Radenth 21, 1013
“Dance with me, Uncle Lamorak!” cried Nimue.
Pellinore could not see his son’s face, but he could imagine the smile as Lamorak raised his hands. “Of course, sweet pea.”
Pellinore chuckled under his breath. He exchanged a glance with Eilwen, and knew that she was thinking the same thing: heaven help Lamorak if Garnet’s baby was a girl. If he turned into this big a pile of mush over a niece, he would be doomed with a daughter.
“Why do you call me ‘sweet pea’?” asked Nimue. “Is it ’cause of my dress?”
“You do wear a lot of green …”
“But your doublet is more pea-green than mine!”
Lamorak chuckled. “That’s true. Maybe you should be calling me sweet pea!”
“Uncle Sweet Pea!”
Eilwen laughed, softly enough that neither Lamorak nor Nimue would hear — not with all the other activity in the room. “Well. She is seven years old today. About time for her to be showing some cheek.”
“Past time,” Pellinore agreed. “Although I must protest that our Nimue was cheeky from the day she was born.” Adorably cheeky — a man was entitled to think that about his first and thus far only granddaughter — but cheeky all the same.
Part of him still couldn’t quite believe that seven full years had passed. He still remembered the day she had been born — well, he hoped he did, to do anything else would mean the approach of a particularly cruel senility. But he remembered being allowed to hold her for the first time. It wasn’t like holding your own first child. Pellinore was an old hand at babies, even ones a lot smaller than Nimue had been, given how little Delyth had been when she was born and Dilys too. There had been none of that nervousness.
But there had been the wonder, perhaps an even greater wonder than with your own child. When you held your own child, especially the first, you were amazed that you, pitiful you, could have possibly had a hand in creating something so fragile and so perfect at once. When you held your own grandchild, there was still that wonder, mixed with a greater wonder: that the good Lord had shown you, pitiful you, enough favor to live to see this day and hold this little miracle.
And then, of course, once you had your fill of looking at the baby, you looked at the parent — Dindrane, in this case. Dindrane had been still in bed, exhausted, dark circles under her eyes. But she’d been watching the baby with the anxiety only new parenthood could bring. And then she saw Pellinore watching her — and she had grinned. Pellinore had known then that it didn’t matter that he practically wrote most of the statutes of Albion himself, or that he’d been Chief Justiciar for almost twenty years, or that he and his office had turned a lawless hinterland into a well-run, safe country. This was his proudest moment.
He hoped Dindrane would get that kind of proud moment soon — well, not too soon — but some sort of realization that despite all her troubles, she was doing a wonderful job with her children. She still cast that anxious, worrying look at Nimue, at Gawaine, and at Gareth far too often for Pellinore’s taste.
She ought to be enjoying herself today … for as long as possible, anyway. Since it was Nimue’s birthday, Mordred would be coming to the celebration. There was no keeping him away, and Pellinore ought to feel guilty for wishing he could. Yes, yes, children ought to have both father and mother — but he and Lamorak and Aglovale when he came home from Camford at the end of next month ought to be plenty of healthy male role models for Nimue, Gawaine, and Gareth.
Just look at the boys! They were young, but any fool could see that both of them were far more Gwynedd than Orkney — and a good thing, too. Garnet was the only jewel to have come out of that family. Well, and possibly Agravaine. He was so young — it wouldn’t be right to judge.
Gawaine was talking with Dilys now, earnestly detailing the latest of his exploits with his friends. “An’ then Lionel and I decided we were going to play dragons. Auntie Dilys, did you and Auntie Delyth ever play dragons when you were little?”
“All the time,” chuckled Dilys. “I’d be the princess who needed rescuing, and Auntie Delyth would be the knight.”
“But — but who would be the dragon, then?” asked Gawaine, head tilted to one side.
Dilys giggled. “Well … usually your Uncle Lamorak …”
Eilwen laughed below her breath, and Pellinore shot her a smile. They remembered the same thing: how Lamorak, despite being an adolescent, despite being far too old for childish games, despite the fact that his friends would never let him forget it if they found out, generally dropped all those protests if Dilys looked up at him with quivering lips and tear-filled eyes and squeaked, “Please?” He made quite a good dragon, too. Sometimes, when he’d roar, the dog would go running to hide under the bed or the couch.
