It was a snowy day. The best kind of snowy day, in Nimue’s opinion. The kind where the snow lay clean and white over the land, smoothing it over and burying anything dirty and dingy. No slush, no ice — and best of all, no mud. It was the best kind of snow for making snow angels and snowmen.
And it was the best kind of snow for packing and making snowballs, as Melou and Melehan had taught Nimue today.
She had to pause in skipping her way up the front walk to giggle. Lou and Han — as Nimue called them, to Melou’s initial dismay and Melehan’s instantaneous amusement — had broached the fine idea of making a fine stash during recess and meeting the first classmate who came too close with a barrage of snowballs. Nimue had squealed and gone along, even if her first snowballs hadn’t been all that great. But Lou showed her the right way to pack snowballs, the way his papa had taught him, and then all was right.
Or almost all. Once again, Nimue wished she had a father who would show her how to do fun things, like Lou and Han’s papa did. Not that there was anything wrong with her father, there wasn’t. Well, not really. It was just that he liked to talk about things more than do things, and doing things was more fun.
She slowed in her skipping and looked over her shoulder at her grandpapa’s big castle. Of course her grandpapa wasn’t much better than her father when it came to doing things, but that wasn’t who she was thinking of. She was thinking of her Uncle Lamorak. He’d already shown her how to make a snowman and dress him in a hat and a scarf. Maybe there were other snow-things he could teach her how to do? Something she could use to impress Lou and Han?
Maybe she could go over today. Mama never minded if Nimue skipped across the lane to her grandpapa’s big castle, as long as she told Mama first. Maybe Uncle Lamorak would show her something.
And maybe Grandma would have cookies …
Nimue grinned and ran for the front door.
“Mama!” she called when Patrick opened it and took her cloak. “Mama, I’m — there you are, Mama!”
She was poking the fire, making it shine warm and bright. Nimue reevaluated her plan of going over to her grandpapa’s big castle and asking Uncle Lamorak to take her out into the snow. She would stay at home for a few minutes, get nice and warm and toasty, and then go out into the snow. That would be —
Mama turned around, and all thought of going anywhere fled as Nimue’s heart dropped into her stomach.
She hadn’t seen Mama look so sad since that day, shortly after Gareth was born, when Mama took Nimue on her lap and asked her if she liked living at Grandpapa’s big castle. When she had told Nimue that they weren’t going to go back to her father’s castle, but that Nimue would have two homes now: one with her father and one with Mama. Nimue wasn’t so sure what was so bad about having one more home than everybody else did, but the way Mama had frowned when she said that made Nimue understand that it was very, very bad indeed.
Nimue wondered what could happen now that made Mama frown like that again. It wasn’t even a big frown, like the ones she wore when Nimue or Gawaine or Gareth had been bad. It was just a little worry on her lips. It was the way it reached up to her eyes that made Nimue gulp and ask tremulously, “Mama?”
“Hello, Nimue,” Mama replied, making her way to Nimue and kissing her solemnly on both cheeks. “How was your day at school?”
She didn’t sound angry, and the way she hugged and kissed Nimue was just like usual. She remembered the way Mama had acted when she told Nimue about the two homes: she’d held Nimue very tight and rocked her from side to side, kissing the top of her hair and smoothing it back from her forehead again and again. So maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad.
“Fine,” Nimue replied, then, unable to hide it any more, quavered, “Mama, what’s wrong?”
Mama pulled back, a smile flickering over her face. “You read me very well, don’t you?” she murmured. She pushed Nimue’s hair back from her face, the smile still flickering like a candle flame on a short wick.
Nimue wasn’t sure what her Mama meant by “read me,” but seeing that smile, small as it was, made her let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. “I guess so!”
“You do indeed,” Mama murmured. “Nimue … I have to talk to you about something, something very, very important. Will you please sit down with me?”
“All right, Mama.”
Mama led the way to the fire and to her big chair right next to it. It was the chair she sat in when she read to them or just to herself. As soon as she sat, she smoothed her skirts and smiled, a mute invitation for Nimue to sit on her lap.
But that was too much like that other day, the two-homes day, so Nimue edged over to the sofa instead.
She didn’t look at Mama when she did that, because she didn’t want to see if Mama was looking sad again. It was a good thing she didn’t: Mama didn’t have any expression at all. And as Nimue knew well … that was always worse than looking sad.
And when Nimue had spent enough time smoothing her skirts and getting comfortable and kicking her legs against the front of the sofa, she had to look up. But then Mama was smiling. It wasn’t a real smile, though. It was a smile that was trying very hard to be real. And that was never good.
“Mama?” Nimue asked, her voice as small as Gareth’s.
Mama was still trying to smile, but after a moment it faded and she let her gaze drift to the fire. “You know I went on a visit with Sister Margery yesterday, don’t you?”
Nimue nodded. She had been there awfully late, too, so late that Nimue and her brothers got to stay with Grandpapa and Grandma for the night. Nimue had only seen Mama this morning when she came to get Gawaine and Gareth and give Nimue a kiss before she ran off to school.
