Book: Fool's Quest

Fool's Quest

Fool's Quest

This is an uncorrected eBook file. Please do not quote for publication until you check your copy against the finished book.

Fool’s Quest is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Robin Hobb

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

ISBN 978-0-553-39292-0

eBook ISBN 978-0-553-39293-7

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Fool's Quest

Chapter One

Winterfest Eve at Buckkeep

I am warm and safe in the den, with my two siblings. They are both heartier and stronger than I am. Born last, I am smallest of all. My eyes were slow to open, and I have been the least adventurous of the cubs. Both my brother and my sister have dared, more than once, to follow my mother to the mouth of the den dug deep in the undercut bank of the river. Each time, she has snarled and snapped at them, driving them back. She leaves us alone when she goes out to hunt. There should be a wolf to watch over us, a younger member of the pack who remains with us. But my mother is all that is left of the pack, and so she must go out to hunt alone and we must stay where she leaves us.

There is a day when she shakes free of us, long before we have had enough of her milk. She leaves us, going to the hunt, departing the den as evening starts to creep across the land. We hear from her a single yelp. That is all.

My brother, the largest of us, is filled with both fear and curiosity. He whines loudly, trying to call her back to us, but there is no response. He starts to go to the entrance of the den and my sister follows him, but in a moment they come scrabbling back to hunker down in fear beside me. There are strange smells right outside the den, bad smells, blood and creatures unknown to us. As we hide and whimper, the blood-smell grows stronger. We do the only thing we know to do. We hunch and huddle against the far back wall.

We hear sounds. Something that is not paws digs at the mouth of our den. It sounds like a large tooth biting into the earth, biting and tearing, biting and tearing. We hunch even deeper and my brother’s hackles rise. We hear sounds and we know there is more than one creature outside. The blood-smell thickens and is mingled with the smell of our mother. The digging noises go on.

Then there is another smell. In years to come I will know what it is, but in the dream it is not smoke. It is a smell that none of us understands, and it comes in driven wafts into the den. We cry, for it stings our eyes and sucks the breath from our lungs. The den becomes hot and airless and finally my brother crawls toward the opening. We hear his wild yelping, and how it continues, and then there is the stink of fear-piss. My sister huddles behind me, getting smaller and stiller. And then she is not breathing or hiding anymore. She is dead.

I sink down, my paws over my nose, my eyes blinded by the smoke. The digging noises go on and then something seizes me. I yelp and struggle, but it holds tight to my front leg and drags me from the den.

My mother is a hide and a bloody red carcass thrown to one side. My brother huddles in terror at the bottom of a cage in the back of a two-wheeled cart. They fling me in beside him and then drag out my sister’s body. They are angry she is dead, and they kick her as if somehow their anger can make her feel pain now. Then, complaining of the cold and oncoming dark, they skin her and add her small hide to my mother’s. The two men climb onto the cart and whip up their mule, already speculating at the prices that wolf cubs will bring from the dog-fighting markets. My mother’s and sister’s bloody hides fill my nose with the stench of death.

It is only the beginning of a torment that lasts for a lifetime. Some days we are fed and sometimes not. We are given no shelter from the rain. The only warmth is that of our own bodies as we huddle together. My brother, thin with worms, dies in a pit, thrown in to whet the ferocity of the fighting dogs. And then I am alone. They feed me offal and scraps or nothing at all. My feet become sore from pawing at the cage, my claws split and my muscles ache from confinement. They beat me and poke me to provoke me to hurl myself against bars I cannot break. They speak outside my cage of their plans to sell me for the fighting-pits. I hear the words but I do not understand them.

I did understand the words. I spasmed awake, and for a moment everything was wrong, everything was foreign. I was huddled in a ball, shuddering, and my fur had been stripped away to bare skin and my legs were bent at the wrong angles and confined by something. My senses were as deadened as if I were wadded in a sack. All around me were the smells of those hated creatures. I bared my teeth and, snarling, fought my way out of my bonds.

Even after I landed on the floor, the blanket trailing after me and my body asserting that I was, indeed, one of those hated humans, I stared in confusion around the dark room. It felt as if it should be morning, but the floor beneath me was not the smooth oaken planks of my bedchamber, nor did the room smell as if it belonged to me. I came slowly to my feet, my eyes striving to adjust. My straining vision caught the blinking of tiny red eyes, and then translated them to the dying embers of a fire. In a fireplace.

As I felt my way across the chamber, the world fell into place around me. Chade’s old rooms at Buckkeep Castle emerged from the blackness when I poked at the embers and added a few sticks of wood. Numbly, I found fresh candles and kindled them, waking the room to its perpetual twilight. I looked around, letting my life catch up with me. I judged that the night had passed and that outside the thick and windowless walls, day had dawned. The dire events of the previous day—how I had nearly killed the Fool, left my child in the charge of folk I did not fully trust, and then dangerously drained Riddle of Skill-strength to bring the Fool to Buckkeep—rushed over me in a sweeping tide. They met the engulfing memories of all the evenings and nights I’d spent in this windowless chamber, learning the skills and secrets of being the king’s assassin. When finally the sticks caught flame, enriching the thin candlelight in the room, I felt as if I had made a long journey to return to myself. The wolf’s dream of his horrific captivity was fading. I wondered briefly why it had come back with such intensity, and then let it go. Nighteyes, my wolf, my brother, was long gone from this world. The echoes of him lived on in my mind, my heart, and my memories, but in what I faced now, he was no longer at my back. I stood alone.

