“Bee. Do you want to stay here with me?”
No words came from her, only a single sharp nod of her head.
“Let her stay,” I told Nettle, and with a sigh my elder daughter rose.
She rolled her shoulders, stretched, and added with a sigh, “Perhaps it’s better this way. Let her wear herself out and fall asleep. Once she’s bundled up tomorrow, she can catch up on her rest for part of the journey.”
Nettle had not accepted her sister’s response. I had to make it clear for her. I leaned down toward my younger daughter.
“Bee? Do you want to go on a journey with Nettle tomorrow, to Buckkeep Castle? Or do you want to stay here at Withywoods with me?”
Bee turned her head, and her pale glance slipped past both of us. She looked up into the dark recesses of the ceiling. Her eyes darted to me once and then away. She took a long slow breath. She spoke each word distinctly. “I do not wish to go to Buckkeep Castle. Thank you, Nettle, for your kind offer. But I will be staying home here, at Withywoods.”
I looked at Nettle and turned a hand up. “She says she wants to stay here.”
“I heard her,” she replied sharply. She looked jolted at hearing her sister speak, but I maintained a calm façade. I would not betray that this was more talking than she usually did in a week, let alone that her enunciation was unusually clear. Bee and I were in this together, I sensed. Allies. So I looked at Nettle calmly as if I were not startled at all.
For a moment Nettle resembled her mother right before she would fly into a temper. I looked at her and my heart smote me. Why had I so often provoked that look from Molly when she had been alive? Couldn’t I have been kinder, gentler? Couldn’t I have let her have her way more often? Black and utter loneliness rose in me. I felt sick with it, as if the emptiness were something I needed to vomit out of my body.
Nettle spoke in a low voice. “It’s not a decision that she is competent to make for herself. Think of the days ahead. How are you going to take care of her, when you’ve barely taken care of yourself these last two weeks? Do you think she can go without eating, as you have? Do you think she can stay up until dawn, sleep a few hours, and then drag herself through the day as you do? She’s a child, Tom. She needs regular meals, and a routine and discipline. And, yes, you are right, she does need lessons. And her first lessons need to be in how not to be strange! If she can speak, as she just so clearly did, then she needs to be taught to speak more often, so that people know she has a mind. She needs to be taught all that is needful for her to know. And she needs to be encouraged to speak, not let everyone think she is a mute or an idiot! She needs to be cared for, not just day-to-day food and clothing, but month to month and year to year, learning and growing. She can’t run about Withywoods like a stray kitten while you soak yourself in old books and brandy.”
“I can teach her,” I asserted, and wondered if I could. I remembered the hours I had spent with Fedwren and the other children of Buckkeep. I wondered if I could find the patience and tenacity he had possessed in teaching us. Well, as I must, I would, I decided silently. I had taught Hap, hadn’t I? My mind leapt sideways to Chade’s offer. He had said he would send me FitzVigilant. He had not told me yet that it was time, but certainly it must be soon.
Nettle was shaking her head. Her eyes were pink from both tears and weariness. “There is another thing you are ignoring. She looks like a six-year-old, but she is nine. When she is fifteen, will she still look like a much younger child? How will that affect her life? And how will you tell her about what it is to be a woman?”
How, indeed? “That is years away,” I asserted with a calmness I did not feel. I realized that my Skill-walls were up and tight, keeping Nettle from feeling any doubts that I had. Yet by the very impenetrability of my walls, she would know I was keeping something from her. That could not be changed. She and I shared the Skill-magic and had been able to reach each other since she was a little girl. That unforgiving access to each other’s dreams and experiences was one reason I had refrained from using the Skill to know Bee’s mind. I glanced at her now, and to my shock she was staring directly at me. For a moment our gazes met and held, as they had not for years.
My instinctive response surprised me. I dropped my eyes. From somewhere in my heart, an old wolf warned me, “Staring into someone’s eyes is rude. Don’t provoke a challenge.”
An instant later I looked back at Bee, but she, too, had cast her gaze aside. I watched her and thought I saw her sneak a glance at me from the corner of her eye. She reminded me so much of a wild creature that I knew a lurch of fear. Had she inherited the Wit from me? I had left her mind untouched by mine, but in many ways that meant I had left it unguarded as well. In her innocence, had she already bonded with an animal? One of the kitchen cats, perhaps? Yet her mannerisms did not mirror a cat’s. No. If anything, she mimicked the behavior of a wolf cub, and it was impossible that she would have bonded to one of those. Yet another mystery from my peculiar child.