Janet had always known Uncle Jamie was extraordinary.
As a young girl, she'd been in awe when he'd show up at the house, a fearsome growth of beard hiding his face. Always at night and, alone.
Ian said he'd given up Lallybroch to Jamie, her older brother, to ensure their home would never be taken from them by the British. Uncle Jamie was canny, people said. That the British didn't find him until he wanted to be noticed, was proof of it. And he had planned his surrender so well that Jenny received the reward that kept their entire family, and their tenants, alive during a severe famine. She was grateful, of course. But curious.
What kind of man was Uncle Jamie? How did he survive being tortured by the lobsterbacks in prison? And what happened to him that letters arriving over the past nine or were from "Mac Dubh" and "Alex MacKenzie?"
"Da, why doesn't Uncle Jamie use his name?" she'd asked, as she sat in Ian’s lap and patted his cheeks. She was almost six and confident enough to know her place in Ian's affections.
Ian adjusted his hold on her and squeezed her tight.
"A leannan, I'll tell ye all about it when yer older," he said. “I pray you'll never have occasion to do it yourself.”
"That’s silly! I’ll never forget my name. Doesn’t Uncle Jamie know who he is? I'll tell him myself once I've learned all my letters."
"Och, ye'd make him sad and miss us even more, Janet? Would ye be that cruel to yer Mam's brother?"
"No, I would no’," she answered slowly. "I'll mind ye, Da, and I'll tell the others, too."
She'd written to Uncle Jamie once when she was nine. They all had, under the watchful eye of Jenny. But oh, how she longed to tell him of things she was sure he would know. Of the blue-grey sheen of the sky before a snowstorm and the creaking of the 7th step of the broch. Of the unrelenting chill of his damp cave, though she and Michael had huddled together before a small fire, they’d lit.
But she’d never summoned the courage to do so. And now, she wished she had.
Ian had returned three days ago, near dusk, clearly exhausted but happy. He entered through the kitchen, shedding his coat in haste and kissed the top of her head with a preoccupied air.
“Is yer Mam here, Janet?” He ran his fingers through his unbound hair.
“Yes, she’s in the parlor. Would ye like tea brought to ye, there?”
“Aye, but bring two cups and sugar.” He left without giving her a chance to ask about her brother, Ian.
She brought a tea tray to them. As she entered the room, Ian was holding Jenny in a tight embrace, her face hidden in his chest.
“Thank ye, Janet. Now, leave us for a wee bit and tell everyone not to listen at the door. I’ll let ye know if we’re ready for dinner.”
Maggie and Kitty were already in the kitchen when she returned and told them of Ian’s and Jenny’s odd behavior.
"There wasn't any need for Da to warn us off," Maggie said, a few moments after. "Mam's yelling and crying her heid off. Best brew some willow bark tea, Janet. She'll be having a headache later."
She rushed to do her bidding while her sisters peeled and cut potatoes for dinner.
"And yer sure it's Claire..." Jenny's voice drifted through the kitchen window, startling all three of them.
"Mam forgot to shut the windows again," Kitty muttered as she untied her apron. "I'll remind her about them."
"No!" Maggie and Janet cried at the same time.
"If ye do, we may never know what's happening,” Janet explained.
"It's best we're prepared, don't ye agree?" Maggie added.
They spent the next half-hour deciphering snippets of their parents' conversation. Jenny’s voice rose and fell, alternating between anger, tears, and laughter. A great many words were heard about their younger brother, Ian, and Uncle Jamie. But her mother never again mentioned the one name she was waiting for:
The back of her eyes burned with unshed tears.
She'd been brought up on a steady stream of stories of Uncle Jamie’s wife--Claire Beauchamp. She believed Missus Crook's hushed tales of true love lost. And her heart swelled to know that many of their tenants owed their health to her. No, their very lives.
“The potato leaves are all dried up, Jenny. We'll be harvesting tomorrow," Ian announced that evening, to the exclamations of pleasure from everyone at the table.
Janet's ears perked. Was that what her parents were talking about earlier? She could have sworn it wasn't. Looking around, she caught the wink Maggie threw her way. They would speak about it among themselves later, it said.
But she wasn't in the mood for gossip. She slipped away to her room immediately after her chores, turning down her sisters' invitation to join them while they read. Now safely ensconced in her bed, she allowed her mind to wander at will, selecting and discarding thoughts to ponder on.
The potato field was Auntie Claire's gift to them, and they had named it the Auld Garden. The yield from that and the reward money from Uncle Jamie's sacrifice had seen the family through the lean years after Culloden.
