress, I thank ye.” He attempted what can only be described as a wink, but he could not close the one eye; he blinked both and looked like a bright red owl.
For the first time in months, I laughed with all my heart.
Ned Gowan’s offices were on a side street in Cranesmuir. I asked one of the villagers to point me in the right direction and arrived with no further problem. I had told Mrs. Fitz I was seeking tonics and compounds from the village apothecary. I intended to visit him only long enough to justify the visit to the village; I was sure he did not hold a candle to Maître Raymond.
“Mistress Beauchamp!” A female voice I did not know called out to me. I turned to find a tall, fair-haired woman coming towards me.
“Yes, may I help you madam?” I held my basket in front of me, like a shield. I bobbed my head in polite greeting.
“I thought it might be you. Ye are new to the area; Castle Leoch’s new healer?” She nodded her head in return. “I am Geillis Duncan, wife of Arthur Duncan. He is the procurator fiscal for the district.”
“Pleasure to meet you, mistress.” She had striking green eyes, and my own were drawn to the pregnant swell of her belly. “Are you due soon, madam?”
“In a month or so. Are ye a midwife as weel?” Mistress Duncan brightened considerably and cradled her stomach in her hands protectively.
“Indeed. I apprenticed at l’Hôpital des Anges in Paris. Do you know of it?” I realized having an acquaintance of power in Cranesmuir might prove useful. “Please do not hesitate to send for me at the castle, if you would like my aid in delivering your child.” I curtsied properly this time, and gave her a wide smile.
“Of course, l’hôpital is famous throughout Europe! It is most kind of ye to offer, mistress. I shall certainly call upon you.” Geillis eyed me briefly, and offered another nod of acknowledgment. With a sweep of her skirts, she strolled away. I was merely grateful she had not come upon Jamie and me together.
As soon I thought of him, I spotted Jamie’s bright red thatch making his way through the muddy high street of the village. His eyes darted behind him every few steps, and he walked quickly to Ned Gowan’s door. He was followed closely by a dour-looking bearded man, but I did not think that was either Rupert or Angus. He met me with a kiss on the cheek, and a noise that sounded like mmphmm from the bearded man.
“Sassen—Claire, this is my godfather, Murtagh Fitzgibbons. He is here as my witness, and the only other man besides myself ye can trust at Leoch.”
“Aye. Pleasure, mistress.” The man merely nodded and kept his hand on the hilt of the sword he wore at his waist.
“I’ve not met any of Jamie’s kinsmen, Monsieur Fitzgibbons. The pleasure is mine.” The smile on my face faltered briefly as he raised an eyebrow.
“Monsieur Fitzgibbons, eh? Never heard that one before.” It took me a minute to realize he meant it with humor, despite the slow, gravelly voice. I sighed in relief. “Nay, call me Murtagh, lass, same as everybody else.”
* * *
Ned Gowan was a kind, elderly solicitor with a mischievous gleam in his eye. He was only too happy to draw up a marriage contract for Ellen Fraser’s son. “Aye, I mind yer mam, lad. Ye have her looks about ye.” With a firm hand, despite his age, he penned the terms of the contract. He named Jamie as Laird Broch Tuarach in the papers.
“You’re a laird?” I asked, surprised. Murtagh, who until that moment had merely stood stoically behind Jamie, harrumphed again and elbowed Jamie in the ribs.
“Aye, I am.” Jamie rucked up the back of his hair sheepishly. “I am heir to the Lallybroch estate, as the eldest son. That makes ye Lady Broch Tuarach.”
“I am not a lady, Jamie. I’m just Claire.”
“Ye are everything to me.”
My heart beat painfully in my chest at his simple declaration. Monsieur Gowan called upon another solicitor who worked for him, a young man called Geordie Coulter, to sign as witness to our union along with Murtagh. I recalled Jared Fraser’s involvement in our previous hand-fasting and shuddered at the thought of his betrayal. With a slightly shaking hand, I signed my name beside Jamie’s: Claire Beauchamp Fraser.
“Jamie, I dinna think I need to remind ye that to make it legally binding—” Monsieur Gowan began.
“Aye, Ned, I ken,” Jamie said hastily. He was turning bright red while Geordie and Murtagh hid their smiles behind their hands.
“What? Are we not legally bound yet?” I asked, confused.
“Under Scots law, lass, and most countries, a marriage must be consummated,” said Monsieur Gowan matter-of-factly.
“Oh!” I felt my own cheeks burn and I let out a little cough to relieve my embarrassment.
“In that case,” Jamie responded, matching the solicitor’s tone, “’tis a matter done a priori.”
“If ye were handfast previously, I have no doubt,” Monsieur Gowan said with a smile, dismissing his assistant with a wave of his hand. “Still, lad, it wouldna hurt to have it done a posteriori as weel.”
“I suppose the law is the law, and we must respect it,” I said seriously. All three men looked to me in surprise, and I winked at Jamie.
We walked out of the premises with the contract tucked into the bodice of my gown, and Jamie’s entreaty to see it safely guarded until we had need of it. He kissed my hand as we parted ways, as did Murtagh. Jamie was off to the fields and hoping his absence wasn’t noted, myself to the apothecary.
“Claire?” he called out as I left them.
“Yes, Jamie?” I turned briefly to face him.
“May I call ye Sassenach once more?”
We consummated our legal marriage that night, and any other night he was able to sneak away from Rupert and Angus. The contract was laid next to Mother Hildegarde’s letter, inside Davie Beaton’s black-bound casebook. After a few weeks, I had mostly learned my way around Leoch. I spent my time in the surgery, the kitchens, and the garden, fully accepted as a participant in castle life. Spring was now upon us, despite the chilly June mornings.
The Gathering had arrived; tacksmen and tenants from all over who owed fealty to the MacKenzies were arriving in droves. Some stayed in the castle itself, most camped outside on the grounds. I was kept extremely busy tending to wounds and varied illnesses. The healer in me reveled at fulfilling my calling, my life’s work.
In the meantime, I met with Jamie whenever I could, stealing moments in the stables, in the forest, and once in a dark stairwell. We were careful to be polite to each other in public, no more. I eyed the girl Laoghaire with suspicion every time I interacted with her, mostly in Mrs. Fitz’s kitchen. She kept on about her impending marriage to Jamie, and I worried about what would happen when we would be forcefully called out about the truth.
The night of the Gathering, I was informed, I would be a spectator up in the gallery with most of the castle’s unmarried women. The great hall was reserved for the tenants and their wives, who would be pledging an oath to Dougal as chieftain of clan MacKenzie. Jamie had confessed to me that he did not mean to swear fealty to Dougal—to do so would be to set himself up as the likely future leader of the clan after Dougal died. The MacKenzie laird was recently widowed, I’d heard, and had no male issue of his own, only three daughters who had remained behind at his estate. Jamie was the closest male kin of age, but many of the tenants present at the Gathering would not consider him suitable for succession. But if he refused to swear the oath… he could face death.
“’Twould look like an accident, Sassenach,” he said quietly, tracing patterns on my back as we lay on the cot in the surgery. “I could be speared at the tynchal, suffer a gruesome head injury playing shinty, or have my throat cut in some dark corner.”
I turned towards him at this, alarmed. “Jamie, you can’t possibly—”
“We have to face it, mo nighean donn. While I live at Leoch and am of sound body and mind, I must swear. ‘Tis a dangerous game we’re playing now. I have Murtagh to watch my back. I shall think of something beforehand, dinna fash.”
I stood amongst the women in the gallery, in the nicest gown I owned, which had come with me from Paris, and a new pair of shoes, a fichu, and hair ribbon, courtesy of Mrs. Fitz. I scanned the crowd eagerly for a glimpse of Jamie. He was usually easy to spot—a full head taller than most men and the fiery thatch of his hair. But there was no sight of him yet. I did see Geillis Duncan, standing by her husband; he was a rotund, serious man, but seemed amiable enough.
With the beating of drums and the fanfare of bagpipes, Dougal walked ceremoniously through the middle of the hall, all the way to the raised dais. He cried out, “Tulach Ard!” which the men repeated in a roar, raising their cups to Dougal. I knew he had begun with the battle cry of the MacKenzie clan, but he addressed the room in the Gaidhligh; I did not understand most of it, and Mrs. Fitz must have seen my face so she stood next to me and translated in a whisper.
“He is welcoming the men to Leoch, hoping that they had safe journeys. While he hopes the men never have to draw iron, if they do he couldn’t hope for better men to defend the honor of the clan,” Mrs. Fitz said. I nodded along, and Dougal kept speaking. “Only the crazy would challenge the MacKenzie, and he is proud to be their laird. Luceo non uro! That means—”
“I shine, not burn,” I finished for her, smiling. “That I understood.”
“’Tis the motto of clan MacKenzie,” she said, loudly over the din of the cheering men. I saw the door to the great hall open as she spoke, and finally Jamie made an entrance. He was faithfully shadowed by Murtagh, who glanced furtively around him and trailed Jamie into a corner of the room. He drew more than a few glances, and I felt my heart race with nerves.
The rest of the men formed a loose line, taking turns to pledge loyalty to Dougal. The clansmen quieted down, and the first stepped forward. He bent on one knee, drawing his dagger upside down and holding it up, like a cross. His oath, which was given in English, read: “I swear, by the cross of our lord Jesus Christ, and by the holy iron that I hold, to give ye my fealty, to pledge ye my loyalty to the name of clan MacKenzie. And if ever I shall raise my hand against ye in rebellion, I ask that this holy iron shall pierce my heart.” He kissed the blade, stood, and sheathed it once more. Dougal held out his hands and the clansman kissed them as well. Dougal nodded in approval and offered the quaich for a drink to seal the man’s oath.
The next man came forward, and repeated the oath word for word. “Are all oaths the same?” I asked Mrs. Fitz.
“Aye, dear, and so’s the drinking. ‘Tis a good thing the laird can hold his drink, or he would be fair sloshed by the tenth man.” Dougal drank deeply of the ceremonial cup for every oath pledged him, and showed no sign of faltering. I grew restless, wondering what Jamie had planned to keep himself safe. The seemingly endless line of men progressed as the sun marked its path across the flagstones. After awhile, Mrs. Fitz went back to the kitchens to supervise the final touches on the feast. I offered my help, but was gently rebuffed, the lady insisting I remain behind and enjoy myself.
“Who kens it, lass. Mayhap ye find yerself a husband at the Gathering; it has happened many a time before!” She winked and was gone in a swish of skirts.
Find myself a husband, indeed. Where was he now? I leaned on the parapet of the gallery, and met his gaze. He stood towards the end of the queue; he was dressed in his kilt, a basket hilt sword at his side. Murtagh stood beside him still, good man. I watched in trepidation as he slowly made his way to the front of the hall, closer and closer to Dougal. As he approached, the air became tense, and I found it hard to breathe. The sudden silence in the hall was deafening.
Jamie knelt for a moment at Dougal’s feet. After a few beats, he stood and his hand went to the dagger at his side, but Jamie did not draw it yet. “Dougal MacKenzie,” he began. “I come to ye as kinsman, and as ally. I give ye no vow, for my oath is pledged to the name that I bear.”
At this, an alarming number of men reached for their own weapons, and I heard the song of steel against scabbard. My breath caught in my throat; the threat was now imminent.
