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“Here we are.”

The shadow of castle Leoch appeared just in front of us, standing tall on the hill. After more than four days on horseback, going from the lands of the clan Grant to the castle of clan MacKenzie, finally seeing our destination only made the pit in my stomach deeper and I was afraid it would swallow me alive.

When we arrived, I was immediately brought to my room, where a hot bath was waiting for me and a nice-looking clean gown was lying on my bed.

I let out a sigh as I sat in the bath, the warm water making the hairs on my arms stand up and a shiver run down my spine. It felt good, especially after sleeping in the mud under the stars.

After taking more time washing than I probably should have, I got out and put on my shift. Glenna and Mary, two of my friends and maids from clan Grant, helped me dress and did my hair. I had to be pretty to meet my new clan Chief, but mostly, I had to make the best impression on my future husband, at least, that’s what the Laird wanted.

“You look beautiful, Claire.” Mary told me. She was a young maid I had met when I first arrived at the clan Grant. She had only been there for a few weeks, as I had been told, but nobody - save the chief - knew where this young stuttering english girl came from. Two sassenachs in a castle filled with scots, it hadn’t take long for our bond to deepen and since then we were inseparable

“Aye, if James Fraser doesna find a pretty lass like ye a good prospect for a wife, then he is a fool.” Glenna said, looking at me in the mirror with the kindest smile on her round face.

We had left the castle for our journey less than a week ago, and it was around that time that I had been told that the chief of the Grants was giving me away in marriage to the nephew of the laird of clan MacKenzie to ease the tensions between the two scottish clans.

When my father was very sick, he wrote a letter to my uncle Lamb who had married a scottish lass and had moved to live with her at the castle of clan Grant. The letter said that when my father was going to die, I’d go live with them and he would take care of me like his own daughter. Everyone at the castle loved him. He was a brilliant healer, in fact, he was the one who taught me everything about surgery and my mother had a keen knowledge about herbs and how to use them to heal. Lamb had been very impressed by everything that I knew, but he wasn’t surprised. “Julia was a smart lass,” he had told me.

So I lived with him and his wife there for more than eight years, learning about medicine and learning how to speak gaelic without much success until Lamb died with his promise to me that he would never force me to marry someone and that if anyone in the castle planned against it, he would fight for me. Less than six months after his death, I was sent here to marry a stranger.

There was a quiet knock on my door that took me out of my daydream. Mary went to answer the door. “Claire, they’re ready for you to go downstairs.”

Nodding, I looked in the mirror and saw the reflection of a nineteen year old scared english lass who was about to meet a lot of strangers, who were to be her family very soon.

***

A few hours into the night and I still hadn’t met him. I thought maybe it happened this way, maybe I was supposed to meet everyone before I met him. Murtagh, the grumpy man from Leoch who had accompanied us from my castle to here apparently had to keep an eye on me all evening long. He was following me everywhere, introducing me to the guests even if they all knew who I was. At some point in the night, a short skinny man with long dark hair came to see us. He wasn’t one of the guests and he directly went to talk in Murtagh’s hear after giving me a judging look.

I was far from fluent in Gaelic, but I knew enough to understand what he had said. “I can’t find him.” Or at least something like that.

At this moment, I knew that James Fraser’s absence wasn’t something planned and I couldn’t help but be angry at him. Did he really think he could just run away like a thief in the night? Did he think that I had any interest in meeting him? I didn’t have any, but still had come to do what had to be done. He, on the other hand, had decided to do what pleases him, without thinking he wasn’t the only one involved in this.

“The bastard.” I muttered, not loud enough for Murtagh to hear it.

I could see a few men dressed in MacKenzie tartans walking around the hall, looking into the crowd, shrugging at each other and saying that they had no idea where he was.

***

“Are you sure we shouldn’t be going,” Fergus asked Jamie, looking at the castle by the window in the door of the stables.

“Aye, but yer free to go lad. Ye dinna have to stay here wi’ me.”

“You know they are going to come here looking for you?” Fergus closed the window and went to sit next to Jamie on a pile of straw.

“They willna. They’ll leave me alone.” Jamie sat with his arms crossed on his chest and didn’t say anything more for a few minutes.

“It’s cold, here.” Fergus said. The sun had started to set and Jamie could only see the shadow of him in the dark of the stables.

