He breathes. But he will not wake and none of us has any sense of him being here. It’s as if I’m touching—
Dirt. I finished the thought for her. That was how Thick had expressed it years ago, when I had begged him and Dutiful to reach out with the Skill and help me heal the Fool. He had been dead to them. Dead and already turning back into earth. But he’s breathing?
I already told you he was! Frantic impatience bordering on anger tinged her words. Fitz, we would not have reached for you if this was a simple healing. And if he were dead, I’d tell you that. Dutiful wants you to come right now, as soon as possible. Even with Thick lending strength to them, the Skill-coterie has not been able to reach him. If we can’t reach him, we can’t heal him. You are our last hope.
I’m at Oaksbywater market. I’ll need to go back to Withywoods, pack a few things, and get a saddle horse. I’ll be there in three days, or less.
That won’t do. Dutiful knows that you won’t like the idea, but he wants you to come by the stone portals.
I don’t do that. I asserted it strongly, already knowing that for Chade, I would risk it, as I had not in all the years since I had been lost in the stones. The thought of entering that gleaming blackness raised the hair on the back of my neck and my arms. I was terrified to the point of illness just thinking of it. Terrified. And tempted.
Fitz. You have to. It’s the only hope we have. The healers we have called in are completely useless, but on one thing they agree. Chade is sinking. We cannot reach him with the Skill, and they say that all their experience tells them that within a few days he will die, his eyes bulging from his face from the blow to his head. If you arrive here in three days, it will be to watch him burn on a pyre.
I will come. I formed the thought dully. Could I make myself do it? I had to.
Through the stones, she pressed me. If you are at Oaksbywater, you are not far from their Judgment Stone on Gallows Hill. The charts we have show that it has the glyph for our Witness Stones. You could be here easily before nightfall.
Through the stones. I tried to keep both bitterness and fear from my thought. Your mother is here at the market with me. We came in the high-wheeled cart. I will have to send her home alone. Parted yet again by Farseer business, the simple pleasure of a shared meal and an evening of a tavern minstrel’s songs snatched away from us.
She will understand, Nettle tried to comfort me.
She will. But she won’t be pleased by it. I broke my thoughts free of Nettle. I had not closed my eyes, but I felt as if I opened them. The fresh air and the clamor of the summer market, the bright sunlight dappling down through the oak’s leaves, even the girl in the red slippers seemed like sudden intrusions into my grimmer reality. I realized that while I had been Skilling, my unseeing gaze had been resting on her. She was now returning my stare with a querying smile. I lowered my eyes hastily. Time to go.
I drained the last of my cider, thudded my empty mug back on the board, and stood, searching the milling market for Molly. I spotted her at the same time she saw me. Once she had been as slender as the girl in the red slippers. Now Molly was a woman easing past the middle years of her life. She was moving steadily if not swiftly through the crowd, a small, sturdy woman with bright dark eyes and a determined set to her mouth. She carried a fold of soft gray fabric over her arm as if it were a hard-won war trophy. For a moment the sight of her drove all other considerations from my mind. I simply stood and watched her coming toward me. She smiled at me and patted her merchandise. I pitied the merchant who had been the victim of her bargaining. She had ever been a thrifty woman; becoming Lady Molly of Withywoods had changed none of that. The sunlight glinted on the silver that threaded her once-dark curls.
I stooped to retrieve her earlier purchases. There was a crock of a particular soft cheese that she enjoyed, a pouch of culkey leaves for scenting candles, and a carefully wrapped parcel of bright-red peppers that she had cautioned me not to touch with my bare hands. They were for our gardener’s granny: She claimed to know a potion formula that could ease the knots in old knuckles. Molly wanted to try it. Of late she suffered from an aching lower back. Beside it was a stoppered pot that held a blood-strengthening tea she wished to try.
I loaded my arms and as I turned, I bumped into the red-slippers girl. “Beg pardon,” I said, stepping back from her, but she looked up at me with a merry smile.
“No harm done,” she assured me, cocking her head. Then the curve of her smile deepened as she added, “But if you’d like to make up for nearly treading on my very new slippers, you might buy a mug of cider to share with me.”