Jamie took one step closer to Dougal, and continued. “I give ye my obedience as kinsman, and as laird. And I hold myself bound to yer word, so long as my feet rest on the lands of clan MacKenzie.” He stood his ground before Dougal, his gaze on the laird’s grey eyes unwavering. The silence was prolonged; everyone seemed to be holding their breath like I was. I saw Jamie’s hand grip the hilt of the dagger, ready to go down fighting.
Then, Dougal smiled, and reached for the quaich beside him. A collective gasp of relief went up from the crowd, and Jamie’s face broke into a grin. The clansmen erupted in cheers and whoops and even whistles. The bagpipes struck up again as the men drank. Jamie’s plan had worked. He had offered obedience, not fealty, but Dougal seemed willing to accept that. For now.
* * *
“Come here, Sassenach.”
Jamie lifted me by the waist onto the surgery trestle table. He rucked up my skirts, finding purchase on my thighs. My own fingers scrabbled to remove his sporran, which fell to the floor with a thump. We didn’t bother undressing further; he drew me to the edge of the table, pushed his kilt aside and buried himself in me. I gasped at the sudden intrusion, but it quickly became familiar once more. Jamie thrust hard, kissing my neck. I tipped my head back, overwhelmed by feeling.
We had managed to steal away from the festivities, taking advantage of the fact that the men were getting sopping drunk, including his usual guards. Dougal had waylaid Murtagh, and we had agreed to meet in the surgery quick as we could.
I gripped Jamie, biting my lip to keep from screaming. He panted in my ear, close to completion. My own cries were muffled against his shoulder, when a loud bang startled us and made Jamie tighten his hold on me even as he whipped his head around. I looked over his shoulder—Angus was at the door.
He stared at us in disbelief while heat rushed to my face. Jamie quickly pulled my skirts and his kilt down; he turned to face his cousin, shielding me behind him while I got to my feet.
“Angus, please,” he began, pleading.
“Is this how you honor yer oath? By going against Dougal’s wishes?” Angus sneered. “Ye can have all the fun ye like with this one after ye wed. But wed ye must.”
Jamie cursed. “It is not merely fun, ye dinna understand—”
“Aye, I understand fine. But Dougal will not.” With that, Angus thundered up the stairs back to the great hall, back to the laird. Jamie turned to me, his expression panicked.
“I’m sorry, Sassenach. I must go after him.” He clutched the dagger at his belt, and made his way to the surgery door. “Stay here. If Murtagh comes, do as he says. Promise me, Claire.” His eyes were desperate.
“I promise,” I said, sick with fear for him. For us. Jamie followed in Angus’s steps, the tread of his boots soon lost in the winding stone staircase that led to my surgery.
I wrung my hands, wondering what would be worse—if Murtagh came for me or not. I paced for a few minutes, before coming upon a solution. I took a deep breath to steady myself, and strode purposefully to the set of shelves by the wall. I found Davie Beaton’s The Physician's Guide and Handbook, black-bound and gilt-stamped. I rifled through the pages and pulled out Mother Hildegarde’s letter and our marriage contract. I reached for the glass bottle where my ring was hidden, uncorked it, and shook its contents into the palm of my hand.
Clutching both documents against my chest, I raced up the stairs behind Jamie, heading for Dougal’s study.
A/N: Blessed be the Outlander Wiki and lots of dialogue from s01.
They called it the speak-a-word room. It was a feature of many a Scottish manor. I thought I knew my way up, the study enclosed in the highest turret of Castle Leoch, but I got lost in the winding hallway. I’d been summoned there once only, to provide a cure for Dougal’s headache.
“Merde!” I cried out, tracing my steps back to the point where I had taken a wrong turn. I felt frustration and fear well up inside me, but I refused to give in to my panic. The law was on our side, after all. But would it even be enough?
Finally, I was going up the correct staircase, the steps spiraling in the tower. I reached a heavy oak door, and did not stop to wonder what was happening behind it. I pounded on it desperately, until I received a gruff, “Thig a-steach!” from within. I hoped it meant for me to come in, so I pushed the door, hoping I was not too late.
Dougal stood in front of Jamie, red-faced. Jamie himself was stoic, while Murtagh stood behind him. The grumpy clansman’s expression was alarmed for a moment when he saw me come inside, but he quickly schooled his features back to his usual demeanor. Jamie’s eyes widened in horror when he realized it was me rushing into the study.
I spoke directly to Dougal with a brief curtsy. “My lord, I am terribly sorry to barge in on you like this, but I have to—”
“Mistress Beauchamp. I would highly recommend ye keep silent for the moment,” he interrupted. I stood next to Jamie, the documents still tightly in my grasp.
“Uncle, would ye listen to her! I have already said, ‘tis not—”
“And I have said before as weel!” Dougal roared. “I had ordered ye to wed the MacKenzie lass, and ye refused! Just as ye refused to swear the oath tonight!”
“I did swear one, uncle, and ye have my obedience while—”
“I dinna have yer obedience, do I?” Jamie was not getting a word in edgewise. Dougal continued to rail against us. “I was disposed to give ye some more time to grow accustomed to the idea of marrying the girl, but I see now I was wrong.” He turned to me, venom in his voice. “And as for ye, Mistress Beauchamp. I gave ye the hospitality of my castle, and this is how ye choose to repay me? Ye’re naught but a common hoor.”
Jamie exploded, lunging for his uncle at the epithet. Murtagh was quicker than I, fortunately, and held his arms back.
“Mac galla!” Jamie shouted. I knew that one. He had just called Dougal a son of a bitch. I laid my own hand on his forearm, and he immediately stilled. His eyes were wild and crazed with fear for me, for us, and his helplessness in this situation. I hoped I would not make things worse.
“Julia Beauchamp was my mother.” My throat went dry as I unclenched my fist, where the silver ring Jamie had had forged for me was nestled. “I apologize for the deception, my lord, but I deemed it necessary.” Dougal could only stare at the ring I’d no doubt he’d seen before. “I am Claire Fraser.”
My other hand trembled as I held out the cream vellum. Dougal waited a moment longer than was comfortable to accept it. He regarded the wax circlet, then cracked it and read the contents of the letter. He mouthed the words Claire Fraser. His eyes widened as he reached the end of the letter. There were two seals stamped on the document.
Unbeknownst to anyone, not even Jamie, I had made a brief sojourn in northern France at the abbey of St. Anne de Beaupré. At Mother Hildegarde’s urging, there I had met with a relative of Jamie’s, his uncle Alexander, and abbot of the abbey. Dougal was taken aback at the sight of his own kinsman’s signature.
“There was an epidemic of smallpox, Uncle Dougal, like I’d told ye. Claire remained behind to help the sisters at l’hôpital. Jared had other plans for me, however. Under yer orders, I presume,” Jamie said, his voice hard.
“My nephew’s wife is dead.” Dougal shook his head. “We received that wedding ring as a token of proof, which I returned to him for… sentimental value. Ye can’t be Claire Fraser, ye could be anyone. I’m sorry if he led ye on with promises of marriage, lass. Jamie is to wed Laoghaire MacKenzie.”
“Ah, but you see my lord…” I crouched, ripping the hem of my fancy gown. I pulled Ellen’s necklace free, the beads clinking against each other. I heard Murtagh gasp behind us, losing his composure for once. “…’twasn’t the only token my husband gave me.”
I folded the string of pearls on itself, laying it on top of the last document that was hopefully our salvation. I handed Dougal the necklace and the marriage contract. He regarded both like a serpent about to strike. Finally, he palmed the pearls and unfolded the marriage contract. His face was livid as he realized that Jamie and my union was signed and certified before the law. I glanced at Jamie himself; he was triumphant. His hand held mine tightly.
“Like mother, like son, I see,” Dougal said, resigned. “I’ll be having words with Ned Gowan. Yer marriage was for me to arrange, lad, not for you to recklessly decide.”
“Like mother, like son, indeed.” Jamie was defiant. “I’ll take the stipend uncle, and if ye have no use for us here, we’ll be leaving for Lallybroch tonight, and it please ye.”
“It doesna please me. Ye shall remain here and be given quarters in the castle for the foreseeable future.” Dougal cleared his throat harshly. I wasn’t so naïve as to think that he had acquiesced so quickly to the idea of our marriage. He turned to a chest of drawers behind his chair. He drew a small leather pouch and filled it with clinking coins of various denominations. Dougal tossed the bag to Jamie, who caught it neatly. “There’s yer stipend. Tell Mrs. Fitz the news and have her assign ye new rooms.”
Mrs. Fitz’s granddaughter was Laoghaire. Even as a small measure of relief flooded through me, I had a sinking feeling about disappointing her, she who had been so kind to me. Jamie squeezed my hand in reassurance, and Murtagh escorted us out of the laird’s study, ready to help us face whatever came next.
“Claire? Not Julia?” Mrs. Fitz was very confused. I was helping her make the bed in Jamie’s and my new room—our room as newlyweds.
“I do apologize, Mrs. Fitz. I did not know how the laird would receive me if he knew I was Jamie’s wife. His presumably dead wife, you recall.”
“Och, I do mind. The lad was beside himself wi’ grief.” Her eyes misted over. “He refused to eat, all he did was wander about the castle and help with the horses.” My heart tightened to hear it.
“I am terribly sorry about your granddaughter’s betrothal,” I mentioned cautiously.
Mrs. Fitz shrugged thoughtfully, arranging the pillows. “God kens I love Laoghaire, but… Dougal’s idea in making that match—nay, he needs a woman, not a girl. And Laoghaire will be a girl when she's fifty.”
I could understand what she meant. I hoped the girl would not be disappointed for long. I recounted my story for Mrs. Fitz: how my mother and I used to travel as healers, about my midwifing apprenticeship at l’Hôpital des Anges, Mother Hildegarde, and how Jamie and I met. She thought it terribly romantic that we were handfast, and that I had stayed behind to help the sisters through the epidemic.
As she left me to settle in, Mrs. Fitz turned at the door. “I do love the lad. I am glad he found you, dearie, in the end. Take care of each other.”
* * *
When Jamie and I stepped into the great hall for dinner the following night, we were the target of whispers and comments directed at us from all sides. News traveled fast in the castle; I could only imagine what was being said about me, Jamie’s wife, come back from the dead. I gripped Jamie’s arm tightly as he escorted us to our seats. He kept his head up high, meeting people’s stares with a frank gaze. We ate in companionable silence, and as soon as Jamie was done eating, I gestured for us to leave the hall.
We were near the side door when there was a commotion behind us. I turned to spot a head of blonde hair racing amongst the tables. Laoghaire—Mrs. Fitz tried to pull her back, but the girl was too fast. She approached us, me in particular. She came up to me and shoved me, palms outstretched. I stumbled, caught unawares, but Jamie held me upright.
“Seas!” Jamie exclaimed, placing himself between Laoghaire and myself. “Lass, get ye under control—this is no way to behave towards my wife!”
“Your wife?!” Laoghaire’s eyes were wild with anger. Mrs. Fitz had appeared behind her, and was doing her best to pull her away from us with quiet noises meant to soothe the girl. “I was to be yer wife! Ye broke yer promise, James Fraser! I canna forgive that!”
“There was no promise from me, and ye ken it well, Laoghaire,” Jamie said between clenched teeth. “I never agreed to it, and my uncle has accepted our union.” Everyone in the hall had fallen silent, the better to hear the confrontation.
“Jamie, let’s just go,” I pleaded, tugging on his arm. Laoghaire turned her attentions back to me.
