She shooed me out of the room while she dressed herself. I was standing outside her door, waiting for her, when I heard the tap of Nettle’s boots on the stone-flagged floor. She halted in front of me, and it was not flattering that she was obviously startled to see me there. “Good morning,” I greeted her, and before she could respond the door swung open to reveal Bee dressed and ready to meet the day.
“I did brush my hair,” she told me as if I had asked. “But it’s too short to lie flat.”
“Mine, too,” I assured her. Not that I had even attempted to make it do so.
She looked up at me and asked, “Does it make it hard to trim your beard, too?”
Nettle laughed, as much to hear her sister speak as to see me uncomfortable.
“No. It does not,” I admitted gravely. “I’ve just neglected it.”
“I’ll help you before I go,” Nettle offered, and I wondered how she knew it was a task Molly had often undertaken.
Bee looked up at me solemnly. She shook her head slowly. “There’s no reason for your beard anymore. You should just shave it off.”
That gave me a twinge. How had she known? Had Molly told her that I had grown it in an attempt to look closer to my true years? “Perhaps later. But now, we should go down to breakfast, for your sister wishes to make an early start.”
Bee walked between us, and at table she essayed a few words to the staff, but mostly muttered to her plate. Still, it was a start, and I think even Nettle saw the wisdom of letting her reveal herself slowly.
The farewell was hard for all of us. Bee endured a hug from Nettle, but I would have held my elder daughter longer in my arms if she would have allowed it. Her eyes were bright as she bid us farewell, and I promised that she would hear from me regularly. She looked down at Bee and charged her to “Learn some letters, and write to me, little Bee. I expect you to try as hard as your papa to make this work.” It was well for me that Nettle did not see the guilty look Bee and I exchanged behind her back.
Riddle had stood silent and watched us make our partings. He approached me then with a grave face, and I thought he would offer me awkward words. Instead he suddenly engulfed me in a hug that nearly cracked my ribs. “Be brave,” he said by my ear, and then released me, walked to his horse, and mounted, and they all rode away.
We stood in the carriageway of Withywoods and watched until Nettle and her party were out of sight. A time longer we stood there. Steward Revel and several of the other servants had turned out to bid Nettle farewell. They ebbed away from us until only Bee and I were left standing there. Birds called from the woodland. A light morning breeze stirred the leaves of the white paper birches that lined the carriageway. After a time Bee ventured a single word. “Well.”
“Yes.” I looked down at her. What was I to do with this tiny girl? I cleared my throat. “I usually begin my rounds with a walk through the stables.”
She looked up at me and then quickly away. I knew she feared the large animals of the manor. Would she go with me? I could scarcely blame her if she refused. But I waited. After a moment, the small blond head nodded once.
And so we began a new pattern that day. I wished I could carry her but knew that she dreaded my touch, and why. And so she trotted at my heels and I walked more sedately so she could keep up with me. We walked the stables and conferred with Tallerman. He was visibly relieved to see the guests departed and his workload returned to normal. Lin the shepherd glanced once at my small follower and then spoke to me while his dog gravely poked Bee under the chin with her nose until Bee petted her.
The vineyard required a horseback trip. When I told Bee this, she seemed to consider it for a longer time before informing me, “I have not checked on my mother’s beehives for some days. I do have tasks of my own, you know.”
“I don’t know how to help you with the hives,” I told her.
She lifted her head and again squared her small shoulders. “I know what must be done. And I’m stronger than I look,” she told me.
And so we parted, but came back together for a noon meal. I reported to her that the grapes had an excellent set, and that I had seen many of her bees busy at their work. She nodded gravely to that and said that all had appeared well with the hives.
After our meal I retreated to the Withywoods study to go over the long-neglected accounts. There was a list from Steward Revel there of maintenance projects for Withywoods that he judged too important to ignore. There were small notes next to some of the suggestions, in Molly’s handwriting. I couldn’t bear to look at it. She’d put it there at least two months ago, and I had promised her, promised her that we’d get the most pressing work under way this summer. But I hadn’t. I’d set it aside, confident that she would nag me into action when it became urgent.