Lenona 18, 1013
Getting to know Lionel and Evette’s friends, Claire thought, would definitely be more difficult than getting to know Lynn, Clarice, Angelique and Elyan’s friends. Or — why not be honest? The problem wasn’t the friends. Children were children. The problem was with the friends’ mother.
When her older children were little, Claire had always felt constrained and distanced from their friends’ mothers. They were stronger, more independent women than she, and Claire had tried to keep them at a distance to hide just how badly she wanted to be like them. She would not have that problem with Lady Dindrane. As much as Claire admired her courage in standing up to Sir Mordred, there was no part of her that wanted a life anything like Lady Dindrane’s.
In fact, in her eyes, Claire recognized something of a kindred spirit. It took, after all, a certain kind of noblewoman to accompany her children to a social call when she wasn’t particularly good friends with the mother. She could have just sent them with a nurse. The Queen, Lady Guinevere, even Lady Dindrane’s own mother Lady Eilwen — they used to do that all the time. But Lady Dindrane did not.
Only a woman who had been badly burned in the past would take that kind of precaution as a matter of course.
Perhaps, with that in mind, it was no surprise that Gawaine and Lionel were such good friends.
As the boys launched themselves at each other, Claire greeted Lady Dindrane more formally. “Lady Dindrane. Thank you so much for bringing the children over.”
“Thank you for having them, Lady Claire.” Lady Dindrane pulled away. “Gawaine,” she tousled her son’s curls, “talks so much about Lionel, I knew he would be thrilled when he finally got to go to his best friend’s house.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Claire replied. And it certainly was her pleasure to make her children happy — especially in such small ways. This was something she didn’t even have to fight Bors about. What a novelty!
She glanced at Evette, who was hanging back and blinking shyly at Nimue. That was a reaction that Claire was familiar with. Lynn used to act the same way. It didn’t help, in Evette’s case, that Nimue was two years and more older than she.
“Nimue,” Lady Dindrane placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go say hello?”
The smile that Nimue turned to Evette was friendly enough, even if Claire was certain that its utter fearlessness would have the opposite effect on Evette. “Hi!”
The girls shook hands, Nimue enthusiastically, Evette shyly. She looked at her mother, clearly unsure whether she was doing right or wrong. Claire tried not to wince. Had she already taught that diffidence to Evette? Or was that just something certain Sims — herself, Lynn — were born with?
“Mama?” Claire looked down to see Lionel tugging on her skirt.
“Can Gawaine and me go play outside? Please?”
Bors would have corrected Lionel’s grammar. Claire of old would have made sure to tell Lionel not to get his clothes dirty or torn. But Bors wasn’t here, and Claire had long since learned that clothes could be cleaned and mended. And there was no denying those two cherubic grins beaming up at her. “Of course you may. Have fun, boys!”
The boys cheered, then, with barely a “Thank you!” called over a shoulder, they darted out the door, whooping and hollering. Boys will be boys, Claire thought, shaking her head.
She caught a glance at Lady Dindrane, staring at the boys’ disappearing backs with a bemused expression. “Something wrong?” she heard herself ask.
“What? Oh–nothing.” Lady Dindrane effected a laugh. “Just a thought.”
Claire would bet that Lady Dindrane would have many of those. But she let the subject drop, letting her gaze drift to the girls, expecting to hear Evette ask if she and Nimue could go up to her bedroom.
Claire gulped — was this joint call perhaps a bad idea? Clearly leaving the room now would be a bad idea. She turned to Lady Dindrane. “Shall we sit?”
“Oh, certainly.” They sat on one of the benches, just far enough away from the girls to give them the feeling of privacy, but close enough to intervene if necessary. At least, that was how Claire saw it.
No sooner had they sat, though, did Claire remember her duties as hostess. “I’m so sorry–how rude of me. Can I get you any refreshment?”
“No, no thank you. Though …” Lady Dindrane’s eyes flitted to her daughter, then to the door from whence her son had left. “I daresay that Nimue and Gawaine will be hungry soon enough.”
“I had my cook make some cake,” Claire chuckled. “Er … your children do like cake, don’t they?”