“He’s mine! Get ye back to the hell ye came from, and leave him to me! Go I say!” Laoghaire stamped her foot like a child throwing a tantrum. My own temper got the best of me and I stepped around Jamie, bent on pulling her hair or clawing her eyes out, whichever I could reach first. He caught me around the waist first, though, and pulled me back into his chest.
“I shan’t be going anywhere, least of all without my husband,” I hissed. “You must cease to call him yours, girl, now that the law say otherwise.” I watched with a satisfied smirk as Laoghaire’s face fell, and she finally allowed herself to be towed away by her grandmother.
“Let’s go, Sassenach,” Jamie said quietly in my ear, as everyone watched Laoghaire leave the great hall towards the kitchens, and conversation started up again slowly in their wake. I broke free of Jamie’s grasp and left through the side door. Once out of the hall, I picked up my skirts and ran as fast as I could towards our room. I heard Jamie behind me, the heavy tread of his boots catching up.
“Sassenach—Claire!” He sounded out of breath as he neared my side. “I would prefer not to follow behind my own wife.”
I did not bother to turn around. “So walk faster.”
We reached our room and Jamie closed the door behind us. “Sassenach, ye must no’ mind Laoghaire—”
“Not mind! Jamie, she shamed us in front of the entire castle!” I cried, flopping down on a chair by the hearth. “She’s made me out as some sort of devious red woman who would steal you away on a whim…”
“Ye are not a red woman,” he replied, stifling a smile. “They ken now that ye are Claire Fraser, from Paris, my true and only wife.” He pressed a kiss to the knot of hair on my head.
“No one approves Jamie… I was not expecting cheers and applause, but all this speculation and gossip is unbearable. Please, when can we leave for Lallybroch?”
“As soon as the MacKenzie allows it.” He came over to crouch next to me and took my hand in his. “I never thought to ask, Sassenach… can ye ride a horse?”
I laughed at this change of subject. “Not terribly well. I mostly rode in a wagon on my way here. Maman and I walked most everywhere.”
“I think ye should practice. We’ll ride to Lallybroch. Although I do mind something Jenny wrote me awhile back, when I let her ken we’d been handfast… married women shouldna ride horses.” Jamie laid his warm hand on my flat stomach. I sat up abruptly straighter, and laid my own hand over his.
“”Tis no danger to me at the moment,” I said gently. He nodded, accepting my reply. “Should that change, trust you will be the first to know.”
* * *
Rabbits were nibbling at the carrots. I would ask some of the castle lads to set snares near the vegetable garden. My medicinal herbs were also at risk. I knelt, pulling up weeds tirelessly. I noticed the edge of my cloak was rent as well, a piece torn clean out. It was a castle hand-me-down, given me by Mrs. Fitz. I would have to mend it, but first, I needed to take care of my crop. I was so absorbed in my task that I barely noticed the shadow that fell over me. I looked up when it cleared its throat to find Geillis Duncan smiling down at me.
“Oh, Mistress Duncan! How are you feeling?” I wiped my hands on my apron and covered the glare of sunlight with my hand.
“That is precisely why I’m here, Mistress Beauchamp. Or should I say Fraser?” She still smiled gently, cradling her enormous pregnant belly.
“Fraser, I suppose,” I said, returning her smile. “But Claire will do just fine. Did you walk here?”
“I took my husband’s carriage. ‘Tis a little far to walk from Cranesmuir to Leoch now; I tire so easily.”
“I think perhaps even the carriage ride might be too much, all that jostling about,” I said, gauging the heft of her belly. “It could cause you to go into labor.”
Geillis looked surprised. “I didna ken that. Should I go into confinement?”
I shook my head. “Fresh air does you good. Just avoid the carriage rides from now on. Is there anything I can do for you, mistress?”
“I did mean to ask ye for a tonic. Ye see, after every meal I have this burning sensation in my throat. I feel as though I might vomit, and my stomach hurts as well.” She seemed embarrassed. “Do ye ken what is happening?”
I smiled to put her at ease. “’Tis common enough—heartburn. Do you eat heavily seasoned foods or garlic?”
“Both,” she replied. I nodded and rummaged through the herbs in my garden. I plucked a bunch of peppermint leaves and tied them with a piece of twine from my ever-present basket.
“These should help. Brew a cup of tea with the leaves after every meal.” I handed the sheaf of leaves to her, and she held them tightly. She gave me an appraising glance, and I knew what she would ask. What many of the castle inhabitants were wondering themselves.
“Are ye with child, Claire?” she inquired curiously.
“No, at least not yet,” I replied cautiously.
“Arthur—my husband—and I had trouble conceiving. We had tried for years, and nothing. And now, a miracle.” Geillis smiled beatifically, a glow about her.
“We’ve only been married a few months, and apart for most of them. When we are ready, I hope it will happen.”
She stepped closer and lowered her voice. “There is a wise woman in the forest, ken. Some say witch, of course. She has herbs and tonics like ye do. She can make a barren woman conceive. And she also helps the lasses who get in trouble.”
“Ye ken, trouble.” She gestured towards her belly.
“Oh.” I understood. “We called them angel makers in Paris. They were not as busy as the maîtresses sage femme, for all that. Do you know…” I hesitated to ask. “Does the wise woman use herbs to make angels, or… other methods?”
“I dinna ken… though those that survive the cure, shall we say, are often sick for days afterward. It minds me of witchcraft,” Geillis whispered.
“Do you believe in witches, Mistress Duncan?” I asked carefully.
“There are many things in this world for which we have no explanation. But to hold a bairn in yer arms, fruit of the union with yer husband… ‘tis a kind of magic some women would consider worthwhile to have, regardless of the cost.”
My stores were running low. After tending to the visiting clansmen for the gathering, they had dwindled steadily. I resorted to spending time in the kitchen, where the hearth was bigger and Mrs. Fitz could spare another kettle or two for me to prepare tonics.
I was tying off bundles of lavender and rosemary to dry in the rafters of my surgery when I realized I had forgotten the glass bottles I needed to fill with the willow bark tea I was preparing for headaches. Sighing, I tied off one last handful of lavender before making my way down to the surgery. I rounded a corner of one of the many staircases in Leoch when I heard a familiar deep voice.
“… lass.” Jamie’s timbre was unmistakable.
“All those years ago when ye fostered at Leoch, then ye went away to study in France, I never forgot ye.” I stopped in my tracks. That voice belonged to Laoghaire. Boiling kettles forgotten, I flattened myself against the wall, out of sight of the small alcove where they talked, but still within earshot.
“Nor the way my heart beat when ye were near, Jamie. And ‘twas a noble thing ye did. I heard from my grandmother, how she was alone, her mother dead… perhaps it inspired pity in you, but that is not love.” I felt my face grow hot with anger. I felt a bit guilty for eavesdropping, but I was not about to let that child have her way with my husband.
“I’m wed now.” Jamie’s tone was gentle, but firm.
“I havena laid eyes on anyone since I met ye,” Laoghaire said desperately. “I’ve lain with no one. I ken what happens in a marriage, and I commend ye for doin’ yer duty. But that needn’t stop ye from sampling… other pleasures…” At this, I dared to peek around the corner. Laoghaire was standing on her tiptoes to kiss him. Jealous rage threatened to overflow in words and deed, but my eyes were on Jamie. Jamie stood still as a carved statue. His hands lay balled into fists at his side, unwilling to encourage her. Laoghaire tried a few more times, but he did not reciprocate.
Jamie stepped away from Laoghaire, shaking his head. “Lass, I made a vow, and I’ll not break it. I hope ye’ll find someone who returns yer sentiment.” She let a sob escape, which she quickly muffled behind her hands. Jamie turned to go, and I took that as my own cue to leave.
I backtracked silently up the staircase again, heart pounding. I might have to have words with Laoghaire later, but for the moment, the wariness in my stomach eased, replaced with sweeping relief. Not that I had had cause to doubt Jamie or worry about infidelity on his behalf, but he was a handsome man. As long as he stood by me, and I him, we would be alright, disapproval and jealousy notwithstanding.
* * *
The door to our chamber creaked open and I looked over my naked shoulder at Jamie, fresh from the fields. I paused at scrubbing my skin with a washcloth. I lay in a copper tub, filled to the brim with delightfully hot water. Taking a bath was a laborious undertaking, having to take time to heat the huge bath cans and haul them up to the room from the kitchen. Mrs. Fitz, however, had been only too happy to oblige, and I blessed her for it.
Jamie’s face was streaked with dirt, I noticed, as he sat beside me, resting his head in his arms on the edge of the tub. He looked weary. I offered a bright smile, and leaned in to dab at his face with the cloth. “There is room in here for two.” A very tight fit, but we would manage.
“Ye look so bonny in there, mo chridhe, I wouldna want to impose.” His finger trailed a wayward damp curl that had fallen from the haphazard pile on my head.
“Of course not, husband.” I reached to help him out of his shirt. He climbed in behind me, water sloshing over the lip of the tub. He settle in with a groan as the hot water began to work its magic. I rested my back on Jamie’s chest, trailing the washcloth lazily over his arms. We lay in comfortable silence, and I wondered if I should bring up what I had witnessed in the alcove. Jamie spoke first.
“Sassenach, there’s something I think I should tell ye.”
“Mm-hmm?” I tensed slightly, my hands stopping their caressing motion.
“Laoghaire asked fer my help carrying some casks of wine to the kitchen and of course, I couldna refuse—they were verra heavy—though why she didna ask any of the other lads… weel, we were walking back towards the kitchen—did ye get all the brewing done today as ye said ye must? I imagine all the folk from the gathering must have depleted yer stores a bit. I could ask Dougal if ye needed—”
“Mon Dieu, Jamie, get to the point!” I pinched his knee lightly, as it rose above the soapy water. The tub was barely large enough to accommodate his height.
“Laoghaire kissed me.” Now it was his turn to tense, as he awaited my reaction. I reached a hand behind me, touching his cheek.
“I saw. I heard.”
Jamie grasped me by the shoulders and turned me slightly. “Ye saw? How?” His face was red, and I did not think it was due to the heat of the bath.
“I was on my way to the surgery. You were by the staircase. I didn’t mean to listen, but you were there, and Laoghaire is just so…” I touched my forehead to his. “I also heard what you told her.”
“Och, weel.” He relaxed minutely and nestled me back against his chest. “’Twas the truth, aye?”
“Jamie, I can’t help but imagine that your life might have been easier if you had wed somebody else. Not her necessarily,” I added hastily, “but a Scottish woman. Someone everyone approved of. One of your own.”
“Ye are mine, and I am yers. No one else’s, mo nighean donn. Do ye not ken that still?” His arm came around me, holding me tightly to him. I grasped it as though I might drown.
“Above everything else, James Fraser—you are loyal.” He kissed the nape of my neck, and I began losing any coherent thoughts in the onslaught of Jamie’s kisses and his touch. His hands wandered upwards, cradling my breasts gently. He rose behind me, lifting me with him out of the tub. He patted us dry with a linen towel before carrying me back to bed.
Jamie lay me down, his hands traveling all over my body. He left no inch of skin untouched until I was writhing with pleasure. My own hands were at his back, tracing over the ridges of scars, urging him inside me.
We moved together slowly at first, savoring the feeling of being one. Then Jamie turned on his back, fingers splayed wide on my waist, as I hovered above him. I moved my hips in lazy circles, until it was Jamie who grunted and moaned, searching for release.
