I stared at her dumbfounded. She’d thought I’d been watching her when I was Skilling. Well, actually, yes, I had been staring at her, but she had mistaken it for a man’s interest in a pretty girl. Which she was. Pretty, and young, much younger than I’d realized when I first noticed her. Just as I was much older than her interested gaze assumed. Her request was both flattering and unnerving. “You’ll have to settle for accepting an apology from me. I’m on my way to meet my lady wife.” I nodded toward Molly.
The girl turned, looked directly at Molly, and turned back to me. “Your lady wife? Or did you mean to say your mother?”
I stared down at the girl. Any charm her youth and prettiness had held for me had vanished from my heart. “Excuse me,” I said coldly and stepped away from her and toward my Molly. A familiar ache squeezed my heart. It was a fear I fought against every day. Molly was aging away from me, the years carrying her farther and farther from me in a slow and inexorable current. I was nearing fifty years, but my body stubbornly persisted in holding the lines of a man of thirty-five. A Skill-enhanced healing from years before still had the power to waken and rage through me whenever I injured myself. Under its control, I was seldom ill, and cuts or bruises healed rapidly. Last spring I’d fallen from a hayloft and broken my forearm. I’d gone to sleep that night with it splinted firmly, and wakened ravenously hungry and thin as a winter wolf. My arm had been sore but I could use it. The undesired magic had kept me fit and youthful, a terrible blessing as I watched Molly slowly stoop under the burden of the stacked years she bore. The Skill refused to allow my body to keep pace with hers. The remorseless current of time bore her steadily away from me. Since her fainting spell at that Winterfest, her aging had seemed to accelerate. She tired more easily, and had occasional spells of dizziness and blurred vision. It saddened me, for her choice was to dismiss such things and refuse to discuss them afterward.
As I advanced toward Molly, I noticed that her smile had become fixed. She had not missed the interplay between the girl and me. I spoke before she could, pitching my words for her ears only amid the market’s din. “Nettle Skilled to me. It’s Chade. He’s badly injured. They want me to come to Buckkeep Castle.”
“You have to leave tonight?”
She looked at me. Emotions played over her face. Annoyance. Anger. And then, terribly, resignation. “You must go,” she told me.
“I’m afraid I must.”
She nodded tightly, and took several of her purchases from my laden arms. Together we walked through the market toward the inn. Our little two-wheeled cart was drawn up outside. I’d stabled our horse, rather hoping that we’d spend the night there. As I put the rest of her purchases under the seat, I said, “You don’t have to rush back home, you know. You can stay and enjoy the rest of the market day.”
She sighed. “No. I’ll call the ostler to have our horse brought out now. I didn’t come for the market, Fitz. I came for a day with you. And that’s over now. If we go home now, you can be on your way before evening.”
I cleared my throat and broke the news to her. “It’s too urgent for that. I’ll have to use the stone on Gallows Hill.”
She stared at me, her mouth ajar. I met that gaze, trying to hide my own fear. “I wish you wouldn’t,” she said breathlessly.
“I wish I didn’t have to.”
A time longer, her eyes searched my face. For an instant she folded her faded lips and I thought she would argue with me. Then she said stiffly, “Fetch the horse. I’ll drive you there.”
It was an easy walk, but I didn’t argue. She wanted to be there. She wanted to watch me enter the stone and disappear from her sight. She had never seen me do it, and had never wanted to see me do it. But if I must, she would watch me go. I knew her thoughts. It might be the last time she’d ever see me, if my Skill went awry. I offered her the only comfort I could. “I’ll have Nettle send a bird from Buckkeep as soon as I’m safely there. So you needn’t worry.”
“Oh, I’ll worry. For a day and a half, until the bird reaches me. It’s what I’m best at.”
The shadows had just begun to lengthen when I handed her down from the cart at the top of Gallows Hill. She held my hand as we walked the steep trail to the top. Oaksbywater didn’t boast a circle of standing stones as Buckkeep did. There was only the old gallows, the splintery gray wood baking in the summer sunlight with daisies growing incongruously and cheerfully all round the legs of it. And behind it, on the very crest of the hill, the single standing stone, gleaming black and veined with silver: memory stone. It was easily the height of three men. It had five faces, and each had a single glyph chiseled into it. Since we had discovered the true use of the standing stones, King Dutiful had sent out teams of men to clean each stone and record its glyphs and orientation. Each glyph signified a destination. Some we now knew; most we did not. Even after a decade of studying scrolls about the forgotten Skill-magic, most practitioners regarded travel via the portal stones as dangerous and debilitating.