“But if your Uncle Lamorak was busy,” Dilys continued, “Auntie Delyth would usually get Charity to be the dragon.” Dilys frowned. “But it did … spoil the illusion when Charity would start to lick Delyth’s face. Or mine.”
Gawaine gasped. “We get Bleoberis to be our dragon! Lionel’s dog! ‘Cause–”
It was a soft, utterly polite knock. But a pall fell over the party anyway. Gawaine looked at Pellinore. “Is that — Father?”
Dindrane answered. “Probably. I’ll get it. Best …” She didn’t finish. Pellinore watched her anxiously as she twitched her shoulders and hurried to the front door. It also did not escape his notice that he was not the only one watching her.
Still less did it escape his notice that when Dindrane pulled the door open, it was discovered that Mordred was not alone.
“My apologies for lateness,” said Mordred. “But I’m sure you can appreciate the difficulties of traveling with four children in tow. Children — greet Lady Dindrane.”
“Hello, Lady Dindrane.” That was Agravaine. Good that he spoke first — as far as Pellinore was concerned, he was the only one of them with half a right to be here. The rest of the children added their greetings in turn.
That bastard dared — he dared bring his other children anywhere near this place —
“Lou! Han!” cried Nimue, skipping up to the door. “Father, I didn’t know you were–”
Nimue stopped. Pellinore could not see why. But he could see the way Dindrane’s hand came down to rest on Nimue’s shoulder. And he could see just how stiff and shocked his little granddaughter’s spine had grown.
He also saw the way the only girl in Mordred’s group was looking directly at Nimue. And he saw the way that Mordred was playing with that girl’s hair — just as Pellinore had stroked the hair of Dindrane, of Dilys, of Delyth time after time. Just as Pellinore liked to stroke Nimue’s hair.
Just as Pellinore had never seen Mordred stroke Nimue’s hair.
Nimue turned away without a further word and walked back to Lamorak. “Uncle Lamorak … will you dance with me again? Please?”
“Nimue–” Mordred started, stepping into the house. But Dindrane waylaid him and hurried him to the side.
In the meantime, the children piled into the already-crowded room. Gawaine went skipping off to Agravaine. Gareth watched the bigger boys with huge eyes. And the lone little girl, Mordred’s other daughter …
She kept watching Nimue with a huge and hopeful smile.
“Oh my –” Eilwen murmured. She turned away, one hand pressed against her mouth. “My goodness,” she gasped.
Dilys moved to stand up. Pellinore laid a hand on her knee. “Stay here.”
“Papa …” Dilys looked again at the other girl. “She’s just a little girl. The boys can play with each other, and Gawaine’s got Agravaine, but …”
“Nimue is just a little girl, too,” Pellinore replied. And if anyone was going to taking the other little girl in hand, it ought to be Garnet. Garnet was her aunt, and as little as Pellinore liked the idea of anybody from his family having anything to do with that family … he couldn’t begrudge any children, even these, from the attention of their own blood relatives.
But Garnet looked to be of little help. She was still seated at the Mah-Jong table, her jaw fallen, staring at Mordred with an expression that could only read, What the HELL were you thinking?
And as Garnet stared, the little girl tilted her head to one side, marched up to Nimue with a stride only an utterly fearless small child could muster, and tapped her on the shoulder. Nimue dropped Lamorak’s hands and spun to face her.
The little girl ducked her head. “My papa says it’s your birthday.”
Nimue blinked. “It is.”
The little girl grinned. “Happy birthday!”
Nimue didn’t answer — not until Lamorak tapped her shoulder. “Thank you.”
“You’re seven, right? Just like Melehan and Melou?” The little girl rocked on her heels, grinning at Nimue.
“But they’re older.”
“Do you like dolls?” the little girl went on. “Papa let me bring my dollie. Her name’s Sarah. Mama sewed her for me, and she’s gonna teach me how to make pretty dresses for her. Because Mama’s going to run a dress shop, did you know?” The little girl kept grinning. “What’s your dollie’s name?”
