A shadow fell between us. I looked up guiltily. Molly stood over us in a clean, soft robe, already reaching to take the child back from me. As I handed her over, I said quietly, “She’s perfect, Molly. Inside and out.” The baby settled into her embrace, visibly relaxing. Had she resented my Skill-probe? I looked aside from Molly, ashamed of my ignorance as I asked, “Is she truly so small for a newborn?”
Her words struck me like arrows. “My love, I’ve never seen a baby this small survive more than an hour.” Molly had opened the baby’s wrappings and was looking at her. She unfolded the tiny hand and looked at her fingers, stroked the small skull, and then looked at her little red feet. She counted each toe. “But maybe … she didn’t come early, that’s for certain! And every part of her is formed well; she even has hair, though it’s so blond you can barely see it. All my other children were dark. Even Nettle.”
The last she added as if she needed to remind me that I had fathered her first daughter, even if I had not been there to see her born or watch her grow. I needed no such reminder. I nodded and reached out to touch the baby’s fist. She pulled it in close to her chest and closed her eyes. I spoke quietly. “My mother was Mountain-born,” I said quietly. “Both she and my grandmother were fair-haired and blue-eyed. Many of the folk from that region are so. Perhaps I’ve passed it on to our child.”
Molly looked startled. I thought it was because I seldom spoke of the mother who had given me up when I was a small child. I no longer denied to myself that I could recall her. She’d kept her fair hair bound back in a single long braid down her back. Her eyes had been blue, her cheekbones high, and her chin narrow. There had never been any rings on her hands. “Keppet,” she had named me. When I thought of that distant Mountain childhood, it seemed more like a tale I had heard than something that belonged to me.
Molly broke into my wandering thoughts. “You say she is perfect, ‘inside and out.’ Did you use the Skill-magic to know that?”
I looked at her, guiltily aware of how uneasy that magic made her. I lowered my eyes and admitted, “Not only the Skill but the Wit tells me that we have a very small but otherwise healthy child here, my love. The Wit tells me the life spark in her is strong and bright. Tiny as she is, I find no reason that she will not live and thrive. And grow.” A light kindled in Molly’s face as if I had given her a treasure of inestimable value. I leaned over and traced a soft circle on the babe’s cheek. She startled me by turning her face toward my touch, her little lips puckering.
“She’s hungry,” Molly said and laughed aloud, weakly but gratefully. She arranged herself in a chair, opened her robe, and set the babe to her bared breast. I stared at what I had never seen before, moved far past tears. I edged closer to her, knelt beside them on the floor, carefully set my arm around my wife, and looked down at the suckling infant.
“I’ve been such an idiot,” I said. “I should have believed you from the start.”
“Yes. You should have,” she agreed, and then she assured me, “No harm done,” and leaned into my embrace. And that quarrel was ever done between us.
The Secret Child
The hunger for using the Skill does not diminish with use or with age. Curiosity disguises itself as a legitimate desire for wisdom and adds its temptation. Only discipline can keep it in check. For this reason, it is best that members of a coterie are kept in proximity to one another throughout the span of their lives, so that they can reinforce with one another the proper use of the Skill. It is also vital that journeymen coteries monitor the apprentices and that Masters monitor both journeymen and apprentice coteries. With your Solos, be most vigilant of all. Often Solos exhibit an adventurous and arrogant nature, and this is what keeps them from successfully joining a coterie. It is absolutely essential that the Skillmaster be vigilant in overseeing every Solo. If a Solo becomes secretive and excessively private in his habits, it may be necessary for all Masters of the Skill to convene and discuss containing his magic, lest it gain control of the Solo and he hurt himself or others.
But who shall watch over the shepherd?
This question presents the problem neatly. The Skillmaster, at his elevated level, can be disciplined only by himself. This is why the position must never be political, nor granted as an honor, but only bestowed to the most learned, the most powerful, and the most disciplined of Skill-users. When we convened to discuss the abuse of the Skill, the horrific damage inflicted on Cowshell Village, and the fall of Skillmaster Clarity, we had to confront what the politicization of this title had done to us all. Unchecked, Skillmaster Clarity entered dreams, influenced thinking, passed judgment on those he considered evil, rewarded his “good” with advantages in trading, and arranged marriages in this small community, all in an ill-considered attempt “to create a harmonious town where jealousy, envy, and excessive ambition were checked for the good of all.” Yet we have witnessed what this lofty goal actually created: a village where folk were compelled to act against their own natures, where their emotions could not be expressed, and where ultimately, in a single season, suicides and murders took the lives of more than half the population.