“Does it ever stop?” he gasped. “The wanting you.” He raised himself to take my breasts in his mouth, his tongue laving roughly over my nipples. I tilted my head back, awash in sensation.
“I hope not,” I breathed, gripping the back of his head to my chest. Jamie’s bright red curls slipped through my fingers, fire and heat and mine.
TW: A little TMI, medically... gory, perhaps. Thought I’d throw this warning in if it’s not your thing. Any doctors and midwifes out there, any technical errors in the story are mine and based on internet research.
“Mistress!” The door to my surgery burst open, and a frantic young girl stood at the threshold, panting for breath. I thought she might be injured, and I approached her quickly.
“Are you bleeding? Where are you hurt?” I patted her down gently, but she waved my hands away.
“No, my mistress… Duncan… she sent me for ye. The bairn is coming!”
“Oh, of course!” I doubled back, grabbing the knapsack I kept packed with all necessary implements for childbirth. We raced out to the courtyard, and I stopped briefly to ask one of the kitchen girls to let Jamie and Mrs. Fitz know I was headed for the procurator fiscal’s house. I saw the lady had sent her young maid in the carriage I had advised she not ride. We clambered in and the driver snapped the reins hard on the horses’ backs.
The ride was rough; the maid—Jeanie, she said her name was—and I were flung about the inside of the carriage. I asked the girl questions while we bore the brunt of the ride. When had her pains started? Had her waters burst? Was she feverish? Was she bleeding? Jeanie was terrified, but answered my inquiries as best she could. The pains were strong and regular, and had begun earlier that morning. Her waters had not burst. Mistress Duncan had been sweating profusely, possibly feverish. She had not seen any blood on the sheets.
When we arrived at the fiscal’s house, I bid Jeanie begin boiling water and prepare fresh clean linens. In the bedroom upstairs, I found Geillis thrashing on the bedstead, drenched in perspiration. The room was dark, a fire roaring despite the noon heat, as was customary for some women. I opened a window to let in some air.
“Claire! Thank God ye’re here!” she rasped. I opened the bag of supplies and pulled out cloths, basins, and tools. The bottles of possets and infusions clinked merrily at the bottom. I laid them neatly on the dresser and immediately washed my hands by pouring vinegar on them.
“Good afternoon, Mistress Duncan. Is your husband here?”
“No, he—at the courthouse. He left when the pains began.”
“Is the pain very bad yet?” I asked, pushing her shift above her belly. I reached between her legs, feeling the pudenda.
“What do ye mean, yet?” she cried out.
I smiled wryly. “Mistress, you have not dilated fully. In fact, the opening through which the child will pass is still quite small. It will hurt twice as much before he or she is ready to come out.”
Jeanie came up with a kettle of hot water. I set about steeping willow bark to help ease her mistress’s pain. It was midday, but her waters hadn’t broken. It could be a long time before she was fully ready.
After awhile, Mistress Duncan seemed to relax. I propped her up on a few pillows, trying to make her comfortable, though I knew comfort was a relative thing to her at the moment. I bid Jeanie wipe her face with a cool cloth dipped in rose water. The lady doubled over every once in a while, wailing through the pain of each contraction, then subsiding.
A few hours passed. She drifted in and out of sleep, bone tired even though the real work was not close yet. I checked her with each chime of the church bell. She was not dilating as fast as I would have liked. I suggested she take a turn about the room; sometimes motion would help speed the birth along.
Jeanie and I held her mistress up by the shoulders. With small, slow steps, we took her around the bed a few times. She clenched up with a contraction a couple of times, sweat sliding down her face. When we tried to lay her back down on the bed, she refused to go on her back. Obeying some natural impulse of her body, she drew herself up on her knees on the edge of the bed.
“I need to push!” she exclaimed.
“Alright then, Geillis, you cannot push, your waters have not broken.”
She let out a primal scream then, torn with pain that seemed as though she was being ripped in half. A small gush of blood accompanied her scream, staining her thighs and the floor. Something was wrong.
“Help me get her on the bed.” Together, we lifted her onto the mattress. Jeanie stared with wide eyes at the bloodstains, stark red against the creamy linens. She looked very pale. I shook her shoulder, hoping to startle her back into action. “Jeanie! Go get more water please!”
The maid scurried back to the kitchen, while I pushed Geillis’s knees up and feet together. Once in that position, I spread her legs apart, keeping the soles of her feet touching. I reached once more between her legs, and felt around the birth canal. Still too closed. I washed my hands of the streaks of blood; I massaged her stomach gently with lavender oil, pressing gently at her sides. That was when I felt it.
The babe was lying wrong. Its head was high up in the abdomen, which meant he was trying to be born feet first.
I felt a cold dread grip me. This could be fatal for the mother, if not the child as well. In such cases, I knew, often the mother was left to die and then cut open to retrieve the child. But I had apprenticed at l’Hôpital des Anges, with some of the best midwives and chirurgiens, and there was something I knew I could do. Pray God it would work.
“Geillis?” I smoothed the tousled hair back from her sweaty forehead. “The child is coming feet first. This is probably why this is taking so long, and why you haven’t broken waters yet. There is a technique for this kind of delivery, but it will be painful, and there are no guarantees. But it is the best chance you have to deliver this baby and survive yourself. Are you willing I should try?” She was likely in too much pain and terrified to make this a conscious decision, but my duty was to mother and child. I would do everything in my power to see them both safe through delivery.
Geillis doubled over as if in response, crying out with gritted teeth, “Do what ye must, just get him out!”
I called out for Jeanie. The girl walked back in with frightened eyes, as I instructed her to sit behind her mistress and hold her by the shoulders. Geillis lay supine on the bed, and I extracted a tool from my kit. It looked like a steel knitting needle, long and sharp. I doused it with a flask of diluted alcohol and very carefully inserted it inside Geillis’s body. I probed gently, and suddenly there was a gush of liquid and a bit of blood. I had burst her waters in an effort to move the birth along.
I placed my hands on her enormous belly and began to massage it more forcefully, trying one last time to turn the child around. I could feel the head and some jerky motions from within, but the child would not budge. I wiped my face with my forearm; I would have to take harsher measures.
I brewed mugwort tea; Madame de Ramelle used it to induce labor and make angels. I bid Geillis drink a cup, and then waited. Slowly, contractions began again, stronger than before; in this case, I hoped it would help push the baby further down the birth canal so I could attempt the technique used by Monsieur Forez at l’hôpital.
I asked Jeannie to push on Geillis’s stomach, towards her legs. I spread them wide, and introduced my hand gingerly, feeling around. I touched the tiny tips of toes.
“He’s close, Geillis. Try to push with the pain, and I shall have to make a cut, to try and make way for the child’s body. Be ready!” I took a small paring knife from my bag, cleaned it well, and took a deep breath. With the next contraction, I swiftly made a cut on the perineum, and Geillis screamed. I reached for the feet I had felt, and timed with the ongoing contractions, pulled the child out bit by bit. I called out words of encouragement, praying the baby would not suffocate in the birth canal. Jeanie kept pushing on Geillis’s stomach, but her eyes were riveted on the child emerging from her mistress’s body. Soon, we could determine the sex—the baby was indeed male.
I kept my own gaze on the blood seeping from the cut I had made, making sure it did not turn life-threatening. Geillis sat up and with a cry and pushed hard, bellowing and keening. I felt her insides surge, and I quickly placed my hand around the baby’s shoulders. Sure enough, with the force of his mother’s muscles, the head began to emerge and I gently eased it out.
Geillis collapsed back on the pillows while I hurried to clear the boy’s airway, with my finger hooked in his mouth—he had not emitted a sound and his body was limp. Jeanie appeared by my side, clutching clean linens and dabbing at the baby.
“Is it alright? Will he live?” she asked anxiously.
I said nothing yet; I rubbed at the boy’s chest, hoping to induce a response. Suddenly the baby curled in on itself and let out a high-pitched wail. Breathing a sigh of relief, I handed the baby to Jeanie so I could tend to Geillis.
Grabbing the jar of cat-gut sutures, I threaded a needle and swiped at the area with cotton batting to staunch the blood. It wasn’t gushing, which was a good sign. Mindful of the pain she was experiencing, I stitched her up as quickly as possible. Geillis whimpered, but remained still. Jeanie approached and placed the child in Geillis’s arms.
I watched Geillis holding her boy, her previous suffering seemingly forgotten. Her eyes were suffused with joy and warmth, a glow about her face. She cuddled him close, finger tracing the soft features, still swollen and red from the ordeal of birth. I watched with a pang of longing, as Geillis looked up with immense gratitude.
“Mistress Fraser… Claire… thank ye.”
* * *
Back at Leoch, Jamie watched as I washed off the peculiar fecund ocean scent of birth, and I recounted the difficult delivery in a rush of exhilaration. These were the time when I knew what I was meant to do in life, and proud of following in Maman’s footsteps.
“I’m proud of ye, Sassenach,” he said, kissing my forehead. Suddenly I could feel a familiar griping begin in my lower belly. I rubbed my hand gingerly over my stomach, my thoughts turning to some rest and a cup of tea. I sighed, irritated at the intrusion and something else tugging at my heart. My courses meant I was not with child.
I slipped out of Jamie’s embrace with a wan smile. He sensed my mood immediately and withdrew, noting the position of my hand.
“Dinna fash. We have time, Sassenach. I imagine Mrs. Fitz will speak relentlessly on the subject of bairns, and the other women in the castle also, now that we’re officially wed. ‘Tis what they’re accustomed to, but perhaps for us… it will go another way.”
“I always dreamed of a large family.” I traced my fingers over my belly, thoughts full of Geillis and her own child. “Papa and Maman, and then it was just me. I wanted brothers or sisters. To think that I might not be able to have that, to give you that… There’s talk of Maisri, the wise-woman in the forest.”
“Aye, I’ve heard of her. She’s old, old as the hills, folk say.”
“In the hôpital, we learned how to bring children into the world. From Madame de Ramelle, we learned how to stop them from coming. But aid to conceive them in the first place… Perhaps I should pay this Maisri a visit.”
“By the grace of God, we will have a child. To think of ye in childbirth, Sassenach—I can bear pain myself, but I couldna bear yours. That would take more strength than I have.” With another tender kiss, I turned to take care of my courses.
Jamie wrote a letter to Jenny while I searched for the small box where I kept absorbent cloths. When I had moved from the surgery to the bedchamber, I thought I’d brought all my personal possessions with me; but the box was nowhere to be found. Perhaps Mrs. Fitz or one of the kitchen girls had moved it while cleaning.
In a last ditch attempt, I peeked under the bed. I glimpsed a bundle tucked behind the canopy frame. On my knees, I stretched my arm as far as it would go and batted around until my fingers brushed against the object. It was not a box.
“Did ye find it?” Jamie asked distractedly.
I pulled a bundle of branches from under the bed. I turned it over; strange black and red shapes dangled from the tips of the boughs, and the bundle was tied together with a strip of drab brown cloth. The edges of this makeshift ribbon were stiff with rusty red, and as I puzzled over it, the realization came to me. I dropped the bundle with a cry of shock.
The cloth was the edge of my old torn cloak. The stain on it was dried blood.
“’Tis an ill-wish,” Jamie said, turning it over in his large hands. “Like a curse of sorts, meant to bring harm. Who would do such a thing?”
“You honestly can’t imagine?” I snorted. I took the bundle from him, fingering the torn cloth on it with a shiver. Someone wished to do me harm, specifically. And I damn well knew who thought she had cause to do such a thing.
