'Hallo, Baby.'

“Hallo, Baby,” Malcolm said softly. Something about the look of her made him feel as if he ought to speak softly.

“Oh, hallo, Malcolm.” She lay on the couch before the fire, alone, without even the pretense of sewing laid aside to excuse her idleness. He knew she had only been staring into the flames. Perhaps for hours.

“I must ride up to Bernwald to deliver a message,” he said. “Would you like to come? We can have Blackie saddled in no time.”

“No, thank you.”

“We can come back the long way, through Selwood. We can even go that way if you like.”

“No, thank you.”

Malcolm was out of ideas. There remained only the ultimate sacrifice. “You may ride Druid. I can take Blackie.”

'You may ride Druid.  I can take Blackie.'

“You’re getting too tall for Blackie,” she smiled faintly. “Soon your legs will be dragging on the ground.”

“I’m certain Wulsy will let me take another horse, then. But if it would make you laugh, I would take Blackie.”

“It might,” she said. “But I don’t feel like riding today.”

“No? Well, perhaps after I have delivered the message, I can come back here and we can go for a walk outside instead. It’s not very cold.”

“No, thank you. I don’t feel like walking.”

“What do you feel like doing?”

“I don’t know. Nothing. I just like to stay here.”

'I don't know.  Nothing.'

“Would you like me to come back here and… I don’t know. We can talk, or I can tell you riddles.”

“No, thank you. I guess I would like to be alone.”

“You don’t like me any more. That’s it.”

“No, Malcolm,” she said, sitting up. “I like you more than almost anybody. I only want to be alone. Not away from you – just alone.”

'I only want to be alone.'

“Women,” he sighed.

“I hope you have a nice ride with your horse.”

“Thank you. I hope you have a nice sit with your fire,” he said, surprised at the bitterness he heard in his voice. He would have to learn to master it better.

“Thank you. I will,” she said, and she lay down again.

“Good day, Baby.”

“Good day, Malcolm.”

'Good day, Malcolm.'

Malcolm went out with clenched teeth and clenched fists. Sometimes he was so frustrated at her unwillingness to allow him to make her happy that he simply wanted to hit her. Malcolm did, of course, see the paradox in this – but there were plenty of paradoxes in anything that concerned Baby.

He was distracted enough to nearly run into the Duchess as he turned a corner. “Your Grace,” he bowed.

He was distracted enough to nearly run into the Duchess as he turned a corner.

“Oh, Malcolm! How happy I am to see you! Would you do me the favor of taking Baby out for a ride, if you have the time?”

“I already asked her. She doesn’t want to do anything.”

“Where is she?”

“Sitting by the fire in the hall.”

“I should have known. What is the matter with her, Malcolm?” she sighed.

“She’s a woman.”

'She's a woman.'

The Duchess laughed. She always laughed when he complained about women. “That is a terrible disease, and sadly there is no cure.”

“It isn’t supposed to make her an invalid, is it?”

“No, it isn’t. I shall be frank with you, Malcolm. I am worried about her.”

'I shall be frank with you, Malcolm.  I am worried about her.'

He grunted. He wasn’t quite up to admitting that he was worried too.

“Do you think she misses her father?”

“Perhaps,” he shrugged. “I don’t see them together, so I can’t say how she is when he is here.”

“You don’t come around when he’s here, it’s true. Have you been in trouble with the Squire?”

“Trouble? He doesn’t like me to take Baby out, as if I couldn’t protect her. I may have said a few things to him I shouldn’t say to my elders.”

'I may have said a few things to him I shouldn't say to my elders.'

“Did he whip you?”

“He didn’t need to!” he said ruefully. “My cousin speaks Gaelic like a four-​​year-​​old, unless he’s railing at you. Then he’s a dictionary!”

Matilda laughed again, and Malcolm couldn’t resist winking at her. She was something fun, for certain.

“I wish I could understand him,” she said.

'I wish I could understand him.'

“It’s better that Your Grace doesn’t,” he grinned.

“You don’t really think I would hear something I haven’t heard before? Or said?” she giggled.

“Swearing in your barbarian language is like playing the harp with a single finger,” he said. “In my country, they would find Your Grace as innocent as a maid.”

'In my country, they would find Your Grace as innocent as a maid.'