"Bless you, Uncle and Auntie," she murmured under breath. "We are truly grateful for your gifts. May you both remain in God's safe-keeping."
Her thoughts flew again and caught on Fergus, the French orphan Uncle Jamie, and Auntie Claire had adopted in Paris. She had never questioned his presence during her childhood. He just was here.
"She stitched men's flesh together, Milady did. A hand tore down the middle, like so. Or a sword wound between the ribs. And one time," Fergus's voice echoed in her memory. "she even sewed up a man's wee baws." She had giggled dutifully with everyone else but wondered privately where Auntie Claire had acquired such skill.
"The courtiers and aristocrats of King Louie's court would look at Milord with envy for his beautiful wife," Fergus had added. "As they should! You have only to look in Milady's trunks in the attic to see the gowns Milord showered her with."
Janet had looked of course, with Kitty in tow. She was fourteen, Kitty sixteen and developing an interest in clothes.
"Such beautiful silks!" Kitty whispered, stroking a red gown with reverent fingers. Janet followed suit with a purple dress trimmed with cream fur around the neckline.
"She must have looked like a princess," Kitty added, a far-away look in her eyes.
"A faery princess," Janet corrected.
And she had inspired love, Fergus said. Even Rabbie MacNab, a former tenant, and one-time stable hand would not hear anything ill of her.
She was barely five when she escaped Maggie's company and hid behind a barrel outside the old barn with Ada, one of the staghound puppies, keeping her company.
"Braw Ada," she crooned. She wanted to pet her but Jamie, her oldest brother, said she shouldn't. She'd spoil the puppy for hunting.
"Ye will no' say anything about Mistress Claire," a man’s voice intruded harshly on her happy daydreams of having a pet of her own.
Peering through the slats of the barn, she kept silent, transfixed by the scene unfolding before her. Rabbie was inside the barn with Mary, his mother. He was scowling ferociously at her, hands clenched at his sides, cheeks red as their rooster's wattles.
"I havenae forgotten how she saved me from Da while ye looked away. It was Granny who told Mistress Claire about the beatings, not you! And now this. How could ye, Mam!" he yelled.
Janet looked around. She could not see anything amiss that could make Rabbie furious.
“Ye dinna understand, Rabbie, maybe ye will when yer a bit older,” Mary said, nearing tears, “what it's like to be alone. But I hope you never know.” She lifted a hand as if to touch her son, but it dropped.
"But ye disrespected their marriage bond!" he sputtered.
Mary’s voice was quiet and full of pity--for herself, for Uncle Jamie, for Rabbie--Janet wasn’t sure. “She died, Rabbie,” she said. “Claire is dead.”
Rabbie snorted and paced the room as if seeking a way out. He stopped and bent his head to hers. "Ye haven’t forgotten Mistress Claire saved me from having fits ever again?” he accused. “Do ye mind the white stone charm she gave me? It's been in my pocket ever since!"
At this last statement, Mary's face crumpled with heartbreak and Janet caught a glimpse of tears. “Claire saved me, too,” she said softly. “You and I both owe her our lives. Did ye think I’ve forgotten?” And through the slats, Janet saw Mary’s back straighten. “If I had a love like her and Jamie, I wouldna want my widower to waste away as he did, livin’ in a cave and not seein’ the light of day. Neither would ye. Rabbie,” she said, as she reached out to touch his cheek, “Ye shouldna challenge actions ye dinna understand.”
At that moment, Rabbie made to storm out of the barn, and Janet fled back to the house.
She'd told Ian what had happened. Though he looked suitably grave, his lack of physical reaction disappointed her. She had half-expected him to puff up and bleat like one of Jenny's prized goats.
Some months after, Rabbie left. When quizzed, Mary said it was time for him to try his luck in London. He'd been gone for almost twelve years now, she mused. She had forgotten what he looked like but remembered virtually the entire conversation she’d overheard.
Janet looked around. Her bedroom was awash with moonlight, every dark corner visible, the whorls and grain of each floorboard exposed. She shivered, feeling a chill, and wondered if a snowstorm was on its way.
As she punched her lumpy pillow into submission, she remembered a night like this, two years ago.
They had received word Uncle Jaimie was finally coming home, pardoned and free at last from bondage. It was joyful news, and they planned a dance to welcome him back. But later that night she found her parents, sitting before the parlor's fireplace, Ian holding Jenny tightly as she wept and moaned for a lost sister.
Janet turned over in her bed and after finding a comfortable position, closed her eyes.
Her last thought, as she finally drifted off to sleep, was that Jenny had loved Auntie Claire, too.