Jacques – Avril Borthiry

Scotland, in particular Castle Cathan, had served as Jacques’ refuge for the past ten months, a safe haven from the mayhem in France, where Templars were being tortured and killed. Why then, he’d been asked, would he even consider returning to that country? Till three days ago, he hadn’t considered it at all. He traced the outline of the flattened scroll that lay tucked against his chest. The missive, written by a Templar priest, had arrived from France two days earlier, the words on it already committed to memory. Not that they said anything of special note. To a casual eye, they appeared to be nothing more than an innocent enquiry about Jacques’ well-being. That, and a passive hope for a future reunion in a certain ecclesiastical village, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But Jacques did not read with a casual eye. He read what had not been written. Invisible words between the lines. A message not inked, but clearly spelled out. He recognized the summons from a trusted friend—a summons he could not refuse. He ought to have been on his way by now, riding out under the pre-dawn sky, heading south to the port of Glasgow or perhaps Ayr. From there, he planned to secure passage on a ship to Bordeaux. Or, better yet, Bayonne.

But his departure had been delayed, albeit, God willing, temporarily. And instead, he’d spent most of the night here, in the castle’s chapel. The previous evening, Ewan and Cristie’s child had decided to begin his or her journey into the world a little sooner than expected. Consequently, the night had been one of little sleep for most folks. So far, there’d been no news from the birthing chamber, and Jacques couldn’t leave till he knew all was well. Besides, there were things yet to be said to those he loved. Important things. He might not have another chance, a reality that weighed heavy on his heart. At that moment, the candle on the altar flickered as if disturbed by a ghostly breath. It drew his gaze to the tattered Templar banner that hung nearby.

It had been brought back from the Holy Land by Ewan’s grandsire, Calum, many years before. Now, more than ever, the faded piece of fabric had become a remnant of the past. It was inanimate. Lifeless. Yet as he gazed upon it, images arose unbidden in his mind. Some, such as sparkling blue waters and moonlit desert landscapes, he recognized. Others seemed to be memories that were not his. Strange, fragmented visions. He blinked, clearing his mind. He was tired and conflicted, he reasoned, rising to his feet, wincing as the blood surged through his cramped legs.

His gaze lingered on the banner a moment longer, prompting another prayer. This one, unapologetically, for himself. Eager for air, he made his way outside, stepping into a soft, pre-dawn light. He shrugged the stiffness from his shoulders, lifted his face to a paling sky, and breathed deep. The sea air refreshed his lungs and washed some of the fatigue from his eyes. Daybreak had always been his favourite part of the day. A reminder that, no matter how long the night, darkness would not endure. There would always be a new beginning. At that precise moment, as if to bear out his conviction, the cries of a newborn child drifted out of an upstairs window. Jacques’ heart clenched as he gazed up at the opening.

At last! Judging by the lusty wails, the child seemed to be robust enough. But what of Cristie? Childbirth was a perilous proceeding, where swaddling clothes and burial shrouds often shared the same space. He wandered back indoors, immediately aware of a change within; a cautious hum of excitement and the anticipation of unanswered questions. Boy or girl? Healthy or sickly? And what of Cristie? He moved along the hallway, slowing his stride at the sound of a swift footfall descending the staircase. A moment later, he came face to face with the owner of those nimble feet. “Morag.” She gasped and halted on the bottom step, her face pale against the copper splendour of her hair. She looked tired yet radiant, the light in her eyes countering the shadows that lingered beneath them. “Jacques!” Her hand flew to her throat. “Oh, thank God you’re still here.

I feared you might have left without saying goodbye.” “I would never do that, my lady.” His hand fell to the hilt of his sword as if seeking anchorage. “Nor could I leave without knowing how mother and child fared. I heard the cry of a babe just now. I assume, by the way you danced down the stairs, that all is well.” Morag’s expression eased into a smile. “Aye, ’tis Ewan’s son you heard. He’s a wee bit small, but sturdy nonetheless and possessed of a fine set of lungs. He’s to be named Kennet Ewan.