Except for the Fool. My friend had returned to me. Battered, beaten, and possibly not in his right mind, but at my side again. I held a candle high and ventured back to the bed we had shared.

The Fool was still deeply asleep. He looked terrible. The marks of torture were written on his scarred face; hardship and starvation had chapped and chafed his skin and thinned his hair to broken straw. Even so, he looked better than when first I had seen him. He was clean and fed and warm. And his even breathing was that of a man given a fresh infusion of strength. I wished I could say I had given it to him. All unwitting, I had stolen strength from Riddle and passed it to my friend during our Skill-passage through the standing stones. I regretted how I had abused Riddle in my ignorance but I could not deny the relief I felt to hear the Fool’s steady breathing. Last night he had had the strength to talk with me and he had walked a bit, bathed himself, and eaten a meal. That was far more than I would have expected of the battered beggar I had first seen.

But borrowed strength is not true strength. The hasty Skill-healing I’d practiced had robbed him of his scanty physical reserves, and the vitality I had stolen from Riddle could not long sustain the Fool. I hoped the food and rest he had taken yesterday had begun to rebuild his body. I watched him sleeping so deeply and dared to hope he would live. Moving softly, I picked up the bedding I had dragged to the floor in my fall and arranged it warmly around him.

He was so changed. He had been a man who loved beauty in all its forms. His tailored garments, the ornaments in his chambers, the hangings for his bed and windows, even the tie that had held back his immaculately groomed hair had all been chosen with harmony and fashion in mind. But that man was gone. He had come back to me as a ragbag scarecrow. The flesh of his face had fallen to skin-coated bones. Battered, blinded, wearing the scars of torture, the Fool had been so transformed by hardship that I hadn’t recognized him. Gone was the lithe and limber jester with the mocking smile. Gone, too, elegant Lord Golden with his fine clothes and aristocratic ways. I was left with this cadaverous wretch.

His blind eyes were closed. His mouth was a finger’s width ajar. His breath hissed in and out. “Fool?” I said and jogged his shoulder cautiously. The only response was a slight hitch in his breathing. Then he sighed out, as if giving up on pain and fear, before resuming the even respiration of deep sleep.

He had fled torture and traveled through hardship and privation to meet me. His health was broken and he feared deadly pursuit. I could not grasp how he had managed it, broken and blind. But he’d done it, and for one purpose. Last night, before he had surrendered to unconsciousness, he had asked me to kill for him. He wanted us to return to Clerres, to his old school and to the people who had tormented him. And as a special favor, he had asked that I use my old assassin’s skills to kill them all.

He knew that I’d left that part of my life behind me. I was a different man, a respectable man, a steward of my daughter’s home, the father of a little girl. Assassin no more. I’d left killing behind. It had been years since I’d been lean, the muscles of my arms as hard as the heart of a killer. I was a country gentleman now. We had both changed so much.

I could still recall the mocking smile and flashing glance that had once been his, charming and enraging at once. He had changed, but I was confident I still knew him in the important ways, the ones that went beyond trivial facts such as where he was born or who his parents had been. I’d known him since we were young. A sour smile twisted my mouth. Not since we were children. In some ways I doubted that either of us had ever truly been a child. But the long years of deep friendship were a foundation I could not doubt. I knew his character. I knew his loyalty and dedication. I knew more of his secrets than anyone, and I had guarded those secrets as carefully as if they were my own. I’d seen him in despair, and incapacitated with terror. I’d seen him broken with pain and I’d seen him drunk to maudlin. And beyond that, I’d seen him dead, and been him dead, and walked his body back to life and called his spirit back to inhabit that body.

So I knew him. From the bones out.

Or so I had thought.

I took a deep breath and sighed it out, but there was no relief from the tension I felt. I was like a child, terrified of looking out into the darkness for fear of what I might see. I was denying what I knew was true. I did know the Fool, from his bones out. And I knew that the Fool would do whatever he thought he must in order to set the world in its best track. He had let me tread the razor’s edge between death and life, had expected me to endure pain, hardship, and loss. He had surrendered himself to a tortured death he had believed was inevitable. All for the sake of his vision of the future.

So if he believed that someone must be killed, and he could not kill that person himself, he would ask it of me. And he would freight the request with those terrible words: For me.

I turned away from him. Yes. He would ask that of me. The very last thing I ever wanted to do again. And I would say yes. Because I could not look at him, broken and in anguish, and not feel a sea-surge of anger and hatred. No one, no one could be allowed to hurt him as badly as they had and continue living. Anyone so lacking in empathy that he could systematically torment and physically degrade another should not be suffered to live. Monsters had done this. Regardless of how human they might appear, this evidence of their work spoke the truth. They needed to be killed. And I should do it.