“I don’t like to play with dolls.”
That, Pellinore knew, was patently untrue — or at least, he hoped it was. Part one of Nimue’s birthday present had been the dress she was now wearing. Part two, to be given to her after dinner and cake were served, was to be an exact copy of that dress in doll-size.
But even though that was almost certainly a lie … Pellinore would not reprimand her for it. Perhaps one was never too young to learn that while lying was bad, there were times when it was less hurtful than the truth. I don’t want to play dolls with you was certainly a sentiment hurtful enough to justify a little lying.
“Oh …” The little girl cocked her head to the side. “What do you like to play?”
“With the boys,” Nimue snarled.
Unfortunately, the boys with whom Nimue might want to play — the boys that were probably Mordred’s excuse for bringing all of his other children to invade Nimue’s party — were now more than a little occupied.
“Papa,” Dilys whispered, “please just let me –”
“Mama!” Dilys hissed. Pellinore blinked. Trying to divide and conquer was generally not Dilys’s style. That was one of Delyth’s favorite ploys. If she truly felt this strongly …
But Eilwen never got a chance to take Dilys’s side, or take Pellinore’s, because Mordred took that moment to wave aside Dindrane’s concerns, walk away …
And take a seat by them. “Good morrow,” he said, very politely, given the circumstances.
Eilwen took up the banner of politeness. “Good day, Sir Mordred. I trust you’re well?”
Pellinore … ignored it all. He looked to Dindrane …
Lamorak was already there. Good.
And Mordred’s other daughter was still — there was no other word for it — bothering Nimue. Blast. Pellinore had no idea how to stop that. Other than let Dilys have her way and distract the little girl, which would never do. Perhaps Garnet …
“No, I don’t want to play skipping-rope,” Nimue snarled, and Pellinore’s gaze snapped back to his granddaughter.
“But why not?” asked the other little girl. Her jaw was almost quivering. If she was any other little girl, Pellinore would have felt sorry for her.
… Maybe he felt a little pity for her anyway. But not too much. Not as much as he felt for Nimue.
“We’re sisters, right?” continued the little girl. “That’s what Papa–”
“No!” Nimue shouted. “I don’t care! Leave me alone!”
“Nimue!” snapped Mordred. “Come here!” And, then, more gently. “You too, Aimée-angel.”
Pellinore thought he had never been closer to throttling another Sim than he was in that moment.
Nimue marched over, shoulders slumped. “Father …”
“Is that how you treat your sister? Your only sister?” Mordred asked.
Nimue winced. “I don’t …”
“You don’t what?” asked Mordred in that tone parents always employed when they knew precisely what the answer to their question would be, knew they wouldn’t like it, and needed to hear it anyway.
“Sir Mordred–” Eilwen tried to intervene.
“I will thank you to not interfere with the raising of my children, madam, as I have never interfered with the raising of yours,” snapped Mordred. “Now. Nimue. You don’t … what?”
Nimue’s head snapped up, and something in her posture — Pellinore could imagine that her eyes were blazing, just as Dindrane’s did whenever she perceived that she was suffering an injustice. “I don’t want a sister!”
“What?” gasped Aimée, staring first at Nimue and then at her father in disbelief.
“It’s all right, Aimée-angel, Nimue will be apologizing shortly.” Mordred cast an expectant glance on Nimue.
Nimue stomped her foot. “No!”
“No! I’m not sorry! And I won’t be! And you can’t make me!” Stomp, stomp, stomp. It was almost too bad she was standing on carpet. Those stomps should have rang out across the kingdom, or at least loud enough to penetrate that man’s thick skull.
Mordred started to snarl. “Nimue …”
“Mordred! Leave her be!”
And there went any chance for Mordred to win this argument. It would never happen when Dindrane was arrayed against him. He might be able to make Nimue behave as he wished, grudgingly, in his presence — but her heart? That was lost.