“Laoghaire?” Jamie’s eyes were wide. “I didna think she would dabble in dark curses of sorts… do ye wish me to speak with her directly?”
“No, I shall do it myself. I will take it up with Dougal if I have to.”
Late the next morning, I ventured into the kitchen. I spotted Mrs. Fitz being helped into her apron by none other than Laoghaire. I approached them, the young girl eyeing me with suspicion and loathing. I held the ill-wish behind my back.
“Mrs. Fitz, I wondered if I might have a word with your granddaughter. Alone.”
The housekeeper looked surprised and a tad worried. “Aye, to be sure. Here, ladies, come along for a spell.” She ushered the kitchen girls out, throwing a glance to Laoghaire; she stood defiantly, arms crossed over her chest.
“What is it, mistress? I have chores to do.”
I pulled out the ill-wish. “Is this familiar to you?”
She stared at the bundle of twigs, eyes going blank. But I caught the small moue of concern at the edge of her mouth that gave her away. Still, she shook her head. “Why would I do such a thing?”
“When tender regard and a betrothal is denied, it can be hurtful, but you had no cause to do us harm. I know you think I conspired to take Jamie from you, and that you are jealous, but he was never yours to begin with.” I crossed my own arms. “We were handfast in Paris, long before Dougal thought to arrange a match between you, while everyone thought me dead. I am sorry, but he does not love you, and he never did.”
“James Fraser was and will be mine,” said Laoghaire with conviction. “Ye did us a wrong when ye stole him away.”
“You are sorely mistaken, child.”
“My poor Jamie!” She shook her head mournfully. “Trapped in a loveless marriage with a cold English bitch!”
My hand reached out faster than I could think and smacked Laoghaire’s cheek. She put her hand on the red, stinging skin, shock in her face. I pursed my lips, slightly ashamed of myself. She was just a child. “I should not have done that. I apologize.”
Her blue eyes filled with malice, and a twisted grin overtook her features. “Aye. I did put that ill-wish under yer bed, in the hopes that it would make Jamie hate ye as much as I do. It must have been sorcery that made him marry ye, what else could keep him by yer side? Ye’re a witch, ye must be!”
I took a step forward, and she was the one who stumbled back now, something akin to fear in her eyes. I held her gaze, trying not to blink, and won the challenge—she dropped her eyes first. I leaned in a bit closer, and murmured, “Stay away from me and my husband.”
* * *
I had tossed the ill-wish into the fireplace of our room, watching as the cloth caught first and slowly smoldered. My hand still tingled where I had struck Laoghaire. I was frustrated at this situation, but I knew Jamie and I must bide our time until Dougal was sufficiently appeased and we could leave for Lallybroch. With a sigh, I decided the best thing for me to do was throw myself into work. Gathering a basket with supplies I resolved to visit Geillis.
Mother and child were doing well, all things considered. The stitching I had done was not hot or swollen, a sure sign of infection. I breathed with relief. The technique had worked well. Geillis was steadily nursing her baby boy, with no childbed fever. Her husband, Arthur, was delighted with his new son and heir. He thanked me graciously for attending so diligently to his wife, and sent me back to Leoch with a generous purse of coin. This I resolved to give immediately to Jamie, to help us on our journey home—whenever that might be.
At Leoch, I tended to a smashed finger from the blacksmith’s apprentice, binding it with salve to help the bruising that would ensue. I was writing of the ordeal in my own casebook when a timid knock sounded in the surgery. It was one of the kitchen girls.
“Mistress Fraser.” She looked a bit peaky as I tried to remember her name. “I was wondering if ye had a remedy for stomach trouble.”
I walked over to her and ushered her in gently. The girl clutched at her lower abdomen with both arms, pale and a little green around the edges. “Of course. Could you be more specific? What sort of distress are you having… Moira?”
“Morag.” I bid her sit and she did, gingerly. I rummaged in my stores and found fennel powder and peppermint oil.
“Are you keeping food down, Morag?”
“No, ma’am. Since this morning, I’ve been vomiting constantly. I might have eaten something that didna agree with me.” She took deep breaths and tightened her grip on her stomach. I pushed a bucket next to her just in case.
“Certainly seems that way. Brew the fennel into tea to drink, and put a few drops of the peppermint oil onto a handkerchief for smelling. ‘Twill help with the nausea.” I glanced worriedly at the girl, who was positively miserable. A thought occurred to me. “Morag, is there a chance you might be with child?”
A panicked look crossed her face. “I’m no’ marrit, mistress!”
“One does not have to be married to become pregnant,” I said delicately.
“No, I’m—no mistress, I am not wi’ child,” Morag said determinedly.
“Alright. If the vomiting doesn’t stop by tomorrow, send for me.” I helped her up carefully and sent her back to the kitchens. Morag walked slowly, hunched over as if cramping. I shook my head in sympathy—stomach pain was a terrible ailment.
Jamie and I were sleeping soundly in the hours before dawn, burrowed comfortably against each other when we were suddenly roused by urgent pounding on our chamber door. Jamie leapt from the bed naked, dagger in hand, and set himself against the door. I could only pull the bedclothes to cover myself up as he called out menacingly, “Who is it?”
“Claire! Mistress Fraser!” It was Mrs. Fitz’s voice. “I need ye downstairs!”
I pulled on my night rail and gestured for Jamie to open the door. Mrs. Fitz held a candle in one hand, and clasped a shawl around her shoulders with the other. Her hair was a white cloud around her terrified face.
“What is it?” I felt Jamie wrap my cloak around me and I squeezed his hand in thanks.
“’Tis the lass, Morag. I believe she’s dying.”
TW: miscarriage / abortion
Morag lay on a cot, in a room she shared with other kitchen workers. Her face was waxy and white, lips almost blue. There was a basin on the floor next to her, where she had been sick. That was not the most alarming thing, however; she was covered in blood from the waist down. For the first time in my time as a midwife, I felt faintly nauseated myself.
The other kitchen girls huddled together, and I recognized one of them, Iona, who had helped me along with Morag in cleaning the surgery when I had first arrived. They were all pale and wide-eyed, frightened at what they saw. I asked them to light as many candles as they could. I leaned over Morag, wiping at the cold sweat on her forehead. Her eyes fluttered open, and she regarded me with pain.
“Mistress, I am sorry… I lied.”
“Do not worry about that, love. Do you feel pain in your stomach, or lower?”
“Did it come out of me?”
Mon Dieu. I rolled up the sleeves of my shift and peeled back the stained sheet and Morag’s own night rail. There was a dark mass nestled between her legs, in a puddle of blood. Chills ran up and down my spine. She had made an angel.
I reached for a linen towel, a single tear sliding down my cheek. I could only imagine Morag’s desperation, like so many other women who are left alone, with child, and no one to turn to for help. I wrapped the remains in a bundle; small discernible limbs, tiny fingers and toes, eyes closed. She must have been a few months along.
The girls gasped at the bloody towel in my hands, and Mrs. Fitz, who had trailed in behind me into the girls’ quarters, cried out. Only Iona, lips drawn in a tight line, looked unsurprised. I gathered she had known about it, perhaps even helped Morag.
“She tried to slip a bairn?” Mrs. Fitz whispered.
“She was successful,” I replied grimly. “I need someone to bury the body, under a tree.” Iona stepped forward wordlessly, holding out her hands. I gave her the bundle with a nod; the other girls shrank back from her as she walked past. I turned to Morag, to try and save her life.
I packed wads of rough cotton between her legs, to stem the flow of blood. There was too much of it, and that was very serious. It reminded me of Émilie. Morag only blinked slowly and stared at the ceiling, until she doubled up in excruciating pain and vomited into the basin. Swallowing past the bile in my own throat, I lifted the basin to see its contents by the light of my candle—there were traces of red in it. The movement also caused a rush of blood to gush between her legs again, maroon in the dim light. This time, it would not be staunched. I massaged the spot on her body where her womb would be, trying to get it to contract. Something seemed to have torn inside her, and the blood seemed to pour out of Morag, along with her life.
I heard Mrs. Fitz and the girls weeping, their sobs and wails reminders of my futile attempts to save Morag. I wiped a hand across my forehead, frustration and rage welling up inside me. There was nothing left to do, save ease her passing. I found laudanum in the supplies that had been brought from my surgery. I held Morag’s head in my lap, and coaxed her to drink straight from the bottle until it was drained. There was a bluish tinge to her lips, and the tips of her fingers. It looked like she’d been poisoned.
“This dying… it hurts me, mistress… I’d have it over…” Morag’s voice was faint and wistful, already drifting away.
“Dinna fash,” I said to her softly, like Jamie would, smiling through my tears. “Tell me about your home. You’ll be there soon.” I stroked Morag’s hair while she whispered haltingly of Skye, the crags and valleys and the sea that called to her as she left this world. I only realized much later in the deafening silence that followed that Morag was already gone, peaceful at last.
I eased her head off my lap, and left a weeping Mrs. Fitz and the girls to prepare Morag’s body for funeral rites. The priest, Father Bain, would be called, and hopefully would ask no questions about how the girl had died. The women alone would know the truth, complicit. They would change Morag’s clothes and the linens, leaving behind no trace of what had occurred.
Outside, I found Iona kneeling by a large alder tree. She was crying silently, the kind of raging storm fueled by pure sorrow. I laid a hand on her shoulder. “She’s gone. I helped her… sleep. In the end.” Iona’s crying settled into sniffs and hiccups and I joined her on the ground. “I need to know what she did. Was it an instrument? Or something she drank? Either one, it hurt her badly; it is what made her bleed out.”
“I told her to go to ye!” Iona cried, fist pounding the freshly turned soil. “When she first missed her courses. It was a boy with the Campbell clan, from the Gathering. And ye seemed so sympathetic, and Mrs. Fitz had said ye came from Paris. We’d heard what the lads and lasses are like there… ‘twas likely ye knew how to slip a bairn.”
“I do,” I said cautiously. “We called it angel-making, at the place where I apprenticed. There are ways—safer ways—of doing it. But Morag… it did not have to be that way.”
Iona shook her head. “There wasna much choice. The lad wouldna assume responsibility for her. He left, and it was all Morag could do…” she trailed off, tears slipping down her face, for her friend.
* * *
“What was it then?” Jamie pressed gently, holding my hand in his.
“I do not know, exactly. Iona said it came in a bottle. That it smelled horrible, and tasted something awful, according to Morag. It could be any sort of mixture.”
“I’m sorry, Sassenach. Sorry it happened, sorry ye feel ye couldna help more.” He scooped me into his arms, rocking me back and forth while I wept.
“She was told it would bring on pains, like her courses, only stronger. And the babe would slip, and none the wiser. But it made her so ill.” I wiped at my nose, clutching at Jamie’s shirt tightly.
“Where did she get this brew?”
“Maisri.” I thought back to Iona, pulling a cork-stoppered clay flask from her apron pocket.
“From the ban-sidh in the woods. She makes such things from time to time. To help.” She handed me the bottle, and I uncorked it and sniffed it. It was foul. I thought I detected coriander seed, and perhaps mugwort. I dipped my finger inside, and it was coated with a dark sticky substance. Around the neck of it a bit of red cloth was tied. It looked familiar. Goosebumps prickled on my arms.
“Iona, does Maisri make ill-wishes too?”
“Aye, she would.” Iona looked frightened.
“Do you know where her cabin is?”
