Silly girls, Betsy thought, shaking her head. Always gettin’ all het up over somethin’.
She walked onto one of the Orkney Keep’s many exterior walks, moving quickly before the summer sun beat down too hot and heavy on her head. And as she walked, she thought about the girls.
Not her girls — well, maybe they were her girls, in a sense. The housekeeper so often did end up filling some sort of surrogate mother role when you got a bevy of maids together. But the girls that made her shake her head as she plodded along the ringing stone walkway were not the girls who made her shake her head so. Meg and Joyce both had their heads screwed on the right way — sometimes, particularly in Meg’s case, she wondered if it was screwed on too far in the right way — and neither would know a fanciful notion if it came up and bit them in the nose.
Then again, neither of them worked in the Orkney Keep.
Betsy ran over, once again, what the near-hysterical maidservants had told her. A monster! one of them had squealed. “A monster, screamin’ an’ yellin’ from Lady Garnet’s room!” Mary had said.
“I don’t think it was a monster,” Brandi had added, rolling her eyes. “Or if it was, it was a really pitiful one. Sounded like a little kid cryin’, it did.”
“Stupid! That’s what the monsters want ye ter think! So’s ye’ll go in there an’ –“
That was the point where Betsy had stopped listening, shushed both girls, and gone up to investigate the matter herself.
Monsters, Betsy shook her head. The things these girls come up with … what next? Demons in the cellars? Sir Mordred and Lady Morgause were a lot of things — unpleasant things, even — but they weren’t summoners of monsters or demons. They, too, had their heads screwed on the right way. No use conjuring up something that might very well kill you.
But considering her brother-in-law’s transformation … could she really blame the girls for their insistence that a zombie or vampire or purple-Sim-eater was only an unopened closet or a moment’s wrongly-satiated curiosity away?
Yes, Betsy decided as she came to stop before the portal that would take her into Lady Garnet’s room. She could.
Now, how was she supposed to get in, again?
For this, at the end of the day, was why she thought it unlikely Lady Morgause or Sir Mordred were hiding anything monstrous in the keep. She could get anywhere, even their very workrooms. Why would Lady Morgause and Sir Mordred afford her that privilege if they had anything to hide? Surely magic could clean those rooms better than any of her dusters, brooms, scrub-brushes or rags. And such were their reputations — well, more Lady Morgause’s reputation — that none of the servants would find it at all strange that the workrooms were off-limits. It would be more of a confirmation than anything else. Besides, even if that had been the case, Lady Morgause would still be one of the most open witches in the kingdom — Lady Morgan didn’t even have servants.
Betsy started her experiments in entering the room by stepping onto the portal, which generally served to magically transport her into the room.
That’s odd, Lady Garnet ain’t been back since the funeral, an’ I’ve cleaned this room meself three times since then … how would the — what-d’ye-call-it — wards get back up?
Betsy felt rather than ordered the gulp that clogged her throat. Then she turned her mind away from it. How was she supposed to get in, again? Lady Morgause had specifically given her the key —
But it wasn’t a physical key, like the circle of them she kept on her belt. No, that would be too easy. It was a different kind of key … and of course a different key from all the other keyed rooms in the Keep, because Lady Morgause couldn’t even make anything simple.
Ah! O’course! Me hand!
But on which stone was she to place her hand — and for that matter, which hand? If she got it wrong too many times, she’d be locked out until Lady Morgause cared to let her back in again, and that was not a circumstance she wanted to explain to her lady. Though Lady Garnet, Betsy supposed, could have let her in as well, but Lady Garnet was at Camford and a bit out of reach for all that.
But then how did the wards …
Betsy ignored that thought and focused on the stonework. This wasn’t one of the workrooms, just a simple bedchamber, and moreover the bedchamber of the young lady of the house. You didn’t want the young lady’s bedroom to be too hard to get into for authorized parties — not if you intended to keep the unauthorized parties out.
And there was the stone — set off by black mortar instead of brown. All the way on the left side of the wall, too, indicating that it had to be her left hand that she put on the stone. Betsy did so.
White light seeped through the cracks — it grew to the intensity of a lightning flash —
And just like a lightning flash, it was gone in an instant, leaving Betsy still staring at the wall. However, it was the wall to Lady Garnet’s bedroom, not just any wall. She turned around, expecting to see only a bed, a lute, a wardrobe and desk —
“Oh, Lord in Heaven!”
She saw all that and more. Not a monster.
Why was there a child laying on Lady Garnet’s bed?