“Dindrane,” Mordred rolled his eyes, “you will continue to poison my children’s minds against me when I am not around to defend myself, but while I am here –”
“You dare, sir!” Pellinore shouted. He was almost on his feet, but Dilys grabbed his arm.
The look Mordred turned to him … Pellinore’s heart leapt into his throat. He’d never seen such hatred on another Sim’s face.
In a flash it was gone, leaving Pellinore wondering later if he had imagined it.
And Garnet decided to step in.
“For heaven’s sake!” She flung her tiles to the board and tried to leap to her feet — not easy with her girth. “Like you, Mordred, have any right to lecture anyone on how to treat their sister!” Then she looked at Aimée, and her voice was much more gentle. “I’ll play dolls with you, Aimée. I know Nimue has some upstairs, because people insist on giving them to her.” She winked at Nimue — Pellinore hoped that Aimée didn’t notice. “She’ll let us play with them, won’t you, Nimue?”
“Aye–aye.” Nimue was a sharp girl. She knew her best chance to get out of trouble when she saw it. “I’ll–I’ll show you.” Then she darted upstairs, leaving Aimée to follow and Garnet to waddle behind.
“Who — who are you?” asked Aimée of Garnet as they headed up the stairs.
“I’m your Aunt Garnet.”
“I have another aunt?”
Good Lord, Pellinore thought. Could this possibly get any worse?
They were scarcely gone for a moment before Dindrane murmured, “I’d best go check on them.” She, too, disappeared upstairs.
And she was barely gone for half a moment before Sister Margery pushed back her chair, stood, and hurried to the stairs without a word.
Pellinore watched her go. And so did Mordred.
“Papa …” Dilys murmured as soon as Sister Margery, too, was gone. Pellinore wrapped an arm around her shoulder without a word, and Dilys leaned next to him. At least he could be strong enough for one of his daughters.
The rest of them sat in awkward silence — except for the boys, still running around and laughing, even Gareth trying to join in on the fun and chase Gawaine and Agravaine. It was the sort of silence that happened when a thunderstorm had blown over, but the air was still heavy, the sky still yellow. The storm wasn’t over. It was just taking a break.
Only a few minutes passed before Nimue tore down the stairs. “Come on, Lou, Han!” she called out, dashing for the door. “Let’s go play on the swings!” The boys needed no persuasion to run after her.
The door slammed shut. Other than the boys, nobody said anything.
And then Eilwen pronounced judgement. “Pellinore. Go up there.”
Pellinore nodded, unwrapped his arm from Dilys, and strode to the stairs.
He could hear Mordred’s sigh. “For the love of the Lord–”
“There are times,” Eilwen interrupted — Pellinore turned back to see her toss Mordred the most withering glance Pellinore had ever seen from her — “when a girl needs her father. No–her papa. And if you could grow to truly understand that, Sir Mordred, then I think your daughters would get along much better.”
Pellinore marched up the stairs. It did not take long to find Dindrane. Her bedroom was the first door off the stairs …
And no father worth his salt couldn’t pick out the sound of his child crying from that of a hundred others. A mere door was nothing compared to that.
He opened it without a word and slipped inside. Good–at least Dindrane wasn’t alone.
“What am I going to do?” Dindrane murmured to Sister Margery. “If Garnet hadn’t stepped in …”
“She did, though. And you know she cares about you. And Nimue. And–and Aimée too. She’ll help you. She’ll help all of you.”
“It’s not her responsibility …”
“Hang responsibility,” replied Pellinore. Both women turned to him with a gasp. “When one is confronted with as big a mess as … Sir Mordred has made, then all must do their part to clean it up, whether we made it or no.”
Then he closed the door behind him. “Dindrane, is there anything I can do to help?”
“I …” The look that she turned to him was so beseeching that Pellinore did the only thing he could think at the time: walk closer and embrace her.
Dindrane fell into his arms, trembling. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t worry. You have us — all of us — to help you.”
“You have been helping me … but Nimue … and someday soon, Gawaine and Gareth … what if there’s nothing we can do, Papa?”
Pellinore couldn’t answer that. But he could hug his daughter more tightly.
And with all his heart and all his might, he could pray that she was wrong.