The game was suddenly not a game at all, but a cruel hunt. Splayed on the wall he could not seek cover, and as he climbed the hunters stooped for more rocks and clods. I could have cried out to them to stop. But I knew that if I did, it would not save him. I would simply become an extra target for them.
One of the stones hit the back of his head hard enough to snap his head forward against the wall. I heard the slap of flesh on stone, and saw how he halted, half-stunned, fingers slipping. But he did not cry out again. He shuddered, and then began to move again, more swiftly. His feet slipped, gained purchase, slipped, and then he had a hand on the top of the wall. As if gaining that goal had changed the game, the other children surged forward. He reached the top of the wall, clung there for the bare instant that it took his eyes to meet mine, and then tipped over onto the other side. The blood running down his chin had been shockingly red against his pasty face.
“Go round, go round!” one of the girls was shrieking, and yelping like hounds the other children turned and poured back out of the garden. I heard the harsh clang of the gate as they flung it closed behind them, and the wild pattering of their feet on the path. They were laughing as they ran. A moment later I heard a shrill and desperate scream.
I woke. I was breathing as harshly as if I’d just fought a bout. My nightshirt was sweated to my chest and twisted about me. Disoriented, I sat up and fought free of the blanket.
“Fitz!” Molly rebuked me as she flung a sheltering arm over our child. “What are you thinking?”
Abruptly I was myself again, a grown man, not a horrified child. I crouched in our bed, next to Molly, next to our tiny baby that I might have crushed in my thrashing. “Did I hurt her?” I cried out in horror, and in response the baby began a thin wailing.
Molly reached across and seized my wrist. “Fitz. It’s all right. You just woke her, that’s all. Lie down. It was just a dream.”
After all our years together she was familiar with my nightmares. She knew, to my chagrin, that it could be hazardous to wake me from one. Now I felt shamed as a whipped dog. Did she think me a danger to our child? “I think I’d best sleep somewhere else,” I offered.
Molly did not let go of my wrist. She rolled onto her side, snugging the baby closer to her. In response, the infant gave a small hiccup and immediately began to root for a nipple. “You will sleep right here beside us,” Molly declared. Before I could say anything else, she laughed softly and said, “She thinks she’s hungry again.” She released her grip on me to free her breast for the child. I lay very still as she arranged herself and then listened to the small, contented sounds of a young creature filling her belly. They both smelled so good, the baby with her infant smell and Molly’s femaleness. I suddenly felt large and brutal and male, an intruder in the safety and peace of domesticity.
I began to ease away from them. “I should—”
“You should stay right where you are.” She caught my wrist again, and tugged on it, pulling me nearer to both of them. She was not content until I was close enough that she could reach up and run her fingers through my hair. Her touch was light, lulling, as she lifted the sweaty curls from my brow. I closed my eyes to her touch, and after a few moments my awareness drifted.
The dream that had faded into obscurity when I woke painted itself into my mind again. I had to force myself to breathe gently and slowly despite how my chest constricted. A dream, I told myself. Not a memory. I had never hidden and watched as the other children of the keep tormented the Fool. Never.
But I might have, my conscience insisted. If I had been in such a place and time, I might have. Any child would. As one does at such an hour and after such a dream, I sieved my memories for connections, trying to discover why such an unsettling dream had invaded my sleep. There were none.
None except the memories of how the children of the keep had spoken of King Shrewd’s pale jester. The Fool was there, in my childhood memories, as far back as the day I had arrived at Buckkeep. He had been there before I was, and if he was to be believed he had been waiting for me all that time. Yet it had been years before our encounters in Buckkeep Castle had progressed beyond a rude gesture from him in the hallway or unflattering imitations of me as he followed me down a corridor. I had avoided him as assiduously as the other children had. I had not, I thought as I granted myself an exemption from guilt, treated him with cruelty. I had never mocked him or even expressed abhorrence of him in any way. No. I had merely avoided him. I had believed him a nimble and silly fellow, a tumbler who delighted the King with his antics but was, for all that, rather simple-minded. If anything, I had pitied him, I told myself. Because he was so different.