They rode in silence, only the occasional directions to the horses or calls to break for food or water.
It surprised Claire that Frank was so quiet but she presumed it was because he found Murtagh intimidating and her own silence daunting. As Murtagh erected a small camp for the night, Claire left Frank to cope with being saddle sore and wandered off to gather kindling for their fire. In the woods she realized how different silence was from solitude.
Her heart was heavy and she knew why; she missed Jamie. With Frank riding behind her sharing a horse, it was impossible not to be reminded of those first days after she traveled through the stones and the solid, reassuring presence of Jamie at her back, sheltering her and keeping her warm. Had she ever felt quite that way with Frank? Or was she misremembering all of it? She had wanted to get back to the standing stones so she could get back to Frank since she’d arrived, she just hadn’t succeeded before he showed up there himself. During that first ride with Jamie, she had been in shock and denial about what had truly happened; she had been surrounded by a band of ruthless Highlanders who thought she was an English spy and easily could have killed her.
She should be relieved that this whole ordeal was ending. In a few days time she would be back in the twentieth century; she would be able to soak in a nice hot bath, wash her hair properly, even shave her legs; no more stays or layers of skirts to trip over; bedding with clean sheets and no lingering smell of a chamberpot tucked away under the bed.
And Frank would be the one lying beside her. His wounds would be tended in a proper hospital and then they would go back to Oxford and pick up where they’d left off before their holiday had been so abruptly derailed.
That’s what their holiday had been about in the first place––picking up where they’d left off before the war. Was it possible too much had happened? She tried to think of what Frank must have gone through since her disappearance, the trauma of traveling through the stones and to so quickly fall into Black Jack Randall’s clutches; she had come dangerously close to that herself.
She did understand Frank’s position and she felt for him but there was something more holding her back.
He would be all right without her… wouldn’t he? Did she want him to be?
She scolded herself for thinking something so selfish. Of course she wanted him to be happy… she would simply be happier if it was her making him happy.
But she couldn’t have things both ways; she couldn’t reconcile the vows she’d made to Frank all those years ago––the vows that had sent her searching for a way back to Craig na Dun in the first place––with whatever it was she felt for Jamie.
She carried the kindling back to their camp and started the fire. Murtagh disappeared to see about supplementing their provisions with some fresh meat and Claire took one of Frank’s bandage-wrapped wrists into her lap to inspect the state of the wounds. They were still redder and more swollen than she would like. Prodding gently, some puss squeezed from the edges of the scabbed over cuts. He needed antibiotics.
“You’re still wearing it,” Frank remarked flatly, surprising Claire.
She reached for a salve from her medical kit and began lightly applying it to the infected wound.
With his other bandaged hand, Frank reached over and tapped Claire’s left hand.
Her thumb instinctively felt for the iron band of her wedding ring, her heart steadied by its reassuring warmth on her finger.
She looked back at Frank’s arm in her lap and shrugged.
“Don’t really notice it,” she said dismissively. “Slipped my mind.”
“You should give it to his friend there,” Frank nodded toward Murtagh who was nearly finished with their tents for the evening. “He can return it.”
Claire clenched her teeth and ignored Frank. She could not tell Frank that Jamie had said she could keep the ring because that would show that she had thought about it and she would also feel compelled to tell Frank that she had asked to keep it in the first place.
Luckily, Frank was perceptive enough to drop the subject and instead began expressing concerns about his arms.
“You’ll be fine,” Claire assured him. “Once you get back, it’s just a matter of getting antibiotics for the infection. You probably won’t want to roll up your sleeves too often because of the scars––those are probably unavoidable at this point.”
“Once we get back,” Frank emphasized quietly.
Claire felt her cheeks flush momentarily but continued applying the salve uninterrupted. “You know what I meant.”
Having finished with the salve, she turned to put the jar away in her medical kit and thought she might have heard Frank mutter, ‘Do I?’ under his breath. She ignored him and set about re-wrapping his wrists, the rest of the treatment performed in silence.
Murtagh insisted she and Frank take the makeshift tent for the night.
“I’ll stay by the fire and keep watch,” he told her.
“You’ll need to sleep eventually,” Claire reminded him but Murtagh shrugged off her concern.
“I dinna sleep deep on the moors. There’s not much as might happen that willna wake me wi’ no time to act.”
Claire didn’t bother to argue; she helped Frank settle onto the roll of bedding before stretching out beside him. It was closer than they’d been sleeping in the cave where she preferred to rest propped against the cave wall, afraid of disturbing his much needed rest. They didn’t speak but rolled towards each other. She felt Frank’s lips brush her forehead and turned her face up to his.
There was a moment of hesitation and she realized that she hadn’t kissed him since they’d rescued him; not once. She felt a twinge of shame. After all he’d been through, she hadn’t thought to embrace him or even offer him a loving caress. She had been too wrapped up in his medical care and how Jamie was handling everything.
She reached up now and ran her fingers lightly along the stubble on Frank’s cheek. It was rougher than she anticipated. Her thumb slipped down and traced the Frank’s lower lip before he brought his mouth to meet hers.
She remembered his kiss, the warmth of his lips on hers, and the sureness behind it. She let her eyes close so that when he pulled away, he couldn’t read what she was thinking. He lightly bumped her forehead with his chin, a question.
