Lot did better when the children were nearby.
Or so Dindrane thought. Truly, it was hard to tell what “better” was with Lot nowadays. They were able to feed him, to change him, to move his arms and legs in order to keep his circulation going. Sometimes he made strange sounds that Dindrane thought might have been attempts to speak, but most of the rest of the family and the servants dismissed them as “raving.” And sometimes tears leaked from the corners of his eyes, staining the satin pillowcases.
But he never cried when the children were nearby, and Dindrane was forced to take that as a good sign.
Dindrane watched the two little ones play, Nimue with her blocks, and Agravaine with his xylophone. Lot, Dindrane was fairly certain, could see Agravaine, though his view of Nimue was blocked by the bed. Dindrane had at first put Nimue’s blocks down where Lot could see her, but she had pushed them over to the side of the bed. Dindrane had shared a glance with Lot that, if the old man had been responsive, would have been conspiratorial. “Her father’s daughter!” she had said, and tried to laugh. She thought one corner — the mobile corner — of Lot’s mouth had gone up. Maybe he had been trying to smile.
She brought the little ones into Lot’s chamber every day for a few hours, because Wright knew nobody was going to move Lot nearer to the little ones. Nimue and Agravaine were both too young to understand what was wrong with Lot, and didn’t treat him any differently because of it. Indeed, the first few times, Nimue had even toddled to her grandfather’s bed, pulled on his dressing gown, and demanded in her toddler lisp, “Gwampa, pway with me!” She had stood there, frowning at him, as if the mere force of her will would be enough to make her grandfather swing his legs over the bed, get up and join her in playing on the floor.
Nimue didn’t do that anymore, though. Dindrane was unsure whether that was an encouraging sign or a discouraging one. She wondered how Lot took it.
Dindrane glanced at Agravaine, whose little brow was furrowed in concentration as he tried to pick out a melody on his xylophone. He never tried to interact with Lot, but he hadn’t yet been walking when Lot had his collapse, only crawling. Dindrane wasn’t sure if he even had the limited understanding of the change that Nimue had, or if, to him, his father had always been like that — lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, sometimes moving one arm or one leg or making strange sounds. She wasn’t sure which was worse — to understand or to not understand.
She knew which child she felt more sorry for, though. Nimue — and Gawaine, for that matter, for all that he was napping now — had a father, and another grandfather to pet and spoil them. Agravaine would only have one father, and his grandfathers were long gone. Mordred was now the closest male adult to him, and Dindrane somehow doubted that her husband would be willing to step into the shoes of “father” for Agravaine when he only did his nobleman’s duty by his own children.
But no matter how sorry Dindrane felt for the children, she felt the most sorry for Lot.
Father Hugh still came by every day, but Dindrane could see that the monk was beginning to lose hope, if he hadn’t lost it already. “It’s in the Lord Wright’s hands now. We must pray,” he would say, which meant, to Dindrane’s ears, that there was nothing more he could do. They had dosed Lot with chamomile, they exercised his limbs to keep the circulation going. They fed him and cleaned him. They kept him alive. There was nothing more they could do. Father Hugh could lecture them about the power of prayer until he went blue in the face; the fact was, everything that a Sim could do to cure Lot had been done.
So Dindrane was left doing things that could never possibly work, but that might make a slight difference to Lot’s quality of life.
Every day, she brought the children in to him, but she did not just bring the children in to him. She sat with him, and read to him. There was nothing else she could think to do. And even though she felt that what she was doing was little enough, it was more than anyone in the house — barring the servants — was doing. Dindrane absolved the little ones and even Garnet from responsibility to Lot; but his son and his wife …
Mordred had tried to sit with Lot from time to time, Dindrane would give him credit for that, but he did so no longer. Instead, every night he came in for ten minutes, rattled off the work or changes that had been done around the estate, and his own attempts to gain legal control of it, and left. Once or twice Dindrane saw the way his upper lip trembled, the way he clenched his jaw and how his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. And she knew, too, the orders he had given for his father’s care: no expense to be spared, Father Hugh’s orders to be complied with immediately, servants to sit with him around the clock if one of the family was not with him. She would say nothing to Mordred about his treatment of his father.
But how she wished she could say something to Morgause!
Dindrane looked up from her reading — a book of the exploits of the Reman general Augustinus; Garnet had, when Dindrane wrote to her, named this as Lot’s favorite book — to see the nursemaid standing in the doorway. Or one of the nursemaids, rather. “‘Tis time for the little one’s nap.”
“Is it?” Dindrane asked. “Time certainly flies when you’re …” No, she would not make fun of Lot by calling this pitiful exercise “having fun.” “Well, Nimue, Agravaine, say good night to Grandpa. Tell him you’ll see him tomorrow.”
Nimue obeyed and Agravaine, who wasn’t talking very much yet, was lifted up to give his father a sloppy toddler’s kiss. Dindrane herself only waited until Lot’s nurse came to sit with him and feed him a sleeping draught, and then she took her leave of him as well.