Cristie is already sitting up and demanding food. I was just on my way to the kitchen to fetch something for her.” “Ewan’s son,” Jacques echoed, his throat tightening. “May the Lord be praised. I’m happy for them. For all of you.” Morag descended the final step and gazed up at him. “Can you wait a while longer, Jacques?” she asked, still smiling, though her voice trembled a little. “I would like a moment with you before you leave.” He nodded.

“Of course.” A small sigh escaped her. “Where will I find you?” “The stables,” he said, deciding it would be more private. “Right.” Morag nodded her agreement. “I’ll no’ be long.” He’d barely stepped through the stable door before Gabriel and Ruaidri appeared. So much for privacy, he thought. “Dinnae tell me you were planning to leave without a word of farewell,” Ruaidri said, giving him an accusing look. “Nay, he wouldn’t do that.

” Gabriel folded his arms. “Would you, Brother?” “My compliments on the birth of your nephew, Laird MacKellar,” Jacques said. “And nay, I wasn’t planning anything of the sort. I intended to say my farewells last evening and leave quietly this morning, but given the events of the night, I’m still here. I couldn’t leave without knowing how—” “Here you are,” Ewan said, panting as he all but fell through the doorway. “Morag told me where to find you. I hope you were no’ intending to sneak off without a word.” Jacques bit back a smile as he regarded his friend who, though obviously jubilant, looked rather like he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. “My compliments on the birth of your son, Ewan,” he said. Ewan grinned, his joy evident.

“Thank you, Brother.” “And, as I was saying,” Jacques continued, “I couldn’t leave without knowing how Cristie and the child fared. Now I know all is well, I’d appreciate being allowed to depart without a fuss.” Gabriel cleared his throat. “Speaking from experience, I suspect your request is about to be ignored.” He gave Ewan a pointed look. “As mine was when I left.” Ewan gave Gabriel a puzzled glance. “It was? I dinnae recall you making such a request. Had you done so, I’m sure I would have considered it.

” “And ignored it anyway,” Gabriel answered. Ewan chuckled. “Probably.” “Gabriel has the composure of a saint,” Jacques said, frowning. “I’m afraid I am not similarly blessed. And this is difficult enough as it is.” “Are you certain you need to go?” Gabriel asked, soberly. “The missive may be as benign as it sounds.” “It may.” Jacques shrugged.

“But I don’t think so. Pierre Sabatier is not one for exchanging pleasantries in such a manner. They’re his words, but the message lies in what he didn’t write.” “How can you be sure he escaped arrest?” Ewan demanded. “He might have written the letter under duress. It could all be a ploy to lure you back. A trap.” “For what reason? I hold no great office within the Order. I’m merely a Templar knight.” Ewan huffed.

“Aye, and Templar knights are being tortured and killed in France as we speak.” “I have no intention of announcing my arrival or my allegiance,” Jacques replied. “I appreciate your concern, but I have to go. I feel compelled to go. Don’t think for a moment, however, that leaving this place—leaving all of you—is easy for me, because it isn’t. Not at all.” A few moments of silence descended, the awkward kind that fills a space when appropriate words cannot be found. Jacques’ resolve wavered a little as he wondered, all of a sudden, if he’d ever see any of these men again after today. The bond he’d forged with them surpassed friendship. They did not share his blood, but they were his brothers.

In every way that mattered. “Your absence will be keenly felt by everyone here, Jacques,” Ruaidri said at last. “You go with our daily prayers for your safe return.” “Thank you.” Jacques inclined his head. “I’ll keep all of you in my prayers also.” “You intend to return, aye?” Jacques met Ewan’s gaze. “In truth, Brother, I cannot see beyond the journey that lies ahead.” “But your intent is to come back to Scotland,” he persisted. “This is your home now.

