Done. And why didn’t you let me know before you entered the stone? I heard her speak to someone in the room. “He’s here. Send a lad with a horse for him, now.” Then she focused on me again. What if you had emerged senseless and without words as you did all those years ago?
I let her rebuke flow past me. She was right, of course, and Chade would be furious with me. No. The thought came with freezing dismay. Chade might never be furious with me again. I started walking toward the keep, and then could not prevent myself from breaking into a trot. I Skilled to Nettle again. Do the guards on the gate know I’m coming?
King Dutiful himself ordered them to expect Holder Badgerlock, with an important message for me from my mother. No one will delay you. I’ll send a boy with a horse.
I’ll be there before he clears the stables. I broke into a run.
Chade’s bedchamber was grand. And still as death. It was on the same floor as Dutiful’s royal apartments, and I doubted that my King’s chambers were as indulgent as those of the old assassin-turned-advisor. My feet sank into the thick moss-green rugs. The heavy hangings over the windows admitted not a ray of daylight. Instead flickering candles filled the room with the scent of melting beeswax. In a gleaming brass brazier beside his bed a smoke of restorative herbs thickened the air. I coughed and groped my way to the bedside. There was a pitcher there and a filled cup. “Only water?” I asked of the hovering healers, and someone assented. I drained the cup, and coughed again. I was still trying to catch my breath from my dash up the wide stairways of the castle.
King Dutiful was coming somewhere behind me, as was Nettle. Thick sat on a stool in the corner, the tip of his tongue resting on his lower lip and his simpleton’s face welling sadness and tears. His Skilled music was a muted dirge. He squinted at me for a long moment, and then his froggy mouth spread in a smile of welcome. “I know you,” he told me.
And I know you, old friend, I Skilled to him. I pushed from my thoughts that he had not aged well; those of his kind seldom did. He had already lived longer than any of the Buckkeep healers had expected.
Old Chade is acting dead, he conveyed to me anxiously.
We’ll do what we can to wake him, I assured the little man.
Steady, half-brother to my Nettle and part of the King’s Skill-coterie now, stood at Thick’s side. I nodded a quick greeting to him. I had pushed my way through hovering healers and their various assistants to reach Chade’s bedside. The room was thick with the smells of anxious people; they pressed on my Wit-sense as if I were wading through a pen of beasts awaiting slaughter.
I did not hesitate. “Open those curtains and the windows as well. Get some light and air in here!”
One of the healers spoke. “We have judged that dark and quiet may best encourage—”
“Open them!” I snapped, for a sudden rush of memories of my first King, King Shrewd, in a stuffy room full of tonics and medicines and the smoke of drugs filled me with fear.
The healers stared at me, hostile and unmoving. Who was this stranger to enter Lord Chade’s chamber, drink from his cup, and then order them about? Resentment simmered.
“Open them,” Dutiful echoed as he entered the chamber, and the healers and their assistants leapt to obey.
I turned to him and asked, “Can you get them all out of here?”
Someone gasped. “My King, if you please,” I hastily added. In the pressure of the moment, I had forgotten that they saw me merely as Tom Badgerlock, Holder for Withywoods. Quite possibly, they had no idea as to why I might be called in to consult on Chade’s health. I tried to compose myself and saw a wry and weary smile twitch the corner of Dutiful’s mouth as he issued the orders that would clear the room of the clustering healers. As light and air refreshed the room and the number of folk diminished, the pressure on my senses eased. I asked no permission as I dragged the hangings on the bed wide open. Nettle helped me. The last light of sunset fell across the bed and the features of my old mentor, my old friend, my great-uncle Chade Fallstar. Despair rose in me.
He looked cadaverous. His mouth had fallen open, his lower jaw hanging to one side. His closed eyes were sunken. The bruise I had glimpsed in my Skill-session with Nettle had spread and darkened half his face. I took his hand and was rewarded with a Wit-sense of his life. Not strong, but it was there. It had been masked by the huddle of mourning healers when I first entered. His lips looked parched, his tongue a grayish pad in his mouth. I found a clean cloth by the bedside, moistened it from the pitcher, and touched it to his lips, pushing his mouth closed as I did so. I dabbed it over his lined face. He had used his Skill to slow the erosion of years, but no magic could reverse time’s tread or the tracks it left on his body. I tried to guess his true age. I’d thought him an old man when he first took me as his apprentice some forty years ago. I decided I didn’t want to know and put my mind to more useful tasks. As I wet the cloth again and set it gently against the bruising, I asked, “Did you already try to heal this? Even if we cannot reach him with the Skill, healing his body may free his mind to return to us.”