Spring came into full blossom. In the evenings we spent together she would sometimes drop her needlework and exclaim, “Here! Here, he’s moving, come feel!” But every time I obediently set my hand to her belly, I felt nothing. “He’s stopped,” she would insist, and I would nod gravely. What else could I do?
“Summer will bring him,” she assured us both, and the little garments she crocheted now were light rather than warm and woolly. As the hot days of summer ticked by to the chirping of grasshoppers, they became another layer of garments in the chest of clothing she had made for her imaginary child.
Autumn went out in a blaze of glory. Withywoods was lovely as it ever was in fall, with scarlet sprays of alder and golden birch leaves like coins and thin yellow willow leaves in curls, drifting down for the wind to push into deep banks at the edges of the carefully tended grounds. We no longer went out riding together, for Molly insisted she might lose the child if she did so, but we went for walks. I gathered hickory nuts with her, and listened to her plan to move screens into her nursery to make an enclosed area for the cradle. As the days passed, the river that threaded the valley grew swift with rain. Snow arrived and Molly again knit warmer things for our phantom baby, sure now that it would be a winter child, in need of soft blankets and woolly boots and caps. And just as the ice covered and hid the river, so did I strive to conceal from her the growing despair I felt.
But I am sure she knew it.
She had courage. Against the current of doubt that all others pressed her way, she swam. She was aware of the talk of the servants. They thought her daft or senile, and wondered that so sensible a woman as she had been could so foolishly assemble a nursery for an imaginary child. She kept her dignity and restraint before them and by that forced them to treat her with respect. But she also withdrew from them. Once she had socialized with the local gentry. Now she planned no dinners and never went out to the crossroads market. She asked no one to weave or sew for her baby.
Her imaginary child consumed her. She had little time for me or the other things that had once interested her. She spent her evenings and sometimes her nights in her nursery-parlor. I missed her in my bed but did not press her to climb the stairs and join me there. Sometimes of an evening I would join her in her cozy room, bringing whatever translation I was working on. She always welcomed me. Tavia would bring us a tray with cups and herbs, set a kettle to boil on the hearth, and leave us to our own devices. Molly would sit in a cushioned chair, her swollen feet propped up on a small hassock. I had a small table in the corner for my work, and Molly kept her hands busy with knitting or tatting. Sometimes I would hear the ticking of her needles cease. Then I would look up and see her staring into the fire, her hands on her belly and her face wistful. At such times I longed with all my heart that her self-deception were true. Despite our ages, I thought she and I could manage an infant. I even asked her, once, what she thought of us taking in a foundling. She sighed softly and said, “Be patient, Fitz. Your child grows within me.” So I said no more of it to her. I told myself her fancy brought her happiness, and truly, what harm did it do? I let her go.
In high summer of that year, I received the news that King Eyod of the Mountains had died. It was not unexpected, but it created a delicate situation. Kettricken, the former Queen of the Six Duchies, was Eyod’s heir; her son King Dutiful was in line after her. Some in the Mountains would hope that she would return to them, to reign there, even though she had often and clearly stated that she expected her son Dutiful to bring the Mountains under his rule as a sort of seventh duchy in our monarchy. Eyod’s death marked a transition that the Six Duchies must observe with gravity and respect. Kettricken would of course travel there, but also King Dutiful and Queen Elliania, the Princes Prosper and Integrity, Skillmistress Nettle, and several of the coterie, Lord Chade, Lord Civil … the list of those who must attend seemed endless, and many minor nobles attached themselves to the party as a way to curry favor. And my name was appended to it. Go I must, as Holder Badgerlock, a minor officer in Kettricken’s guard. Chade insisted, Kettricken requested, Dutiful all but ordered me, and Nettle pleaded. I packed my kit and chose a mount.
Over the year, Molly’s obsession had ground me down to a weary acceptance. I was not surprised when she declined to accompany me as she felt her “time was very close now.” A part of me did not wish to leave her when her mind was so unsettled, and another part of me longed for a respite from indulging her delusion. I called Revel aside and asked that he pay special attention to her requests while I was gone. He looked almost offended that I thought such a command necessary. “As ever, sir,” he said, and added his stiff little bow that meant, You idiot.