I strode down the corridor, Bee in my arms. I turned to carry her toward the stairs and her bedchamber but she suddenly came alive in my arms and with a twist of her body freed herself of my grip. She landed on her feet, swayed into a near-fall, and then contorted her body the other direction to stay on her feet. For a moment she seemed a girl made of fluid. Then she sprang away from me, calling over her shoulder, “This way, FitzChivalry. This way!” Her voice was ethereal as she ran from me.
I chased her. The child ran and her slender feet seemed barely to skim the floors. She fled toward the west wing of the house, the least-used part, and thankfully one that was not infested with workmen. She turned down a corridor that led to one of Patience’s gardening rooms. I thought I would catch her there, but she was as fleet as the wind as she threaded her way through urns of ferns and fat pots overflowing with vines. “Bee!” I whisper-shouted her name, but she did not pause. I hopped and twisted through the narrow way, slowed by the obstacles, and watched helplessly as she tugged open a door and dashed outside into a section of garden mazed with hedges.
I followed. My pursuit and her flight had been a silent one save for the pattering of her feet and my heavier tread. I did not call out her name or bid her stop or come back to me. I had no desire to call attention to my child’s aberrant behavior and my failure to control her. What was wrong with her? And how could I explain it to Riddle to keep him from thinking me neglectful? I was certain he would report back to Nettle and that it would reinforce her insistence that Bee be surrendered to her. As for Shun, I could not think of a worse introduction to Withywoods, Bee, or me than what she had just witnessed.
The garden on this side of the house had benefited wildly from Patience’s impetuous nature. If there had ever been design or intent applied to the area, either the garden had outgrown it or it was a plan only Patience could have understood. On and on Bee led me through this esoteric jungle of paths, stone walls, birdbaths, and statuary. She danced along snowy pathways in an herb knot, and then sprang over a short picket fence and ran down a pathway sheltered by leafless roses on an arched trellis. Snowy gravel pathways gave way abruptly to mounds of moss and ferns, low walls intersected one another, and in one section elevated pots allowed trailing vines to cascade over a framework above the path, converting the dim winter day to a tunnel draped with greenery. I had always loved the randomness of the garden; for me it spoke of forest, and reminded me of my journey through the Mountains to seek Verity and the dragons. But today it seemed to deliberately hold me back while allowing Bee to slip through as nimbly as a ferret. She entered the shelter of a stand of evergreens.
And then I caught up with her. She was standing motionless, staring at something on the ground. To her right, the ancient stacked-stone wall that marked the boundary of the estate gardens was thick with dark-green moss. Just beyond it there was a steep forested slope, and then the public road that led to the front entrance of Withywoods and the grand carriageway entrance. I was panting as I caught up to her, and for the first time I realized that she was very familiar with this section of the grounds. I had never thought of my little child playing so near a carriageway, even one so lightly traveled.
“Bee,” I panted when I was near enough to speak to her without shouting. “You must never again …”
“The butterfly’s wing!” she exclaimed, pointing. And halted, still as a statue. Her eyes were wide, and when she looked at me, they seemed black edged with blue. “Go,” she whispered softly. “Go to him.” She gestured with a slender hand and smiled as if giving me a gift.
A premonition of disaster rose in me so strongly that my heart, which had previously beat fast from my exertion, now raced even faster with dread. I stepped toward where she pointed. A small black animal burst suddenly from nowhere and streaked off into the woods. I shouted in surprise and halted. A cat. Just one of the feral cats of Withywoods, hunting for mice. Only a cat. I took two more steps and looked down.
There, on the deep bed of shaded moss still mottled with last night’s frost, was a butterfly’s wing the size of the palm of my hand. There were brilliant panels of red, gold, and deep blue separated by dark veins that reminded me of the leading in a stained-glass window. I halted, transfixed by it. Never had I seen a butterfly of such size or brilliance, let alone in the cold days of early winter. I stared.
“It’s for you,” she whispered. She had eased soundlessly to my side. “In my dream it was for you. Only you.”
In a sort of daze, I dropped to one knee by the strange thing. I touched it with my forefinger; it was soft and pliable as the finest silk. Gently I pinched the tip of it between my fingers and lifted it.