I returned to my room and released Nettle to go to hers. I did not sleep that night or even lie down, but sat in a chair by the hearth and watched over Molly and pondered. Had the intruders been insane enough to flee into the snowstorm, taking the messenger’s body with them? At least one had remained in Withywoods long enough to follow Revel and enter my den. Why? To what end? Nothing had been taken from there, no member of my household injured. I was determined to get to the bottom of it.
But over the next few days it was as if we had dreamed the stray minstrels and the messenger. Molly recovered to feast, dance, and laugh with our guests for the rest of Winterfest with no sign of illness or weakness. I felt dirty that I kept my bloody knowledge hidden from her, and even worse that I bound her sons to silence, but both Nettle and Riddle agreed with me. She did not need the extra worry right now.
Snow continued to fall for another day and a night, obscuring all signs of anyone who might have come or gone. Once the blood was cleaned from the floor, no trace remained of our foreign visitors. Revel surprised me by being able to keep a still tongue on the peculiar events, for Riddle, Nettle, and I had decided that discreet inquiries might win us more information than trumpeting our concerns about. But other than a few guests who commented on the foreigners who had arrived and departed from the feast without sharing any of the merriment, we discovered nothing. Web had little to say that he had not already told me. He had thought it odd that the woman would not tell him the name of the “friend” she was seeking. And that was all.
Nettle, Riddle, and I debated telling Chade of the incident. I did not want to, but in the end they persuaded me. On the first quiet evening after Winterfest, when our guests had departed and Withywoods was comparatively quiet, I went to my study. Nettle accompanied me, and Riddle with her. We sat, she joined her thoughts to mine, and together we Skilled our tale to Chade. Nettle was a quiet presence as I presented my detailed report. I had thought she might offer more detail, but all I felt from her was a quiet confirmation of my telling. Chade asked few questions, but I sensed him storing every detail. I knew he would glean whatever information he could from his far-flung spy-network and share it with me. I was still surprised when he said, “I advise you to wait. Someone sent the messenger, and that one may reach out to you again when she does not return. Let Riddle go to Withy and spend some time in the taverns there for a few nights. If there is anything to hear, he will hear it. And I will make a few discreet inquiries. Other than that, I think you’ve done as much as you can. Except, of course, as before, I advise you to consider adding a few house soldiers to your staff. Ones who can serve a cup of tea or cut a throat with equal skill.”
“I scarcely think that’s necessary,” I said firmly, and sensed his distant sigh.
“As you think best,” he finished and withdrew his mind from ours.
I did as he suggested, sending Riddle to the taverns, but he heard nothing. No message arrived asking what had become of a messenger. For a time I walked with my hackles up, alert to anything that might be the slightest bit out of the ordinary. But as days and then months passed, the incident faded from the foreground of my mind. Riddle’s premise that perhaps none of them were what they had claimed to be, and that we had been passing witnesses to someone settling an old debt, was as valid as any I could imagine.
Years later, I would marvel at my stupidity. How could I not have known? For years I had waited and longed for a message from the Fool. And when finally it came, I had not received it.
The Felling of Fallstar
A secret is only yours so long as you don’t share it. Tell it to one person, and it’s a secret no more.
Chickens squawked, kids bleated, and the savory smell of sizzling meat floated in the summer air. Blue summer sky arched over the market stalls at Oaksbywater, the largest market town within an easy journey of Withywoods Manor. Oaksbywater was a crossroads town, with good access to the surrounding farms in the valley and a well-tended King’s Road that led to a port on the Buck River. Goods came from both up and down the river, and in from outlying villages. The tenth-day markets were the most crowded; farmers’ carts filled the market circle while smaller vendors had set up stalls or spread blankets on the village green under the spreading oaks by the lively creek that gave the town its name. The humbler merchants had no more than fresh vegetables or home crafts arranged on mats on the ground, while the farmers with larger holdings set up temporary benches to hold baskets of dyed woolens or rounds of cheese or slabs of smoked pork.
Behind the tenth-day market stalls were the resident merchants of Oaksbywater. There was a cobbler’s shop, a weavers’ mercantile, a tinker, and a large smithy. The King’s Dogs Inn had set out benches and tables outside in the shade. The cloth merchant displayed racks of fabric and twisted hanks of dyed yarn for sale, the smith’s shop offered wares of tin and iron and copper, and the cobbler had brought his bench outside his shop and sat sewing a lady’s soft red slipper. The pleasant din of folks bargaining and gossiping ebbed and flowed in waves against my ears.