And why wasn’t he moving?
Betsy held her breath — willed even her heart to still for a moment — and listened.
No keep was ever quiet. There were too many people — too many footsteps on tiled floors — too many oaths murmured under one’s breath, or songs hummed as a maidservant did her dusting, or conversations. On the rare occasion that the Sim occupants of the keep were quiet, there were mice, cats, other animals to fill the quiet. Lacking them, even the stones would creak and grumble as they settled into their earth-bed.
But in the room were Betsy was in?
“Oh Lord,” Betsy gasped. “Oh — oh –”
It was with one hand clutching her cross that she crept closer to the little boy.
“Lad?” she whispered. “Lad, wake up now. ‘Tis time …” Time fer what? “Time fer ye ter wake up,” Betsy compromised. “Lad …” She laid a hand on his shoulder — the little boy’s cold and stiff shoulder —
She didn’t have to turn the boy to face her before she found a reason to shriek.
Her back hit the wall with a thump, followed by her shaking body. The rough stone added new tears and loose threads to her dress as she slid down, her legs splayed out in front of her.
“Oh Wright, oh Wright, oh Wright …”
It looked like somebody had attacked the poor boy’s face with leeches or some other sucking animal. She didn’t even want to know what kind of sores the clothes might be hiding on the poor boy’s body. And the way he lay — curled in a fetal position, on his side, one hand under his head —
If — if the poor boy had died somewhere else — what were the odds that someone would lay him here like that?
How long had that poor boy been left here before …
Betsy looked up, watching the unmoving line of the boy’s back and side. Davy would lay down like that sometimes, napping or sleeping — and the little boy was so small, he couldn’t have been — he had to be younger than —
Betsy gasped, choked and startled herself with the salt tears that fell on her tongue. “Oh, ye poor boy,” she whispered, forcing trembling legs to support her weight. She smoothed his hair back from his forehead, as she had smoothed Lukas’s, as she smoothed Davy’s every night, as she would smooth Bert’s once he grew some hair —
“Poor baby … who would want ter hurt a wee mite like –”
Betsy froze. Oh Wright!
She ran from the room, her feet leading her to the only place in the keep where she was likely to find help.
Lady Dindrane looked up from her book. “Betsy?”
“Oh, m’lady! Oh, ye have ter come! Ye have ter come ter Lady Garnet’s room!”
“I — what?”
“Lady Garnet’s room! Hurry!”
Lady Dindrane narrowed her eyes, then shut her book in that slow, measured way she had. Seeing as the Orkney household was one of exploding outbursts and quick tempers, usually Betsy appreciated Lady Dindrane’s more sedate pace — but now — “Please, m’lady! Hurry!”
“Betsy,” Lady Dindrane rose, “what’s going on?”
Her lips were starting to tremble — to say nothing of what her knees were doing behind her skirts, at the thought that Lady Morgause might walk in at any moment and realize what was being discussed (for who else could have gotten into that warded room, and who else could have warded it behind her?) — and the tears were coming again. “Betsy?” Lady Dindrane asked again, her voice rising in alarm.
“Oh — oh m’lady! There’s a little boy in Lady Garnet’s chamber!”
“A little boy?” Lady Dindrane almost laughed. “What’s –”
“It ain’t funny!” Betsy snapped, then added — shock slapping her face for the second time in a quarter of an hour — “M’lady.” She wiped her eyes as the traitorous tears started to fall again.
“Betsy, why are you crying?”
“That poor little boy …” Betsy sniffed. “He weren’t even as old as Davy –”
Lady Dindrane froze. Her blue eyes narrowed.
Betsy was a good, law-abiding woman. She’d never been in a courtroom in her life. She probably would have never met Lord Pellinore were it not for Lady Dindrane’s marriage to Sir Mordred, and were it not for Joyce’s marriage to Berach. Yet all the same, she suddenly found it very easy to believe that it was with such a tone that Lord Pellinore sentenced miscreants to their punishment.
Betsy nodded and scuttled toward Lady Garnet’s room, Lady Dindrane on her heels. It was the work of a moment to get them both inside. And once they were … Betsy gestured to the bed and tried to follow Lady Dindrane as she strode to the little boy.
But Betsy could not. Even as Lady Dindrane knelt by the bedside, Betsy collapsed against the wardrobe, holding her mouth to hold in her sobs. “Poor little baby!”
Lady Dindrane said nothing.