“I told ye to go to the castle if yer to annoy me.” Jamie got up and started to walk around, restless. All he wanted was this night to be over as soon as possible even though he knew this nightmare was only beginning.

“You know you will have to meet her one day.” Fergus said in a french accent. “The wedding is in two days, you can’t hide forever.”

“I’m no’ hiding. And ye dinna have to remind me of that, lad.”

“Sorry.” The boy said with a sigh and laid down. “Well, I will try to sleep, if we are going to stay here all night long.”

***

I woke up very late, the morning after the reception. I was still dressed in my gown, on top of the plaid on my bed. My entire body felt limp, tired after the long days spent on a horseback. I reluctantly got up, tried to tame the wild curls on my head without much success and went downstairs, hoping there was still going to be breakfast to shut the lamentations of my belly.

Still angry at my future husband for not showing up, I was trying to think about a way to make him pay - or at least regret his actions, if such a thing was even possible. Walking between the cold walls of the castle, I tried to come up with something, but my anger was still so strong that all I could reasonably think to do was cut the heart out of his chest and serve it to the animals on the farm for breakfast.

He had humiliated me, making me look like a desperate common girl looking for a husband who wasn’t interested in her, who didn’t even dare come to meet her. He really thought he was better than me, didn’t he? I hadn’t realized that I had started to walk faster, thinking about this man I already hated even if I still hadn’t met him yet.

When I entered the kitchen, there was a man sitting at the counter, eating porridge. His injured hand wasn’t the first thing that caught my attention. He was tall, with broad shoulders and the most gorgeous face I had ever seen in my life. I felt my breath stuck in my lungs at the sight of him and suddenly, all thoughts of James Fraser went out of my mind. He was looking with a beautiful, lopsided smile at one of the cooks in the kitchen.

“Ye’ll have to eat faster than that, laddie, if ye dinna want yer porridge to turn colder than it already is.” She said, her smile showing the gap between her teeth.

He laughed at what she said, the most beautiful sound I had ever heard before. He shook his head, a big mop of red curls flying around as he did. I swallowed, wondering who this man might be. I didn’t know, but I was ready to tell James Fraser to go to hell with a man like that walking in the castle.

Taking my courage in hand, I walked towards him, trying to look more confident that I actually was. “Is there any more porridge?” I asked him, momentarily cursing in my head for using such a bad excuse to talk to him. I never acted like this with men before.

He lifted one red brow in my direction and his honest smile turned into a judging smirk. “Nae, we dinna serve any english breakfast here.” He said, confrontingly looking at m.

Apparently, all the men at Leoch were bastards. Not really different from the Grants, though.

“Excuse me?” I asked, scandalized. “How dare you speak to me like this?”

“Who are ye?” He asked, getting up and giving his plate to the cook. “Thank ye,” he said to her before turning to face me. He was very tall, much more than I was and I was tall for a woman of my time. I had to lift my eyes to look into his beautiful ocean-blue slanted eyes. “I’ve never seen ye here before? Are ye a new maid?”

“A maid? No! I’m a healer!” I said. I wasn’t going to start introducing myself as the future wife of a bastard. A healer was what defined me the most.

“A healer?”

“Yes. And I see you’re injured.” I said, pointing to his left hand wrapped up in cloths. Blood had stained the fabric. “I can help you.” I said, not understanding why I desperately needed to touch him, why I needed to learn more about this man who was clearly making fun of me.

“I’ll no’ let a sassenach lass touch me, I’d be too scared ye’d kill me. Good day to ye.” He nodded and walked out of the kitchen.

I felt blood rise from my chest to my cheeks, feeling completely ridiculous. I walked back to my room, dreaming about escaping this bloody place.

***

The day of the wedding, I slept until Glenna forced me out of my bed. It was past noon and all the guests were waiting in the hall for the ceremony to begin. Normally, I would have been drunk, had Gleena not taken all the bottles of whisky away from me. I didn’t want to go, I wanted to do just as James Fraser had done to me and leave him alone in front of all the guests, wifeless. I wanted to run away, run back back to Lamb and run back to my parents in Oxford and live a normal life there.

“It will be alright, mo chridhe,” Glenna said while putting my hair up on my head in a bun.

I really wanted to believe her.

Finally, everything was ready and I walked downstairs where my husband would be standing in his MacKenzie tartan. I couldn’t help but feel nervous at the idea of meeting him. I’d be spending the rest of my life married to him, after all. We would share a life, share a bed and probably have children together. Not that I wanted to, but that was how things were here.