” “This is a place I have come to love,” Jacques replied, “but it is not my home. I am going home. My intent has no bearing beyond that. I can only speculate on what lies ahead. For now, I’ll stay or go to wherever I’m most needed.” Ewan’s laugh held no humour. “You’re needed here, Jacques. You have to come back. What about Mor—?” “Let the man be, Ewan,” Ruaidri interrupted. “I’m sure he’ll do what’s right.

” “I trust he’ll follow the advice he so recently gave to me and do what his heart tells him to do,” Gabriel added. Jacques winced inwardly, but said nothing. Ruaidri cleared his throat. “Have you spoken to Morag yet?” he asked, finishing, in a gentler fashion, what Ewan had been about to say. Warmth crept up Jacques’ neck as he resisted an urge to defend what he saw as his personal business. He’d hoped the issue of his relationship with Morag MacKellar would not be addressed, but understood Ruaidri’s enquiry stemmed from concern rather than interference. “Nay, not yet. At least, not at length,” Jacques replied. “But I can’t make promises to Morag any more than I can make them to you. Only God knows what the future holds.

For all of us.” “True enough,” Ruaidri said, “but dinnae be a martyr. You’ll always have a home here, as will any of the brotherhood who seek refuge. Right, that’s enough from us, I think.” He turned and headed for the door. “Let’s leave the man in peace.” “You have to come back, Jacques.” Ewan gave a wobbly smile and scrubbed a hand over the stubble on his chin. “See, today is the day I gained a son. It cannae also be the day I lost a brother.

” Jacques groaned. “Have mercy, Ewan.” “You have to come back. That is all.” Tears welled in his eyes as he turned to leave, waving a hand as if brushing away a fly. “Godspeed, Templar.” Jacques uttered a curse and glared at Gabriel. “Say nothing,” he said, through gritted teeth. “Not a damn word. I mean it.

” Gabriel nodded and headed over to the doorway, halting on the threshold. “Keep our brother in your safe-keeping, Lord,” he said, crossing himself as he lifted his face to the sky. “And when he’s completed this mad quest, perhaps you’d consider sending him back to us. If it’s not too much to ask.” Then, without another word, he left. Jacques cursed again and kicked at the earthen floor. Emotion sat in a tangled knot beneath his ribs. The blood pumping through his heart ran as hot as any man’s, but spouting sentiment had never been easy for him. Besides, the words of a promise were sacred, not meant to be spoken frivolously. How could he assure anyone of his return? He had no idea what awaited him in France.

“God help me,” he whispered as a shadow fell across the doorway. He first closed his eyes, and then lifted his head to regard the one who held his heart. She knew she held it too, though it had never been said. Not by him. Not by her. Promises made were sacrosanct, after all. Or, in Jacques’ case, holy vows. When originally spoken during his initiation into the Templar Order, they had meant everything to him. Of the three Templars who’d fled France, only Jacques still lived, as much as possible, by the Templar code. Ewan had married Cristie the previous autumn.

And, only a few months ago, Gabriel had returned to his native England in search of a monasterial life. He’d found love instead, and recently arrived back in Scotland with Breanna, his young wife. Jacques would hardly have merited judgement, then, for also surrendering to the demands of his desire. But he continued to resist, as if something undefinable stood in the way. A whisper of conscience, the words not quite intelligible. To this day, he still could not explain his initial reaction to the sight of Morag MacKellar. Nor had he spoken of it openly to anyone, other than to pray for the wisdom to understand it. When he’d first arrived at Castle Cathan, the gates had swung open to reveal a formidable group of Highlanders standing in the flicker of torchlight, each armed with a hefty sword. Morag stood at their forefront, her face pale in the twilight, strands of red hair dancing at the whim of the breeze. She was small in contrast to the wall of muscle that stood behind her.