Lady Dindrane blinked. “Is there a child in the world who doesn’t like cake?”
“Well … there must be!” Claire tried to laugh. “Besides, you know how picky some children can be when it comes to their food.”
“Indeed,” Lady Dindrane sighed. “At least Nimue and Gawaine have gotten over the worst of that. Gareth … can still be a challenge.” She chuckled. “But all the same, he’d never say no to cake.”
“Perhaps next time, you can bring him along for cake,” Claire offered. It would be nice to play with a little one. It might even ease some of the awkwardness between her and Lady Dindrane. Or she could scheme to get Lynn here with Elise — Elise was only a few months older than Gareth, so the little ones could play with each other.
Although, now that Claire had a chance to watch, it didn’t seem like the big girls were clashing as badly as she had feared …
Claire glanced again at her guest, only to find Lady Dindrane watching the girls with the same faint frown between her brows that Claire imagined she herself was sporting.
It had been Lady Dindrane’s idea to bring Nimue as well as Gawaine — or rather, her request. Claire would not have dreamed of saying no. Nimue was the closest of the girls in the school to Evette’s age and station: most of the others were commoners, orphans under the care of the nunnery, or else Sir Mordred’s by-blow daughter, who was certainly not to be thought of as a potential friend for Evette. Morgan’s daughter Chloe was the next girl of noble blood who would be entering the school, and Claire did not relish having to fight that battle with Bors. And Chloe would not be entering the school for another year.
But all the same … if Lady Dindrane was pushing this … Claire wondered … why? Evette was shy and retiring. Evette needed all the help she could get in the field of friend-making, but Nimue seemed more than able to handle herself in that regard.
As if she could read her thoughts, Lady Dindrane asked, “It … it’s good for the girls to have another girl of their own age to talk with. Don’t — don’t you think?”
Claire blinked. “I … well, of course!” She looked at Evette, smiling. “That–that was one good thing about having Lynn, Clarice, and Angelique so close together. They were all each other’s best friends even before they grew old enough to get friends of their own.” She absently threaded her fingers in and out of each other. “They still are — at least, Lynn and Clarice are.”
“It’s the same with Dilys and Delyth,” Lady Dindrane nodded. Odd how she didn’t mention herself — but the age difference, nearly twelve years, would impose a distance. It wasn’t quite as extreme as the difference between Evette and her sisters, but it was enough.
“It is one thing I am glad I was able to give to my girls — sisters,” Claire continued. “I didn’t have any sisters near my own age, and I was always so lonely growing up …”
“I wasn’t,” Lady Dindrane murmured. “But I had … friends. And my books.”
Evette was not overly bookish — at least, not as bookish as Lady Dindrane had been as a child. Hopefully she would soon have friends.
“You — you were close to Sister Margery, weren’t you?” Claire asked, trying to keep the conversation going.
She was surprised when Lady Dindrane turned to her with a sudden, sharp, appraising look. “Yes …”
“Your–your mother mentioned it, is all,” Claire stumbled. “When you — when my older children were little. I just remembered being surprised that a young lady her age would have so much patience for a girl so much younger.”
“Ah,” Lady Dindrane replied.
“But you were always a very–a very mature child,” Claire babbled on, trying to fill in the silence. “That was what your mother always said.”
Lady Dindrane chuckled. “Ah, but mothers do say things that … others ought to take with a grain of salt.”
“But I never saw any reason to doubt her!” Claire gasped. “You–well, you probably don’t remember this, but I used to bring Lynn by when you were very little — she and Lamorak would play together, sometimes. Though they were both little enough that they didn’t really play ‘together’ so much as ‘side by side’ … but you were always very self-possessed, even then.”
“Thank you,” Lady Dindrane replied. As if to prove her self-possession, she didn’t say anything further.
Claire began to pick with a loose thread on her skirt, desperately trying to think of something — anything — to say.
Lady Dindrane saved her. “You …” She tilted her head to one side, eyebrows knit together. “You used to bring Princess Lynn to our home?”
