At Nettle’s command, the healers had clustered around his bed. I was alone with the Fool as I stripped away his outer garments and let them fall in a smelly heap by his cot. What was revealed horrified me. Someone had given great attention to inflicting pain on him. Great care and a good amount of time had been devoted to it, I judged, for here were bones with the old breaks badly healed and gashes that had been hastily or perhaps deliberately badly bandaged, so that crooked ridges of scar tissue had formed where flesh had been unevenly pushed back together. A pattern of burn scars on his left upper arm might have been a word, but in no alphabet or language that I knew. His left foot was scarcely worthy of that name. It twisted in, a lump of flesh with knobs of bone, and the toes gone dusky.
The grime was as distressing as the damage. The Fool had always been a clean man, meticulous about his garments, his hair, and his body. Dirt was ground into his skin, patterned where rain had fallen on him. Some of his clothing was so stiff with dirt that I expected it to crack as I peeled it away. He had an apple hidden in his jerkin. I let it fall to the floor with the rest. Rather than move him too much, I drew my sheath knife, cut away the worn fabric, and tugged it gently from beneath him.
The smell was nauseating. His eyes were open to cracks and I judged him to be awake, but he did not move until I tried to remove his undergarment. Then he lifted both scarred hands to the neck of the dingy linen singlet and gripped the collar. “No,” he said faintly.
“Fool,” I rebuked him, and tried to push his hands aside, but he gripped his garment more tightly and with greater strength than I had expected to encounter. “Please,” I said softly, but he slowly shook his tattered head against the pillow. Pieces of his matted hair broke off when he did so, and I did not have the heart to challenge him. Let him take his secrets to the grave then, if that was what he wished. I would not disrobe him in front of the healers. I drew a clean woolen blanket over him. He sighed in relief.
A healer appeared at my elbow. “How was he injured? Is he bleeding?” She was doing her best to control her distaste, but even I could barely abide his smell.
“He has been tortured, and has journeyed far in great privation. Please, bring me warm water and some cloths. Let me clean him up a bit while you find him a good beef broth.”
I saw her swallow. “As an apprentice, the first cleaning of an injured man is one of my tasks.”
“As his friend, it’s my task. Please.”
She struggled to conceal her relief. “May I remove these rags?” she asked, and I nodded. She folded her lips, stooped to pick them up, and then hastened away with them.
As she went out the door at the end of the room, Chade came in. He was dressed very finely, in several shades of green, and I knew he had made some excuse to leave the gathering. Thick was with him in Buckkeep livery, and a woman I didn’t recognize. Perhaps she was a Skill-apprentice. A moment later a guardsman opened the door and King Dutiful appeared with Kettricken but a step behind him. All motion in the room ceased. The erstwhile Queen waved an impatient hand and strode past Chade. She halted at Riddle’s bedside. “Riddle was injured as well? I was not told of this!”
Nettle stood. Her jaw was set. Her voice was respectful when she managed to speak. “My lady, I suggest that a private Skill-healing would be the best choice for both of these men. May I dismiss the healers?”
The apprentice had just reappeared with a bucket of steaming water and several clean cloths over her shoulder. She looked about doubtfully, but I took the liberty of waving her in. She managed an awkward curtsy as she passed King Dutiful without spilling her bucket and then hurried to my side. She set the bucket down and put the folded cloths tidily across the foot of the bed. Then she looked from me to the gathering of royalty in the infirmary. It was clearly an event she had never experienced before, and she was torn between curtsying and getting on with her work.
“My King, if it please you, this is my place of both experience and expertise.” The man speaking must have been the healing master. I could not tell if he objected to being dismissed because he believed he was most competent to do the required work or if he merely disliked someone usurping his place. I found I did not care, and found also that court niceties meant nothing to me. Let the healer argue with Nettle’s request all he wished; I thought I knew how it would be settled. I gestured the apprentice away, and she stepped back gratefully. I ignored their genteel dispute as I set to work.
I moistened the cloth in warm water and set it gently to the Fool’s face. It came away brown and gray. I rinsed it and wiped at his face again. The thick yellow tears welled in his eyes again. I stopped. “Am I hurting you?” I asked him quietly.