She went downstairs, threw her cloak over her shoulders and her hood onto her head — for it was a chilly day — and began the slow descent into the gardens.
The past week had been full of rain, and Dindrane had not had her daily walks through the garden. She felt like an old woman or a child, who needed daily walks here or there to be properly cared for, but she felt hemmed in, cooped up if she didn’t get her daily walk. Besides, she had … certain reasons for wanting to walk through the garden from time to time.
But more than that, Dindrane thought she could perhaps be excused for needing to get out of the castle once a day, even if she never left the lands in the immediate vicinity of the keep. If Mordred and Morgause were hard to put up with at normal times, they were practically insufferable now. To Mordred she gave some allowances; she thought, underneath his snaps and his brusque manner, that he was suffering. Just because she gave him allowances in her mind, though, did not mean that she wanted to be near him more than was absolutely necessary. His impatience and anger wore on her like sandpaper on fine mahogany. Except that she did not need any sandpaper treatment, thank you; all the sanding was doing was wearing gouges and scratches into what once been a smooth surface.
Morgause, though …
Dindrane was the eldest of five children, all of whom had had their moments when they drove their retiring elder sister mad. Yet her palm had never itched to slap someone so fiercely as it did whenever Morgause opened her mouth.
Oh, Morgause, playing herself off as the martyr! Whenever anyone came to see about Lot, she would rattle off the details of his care as if it was she who had made all the arrangements, she who mixed the powders and poured the draughts, she who tried to spoon soup into the old man’s mouth! And then, when she had sufficiently awed or cowed her interlocutor, so that the visitor would ask, “And how are you doing, dear?” Morgause would sigh and moan and complain about how hard this was on her, how she was exhausted, how it broke her heart to see Lot this way. When Dindrane was certain, if she timed it, Morgause spent no more than an hour a week in the presence of her husband!
Maybe one of these days she would not slap Morgause; instead she would simply answer the questions the guests put to Morgause herself. After all, though Dindrane wouldn’t pretend she was the one taking on the brunt of the caretaking — the servants were doing that — she did see to it that Mordred’s orders were carried out, and she did make a point of sitting with Lot, for hours upon hours, every day. It was little enough, but it was more than what Morgause was doing.
Despite these troubling thoughts, she was able to nod to the gardeners as she passed them, to smile as they tipped their caps to her. At least, she was able to do this until she passed by the cottage that had once held Accolon le Fay.
The cottage stood empty and abandoned now, though it was kept in good repair. She would give that to Lot and to Mordred; even the smallest shed on the Orkney estate was kept in good order. Even though the gardeners and the workmen avoided this area as if a zombie still darkened these doors, Mordred and Lot saw to it that it was not run-down and dilapidated.
For Dindrane could not nod and smile at the gardeners here, because no more gardeners came here than could help it. The grass was clipped once a week, as it was on the rest of the estate, but Dindrane could see rough patches, uneven patches. This was not a sign of laziness on the part of the workmen, knowledge that no one in the family bothered to come down here now that Accolon was no longer here to torment. Dindrane hardly counted; she had told the white-faced head gardener not to go to any further trouble with the space around Accolon’s cottage on her account. “I only walk down there,” she had told him, “to get as far away from the keep as possible.” As the light of comprehension dawned in his eyes, she added, “For exercise, of course.”
Then she had smiled, and the head gardener had smiled back, and she had known that she was understood … but that though every man, woman and child on the Orkney estate might understand her, no one beyond its borders would share her secret.
It almost made it a pity that she had, in essence, been lying.
It was not that she did not need the exercise. It was not that she didn’t want to get as far away as possible from that mad household, now that Garnet was gone and Lot incapacitated! It was simply that it was not only — or mainly — need for exercise that brought her back to this remote corner of the gardens. It was not a desire to escape her mad in-laws that brought her to the overgrown corner just beyond Accolon’s cottage.
None of the servants went into this corner if they could help it. It was here, popular rumor held, that Accolon’s body had been found. And it was here, popular rumor also insisted, that Morgause had performed her unholy magics that transformed Accolon from a merely dead body into a revivified one.
She didn’t know about the second set of rumors, but she knew the first was true. She knew because she had found out which of the gardeners it was who discovered the body, and had asked him, casually, why it was that this particular corner of the gardens was completely uncared for. The poor boy — he was only a few years younger than she — had gone white, and had only been able to stammer out that a body had been found there, and that nobody cared to go near the place afterward.
Dindrane asked no more questions after that, because the answers she had received convinced her that the ground would be perfect for her experiments.
Yet now, it was more through habit than conviction that she threaded her way through the stalks and weeds. She had begun her experiments months and months ago — before Lot had collapsed — and she doubted she would be successful in any case. Brighter minds than her had attempted her experiments for years with no results. She doubted —
Because of her doubts, Dindrane could perhaps be forgiven for the quickly-strangled scream she gave when she made it around the last bend and saw success staring her in the face.
For success was far more frightening than she had ever anticipated.
