I was seated at one of the tavern’s benches under the oak, a mug of cider at my elbow. My errands were completed. We’d had a message from Just, the first to reach us in many a month. He and Hearth had left home almost three years ago. With youth’s fine disregard for the concerns of their elders, they’d sent messages only sporadically. Just had finished the first year of his apprenticeship with a wainwright in Highdowns, and his master was very pleased with him indeed. He wrote that Hearth had taken work on a river ferry and seemed content at that occupation. Molly and I had both rejoiced at the news that he was finally settled and doing well. But Just had added that he had lost his favorite belt-knife, a bone-handled one with a thin, slightly curved blade that the smith in Oaksbywater had made for him when he was thirteen. I’d put in the order for a replacement two weeks ago and picked it up today. That single small package was at my feet beside a huddle of Molly’s purchases.
I was watching the cobbler and wondering if Molly would like a pair of red slippers. But evidently that pair was spoken for; as I watched, a slender young woman with a mop of unruly dark curls sauntered from the market crowd to stand before the cobbler. I could not hear the words they spoke, but the man took three more stitches and a knot, bit off his thread, and offered the slipper and its mate to her. Her face alight with a saucy grin, she set her stacked coppers on his bench and sat down immediately to try on her new shoes. Freshly shod, she stood up, lifted her skirts almost to her knees, and tried a few dancing steps there in the dusty street.
I grinned and looked around for someone to share my enjoyment of her unabashed pleasure. But the two old plowmen on the other end of my bench were complaining to each other about the prospect of rain or the lack thereof, and my Molly was out among the other shoppers enjoying a day of haggling with merchants. In the past, when the boys were younger and Patience alive, market days had been far more complicated trips. But in the space of little more than a year we’d lost my stepmother and seen the lads venture out on their own. For most of a year, I think we were both stunned by the abrupt change in our lives. For almost two years after that, we had floundered about in a home that suddenly seemed much too large. Only recently had we cautiously begun to explore our new latitude. Today we had escaped the confines of our life as lady and holder of the estate to take a day to ourselves. We’d planned it well. Molly had a short list of items she wished to buy. I needed no list to remind me that this was my day for idleness. I was anticipating music during an evening meal at the inn. If we lingered too late, we might even stay the night and begin our journey back to Withywoods the next morning. I wondered idly why the thought of Molly and me alone overnight in an inn raised thoughts more worthy of a boy of fifteen than a man of fifty years. It made me smile.
The Skill-reaching was a shout inside my mind, an anxious cry that was inaudible to anyone else in the market. I knew in an instant that it was Nettle and that she was full of worry. The Skill was like that: so much information conveyed in an instant. A part of my mind noted that she called me FitzChivalry, not Tom Badgerlock or Tom or even Shadow Wolf. She never called me Father or Papa. I’d lost the right to those titles years ago. But “FitzChivalry” spoke of matters that had more to do with the Farseer crown than with our family ties.
What’s wrong? I settled myself on the bench and fixed an empty smile on my face as I Skill-reached across the distance to Buckkeep Castle on the coast. I saw the uplifted branches of the oak against the blue sky, but was also aware of a darkened room around Nettle.
It’s Chade. We think he took a fall and perhaps struck his head. He was found sprawled on the steps to the Queen’s Garden this morning. We don’t know how long he had been there, and we’ve been unable to rouse him. King Dutiful wishes you to come at once.
I’m here, I assured her. Let me see him.
I’m touching him now. You can’t feel him? I couldn’t and Dutiful couldn’t, and Thick was completely flummoxed. “I see him but he’s not there,” he said to us.
Fear sent cold tendrils from my belly up to my heart. An old memory of Verity’s Queen, Kettricken, falling down those same steps—victim of a plot to kill her unborn child in the fall—filled my mind. I immediately wondered if Chade’s fall had been an accident at all. I tried to hide the thought from Nettle as I reached through her to grope for Chade. Nothing. I can’t sense him. Does he live? I asked, scrabbling for some semblance of calm. I pushed my Skill, and became more aware of the room where Nettle sat beside a draped bed. The curtained windows made it dim. There was a small brazier burning somewhere; I smelled the piercing smoke of restorative herbs. I sat out in the fresh air but felt the stuffiness of the closed room all around me. Nettle drew a breath and showed me Chade through her eyes. My old mentor was laid out as straight beneath his blankets as if he were stretched on a funeral pyre. His face was pale, his eyes sunken, and a bruise darkened one temple and swelled his brow on that side. I could see King Dutiful’s councilor through my daughter’s eyes, but had no fuller sense of him.