“Well,” Mama continued, “Sister Margery told me … something about you, something about … you and your friends Lou and Han.”
Nimue’s eyes went wide. They’d gotten caught with the snowballs! Darius must have told on them after he went inside! That wasn’t fair! All right, maybe they had pelted him with almost a dozen snowballs before he was able to recover (and they ran out of ammunition), but he had laughed and started making snowballs as soon as he got a moment to breathe! He hadn’t been laughing much recently, either!
Wait … that had happened today … and Mama had talked to Sister Margery yesterday …
“Nimue,” asked Mama, “did … did you know that your friends Lou and Han’s full names are Melou and Melehan FitzOrk?”
Nimue’s brow wrinkled. “… Yes?” Of course she knew that. She was the only one who called them Lou and Han! Sister Margery, the other kids, even Agravaine, they all called the twins by their full names.
“Did … did you ever wonder why your surnames — your last names — are so similar?”
“They are?” Nimue’s nose wrinkled. Orkney … FitzOrk … Orkney … “Huh!” she gasped. “I guess they are!”
Mama nodded. “They are — they are indeed.”
“Why is that, Mama?”
Mama frowned — but why? Hadn’t she just asked Nimue if she had ever thought about that very question? Mama closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly opened them. But she didn’t look at Nimue; she stared into the fire instead. “Have I ever told you,” she asked, her voice as far away as her gaze, “how it was that your father and I came to be married?”
She hadn’t. And Nimue realized for the first time that that was very odd. Grandma liked to talk about how she and Grandpapa had met and got married all the time. Auntie Delyth talked all about her George whenever Grandma wasn’t around to scold her for putting ideas into Nimue’s head. Even Auntie Dilys liked to giggle about Prince Kay, and she usually liked listening a lot better than talking!
“No …” Nimue replied.
Mama nodded once. “Your father and I … we married because of duty. Because Grandpapa and your Grandfather Lot both wanted it. They … they wanted our families to grow closer, so that they could help each other in the kingdom and at home. Does that make sense so far?”
Nimue frowned. “I thought Grandpapa didn’t like Father.”
“He — he doesn’t, now,” replied Mama. “But he did back then. Your father …” Mama frowned, but it wasn’t a bad frown — only a thoughtful frown. Mama often looked thoughtful, so Nimue relaxed without even realizing it. “Your father,” Mama went on, “was, back then, everything Grandpapa thought he should be — so Grandpapa liked him very much.”
“What happened, that Grandpapa doesn’t like him anymore?”
Mama turned to Nimue, her bright blue eyes practically boring a hole into her. Then Mama blinked and her eyes were normal again. “Many things,” Mama replied, and sighed, “most of which I will have to tell you when you are older. But … but the important thing is, back then — indeed until the end of your Grandfather Lot’s life — your Grandpapa and Grandfather Lot were very good friends, and they wanted to make our families closer, so they decided that your father and I should marry. And so, because we wanted to be a good son and a good daughter, respectively, we did.”
“All right …”
“But you must — you must understand, Nimue, that when a father and a mother marry that way, to be a good daughter and a good son, they don’t always love each other like other mothers and fathers do. Sometimes, as time passes, they grow to love each other. And sometimes, they only become friends.”
“And sometimes they don’t like each other at all,” Nimue murmured. “Like you and Father.”
Mama blinked a few times and breathed deeply. “That — that is true, that we do not like each other very much now. And that is because of many things — but I think, at the very root of it, we do not have very much in common, other than you and your brothers, and that is why we could not become friends.”
“Is that what happens when you don’t have much in common with someone?” gasped Nimue. There were lots of people — even just in school! — that she didn’t have much in common with. Was she going to be like Mama and Father were with all of them?
“No, no! Not at all. There were — like I said, there were many other things. I just told you one of the many, many reasons. But also, Nimue … another reason that your father and I had a hard time becoming friends is that your father loved — loves — another woman.”
Mama took another deep breath. “Do … do you know how many mothers and fathers love each other? Like Grandpapa and Grandma?”
“Well … your father loved another woman that way. So, because his heart was already very full, there … simply wasn’t any room in it for me. You see, even though Sims’ hearts can get bigger when they meet new friends, and new family members, and new little babies … when it comes to the kind of love that is between mothers and fathers, usually a Sim can only love one other Sim that way, and no more. So, since your father loved somebody else, he couldn’t love me that way.”
“All right …” Nimue replied, wishing some of this made sense — and wondering what any of it had to do with what Sister Margery had been telling Mama about her and Lou and Han. “But, but, Mama! If Father loved that other woman so much, how come he didn’t marry her?”
“She was a peasant, Nimue,” replied Mama. “Your father couldn’t marry her. He had to marry a woman of noble blood.”
“Like — like you, Mama?” asked Nimue.
“Indeed. Exactly like me,” Mama nodded. “Now, Nimue, you must understand …” Mama took a deep breath. “This other woman, she … she is your friends Lou and Han’s mama.”