Yet, somehow, she dwarfed everyone with her mere presence. Time had slowed to a halt the moment Jacques laid eyes on her. Then, invisible to all but him it seemed, a fleeting spark of light had crossed the space between them and entered his unprotected heart. The impact of it had momentarily stolen his breath. When time moved forward again, he’d suppressed a curious desire to laugh out loud. The experience had surely been nothing more than a trick of his weary mind. And as for the strange lingering sense of euphoria—well, it would undoubtedly pass after a good night’s sleep and a fervent bout of prayer. Morag, in contrast, had initially paid Jacques little attention. Her focus had been on Ewan, her brother. Understandable, since the man had been missing for twelve years, and thought lost.

Sleep and prayer had solved nothing. Since that first night, Jacques had fought a silent, futile battle against whatever it was that had dared to invade his heart. Morag’s initial disregard of him had not lasted either. It soon became obvious to everyone that their attraction was mutual. Their frequent verbal sparring, he knew, fooled no one. But, while he’d not deny that he’d pushed the boundaries of his discipline many times since, he continued to cling onto the foundations of his holy vows. By all things sacred, it hadn’t been easy. The girl had a spirit that matched his own. She lacked neither compassion nor courage, and was forthright often to the point of bluntness. Yet there was more to it than basic desire.

Much more. But, despite the depth of his feelings, he couldn’t quite bring himself to cast aside his Templar vows. Some deep-seated instinct told him his path, for now at least, lay elsewhere. That feeling had recently been borne out by this cry for help from a man he had long respected. He had no choice but to respond. “Thank you for waiting, Jacques,” she said, her hands tying themselves in knots at her waist. “I’ll no’ keep you long.” All at once, the stable felt dark and dreary. Void of air. He moved toward her.

“Walk with me,” he said, and she nodded her assent. Burdened by apprehension, and wondering how to even begin an appropriate discourse, Jacques remained silent as they stepped out into the courtyard. The desire to take her hand felt like the most natural thing under Heaven. Yet, as he had so many times before, he clenched a fist and suppressed the urge to touch her. He gazed up at a dawn sky, its colour reminiscent of the heather that grew so abundantly in this part of the world. The sheer beauty of the morning only heightened his strained emotions. What to say? He hesitated slightly. And where to say it? “The cliffs,” Morag said, as if reading his mind. “We’ll be private there.” Jacques looked at her, silently begging forgiveness as he unfurled his still-clenched fist and reached for her hand.

It would be the first time he’d ever touched her intentionally. He wondered if it would be the last. She inhaled a soft breath and tightened her fingers around his as if she never intended to let go. Jacques drew a steadying breath of his own, the forbidden contact turning his blood to fire. Morag lifted the latch on the hefty postern gate and pulled it open. “Dinnae close it,” she said, stepping out onto the cliff top. “What I have to say willnae take very long.” Jacques blinked. “What you have to say?” “Aye.” Still holding tightly to his hand, she gazed out across the waves to where the departing edge of night rested on the horizon in a dramatic clash of light against dark.

“Will you look at that,” she said. “I’ll take it as a sign that good will triumph over evil. That you’ll come back to me.” “Morag, I—” “Please, Jacques.” She turned to him. “You dinnae have to explain anything. I know you care for me, but I also understand what you are and where your true allegiance lies. And I respect it completely, which is why I’ve never tried to seduce you away from it.” A shimmer of tears arose in her eyes. “Your departure is no surprise to me.

I’ve always known you were destined to leave Scotland. In fact, when you went to England looking for Gabriel, I wondered then if you’d ever come back.” She drew breath and shook her head. “When the missive came from France…well, I knew that was it. I knew you’d be leaving.” “Care for you?’ Jacques gave a soft, bitter laugh. “There’s a little more to it than that, Morag McKellar. Believe me, leaving Scotland… leaving you is not something I—” “Nay, please. I understand. Truly, I do.

” She let go of his hand, opened a small leather purse that hung on her girdle, and drew something from it. “I would ask only one thing of you as you go on your way. ’Tis an indulgence of sorts, but I pray you’ll allow it.” Jacques frowned. “What is it?”

.

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