“Oh, you were so young — you wouldn’t remember!” Claire hastened to reassure her — but of what? “And …” Claire bit her lip. “You may have been at school, to boot …”
“Hardly that young, then,” Lady Dindrane chuckled.
“Well, I suppose not, but …”
“I understand what you mean,” she nodded. “Did my mother–” She stopped.
“Did your mother …”
Two bright spots of pink appeared on Lady Dindrane’s cheeks. “This — this is going to sound quite egotistical,” she replied, “but … did my mother ever say she was worried about me?”
“Worried about you?”
“Because I …” Lady Dindrane turned away, her soul retreating somewhere behind walls as thick as a man’s arm was long. Claire winced — how well did she know that feeling. Meanwhile, Lady Dindrane’s voice was growing quieter, so soft that Claire had to strain to hear it. “I worry about Nimue, sometimes. About her … how … she doesn’t have as many friends as … as …”
“You worry about Nimue not having enough friends?”
Lady Dindrane winced. “It’s that foolish a worry, I take it?”
Claire almost gasped. For that moment, she saw how they had come full circle. Hadn’t she been in precisely Lady Dindrane’s position, some twenty-odd years ago? She was not as confident as the Queen and Lady Guinevere seemed to be when it came to their children. She did not want to ask her mother-in-law for this kind of advice, for bringing up the children in anything but the most careless and flattering of terms was bound to start a row between Evaine and Bors. Lady Morgause was … terrifying; there was no other word for it. So Claire had wormed her way into Lady Eilwen’s kind heart, trying hard to find ways to phrase those awkward questions that kept her up at nights. Lady Eilwen was just old enough, just experienced enough, to make her advice useful while not rendering the woman herself too intimidating to approach.
And now Lady Dindrane was approaching her in the same way.
Claire watched Nimue closely, her gestures, her careless confidence. She watched, too, how Evette held on to every one of her words.
“I wouldn’t worry, if I were you,” Claire replied. Nimue put Claire most in mind of Angelique. While Claire had worried — and still did worry — about a great deal when it came to Angelique, having the ability to make friends was not something that kept her awake at nights. “If she hasn’t made many female friends yet …” Claire shrugged. “It’s probably for lack of options of her age and station.”
“Age, perhaps,” Lady Dindrane murmured, “but not station. Children that age usually don’t care much about station, unless their elders are teaching it to them.”
Claire blinked. That couldn’t possibly be true–could it be? Surely blood would tell, even in such young children–
Of course it wouldn’t, replied the voice of rebellion. Had she forgotten already how Evette had started to befriend a little girl at school named Tara? And had she forgotten how quickly Bors had quashed that, stating that no daughter of his would be the bosom companion of a bastard whore’s daughter? Claire had made him soften his message, make it clear to Evette that both of her parents understood that she hadn’t known better at the time, but she had not changed the message. Every child needed to learn to make her way in the world, and this was a vital lesson.
“I–I don’t even think I would mind if Nimue started befriending the orphan girls,” Lady Dindrane murmured. “Just … just so …”
Claire’s eyes widened and she barely was able to hold in her gasp.
But there was another question to ask, wasn’t there? “Are many of Nimue’s friends boys?”
Watching her daughter closely, Lady Dindrane nodded.
“Like Lady Leona?” Claire asked.
“N-no,” Lady Dindrane replied. “No. She’s not — not like Lady Leona. She’s not as interested in being … rough and tumble, always active, as Lady Leona was. She’ll — when her aunts play with her, they’ll have doll tea parties that go on for hours. And Nimue seems to enjoy every minute of it. I just worry …” Lady Dindrane bit her lip and turned away.
“You just worry?” Claire prodded.
Lady Dindrane fiddled with a ring — not her wedding ring, but another one she happened to wear. “I am hardly the most conventionally feminine of women,” was all she would say.
Conventionally feminine. Claire was unsure if she had ever used the phrase herself, but how much pain and suffering were those two words responsible for? She had never had a problem enjoying doll tea parties as a child, and sewing pretty clothes for her dolls, and all of those things. As an adult, she had never had the least desire to involve herself in politics or the military or anything particularly masculine. But her one great love, music, was nearly taken away from her because it was not feminine enough in Bors’s mind.