Betsy could do nothing but watch in horrified fascination as Lady Dindrane put two fingers against the little boy’s cold neck, then press her hand to the boy’s heart. Then Lady Dindrane rested her hand on the boy’s arm. Betsy could not tell what she was doing — were it any other time but this, she might have guessed that Lady Dindrane had gotten lost in thought as she so often did —
Lady Dindrane suddenly gasped.
“What?” Betsy asked.
Her lady said nothing — she may not have even heard. She’d picked something off the little boy’s vest and was staring at it. Betsy leaned closer.
Yet Lady Dindrane was staring at it, whiter and with more trembling than she had when she’d been presented with the poor little boy —
Her hand fell. She looked at the little boy again.
Then Lady Dindrane sprung to her feet. “He’s not dead.”
“He’s not dead.”
“M’lady,” Betsy took a deep breath. “M’lady, I’ve had — a fair bit o’ experience — probably more than ye –”
“He’s not dead,” Lady Dindrane repeated once again. “He’s in a coma.”
“A — a co-”
“A coma. It’s very like to — to death. But I’ve read about them. The signs are there if you know what to look for.”
But Lady Dindrane was pushing past her, toward the portal out of the room. “I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.”
“M’lady! Ye can’t — ye can’t jest leave me here! An’ — an’ if that poor boy is in a comma or whatever it were, somebody who knows what’s what has ter stay with him!”
Lady Dindrane spun on her heel — and if Betsy hadn’t known better, she would have called the dozen rapid blinks her lady gave were the signs of rapid thought. No one’s thought, however, could be that rapid. “That’s why you need to stay here,” Lady Dindrane replied. “Somebody needs to rub his limbs, to keep the circulation going.”
“But m’lady, his heart –”
“It only seems like it’s stopped. It’s just beating very — very slowly. So that’s why you need to rub his limbs. To make sure he — it doesn’t — Betsy, I need you to do this for me. For him.”
Betsy looked at the tiny boy on the bed. “M’lady …”
But when she turned around again, Lady Dindrane was gone. Betsy looked again at the little boy.
Slowly, she got to her knees and began to do as her lady had asked.
It was to be the longest hour of her life. Rubbing a poor boy’s wax-like arms and legs, feeling the cold seeping through her skin, knowing in her heart of hearts there was no way this could work. But praying for a miracle all the same.
Later, she would think it was the praying that kept her sane. She must have run through every prayer she knew — from the child’s “Now I lay me down to sleep,” to the longer ones that she only heard trotted out by the monks on feast days and didn’t know half the words to. She would never doubt the power of prayer again. And by the same token, never again would she pay the least bit of attention to what those monks might have to say about the proper wording of prayers. It didn’t matter what you said. You just had to want it bad enough, and believe hard enough that it was possible.
Still, she was never more shocked than when, about an hour into her rubbing, she heard a slow, shaky breath that wasn’t hers.
“Lad?” Betsy whispered.
A whimper. Only a child could whimper like that.
“Lad!” Her rubbing stopped entirely — too soon? Maybe not, because now she was rubbing the little boy’s back, the way she rubbed Davy’s when he was hurt or sick. “Can ye hear me?”
A gasp — a hiccup — and a sob.
“Oh, poor boy!” Betsy kissed his cheek. “It’s all right, don’t ye fret none, Mama Betsy’s here an’ –”
Betsy stopped. “Eh?”
“I want me auntie! Auntie Lyndsay!” The boy sat up. “Auntie!”
“Oh, lad! Lad, shush, shush …” Betsy smoothed the boy’s hair from his brow. “Ye don’t want no one ter hear ye.”
“Why not? Auntie!”
“Auntie can’t come right now.” Betsy stood, rubbing the little boy’s shoulders. “She — she ain’t here. But we’ll bring ye home ter her, real soon. But now, ye have ter be quiet. It’s real important that ye be quiet.”
The little boy’s upper lip started to tremble.
“Oh, poor boy …” Betsy kissed his forehead. “I know. I know. Ye’re scared an’ sad an’ all ye want ter do is go home an’ have a good cry, an’ a hot washcloth fer yer face. I know.”
“Where’s Auntie? An’ Uncle Ash?” he asked.
Ash? Pieces started to come together. “Ye — ye wouldn’t be Kata Thatcher’s grandson — er — step-grandson, would ye be?”
“Ye know me grandma?” the boy asked, blinking.
“Sure I do. She an’ me go back a long way.” Longer than Ash Thatcher had been alive, even. It had been Kata Thatcher who had delivered Joyce. And she and Kata had gotten along very well back when they were all young and Accolon and Esmé were just married.