Dindrane stood there in terrified silence for quite a minute, sure that every beat of her heart would be her last. Her experiment, the Laganaphyllis Simnovorii, would simply swallow her whole, and that would be the end of her. Her last thought would be a gratitude mixed with regret — gratitude that she finally got to see one, regret that she was not able to find out more about it before she was killed.
But the seconds and minutes passed, and nothing happened — until the Laganaphyllis Simnovorii waggled the cake on the end of its vine-tongue enticingly at her.
“Get that away,” Dindrane said, pushing it back. “I’m not a fool. I know what you’re trying to do.”
Her heart leapt into her throat after she spoke — surely it would —
But all it did was allow its — head, she would call it a head — to hang down on its stem/neck. Just like a discouraged Sim would.
“Are you hungry?” Dindrane asked. “Do you need … I can’t get you a Sim, but if you’ll eat other things …”
The Laganaphyllis Simnovorii jerked its head to the side, and Dindrane saw a pile of fur and feathers and bones. “I take it you’ve been feeding yourself, then?”
She was pretty sure the plant was grinning at her.
“Well, I’ll — I’ll still see that you’re adequately fed. You know. In case the … in case whatever you’re eating catches on to the trap. But no Sims! Not –”
Dindrane’s eyes suddenly went wide, and without another word to her creation, she turned and ran back to the keep.
As her feet pounded up the steps, she thought. She thought more quickly, and more furiously, than she had ever thought in her life. She thought so hard that she didn’t see the gardeners looking curiously at her, that she didn’t even think, once she got inside, to give her cloak and hood to the waiting servant.
Her skirts gathered in one hand, she made her way through the twisting corridors to the library. Surely, she had put that book into the library! It was so dangerous, once she realized what it was, that she was afraid to keep it so close to her. Better to let that book hide in the library with its brethren, where it could perhaps blend in, or where perhaps Mordred or Morgause would be blamed for it if it were to be found.
Her fingers shook as they traced along the spines of the books. Where was it? It had to be here! Oh, it couldn’t have been lost! If it had been lost — it was the only copy of that book that she knew of — if it was lost —
“What are you doing?”
Dindrane spun to face her husband.
“Mordred! You scared me half to death!”
“Hmm. You too, it seems. What are you doing?” he asked, before she had time to wonder who else was so easily startled by Mordred’s mere presence.
“I’m looking for a book, what does it look like I’m doing?”
“In your outdoor things?”
Before Dindrane could snap and ask Mordred who made him her mother, he added, “The head gardener just ran into my office to tell me that he saw you running out of the gardens ‘like the cow-demons were after you,’ in his words. Would you care to explain that?”
Dindrane felt her world drop out from underneath her. They had investigated and found her secret! One of the gardeners had been hurt, killed! They would lock her up for heresy and blasphemy and murder —
But Mordred stood before her, tapping his foot, his arms crossed before his chest. Surely, if it were a question of heresy, blasphemy, and murder, he would show a bit more emotion than mere impatience.
“I was seized by a sudden thought,” she replied, “and wanted to come up here to check it.”
“So you had to run?”
“Not all of us can materialize out of thin air like you — dear.”
“Oh, for Wright’s sake!” Mordred’s eyes rolled up, as if he meant to ask sympathy and strength from the Lord Wright himself. “I don’t care what thoughts you have! I don’t care what you read! All I ask of you is that you pretend to be a lady, even if we both know you’re not one!”
All you ask of me? And what about bearing your children, raising them, running your household, and caring for your ailing father? “I am a perfect lady in public, Mordred.”
Mordred snorted, but all he said was, “Then try to refrain from frightening the servants. Wright! You know the head gardener was worried that you’d gotten hurt or frightened?”
“That was very kind of him.”
“And a nuisance to me! I swear, they care more about your health and comfort than they do about the family’s!”
Oh, I’m not the family? “Is that all?” she snapped.
“Yes, that’s all. I don’t have time for this, and I don’t have time for you if there’s nothing actually wrong. Wright!” Still shaking his head, he walked away. “I don’t know what they see in you,” he muttered. Dindrane was never sure if she was meant to hear or not.
And if she was to be truthful, she did not care. She did, though, wait until Mordred’s footfalls were out of earshot before she murmured to the empty air, “And I don’t know what Rosette sees in you.” And I don’t care to waste my time wondering, either. I have work to do.
She turned back to the bookshelf, and of course, now that she was no longer agitated — or perhaps, now that she was agitated at something else entirely — the book presented itself to her, in precisely the spot where she had left it. Like a greedy child grabbing candy, she took it from the shelf and plopped into a chair with it.
She found the passage she wanted, the passage she had read when she was still pregnant with Gawaine and that had haunted her ever since. She read it once more, to make sure she remembered it correctly.
She had remembered it correctly.
She stared at the page and thought.
“I’ll do it,” Dindrane said finally to the empty air. “After all, what do I have to lose?”
The air said nothing.
“I’ll do it,” she repeated, slamming the book shut. And somehow, in the listening air, she thought she had struck a pact.