Conventional femininity, in Claire’s mind, could go to hell.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Claire replied. “We — we all see our own flaws reflected back at us in our children. And we know how much pain those flaws have caused us, and so — we worry. And we try to see to it that those flaws do not get passed down into the next generation.”
“Princess Lynn?” Dindrane asked.
“I’m sorry–it’s just … I wish I could tell you that people talk, and have that comfort you,” Lady Dindrane replied. “But it would not comfort you. However …” Lady Dindrane bit her lip. “If — if you have walked down a dark road … it is easy to recognize the signs of someone else walking … not that same path, but … a similar one.”
Claire blinked. “I — I hope you’ve gotten yourself into the sunlight, Lady Dindrane.”
“I still live half in shadow,” Lady Dindrane replied. “But now — it’s only half.”
Only half. Claire shuddered. But could she say anything differently for herself? She was still with Bors, wasn’t she? Still fighting those same tired battles, day after day … but at least she had the courage to fight now. And now she knew that he would never drag her into the dark again.
Thinking of Sir Mordred, Claire realized that Lady Dindrane could not even be sure of that.
“Mama?” asked a small voice. Claire looked up.
“Mama, Nimue wants to teach me to play chess,” Evette said. “Can she? Please?”
Claire hesitated for a fraction of a second. She hadn’t taught either of the twins to play chess yet — she thought them young for it — and as for Bors, he didn’t see any need for girls to play chess at all. (However, Claire suspected he was still sore about Clarice beating him when she was ten — and how even Lynn could not be cajoled into letting Elyan win more than half of the time.) But if Nimue was offering to give lessons.
“Evette doesn’t even know how to play chess, Mama!” Nimue said to her mother. “Can you believe that?”
Lady Dindrane chuckled. “Evette is a bit younger than you, Nimue. She won’t know how to do everything you know how to do.”
“Gawaine knows! He’s not very good at it, but he knows how!”
Claire’s eyes widened — so did Evette’s — Evette stared at Nimue, Claire stared at Lady Dindrane. Lady Dindrane, however, only laughed. “You know he’s still learning. He’ll get better as he gets more practice.”
“He’ll never be good as me!” declared Nimue.
“We’ll see. He might surprise you!”
Nimue snorted, and Lady Dindrane bore the pinched expression of a mother trying to hold back laughter. But a little voice cut off further reflections. “Mama?”
“Of — of course you can play, Evette,” Claire replied. And why not? If Evette was too young for the game, then surely she would lose interest and she and Nimue would do something else.
“Yay!” Nimue cried. She and Evette both dashed over to the chess table. Nimue started to set up the board. “Now I’m white, you see, and white always goes first …”
The two mothers watched their daughters. Nimue began to explain the pieces to Evette, in a fashion that was more than a little haphazard. She would start with the king, then veer off to explain what the queen could do, and wonder aloud what a kingdom that had a queen that dynamic would do with a king. And then she tried to explain the abbots, but got sidetracked by the knights …
Lady Dindrane started forward a couple times, probably to insert a correction or clarification, but each time, she sat back. Instead of speaking, she leaned back, eyes closed, breathing deep whenever Nimue galloped over a rule that was best taken at a trot.
And when she spoke, finally, it was to Claire. “Perhaps … perhaps I do worry too much.”
“They’re — they’re getting along very well, aren’t they?” Lady Dindrane asked. “Perhaps … perhaps Nimue only needed an opportunity to get to know a few girls better.”
“I’m sure that’s all it was,” Claire replied.
Lady Dindrane took a deep, calming breath.
But Claire could not let it rest there. There was some advice Morgan had given her once — she thought Dindrane could stand to hear it, too.
“You know,” Claire murmured, “you and I — as you’ve said, we’ve … walked some dark paths. But here we are. Whole and entire. More–more or less.” She shrugged. “And — perhaps our girls will never have to see that. Perhaps they will. But either way, they have strong mothers who showed them the way …”
Claire watched as Nimue captured one of Evette’s pawns. “Our girls will be just fine.”