I had no desire to pick her up. She seemed too delicate a creature for me to have in my hands. Like a butterfly, I thought. I feared that with a touch I might damage the shimmer of life that kept her moving. Instead I watched her sleep, the minuscule rise and fall of the blanket that covered her. Her pink lips moved in and out in sleepy mimicry of nursing. When her mother returned, I observed them more intently than if she and Molly were players acting out a tale. Molly was as I had never seen her, so calm and competent and focused as a mother. It healed something in me, a gulf I had never known existed until she filled it. So this was what a mother was! My child was so safe and cared for in her embrace. That she had been a mother seven times before made it seem no less wondrous to me. I wondered, as I must, about the woman who had held and watched me so. A wistful sorrow rose in me as I wondered if that woman still lived, if she knew what had become of me. Did my little daughter’s features mirror hers at all? But when I looked at her sleeping profile, I saw only how unique she was.
That night Molly climbed the stairs with me to our bedchamber. She lay down with the swaddled child in the center of the bed, and when I joined them there, I felt as if I formed the other half of a shell around a precious seed. Molly dropped off to sleep immediately, one of her hands resting lightly on our slumbering baby. I lay perfectly still on the edge of the bed, preternaturally aware of the tiny life that rested between us. Slowly I moved my hand until I could stretch out one of my fingers and touch Molly’s hand. Then I closed my eyes and skimmed sleep. I woke when the baby stirred and whimpered. Even without light in the room, I felt how Molly shifted her to put her to the breast. I listened to the small sounds the babe made as she suckled and Molly’s deep slow breathing. Again, I dipped down into sleep.
I was a boy again, at Buckkeep Castle, and I walked along the top of a stone wall near the herb gardens. It was a warm and sunny spring day. Bees were busy in the fragrant blossoms of a heavy-laden cherry tree that leaned over the wall. I slowed my balancing act as I stepped through the reaching embrace of the pink-petaled branches. Half-concealed there, I froze at the sound of voices. Children were shouting excitedly, obviously in the grip of some competitive game. A longing to join them filled me.
But even in the grip of the dream, I knew that was impossible. Within Buckkeep Castle I was neither meat nor fish. I was too common to seek friends among the well-born, and my illegitimate blood was too noble to allow me to play with the children of the servants. So I listened, keenly envious, and in a moment a small, lithe figure came eeling through the gate to the herb garden, pushing it almost closed behind him. He was a scrawny child, clad all in black save for his white sleeves. A close-fitting black cap confined all but the ends of his pale hair. He went skipping lightly across the garden, hurtling over the herb beds without breaking a leaf to land on a stone path with a near-soundless scuff before flinging himself over the next bed. He moved almost in silence, yet his noisy pursuers were not far behind. They flung the gate open with a shout just as he slid behind a climbing rose on a trellis.
I held my breath for him. His hiding place was not perfect. Spring was young, and he was a black shadow behind the slender branches and unfurling green leaves of the espaliered rose. A smile bent my mouth as I wondered who would win this game. Other children were spilling into the garden, half a dozen of them. Two girls and four boys, all probably within three years of my own age. Their dress revealed them as the children of servants. Two of the older boys were already clad in Buckkeep-blue tunics and hose, and probably were truant from lesser tasks about the keep.
“Did he come in here?” one of the girls cried in a shrill voice.
“He had to!” a boy shouted, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice. The pursuers spread out quickly, each competing to see who should first spot their quarry. I stood very still, heart beating fast, wondering if they might see me and suddenly include me in their game. Even knowing where the boy hid, I could only just make out his silhouette. His pale fingers gripped the trellis. I could see the very slight rise and fall of his chest that betrayed how long he had been running.
“He went past the gate! Come on!” one of the elder boys decided, and like a pack of dogs whipped off a fox the children surged back, milling about him as he led the way back to the gate. Behind them, their prey had turned and was already seeking handholds in the sun-warmed stone wall behind the trellis. I saw him take a step up it, and then a shout from one of the seekers betrayed that someone had glanced back and caught that motion.
“He’s there!” a girl shouted, and the pack raced back into the garden. As the black-clad boy spidered up the tall wall, the children hastily stooped. In an instant the air was full of flung earth clods and rocks. They hit the rosebush, the trellis, the wall, and I heard the hollow thuds as they hammered against the slim youth’s back. I heard his hoarse gasp of pain, but he kept his grip on the wall and climbed.