Jamie insisted on accompanying me to the wise-woman’s cabin. We made plans to go at midday; before we left, Jamie provided me with a sgian dubh—a small type of dagger concealed beneath my skirts.
“Jamie, I do not think I can… stab anyone with this,” I’d said, holding it gingerly between my fingers.
“Sure ye can. Think of it like yer surgery skills. Stick them wi’ the pointy end.” Then he had taken an inordinate amount of time fastening the small blade to the ribbon holding up my stockings, under my skirts.
As we passed by the great hall on our way outside of Leoch, we were intercepted by Rupert. “Jamie, Dougal needs ye in his study. Family meeting.”
“Just the now?” Jamie sighed in exasperation. He turned to me, speaking softly. “Is there any way I can convince ye to wait fer me?”
I hesitated. “Jamie, Father Bain might ask questions. I think the women will not say outright what they saw, but I have to know what happened to Morag.” I took his hands in mine, and he kissed my knuckles.
“Would ye ask one of these girls to go wi’ ye? Iona perhaps?”
“She seemed terrified of Maisri. She just lost her friend. I could not ask it of her.”
“Aye, ye’re right.” Jamie waved a hand at Rupert when he cleared his throat, urging us to hurry. “Weel, keep the sgian dubh at hand, Sassenach, please. Dinna linger more than ye have to.”
He sent me off with a kiss, watching me go until we were both hidden from each other by the tree line bordering the grounds of Leoch. I wondered why Dougal wished to speak to Jamie, and hoped it might be good news. Perhaps he would release us and let us leave for Lallybroch soon.
I traversed the village of Cranesmuir quickly. I called out a greeting here and there to people I knew, who had been patients of mine. My positive thoughts were cut short as I left the village behind and ventured deeper into the woods. Iona’s instructions seemed easy to follow; there was the noonday sun lighting the way, filtered through the budding summer branches. It made my purpose seem less ominous. I reached the clearing Iona had indicated after a twenty minute walk surrounded by thick forest. I crossed it, and walked a few yards past a trickling stream. Then I saw it.
The clapboards were weathered and gray, damp with green moss. It was barely more than a lean-to, shabby and worn. I understood why anyone might fear the sight of this cabin in the middle of nowhere; it was a dark haunt, a malevolent air about it.
With a deep breath, I rapped smartly on the weathered door. I could hear no movement from within. I knocked again, and tried the latch. The door swung open with no resistance. I peered inside, carefully. There was a chink of light pouring through a dismal, dirty window. The air was dank, herbs drying from the rafters. A low fire burned in the hearth. I pushed inside, glancing behind the door—but there was no one here.
I walked about the cabin, a table at its very center. I noticed a mortar and pestle, seeds and stems and plants littering the table. A scent of lavender and rosemary caught me unaware, and transported me briefly to the apothecary stores of l’Hôpital des Anges. Maisri seemed to know her remedies and poultices. Onion root, yarrow, garlic; I touched them all with a fingertip, before I noticed the clay bottles like the one Iona had shown me.
They were strewn across a countertop, along with coriander seeds and a powder that smelled of bitter almonds. A jug filled with a decoction of barberry leaves. Pennyroyal. Then, a flash of creamy yellow inside black petals. It was hellebore—a known abortifacient, but a violent one. It accounted for Morag’s symptoms and the deadly bleeding that had ensued. I grabbed a bottle, and removed the cork stopper, inhaling deeply. It was the same dram Morag had taken.
“I wondered when you would come.”
The voice cut through the heavy silence, so sudden and startling the bottle slipped from my grasp and shattered, spilling the liquid. I whirled around, heart racing.
“You!” I cried. I fumbled clumsily, lifting my skirts to get at the sgian dubh strapped to my thigh. I clutched it with shaking hands, pointing the sharp edge at Malva.
She looked at me askance, a sneer readily at her lips. She held a basket, filled with plants and mushrooms. I spotted fool’s conecap among the fungi—deadly mushrooms. Malva noticed my glance and offered a ghastly sort of grin. Her eyes were bright and there was a hectic flush on her cheeks; she looked half-mad, half-feverish.
“Oh, I know they’re poisonous.” She laid her basket on the table in the middle of the room. I still held the blade out in front of me; I wished my hands were steadier, that I would not betray the fear I felt. Malva did not come any closer, choosing to keep the table between us.
“Tu n’es pas une tueuse,” she murmured. It was my turn to sneer.
“Perhaps not, but you are.” I gestured at the bottles behind me. “You gave hellebore and pennyroyal to Morag!”
Malva shrugged. “I warned the girl of the dangers. I told her it would be unpleasant. She knew the risks.”
I was aghast. “How can you be so callous? This is a human life we speak of! Morag died because of your help!”
“She may well have died in childbirth. She would have had it out of wedlock. She might have abandoned it because of that. She made her choice.” She wiped her sleeve across her forehead, where beads of perspiration dotted her skin; Malva did look faintly sick.
I could not believe what I was hearing. I glanced around wildly, trying to make sense of Malva’s words. Another thought struck me then. “Where is Maisri? Are you working with her, apprenticing under her?”
“Maisri is… not here.” Malva kept her eyes on me steadily, but for a moment her unsettling gaze wavered, darting to the window. Beyond it, I could see the stream. At this point in the water, the current picked up. I could only imagine what Malva had done to Maisri.
“You killed her as well?”
Her lowered eyelids gave me all the answers I needed. I shivered. Was there nothing Malva would stop at to get what she wanted? I still held the wee knife aloft, and it shook as much as ever.
“Maisri was old. She took me in for a few nights. I buried her body. I knew you would come to Leoch if you survived. How did you survive, by the way?” Her head cocked quizzically, as if I were no more than an odd creature she had encountered. My head spun with her admission, but I managed a response.
“It was not smallpox. It was typhoid fever. I am sorry to disappoint you.” I began to edge around the counter, trying to get closer to the window or the door, if she would move away from it.
“Ah.” She took a small step towards me, and I countered with the sgian dubh. She stopped moving and smiled. “Maisri did not interact with the villagers. There were those young ones who had never seen her. I wore a cloak that covered my face and nobody dared question it. Your friend Laoghaire approached me soon enough. I knew then you had arrived at the castle.”
“Why, Malva? Why do you hate me so? Why do you wish to destroy me?” It couldn’t be just about wanting Jamie. There had to be something more to her evil ways.
“Because you have what I do not. You were Mother Hildegarde’s favorite at the hôpital. You were well-liked by the sisters, by the patients. You are skilled, and you are beloved. Not just by James Fraser. You are making a place for yourself, something I can never do.” Malva was bitter, her fists clenched.
“You could have had many of those things as well. You chose poorly, Malva.” I began sidestepping towards the exit again. “What about your family in St. Denis?”
“Father? He would not let me do or be anything that was not an obedient little servant to him and my brother. They are better off where they are.”
“Are they dead?”
Malva simply nodded. Fear gripped my heart once more. “The ill-wish. Was that you as well?”
“Laoghaire wanted to be rid of you. I thought she would be of use. I gave her two ill-wishes, when she brought me a scrap from your cloak to make the charm. It was animal blood on it, if you were wondering.” Malva suddenly doubled over, clutching at her side. I almost went to her instinctively, but then remembered who and what she was. I remained still, before she straightened once more, a sheen of sweat glistening on her face. She was in obvious pain, but she waved it off, taking deep breaths to stave it.
I continued to edge closer to the door, and Malva hobbled around the table, wisely keeping her distance. But she had killed, and dared too much, to be concerned with losing now. “I know what Laoghaire has in store for you. Once you’re out of my way, it will be an easy thing to remove the blonde idiot. You’ll be dead, and Jamie will be mine.” Her eyes gleamed in the dim dirty light.
“Do you honestly believe Jamie would ever love you? After what you’ve done? He will never consent to be with you, no matter what happens to me. He knows what you did in Paris.”
“We will see about that.” Another of her nonchalant shrugs, a small smile. What she had said before suddenly came to me full-force.
“You gave Laoghaire two ill-wishes?” I asked, a sickening feeling growing in the pit of my stomach. “I only found one, under our bed.”
“Indeed. Can you guess where the other might be?”
Finally, our positions had reversed. I groped behind me for the latch to the cabin door, still holding the blade out to keep Malva at bay. She did not move from across the floor, only capturing my gaze; I did not dare keep my eyes off her for a second.
“Run, little Claire. Cours vite, mon petit ange. There is nothing can save you now.”
I pulled the door open, stumbled through it, and slammed it shut. I backtracked a few paces, making sure Malva would not follow. After a few steps, I turned and ran, as fast as I could, her words ringing in my ears. I reached Cranesmuir sooner than expected; I had not stopped running since I had left the cabin. The sun still shone brightly, lending a cheery incongruous air to the dilapidated buildings. I heard a commotion coming from the village square, a loud clamoring surrounding the pillory. I stopped in my tracks, breathing hard.
It was Dougal; he held the crowd’s attention, bellowing in Gaelic. My gaze shifted to the right and there was Jamie, hands bound while he stared daggers at his uncle. I knew then Malva’s plan had been set in motion. I pushed my way through the masses, calling out for my husband.
“Sassenach? Claire, go! You mustn’t!” He half-rose from the pillory stool before being shoved back down by Dougal.
“And here she is! A sassenach witch!” Dougal called vociferously. I froze, feeling the blood drain from my face. The laird of Leoch was accusing me of witchcraft. Condemnation could scarcely go higher if the lord himself was pointing the finger.
“No! She is innocent!” Jamie struggled against Dougal’s grip, and was backhanded for his trouble. I cried out myself at this show of violence, before my arms were gripped tightly by two of the constable’s men.
Dougal gave a wicked smile. “Both of ye—to the thieves’ hole.”
A/N: My contribution to “One Quote One Shot” is up tomorrow, so Midwife’s up today…
“’Tis nae use.” Jamie lowered his arms despondently, and crept back to where I sat huddled against the damp wall of stone.
I had not expected him to be able to lift the grate that locked us into the thieves’ hole, but with nothing else to do, Jamie was willing to try anything. He put his arm around me, and I nestled against him. Despite the chill of the caveish hole, Jamie still radiated body heat like a small campfire.
I had told him about Malva’s untimely reappearance, her collusion with Laoghaire, the deaths she had caused. Jamie told me about Dougal’s family meeting and the trap it had actually been. Now both of us faced the likelihood of being executed for witchcraft.
We had been held captive for three days; the previous day, a small trial of sorts had been held for Jamie and me. As far as I could tell, Jamie’s sole crime was to be associated with me. The list of accusations against me was longer and more serious.
“Mistress Claire Fraser—you stand accused of witchcraft and conspiracy to do harm” The magistrate’s voice boomed in the courthouse, in order to reach even the far corners of the gallery where the village of spectators gathered. There were jeers and catcalls at this, but I did not bother to turn and face them. I could see no friendly faces in the crowd.
I could feel my hair tickling my neck, wild and unkempt. My dress was not torn, but I could feel stiff, dry streaks of dirt on my face that had come from sleeping with my head pillowed on my hands. We had not been afforded water to wash with, and only crusts of bread and water for food. No doubt part of their strategy to terrorize us, and paint me as unclean and unholy.
I tried to defend myself. Jamie, as my husband and co-conspirator, was not allowed to speak in my favor. He had been shoved back into the thieves’ hole, not even permitted to attend my trial. “There has been no witchcraft involved in any of my actions, sir. I am a midwife and a healer—”
“Do you dabble in remedies, herbs and potions and the like?”