“Ye — ye know me auntie an’ uncle then?”
“No, lad. Not yet. But I’ll be knowin’ ’em soon, I’ll wager. Here, lad, what’s yer name?”
“Thorn. That’s a nice name. Ye can call me Mama Betsy,” she added, reaching down to envelope the little boy in a hug.
Whatever had happened to him, it hadn’t killed his natural ability to trust. He grabbed onto her neck and clung to it like he was never going to let go.
“Now, m’lad,” she said when Thorn finally stumbled away, “why don’t ye come an’ sit by me, nice an’ quiet-like, an’ we’ll –”
Betsy froze. What were they going to do?
“We’ll wait,” she said, because she could hardly leave with the boy while Lady Dindrane was still gone. What if she came back to find the room empty — she wouldn’t even be able to get into the room without Betsy! And what would she think? And how was Betsy going to get the boy out of the keep without anybody figuring out something untoward was going on? Besides, Lady Dindrane ought to have a look at the little lad, since she was the one who knew about comas and such-like, before they took him home.
Betsy pulled out the desk chair and took a seat. “Here, lad — want ter sit here?” she asked, patting her lap.
And instantly regretted it. What if the boy wasn’t strong enough to be walking? What if he fell? She should keep him on the bed —
He watched her for a moment, then without another word walked over to her and clambered onto her lap, as steadily and strongly as Davy might have done.
Betsy held him close and kissed the top of his head. “There now. Don’t that feel better?”
He nodded and cuddled closer to her. Betsy began to rub his back again. And when she felt her dress begin to get wet from his tears, well … it would have taken a harder heart than Betsy’s to scold him for it.
But how had he come to be here in the first place?
“Thorn?” Betsy asked. “D’ye mind tellin’ me somethin’?”
“How’d ye get here?”
The boy shuddered, and Betsy opened her mouth to tell him not to bother telling her —
“It was the lady. Lady Mo–Mo–”
“Lady Morgause?” Betsy asked. Her heart sunk but she kept a smile on her face — little ones could sense when you were upset, even if they weren’t looking at you.
“Is she the one all in black?”
“Er …” Betsy bit her lip. “Did she have long black hair?”
“Straight?” Betsy pressed on. “Not a curly mop-top, like yours?”
“An’ — an’ green eyes?”
Thorn nodded against her.
Betsy swallowed. “That’d be her.”
Thorn said nothing for a long moment, content to cuddle. Then he asked, “Does she have puppies?”
Thorn sighed. “She said I could have a puppy if I went with her an’ was a good boy …”
“Oh, lad,” Betsy whispered into his hair. “Oh, lad.”
She didn’t have the heart for any more questions after that. And Thorn, too, seemed to not have the heart for talking.
Some time later, a pounding on the wall alerted Betsy to the presence of someone else, followed by a loud, “Betsy! It’s Lady Dindrane!”
“Sit tight, son,” Betsy murmured before she let her lady in. “Lady –”
“We need to take him to my father,” said Lady Dindrane without preamble — indeed, with scarcely a glance at Thorn.
“Your — m’lady! Shouldn’t we take him home ter his aunt an’ uncle? They must be worried sick about ‘im!”
“I wanna go home,” Thorn put in.
Lady Dindrane glanced sidelong at Thorn, her jaw quivering. Then she turned again to Betsy. “We need to keep him safe. We need to keep all of us safe.”
“My — my lady?”
“Betsy, how many people, other than you, can get into this room?” Lady Dindrane murmured.
“My lady! Ye’re not suggestin’ leavin’ him –”
“Certainly not. But other than you, how many people can get into this room?”
“Lady Garnet, an’ Lady …” Betsy swallowed.
“Exactly,” Lady Dindrane replied. “Exactly.”
Betsy put her hand on Thorn’s shoulder. “But — but with all due respect, m’lady, what can yer father do?”
Betsy’s heart dropped. “Oh my. That — that’ll be a scandal …”
“Do you have a better idea?”
Betsy swallowed. Then she knelt down to Thorn’s level.
“Lad,” she told him, “we ain’t gonna be able ter take ye home jest yet. We need ter … ter take ye ter talk ter a very nice man. He’s Lady Dindrane’s papa, he is. An’ he needs ter know what happened ter ye.”
“Why?” Thorn asked.
“Ter keep ye safe.” Betsy kissed his cheek. “An’ we will keep ye safe. That much I can promise ye, lad.”