He'd always hoped for a quick death. As a soldier, such a demise was likely the kindest he'd ever meet. A clean stab or a fatal shot and gone in moments. Even though the chances of a slow bleeding out or lingering fever dragging on far outweighed the mercy of a swift passing, he still prayed that when his time finally came, the Almighty may favor him with only brief suffering before calling him home.
But as Jamie Fraser stood atop Craigh na Dun, his wife wrapped in his arms and battle preparations happening only an hour away, he knew he'd have no such luck.
Tears streamed down both their faces as they held each other close. Seconds ticked by as they each worked up the nerve to approach the center stone of the circle. Wind howled in his ears and chilled him through his jacket; he felt her shivering, too, though from cold or anguish, he could only guess. His heart shattered further with each breath, echoing in his mind as he desperately memorized the lines and curves of her face. He dared not blink. Every second counted as his eyes drank in her eyes, the wild curls he loved so dearly, her slender nose, those full pink lips.
No, his death started now, and it would be slow.
She looked up at him, chin trembling as he maneuvered them within inches of the dreaded stone. Jamie clenched his own jaw, willing himself to don a brave face for her. For as slow as his death would be, hers would take longer. This moment would haunt her all her days, he knew, and he couldn't send her away with his broken soul reflected in his eyes. It wasn't fair to her.
Once she was gone, he'd ride back to battle and face his bodily death as surely as he now faced the death of his spirit. It may be slow, but the hours were still numbered, and that brought some modicum of relief.
He wouldn't be alone long.
It was time. Unable to gaze into her whisky eyes any longer, he turned her in his arms, still clasped tightly around her middle. Now, his face hidden from her, tears finally escaped and rolled down his stubbled cheeks. What would it be like when she went? Would she just disappear from his embrace altogether, or would it be gradual like water slipping through his fingers? Would her warmth linger on his coat? Would he collapse? Would he perish right here from the sheer agony of it?
Jamie layered his hand atop his wife's perfect, elegant fingers and guided them toward the granite. He buried his face in Claire's curls one more time, inhaling the scent of her. Earthy. Herbal. Sweat and dirt. For however many hours he had left, he wanted that aroma seared into his mind. He wanted to close his eyes and remember it as he drew his last breath and ascended to Purgatory to wait for her.
His head pounded from the anticipation as he held his breath, bracing for the separation. The wind tore at his hair and whistled angrily in his ears as though it, too, felt the sharp ache of loss soon to come.
"Goodbye, Sassenach," he breathed. Another sob wracked her chest as he pushed their hands that last inch and touched rough stone.
Perhaps he did die then and there. He'd expected the heartbreak, acute as a knife wound. But the pain that engulfed his entire body -- his entire being -- exceeded any he could have expected or imagined. Was that him screaming? Was she screaming? Why was Claire screaming?
The pain departed as instantaneously as it had arrived, and Jamie panted on his back. As he struggled to breathe, he felt bile rising in his throat and turned to the side just in time to vomit in the grass. Coughing and wiping his mouth, he stayed on his knees, head resting on his forearms against the grass, and sobbed. Christ, he knew sending her on would be painful, as though he'd tied his arms to two different horses and spurred them onward to tear him apart. But for the pain to be so immediate, so visceral and all-consuming...he never could have predicted it.
He'd had her for so little time, and now he'd lost her.
The tears slowed, and Jamie sat up, breathing deeply and gazing at the grass as he recovered. He placed his hands on his thighs, preparing to stand and make his way back to Donas when he finally looked up from the ground to see a mass of dark green skirts just before him.
"Sassenach?" he whispered, crawling cautiously toward the mass.
It was. His heart sped again, all calming progress lost as he moved toward her face and brushed the curls away. More tears blurred his vision, tears of gratitude that God hadn't let her leave.
"Taing Dhia," he whispered, pressing his lips to her forehead.
She was cold.
Sitting up abruptly, Jamie lifted shaking fingers to touch Claire's face. Cool and clammy. Nothing like the warmth he'd felt from her only moments before. Just as he'd watched her do so many times, he put two fingers beneath her jaw, feeling for a pulse. A shaky sigh escaped him as he felt that strong if quick beat beneath her skin.
"Wake up, Sassenach," he murmured as he moved her head to his lap, brushing more hair from her face and caressing her cheeks. Oh, that he could still touch her milky skin! He searched out and grasped one chilled hand in his as the other continued to stroke her face, encouraging her to wake.
As minutes continued to pass and Claire lay immobile before him, fear bubbled up in his chest. Had the stones hurt her? Had they rejected her in some cruel twist of fate that left her body here with him but stole her life away? Shaking his head, he fought to tamp it down. Jamie leaned over and put his ear beside her mouth, thanking God again that strong, steady breaths warmed his cheek.
They couldn't stay there. The hilltop left them exposed should Redcoats stumble by on the way to battle. Nodding with decision, he eased Claire off his lap. Making his way to his feet, he gathered her in his arms and cradled her against his chest, pressing his lips to the crown of her head. As thoroughly as the pain had crippled him only moments ago, love and tenderness flooded his veins now as he felt her within his arms. He'd bring her back to the cottage at the bottom of the hill until she woke. Then they'd concoct a plan.
As he made his way carefully down the hill, he knew Charles would be searching for him at Culloden, as would Murtagh once he'd sent the Lallybroch men home. But he'd leave Claire unguarded and unconscious for no one on earth or in heaven. Nothing could pull him away.
A low rumble reached his ears. Distant cannon blasts had boomed through the air several times as he and Claire had bid final farewells, so Jamie didn't notice immediately that this sound was different. Not a single muffled blast, but a prolonged and growing hum. A roar and a whine mingled together. The skin at the back of his neck prickled as the steady volume increased with each of his own thundering heartbeats. He'd never heard a sound like that. Turning sharply, he searched around him for a source but saw none.
Just as he resolved to break into a run for the cottage at the tree line, a shadow passed over the grass. He looked up.
And they just stay aloft, like birds? he remembered asking her once.
Well, no, she'd replied. Her voice came to him as he watched the gray monstrosity crawl across the blue, cloudless sky. He nearly forgot to breathe. The wings are stationary. They don't flap.
When Claire had described it to him, he'd pictured something like a ship coursing through the clouds as though on water. No masts, maybe, but big fat oars -- wide as the ship itself -- sticking out of each side. The wings. And even though she'd said they didn't flap, he had grinned to himself imagining massive oars paddling through open air. But his mental image built from Claire's descriptions hadn't come close to the cross-shaped object sliding over him.
Must have God's own view of the world from that height, he'd chuckled back then.
The whine and roar of the vessel began to decline again as it flew from view, but Jamie's own pulse hammered in his ears just as loudly as his mind raced. Realization dawned on him slowly like a piece of paper falling through air.
Eyes wide, Jamie looked down at his still-unconscious wife in his arms. The stones hadn't rejected her. They'd worked.
They'd just taken him, as well.