“Herbal remedies, yes sir, of course. But as my patients can testify—”
“I understand that one of your patients is now dead. Under strange circumstances, I might add.”
My heart sank at this. Morag’s death was indeed being laid at my feet. And soon, we learned who would provide the brunt of the testimony against me.
“We call Laoghaire MacKenzie to the stand!” The magistrate nodded encouragingly at the crowd behind me, and I heard the rustle of Laoghaire’s skirts as she stepped before the bench. She deigned to glance at me, with pure hatred and disdain in her eyes, while I attempted to keep a neutral expression on my damnable glass face. Laoghaire, I imagined, was looking as pure, innocent, and maidenly as possible.
She began recounting how I had arrived at the castle under a false name, surely to confound the good Christian inhabitants of Castle Leoch. How I had wormed my way into Dougal’s confidence and he has trustingly given me the position of healer at the castle. How I had ensnared and bewitched James Fraser, who had been her betrothed, and forced him to marry me instead. Finally, she spoke of Morag’s death; she had heard from some of the other maids that I had attended her, caused her to bleed and entreated them to cover up my incompetence, when it was really a poisonous charm I had given Morag that caused her untimely death.
I could feel the blood boiling in my veins as I heard lie after lie spew from Laoghaire’s lips. Several times during her tale words had bubbled to my lips and I had tried to defend myself once more, only to be interrupted by the magistrate ordering me to silence.
“She offered love potions to the castle lasses as well. I’ve nae doubt that is how she trapped James Fraser, ensorcelled him right through, yer honor. Please, dinna let her free—who kens what she’ll attempt next!” Laoghaire turned wide and frightened eyes on her captivated audience. “Be careful, good people of Cranesmuir! Guard yerselves!” She crossed herself piously.
“Thank ye, miss MacKenzie. Ye may step down.” The magistrate waved her away.
As Laoghaire brushed past me, she hissed, “I canna wait to see ye burn, ye wicked witch.” Before I could rip the blonde locks right off her head, the constable meant to guard me slapped my hand away, hard enough to bruise. I swallowed my cry and willed the tears that sprang to my eyes to retreat. It would not help me now. I longed for the comfort of Jamie’s presence.
But it had been denied. Dougal had taken the stand then to testify against me specifically. He told the magistrate about finding an ill-wish in his own bedchamber. When he’d questioned the young maids about it, Laoghaire had stepped forward and claimed she knew who would do such a thing.
“Who else would want to cause me harm?” Dougal vociferated. “You were no doubt angry and resentful of my actions regarding your marriage to my nephew, I understand, but this is witchcraft, lass. Ye’ll burn for it, bana-bhuidseach.”
Even with my limited Gaelic, I had understood what the word meant. Witch. The crowd had taken up the cry with renewed fervor. After these testimonies, court had been adjourned for the day. I was taken back to the thieves’ hole, and the relative safety of Jamie’s arms.
He had caught me by the waist as I descended the rickety ladder into the hole, before John MacRae, the village locksman, had latched the gate above our heads with an almost apologetic expression. I had tended to his wife previously, nursing her through childbed fever. I understood he was sorry about our situation.
That situation didn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. I had recounted the first part of the trial for Jamie, as I shook with anger and despair. Jamie’s eyes glazed over and he touched the cut on his lip gingerly as he mulled over my words.
“Why Dougal?” I asked softly. “Why you?”
Jamie had understood the question. “There is no line of succession. Ye ken we are tannist – they will follow anyone with MacKenzie blood who proves a strong and worthy leader. I imagine Dougal fears it will be me, and him wi’ no sons. He said as much at the family meeting, before he had some of the castle men bind my hands and lead me to the village.”
We held onto each other tightly. The cold seeped into my bones and I shivered lightly in Jamie’s embrace. He gripped me tighter, nose in the wild dirty tangle of my hair, murmuring in Gaelic.
“If ye really are a witch, now would be a perfect time to use your powers,” he said softly, pressing a kiss to my forehead.
“I know.” I smiled ruefully. “I wish that too.”
There was silence between us for awhile, then Jamie’s voice rose hesitantly in the dark.
“I am so sorry, Sassenach.”
“Whatever for?” I shifted to look at him, wiping my sleeve across my running nose. “There was nothing you could do, really.”
“I failed to protect ye once more. First Malva, now Laoghaire and Dougal, all of this.” He gestured futilely to the stone walls of the thieves’ hole.
“I am sorry, for ye… and our child.” He laid a tentative hand on my stomach.
“I’m not pregnant,” I stammered.
Jamie looked at me oddly. “Ye havena had yer courses now in 46 days. I found the box ye were searching for, tucked amongst my own belongings. I put it back in yer surgery. I just assumed ye were waiting to be sure.”
“But I…” I remembered looking for the bits of cloth I used every month. Then I had found the ill-wish and my thoughts had been derailed. I had not thought of my courses again, with all that had unfolded. The cramps had disappeared on their own, and I’d thought nothing more of it. Jamie spoke true—I had not bled. The nausea I’d felt with some of my patients, including poor Morag, when it had never happened before…
“You counted?” was all I could think of to say. Of course he had noticed, had counted. We had loved each other indefatigably and now… all for naught. He would be killed, and I would likely burn after I birthed our child.
I fell to my knees in despair. Jamie crawled to me and held me as I keened and wailed into his shoulder.
“I wish you could make love to me,” I sighed. We lay on the cold stone floor, gazing up at the grey clouds illuminated by a sliver of moon. Jamie’s tartan laid beneath us, providing extra warmth.
Jamie laughed briefly. “Do ye think that would help, mo chridhe?”
“I do.” It was impossible though. Much as I sought and needed his body for comfort, there were passersby, villagers, who came to peer at us like caged animals. A few had thrown in loaves of bread, a stone bottle of ale, a flask of whiskey. It was this that we shared most gladly between us, taking small sips to make it last as long as possible.
I was silent for awhile, when I had another thought. I desperately needed to feel, anything. Something to dissipate the deadness that was taking over my heart.
“Jamie, I want you to mark me.”
“What do you mean?” He raised himself on an elbow.
“If we – we are meant to be executed, I will not go without anything of yours. Something they cannot take from me. Our child will be fostered by another family. Possibly by Dougal himself.” I shuddered in revulsion. “I’d like to go with your mark on me.” I scrabbled about the stone floor, fingers trailing over the rocks until I found a suitable shard.
“I dinna think that will work, Sassenach. But here.” He pulled the edge of his shirt taut, and extracted a small pin he used to fasten his kilt. The guards hadn’t thought to take it from him. I doused the pin in a few drops of whiskey—although it honestly did not matter at this point.
I extended my hand, pointing to the fleshy mound at the base. “Do it, Jamie.” He took my left hand gently, kissing each fingertip before taking the skin between his teeth. He bit and sucked hard, trying to numb the pain as much as possible. Immediately, he scratched out a crude letter J into my flesh. The blood beaded there, a small drop trickling down my wrist. I drew the small wound into my own mouth, to stem the flow.
“Now mark me, mo nighean donn.” I repeated the process on Jamie, a rough-hewn C etched into his skin in the same place as mine—but on his right hand. He pressed both our hands together, the initials meeting. “Blood of my blood, Sassenach. Until our lives shall be done.”
* * *
“Sassenach, wake up!”
I rose groggily from my perch, confused at the loss of Jamie’s warmth. There was a shadow occluding the strips of moonlight that filtered through the bars of the grate. I spied Murtagh’s grizzled face.
I scrambled to my feet, heart pounding with hope. I grabbed Jamie’s hand and squeezed hard, the mark on it throbbing briefly. “What is he doing here?”
“Yer friends have come to our aid.” Jamie squeezed back, then stood beside me as the grate swung open with a mild creak. A rickety wooden ladder was lowered, and a rough hand extended to help us climb. Jamie nodded for me to go ahead first, and I took the hand in mine. It belonged to John MacRea.
“Mistress, I’m that sorry ye were put through this,” he stammered. I pressed his hand in both of mine in reassurance.
“I understand, Mr MacRea. We’re alright now.” I turned to see Murtagh helping Jamie out of the hole, and behind them, several shadows still lingered. Some were horses, I could tell by the stamping and snorting. I stepped back and one of the dark shapes came forward, out into the light of MacRea’s oil lamp. Geillis.
“We couldna let ye die, Claire, no’ after everything ye have done for us.” Geillis gestured behind her and the rest of the shadows materialized. Iona was there, looking triumphant. Next to her, Malva was being held by a burly giant, a hired French mercenary—or so Geillis whispered to me.
“A life for a life, dear Claire. Ye saved my son and myself; I’ll do what I can for ye and yours.” She grasped my arm while the man approached with Malva in tow. Her hair covered half her face, stringy with sweat. Her face was terribly flushed and sickly. “The people of Cranesmuir are so afeard, they will not hold a proper trial. Ye’ll burn, head first into a barrel o’ pitch under a rowan tree, if ye stay. I heard Dougal himself speak to Arthur.”
Geillis pulled me away from the hole, while the Frenchman and John MacRea made Malva climb down, removing the ladder immediately and shutting the grate. I could tell she was fevered just by looking at her. That day we met at the cabin came back to me in a rush, the way she had almost collapsed clutching her side.
Appendicitis. I was sure of it. The chirurgien Claudius Amyand had been the first to successfully save an 11-year-old boy by removing the organ known as the appendix, or so Mother Hildegarde had told us. Monsieur Forez had only just been learning the skill himself. Despite all she’d done, the healer in me wished to help her in some way; at least, to alleviate her pain. Any more than that—I certainly could not save her, from either fate. Malva was as good as dead.
“This woman, Mistress Fraser, should no’ go unpunished for what she did to puir Morag,” Iona spoke up bravely. “The true witch will burn in yer stead.” She held up the corners of her apron, bulging at the sides. “From the cabin—herbs and the like. I shall place them in Laoghaire’s chamber as evidence that ye were framed.” We could all hear Malva’s whimpering from the thieves’ hole. I tried to shut it out of my mind.
“I will have Arthur help manage the town. No doubt they’ll believe ye made James Fraser disappear and turned yerself into the girl.” With these words, Geillis bid Murtagh and Jamie approach with the horses. There were only two.
“Murtagh, you will be coming with us, won’t you?” I pleaded, even as Jamie boosted me onto the saddle before climbing onto his own mount.
“Dinna worry about me, lass. Mistress Duncan will help me settle affairs around here.” He held out a sporran to Jamie, who rummaged quickly inside and produced the marriage contract and my pearls. “I hope ye dinna mind, I went through some of yer things in the surgery and the bedroom.” To me, he gave a sack filled with provisions.
“What will Dougal do?” I asked, tears streaming once more down my cheeks.
“I dosed Dougal and his men with some bottles that ye discarded from the Beaton’s surgery. I dinna think they’ll be able to move—much less ride—after ye for a few days. Give ye a decent head start.” Murtagh grinned impishly and I couldn’t help but smile back. Jamie pulled the bridle of my horse close, while the rest of our saviors stepped back.
“I meant it, Claire,” he said fiercely. He took my face in his hands. “My life is yours. And it's yours to decide what we shall do, where we go next. To France, to Italy, even back to Lallybroch. My heart has been yours since first I saw ye, and you've held my soul and body between your two hands here, and kept them safe. We shall go as ye say.” Jamie brought one hand lower, to cup the not-quite-rounded swell of my belly.