Mama took another deep breath. “And because your father loved — loves — her so very much, he could not stay away from her, and so …” Mama’s eyes went very dull, and blank, and she looked up into the air somewhere above Nimue’s head rather than at her. “And so, your father is your friends Lou and Han’s father.”
Nimue’s mouth opened, and it shut again. Because that couldn’t be true; it just couldn’t be. She had the same father as Lou and Han? That was just silly. If they had the same father, wouldn’t they have noticed by now?
Lou and Han’s father was a wizard. So was Nimue’s.
Lou and Han’s father did not live with them. Neither did Nimue.
Lou and Han had a — had somebody whose existence made them sensitive to accusations flung against those who used Dark magic. And so did Nimue.
“They … they are?” asked Nimue.
“But how come they didn’t say anything?” asked Nimue.
“I do not think they know,” replied Mama. “Just like you did not know until just now. And Nimue …” Mama bit her lip, then gasped a breath in and went on. “You … I know you will not like to keep secrets from your friends, but you must not tell them.”
“I mustn’t? Why?”
“Because …” Mama bit her lip. “Because their mama, and your father, should be the one to tell them and explain to them. Not you. Think, Nimue, when they have questions — what will you say to them?”
“Ex–exactly,” Mama answered, stammering and tripping a little over the word. “And what,” she looked like she had just sat down on the business end of a needle, “what kinds of questions do you have, Nimue?”
Questions? What kinds of questions was she supposed to have? Nimue looked down at her skirts and mumbled, “I dunno.” Then she looked up. “Wait — how come I never heard about this before?”
Mama tried very hard to smile, and somehow that was worse than watching her frown. “Because your father and I did not want to tell you until you were older, so you would understand better. And I must ask you — this will seem very unfair, but I must ask you not to talk about this with Gawaine or Gareth, either. I will tell them before they meet either Lou or Han, but right now they are still too little.”
“Can I talk about it with anybody?” Nimue pouted.
“Yes, dear. You can always talk about it with me.” Mama frowned. “You — you know you can talk about anything with me. Anything at all. Always, Nimue.”
Mama tended to say that a lot, and when she did, she looked at Nimue, very steadily, trying to say something with the way her eyes lit up that she just couldn’t say with her words. But Nimue never understood just what it was. She wished she wasn’t so stupid, that she was as clever as Mama, and then she would understand. “But Mama …” Nimue caught her lip between her teeth, then gulped and asked, “Can … can I still be friends with Lou and Han? Since you don’t like Father very much …”
Mama winced and looked away. She didn’t turn back, either — not for what Nimue thought was a very long time.
“Mama?” she asked. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No!” Mama half-shouted — then took a deep breath and repeated more calmly, “No. There is nothing — nothing — wrong with asking me a question, Nimue. Nothing. I am sorry — it just … I needed to gather my thoughts.”
Nimue nodded. Mama needed to do that a lot. She said that it helped her give better answers to Nimue’s questions, and Nimue supposed that was true. Grandpapa tended to do the same thing.
“But … but in answer to your question, Nimue … I think you can still be friends with Lou and Han, if you have fun together and enjoy each other’s company. You — they are your half-brothers.”
“Half-brothers,” replied Nimue. “So — so we should be really good friends?”
“I suppose — I suppose you could.” But Mama did not nod, but shrugged, and she looked even less sure than Nimue felt.
“I don’t want to stop being friends with them,” Nimue replied, looking down at her skirts. “We have fun together … and they …” Her feet kicked against the sofa again, even though she knew Mama didn’t like that much. But she couldn’t help it. “They understand things that some of the other kids don’t. Mama, where am I gonna find new friends?”
Mama gasped. “Then — then don’t. No. Nimue, throw away — throw away anything before you throw away a friendship you treasure. A good friendship is more precious than gold or silver. Because a good friend — when everyone else abandons you, they will be there, they will help you when everyone else …” Mama looked away and whispered to the fire, “When everyone else seems to have forgotten that you existed.”
Nimue gulped. If that was a good friend did — then Nimue couldn’t give up Lou and Han, even if her Mama didn’t like them being friends. Unless … “Mama, you’ll still love me if I stay friends with them, won’t you?”
“Nimue! Of course I will!” Mama gasped. “I will always love you — no matter what happens.”
“Will Father?” asked Nimue.
Mama didn’t answer at once, and when she did answer — “Yes,” — Nimue knew there was more to the story than that.
But she wouldn’t ask for more. One thing her Mama seemed to not know — or to not want to tell — was things that concerned her father. Besides, if Mama always loved her, then she could get along all right without her father, she supposed.
However, she still had one more question. “Mama …”
“When … when I get older, when I get married …” Nimue looked up shyly. “Will my husband love somebody else, like Father –”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence. For her Mama — her slow, deliberate Mama, who always listened to the whole question, who always thought before she spoke, who preferred to sit quietly and read rather than walk or ride around — had jumped out of the chair and caught Nimue up in her arms, crushing her to her breast.
“No!” Mama half-gasped, half-sobbed. “I swear, Nimue, while there is breath in my body — you will never suffer that. Never, never, never. My poor baby — you will never be hurt like your mama was hurt.”