“We should get some rest,” she whispered, her hands drifting down and lightly rubbing his upper arms. “We still have a long few days before we get to the stones.”
He smiled against her forehead, satisfied for now, then shifted and brought his bandaged arm up to hold her close to him. Her head rested on his shoulder and she felt him relax beneath her cheek. Her body relaxed too but her mind refused to settle.
She lay there entirely awake but unmoving until she was sure he slept deeply. Then gingerly, she moved his arm from off of her and rolled away.
“Are you all right?” Frank whispered. She hadn’t been subtle enough.
“Of course,” she assured him, moving to rise. “I just need to go… you know.”
There was a muffled chuckle from where he shifted himself into a more comfortable position. “That’s something you must have missed––running water and proper lavatories.”
“You have no idea,” she murmured, ducking through the flap of the tent.
Murtagh sat up from his spot beside the low campfire, his dirk in his hand until he recognized that it was only Claire.
“Mistress,” he murmured before laying back.
Claire wandered off into the woods for a moment to keep up the pretense and prayed that Frank would be asleep again by the time she got back.
How was she going to do it? How was she supposed to go back with Frank and be his wife again when every time he touched her she felt the rising shame of betrayal? She wasn’t even sure which betrayal was behind the shame. She remembered how it had been to kiss Frank before, the way it built slowly, the way her body would arch towards him. She remembered but it hadn’t been like that tonight. He had kissed her and it had been lovely but it had been a kiss like any other. She had waited and searched for that deeper stirring but it didn’t come.
There were no visible flames left in the small circle of stones they’d used to contain the fire but the spot still gave off a reassuring heat. Claire found Murtagh sitting again when she returned a few moments later.
“Ye’re bad as Jamie when he’s something on his mind,” Murtagh said, nodding to an empty space next to him.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” she murmured, taking him up on the offer to put off going back in with Frank.
Claire stared into the embers of the fire. There weren’t any visible flames but a warm red color ebbed and flowed, pulsing with life. She didn’t notice but the fingers of her left hand were playing with the ring on her right, turning it in circles so the nub where the two ends had been joined orbited her middle knuckle, catching whenever she slightly bent the finger.
“Ye canna choose where yer affections lie,” Murtagh said quietly.
Claire’s fingers stilled but she wouldn’t look at Murtagh.
“But that doesna mean there isna a choice involved in what ye do about it… even if sometimes it doesna feel like it. Maybe… maybe it’s like yer stones.”
At that, Claire did look over at Murtagh, but with confusion.
“Ye didna choose to pass through them, no?” he asked.
“Of course not. I didn’t even know what had happened at first,” she agreed.
“Like falling in love,” Murtagh mused but this time there was something heavier in it, something more personal. A smile played on his lips and the way he stared into the glowing embers was like looking into a memory. He wasn’t talking about her but about someone he had loved once, maybe still did––perhaps that was why he seemed to have so much to say.
“By the time ye realize it, ye’re smack dab in the middle wi’out realizin’ how ye got there. Ye can trace yer path back and ye might come to ken the moment it happened, but ye canna always make yer way back out of it again… I dinna ken anyone tha’s chosen to go back to try to find their way out… at least, none tha’s succeeded.”
“You don’t think it will be possible to pass back through the stones?” Was it fear or hope that she heard in her voice.
Murtagh shrugged. “Dinna ken. Might depend on whether yer heart’s in it.” He looked over at her at last and she felt her face flush, grateful that the dying fire didn’t cast enough light for him to be able to see it.
“Who was she?” Claire asked, turning the conversation onto Murtagh. “The woman you couldn’t find your way out of loving.”
Murtagh looked away again and Claire was about to apologize for asking when he murmured, “Ellen MacKenzie. I doubt I was the first to love her––though, I loved her before Brian Fraser, having met her first… But he loved her the way she wanted… and needed.”
“Jamie told me about them,” Claire explained. “About the Gathering where they met.”
“Aye. Ye can see it, ye ken––no with yerself… no right away. But ye can see it in a man’s face if ye watch careful like… the moment it happens and he has to make a choice what to do next.”
“You saw it with Brian Fraser?”
Murtagh nodded. “Him… and others.” Murtagh reached forward with his dirk and poked at one of the larger pieces of wood, rolling it onto the other side. The smoldering bottom, exposed to the air but not the heat, faded to white ash even as smoke erupted from beneath as the untouched side began to burn.
“We’ve another two maybe three days till we reach the stones,” he informed her. “Best get what sleep ye can. We’ll be needin’ to keep a closer eye for Red Coats as we’re gettin’ nearer Fort William.”
Claire rose and left to join Frank in the tent. He was asleep on his side, his bandaged forearms laid gently one atop the other beside his head. She lay down and turned onto her side as well but with her back towards his.
It has been one very busy, exhausting, stressful week. I have two exams, one research essay and one assignment down, with one exam today, another in a week plus two more research essays to go. Getting there!!
Good luck if you’re going through this too right now!
OOOHHHKKAAAAAYYYYYy All you Gladnis fans out there better freaking watch this. This was a gift made for me by my incredibly talented sister - JUST WATCH IT - it’s allll the feelz about Gladio and Ignis having to work through a relationship when they’ve gotta protect Noct - yeah - super deep - and I’m crying again dammit.