I took a deep breath. “I think I should like to see your farm, and meet your family. Let’s go home, Jamie.”
With a kiss to his palm, I grasped his hand. Together, we rode off at a brisk but careful jog, home to Lallybroch.
The letter brought news of Dougal’s death.
We rode for a week or so, not outright cantering due to my condition and Jamie’s care of me, but fast enough to put enough distance between us and Dougal’s scheming and any plans of revenge. We arrived at Lallybroch on a dusky evening, straight into Jenny and Ian’s welcoming arms.
I had doubts and trepidation, being a virtual stranger to Jamie’s sister and his best friend and brother-in-law, but they soon put me at ease. After a couple of days’ rest—for Jenny could not persuade me to stay in bed any longer—I set about making myself useful around Lallybroch. I tended to the kitchen garden, started my own—stocked with medicinal herbs and plants—and spent time persuading Jamie to allow me to visit tenants within walking distance of the manor, despite my pregnancy.
We had settled fairly quickly into a routine of sorts, with Jamie helping Ian as de facto laird in the management of the estate; we tried not to dwell on any retribution on Dougal’s part, and then the letter from Murtagh arrived.
Jamie would not admit to me if Murtagh had had a direct hand in Dougal’s demise. I suspected I would never truly know if it was the case. Word was that he had collapsed on a raid, his heart giving out while atop his horse. Rupert MacKenzie had been declared leader of the clan, with practically unanimous support from everyone at Leoch.
As for Laoghaire and Malva… the former had been whipped for giving false testimony and “loose behavior” (so Murtagh wrote), and quickly married off to the first of Dougal’s tacksmen who would have her. The latter, upon discovery in the thieves’ hole in my stead, had provoked exactly the sort of response that Geillis, Iona, and Murtagh had predicted and hoped for. Malva had burned, although she had confessed and asked for the mercy of the garrote and received it before being set aflame. I found it in me to feel a slight bit of pity for her, said a prayer for her soul, and thought of her no more.
* * *
Jamie and I were married at the small kirk in Broch Mordha in November—a bit past the year and the day the handfasting held us to. Jenny helped me make a semi-new dress for the occasion; we recut one of the nicer dresses she owned, with enough room at the front even with the bodice to accommodate my growing stomach.
The baby came in February, the first pains gripping my abdomen while I stewed willow bark and saxifrage in the shed Jamie had built for me. It was a surgery of sorts, where tenants who could manage it would come to see me. Those who could not, I visited in their own crofts. At least, I did until I grew too cumbersome to waddle across long distances.
I called out for Jamie, Jenny, anyone who could hear me. It was Ian who approached, back from pitching hay. He half-dragged, half-carried me to the manor house, where I promptly collapsed into Jamie. He took me upstairs to our room, where I lay on our bed. It was covered with thick old quilts to protect the mattress. I wore my thin shift and gasped through each contraction.
I thought back to all the mothers I had tended to before; how professional I’d been, cool, calm, collected, authoritative even. I was now in their position and I regretted every single breathe and push harder that I’d levied their way. Breathing did not help much. I felt I was being torn in half, every minute agony.
Ian had fetched Jenny and Mrs. Crook, the cook, to help deliver the child. I kept shouting instructions between each bout of pain, directing them as I would apprentices, especially once my water broke. An exasperated Jenny told me, “I ken well ye’re a rare fine healer, but even you cannot birth and deliver this bairn both at once.” My sister-in-law had had her fair share of children. I acquiesced when I caught sight of Jamie’s face; it was as though I were tearing his guts out with each of my cries.
I could see him try and fail to keep his usual mask of composure in the face of adversity. Every one of my bellows of pain made his own mouth twist in sympathy and his hands twitch with impotence. I was reminded of what he had said before, about not being able to bear my pain. He refused to leave the room, despite Jenny’s request, and instead folded his large frame behind me, pressing his fingers deftly into my aching back. I sighed with relief and nestled against him—at least until the next contraction had me surge forward and scream.
Time passed, hours sometimes dragging interminably and others rushing past. Jamie whispered Gaelic words of endearment into my ear, pressing cool clothes scented with lavender to my forehead. Finally, near dawn, I felt my belly heave and a great pressure between my legs. I gripped Jamie for support and tried to scramble to a standing position.
“I need to push!” I had had Jamie carve wooden blocks like the ones used in the Hôpital des Anges; I planned to use them as a practicing midwife. I stepped onto these blocks now, Jamie holding onto me from behind. My knees wobbled and threatened to buckle. I felt burning and throbbing; I bore down, locking my spine and clenched my teeth.
“Here it comes!” Jenny cried out, as our child slid out of my body and into the world. I collapsed against Jamie, in a worn and boneless state beyond exhaustion.
“Is it a lad or a lassie, Janet?” Jamie peered anxiously at the body held in Jenny’s capable hands, while he transferred me gently back to the bed.
“A wee lassie, brother! Verra bonny she is, too.” Tears coursed down my face and Jamie’s, who kissed me over and over again. Mrs. Crook cleaned the baby with linen towels, before swaddling it tightly in a Fraser tartan blanket.
“Is she alright? Am I bleeding too much?” I asked feebly, trying to raise myself enough to take a look but unable to move.
“Yer daughter is just fine, Claire. Dinna fash. And,” she said, wiping me off with towels as well before settling my shift around me, “so do you. Nothing seems amiss.”
Jamie propped me up with pillows before Mrs. Crook handed him our daughter. I watched as Jamie’s expression altered between awe, wonder, tenderness, and a fair dose of fear; I could only imagine it was the same on mine when he placed the baby in my own arms. Her face was red and wrinkled with the efforts of childbirth. She yawned; I traced her tiny mouth with my fingertip, and she promptly fell asleep.
“Sassenach, she’s perfect. So braw and canty and strong. Thank ye for this gift.” Jamie perched next to me on the bed, while Jenny and Mrs. Crook left to give us a few moments alone.
“She’s our gift, Jamie. What shall we name her?” I could not take my eyes off her, afraid it would be a dream and she would disappear.
“How about Julia? After yer mam?” Jamie said softly, his hand cupping the baby’s head.
“It could also be Ellen, after yours. You never lost hope that this would happen, Jamie. You had faith in me, in us.”
We were quiet for a moment before Jamie spoke again. “Faith.” I looked up at him, a smile on my lips. “We shall name her Faith.”
The air was cool and clear, tinged with the promise of light rain. I held my basket tightly in my hands, my cloak fluttering in the wind. The Scottish hillside seemed endless that morning, and I traipsed gladly on, breathing deep.
Our life at Lallybroch was truly charmed. I’d just left Jamie tending the fields with Ian, aided by the eldest of Jenny’s children. I had delivered the latest of these, a boy named Michael. The Murray brood now had five children. But Jamie and I were not far behind.
Faith was four years old, running about after me. Julia Ellen, almost two, took after her father, far more interested in sheep, chickens, and pitching hay, as well as getting as muddy as possible. I touched my gently swelling stomach, smiling to myself. With child again, Jamie and I had names picked out – Brianna for a girl, William for a boy.
I walked steadily. My destination was not much farther. Slender bars of sunshine broke through the cloud cover, golden rays illuminating the depths of the nearby loch. It immediately reminded me of the quality of the light streaming into the small kirk where Jamie and I were wed, years ago.
I remembered the noon sun shining in Jamie’s hair, the light coming through the stained-glass window of the church. If I was a radiant bride, the groom was positively resplendent. Jamie wore his kilt again, complete with new boots and a brooch. A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight—any Highlander, no matter how old, ill-favored, or crabbed in appearance. A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored young Highlander at close range is breath-taking. And he was mine.
On our second wedding night, he was reluctant to engage in more amorous activities than kisses and caresses. I pressed against him, my hips undulating of their own accord. Jamie held me, touched me lightly—but he would not go further. I cupped my hand between his legs and he groaned. “Oh, Lord. Don’t do that, Sassenach; I canna keep my hands off ye.” He did embrace me then, wrapping his long arms around me and pulling me close.
“What is it? Am I too fat?”
“Of course not, Sassenach. Ye ken I like ye fine, fat and juicy as a plump wee hen.” He took hold of my arse then, squeezing for good measure. He still went no further, though. I lay down and pulled him determinedly down on top of me.
“Claire, no!” Jamie protested as I unbuckled his kilt.
“Why ever not?” I huffed.
“Well,” he said awkwardly, blushing. “The bairn… I dinna want to hurt it.”
“Jamie, you can’t hurt it. I promise you.” I traced the curve of his mouth with my finger, then followed suit with my mouth and tongue. I could feel him about to concede.
“Well… if ye’re sure of it. Go gently, aye?”
Gentle I would be, denied I would not. I entreated him to kiss my breasts, and Jamie obliged; he touched the tip of each nipple delicately with his tongue, and they rose like magic. He kept worshiping with hands and then his mouth.
“They’re so lovely,” he murmured against my skin. He rolled onto me, and I urged him inside. We began a rhythm slow like waves skimming the shore. He was tender and slow, pausing every now and then to kiss me deeply. Jamie took great care not to crush me under his weight, which rested solidly between my legs as he climaxed. I ran my hands gently down the scars on his back, a reminder of how we had come together and what he and I had endured. He held himself above me still, taut beneath my hands.
“I will not break, you know.” I guided his body to lie on me gently. Jamie sighed, and his hand tangled in my curly hair.
“Maybe not, Sassenach, but I may.”
We lay in silence for awhile before I spoke. “After Maman died, I felt abandoned – shipwrecked, trying to survive on unfamiliar land. You were my life raft, Jamie. You saved me in more ways than one.”
“So did ye save me, Claire.”
“Will I be a good mother, do you think? I know how to deliver one, how to nurse it, how to heal one… I remember Maman of course, but I cannot help feeling she should be here to guide me.”
“I’m sure she is, Sassenach, same as mine. What ye dinna ken, you’ll learn. We will learn, together. When do ye think the wee one will be born?”
I stopped to count. “Sometime in February I believe.” I outlined the curve of my stomach, and smiled at Jamie. “You were born to be laird of Lallybroch, were you not?”
“This land… it’s in my blood. I always thought I’d follow in my father’s footsteps.” He stretched next to me, while looking deeply into my eyes. “And you, my Sassenach? What were you born for? To be lady of a manor, or to sleep in the fields like a gypsy? To be a healer, or a don's wife, or an farmer’s lady?"
"I was born for you," I said simply, and held out my arms to him.
Midwife, healer, wife, and mother… I had fulfilled Mother Hildegarde’s hopes for me, and myself. With Jamie’s love, strength, and support, I could not have imagined a better life and the promise of our future together.
I saw the roof of the MacNab’s cabin as I crested the top of the hill. I strode up to the crofter’s cottage, where the bleating of sheep and Clarence, their mule, announced my arrival. I rapped on the door and found myself peering into the anxious face of the elderly woman who opened it – Granny MacNab, who was about to welcome another grandchild soon.
“Oh, thank Bride!” She turned to call into the cottage as she opened the door wide. “Rest ye easy, Mary. ‘Tis the midwife!”
I smiled, and stepped into the house.
A/N: Thank you for coming along on this journey with me. It’s been a ride! This is by far the longest fic I’ve ever written (until now...). It spans 2 arcs, which I’d never thought I’d do. To all of you who read, comment, like, and/or reblog, my heart is yours! <3