I tried to imagine him. I had been told he was of my age. If he was a MacKenzie, he probably had stiff grey hair and a serious face.

Shock would not be a word strong enough to describe how I felt at the sight of him. “You are James Fraser?” I couldn’t help but say it.

The tall red headed man from the kitchen looked as startled as I was. “And ye are Claire Beauchamp.” He said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.”

He nodded, not looking mad about it, not looking happy about it either. I had hard time reading his face.

“Weel… I’m sorry, then.” He said, looking deep into my eyes. Even if I hated him from the very marrow of my bones, I couldn’t help but feel my knees go weak as he looked at me. Damn you, stop it, Beauchamp.

He was sorry, then. There was still hope after all.

“Sorry for what?” I asked bluntly, even though I knew the answer.

“That we have to marry each other.” He said and turned his back on to me, getting ready to walk to the altar.

I felt my blood boil in my body, wanting nothing but to bleed him to death. I sighed and tried to think of something else, but I couldn’t when he was standing just in front of me. There was a wee curl on the nape of his neck that made me want badly to touch his hair. As much as I hated him, he was still going to be my husband. Hating myself for it, a part of me thought that maybe the sharing a bed part wouldn’t be the hardest thing in this wedding.

James Fraser and I walked to the priest and stood facing each other, in front of a hall filled with hundreds of smiling people. The man talked in gaelic so I didn’t understand much of what he said, but I didn’t need to. The Laird of the Grants had already told me that I was to obey him and do all the things that made me want to punch his handsome cocky face at the moment.

“I, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser take, thee, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health… Till death us do part.” He said looking straight into my eyes.

Repeating the words after him, I couldn’t help but look down at our linked hands. I wanted to disappear. “I, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp take, thee, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better or worse, in sickness and in health till death do us part.” I finally managed to look up at him after the last word escaped my mouth. He nodded, not letting me read anything on his face.

A man came to take his hand and with his sword, he cut the flesh on our wrist and tied our arms together.

“Say the words after me,” he told me.

I didn’t know what the words meant, but I said them anyway. My gaelic was terrible, rousing small laughs from the crowd, making my cheeks burn red. Trying to ignore them, I just looked into James Fraser’s eyes and repeated after him.

Obviously, he didn’t have a ring, which made a heavy silence fall on the crowd. Finally, the priest told him to kiss me and he did. His lips lasted only seconds on mine, not letting me take the time to close my eyes and we were married.

***

I waited for him all night long.

Music was coming from downstairs where the party was still going strong, everyone waiting until we consummated the wedding. James Fraser was supposed to come up here and we were supposed to do it.

Walking around the room, I couldn’t help but feel nervous about the idea of him coming to lie with me. I was still a virgin, truth be told, and a part - a bigger part than I wanted to admit - of me was looking forward for it. When most girls of my age didn’t even know about sex, I was constantly thinking about it and very badly wanting to do it.

James Fraser was attractive, tall, big and very handsome. He was a bastard, but the idea of sleeping with him, if just to be with someone didn’t bother me that much. But he was a bastard. I didn’t know whether he had been with lasses before -probably, if I had to guess- and the idea of him taking my virginity was bothering me more than I wanted it to. My mixed feelings about this was not helping me calm down every time I heard footsteps in front of my door. Now that it really was time to do it, I felt scared and uncomfortable and just wanted to run away.

Time passed and my husband still hadn’t come to my room. I was growing more anxious while the noises from downstairs were slowly disappearing into the night.

Finally, I was the only one still awake in Leoch, sitting in front of the window looking at the moon lighting the field outside the castle. It was then that I accepted the fact that he would not come.

The hate I felt for him wasn’t strong enough to ease the weight in my belly and the wetness between my legs at the thought of having him. I opened the window, hoping the wind of the night would help me find my spirits back. I probably had had too much wine and whisky. Lamb always told me mixing drinks made the heart grow fonder, but that it wasn’t the best concoction.

I finally went to bed, lied under the plaid and thought that maybe it was a good thing that James Fraser wasn’t here. I was ready to try to make it work, between him and I. I wasn’t expecting us to fall deeply in love, but I was hoping that we could figure out an arrangement between the two of us, a way to make this marriage not a burden. I was ready to try, but I knew in my heart that he, my husband, wasn’t.