I wanted to do it. The longer I looked at him, the more I wanted to go and kill, not quickly and quietly, but messily and noisily. I wanted the people who had done this to him to know they were dying and to know why. I wanted them to have time to regret what they’d done.

But I couldn’t. And that tore at me.

I would have to say no. Because as much as I loved the Fool, as deep as our friendship went, as furiously hot as my hatred burned, Bee had first rights to my protection and dedication. Already I had violated that, leaving her to the care of others while I rescued my friend. My little girl was all I had left now of my wife, Molly. Bee was my last chance to be a good father, and I hadn’t been doing very well at it lately. Years ago I’d failed my older daughter, Nettle. I’d left her to think another man was her father, given her over to someone else to raise. Nettle already doubted my ability to care for Bee. Already she had spoken of taking Bee out of my care and bringing her here, to Buckkeep, where she could oversee her upbringing.

I could not allow that. Bee was too small and too strange to survive among palace politics. I had to keep her safe with me at Withywoods, in a quiet and secure rural manor, where she might grow as slowly and be as odd as she wished, and as wonderful. So although I had left her to save the Fool, it was only this once and only for a short time. I’d go back to her. Perhaps, I consoled myself, if the Fool recovered enough, I could take him with me. Take him to the quiet and comfort of Withywoods, let him find healing and peace there. He was in no condition to make a journey back to Clerres, let alone aid me in killing whoever had done this to him. Vengeance, I knew, could be delayed, but the life of a growing child could not. I had one chance to be Bee’s father and that time was now. At any time, I could be an assassin for the Fool. So for now, the best I could offer him was peace and healing. Yes. Those things would have to come first.

For a time, I quietly wandered the assassin’s lair where I had spent many happy childhood hours. The clutter of an old man had given way to the tidy organizing skills of Lady Rosemary. She presided over these chambers now. They were cleaner and more pleasant, but somehow I missed Chade’s random projects and jumbles of scrolls and medicines. The shelves that had once held everything from a snake’s skeleton to a piece of bone turned to stone now displayed a tidy array of stoppered bottles and pots.

They were neatly labeled in a lady’s elegant hand. Here were carryme and elfbark, valerian and wolfsbane, mint and beargrease, sumac and foxglove, cindin and Tilth smoke. One pot was labeled OUTISLANDER ELFBARK, probably to distinguish it from the far milder Six Duchies herb. A glass vial held a dark-red liquid that swirled uneasily at the slightest touch. There were threads of silver in it that did not mingle with the red, yet did not float like oil on water. I’d never seen such a mixture. It had no label, and I put it back carefully in the wooden rack that kept it upright. Some things were best left alone. I had no idea what karuge root was, nor bloodrun, but both had tiny red skulls inked next to their names.

On the shelf below were mortars and pestles, knives for chopping, sieves for straining, and several small, heavy pots for rendering. There were stained metal spoons, neatly racked. Below them was a row of small clay pots that puzzled me at first. They were no bigger than my fist, glazed a shiny brown, as were their tight-fitting lids. They were sealed shut with tar except for a hole in the middle of each lid. A tail of twisted waxed linen emerged from each hole. I hefted one cautiously and then understood. Chade had told me that his experiments with exploding powder had been progressing. These represented his most recent advance in how to kill people. I set the pot back carefully. The tools of the killing trade that I had forsaken stood in rows like faithful troops. I sighed, but not out of regret, and turned away from them. The Fool slept on.

I tidied the dishes from our late-night repast onto a tray and otherwise brought the chamber to rights. The tub of bathwater, now cold and gray, remained, as did the repulsively soiled undergarment the Fool had worn. I did not even dare to burn it on the hearth for fear of the stench it would emit. I did not feel disgust, only pity. My own clothing from the day before was still covered in blood, from both a dog and the Fool. I told myself it was not all that noticeable on the dark fabric. Then, thinking again, I went to investigate the old carved wardrobe that had always stood beside the bed. At one time, it had held only Chade’s work robes, all of them of serviceable gray wool and most of them stained or scorched from his endless experiments. Only two work robes hung there now, both dyed blue and too small for me. There was also, to my surprise, a woman’s nightrobe, two simple shifts, and a pair of black leggings that would have been laughably short on me. Ah. These were Lady Rosemary’s things. Nothing here for me.

It disturbed me to slip quietly from the rooms and leave the Fool sleeping, but I had errands to carry out. I suspected that someone would be sent in to do the cleaning and to supply the room afresh, and I did not like to leave him there unconscious and vulnerable. But at that point, I knew I owed Chade my trust. He had provided all for us the previous evening, despite his pressing duties.

The Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom sought to negotiate alliances, and to that end powerful representatives had been invited to Buckkeep Castle for the week of Winterfest. Yet even in the middle of an evening of feasting, music, and dancing, not only Chade but King Dutiful and his mother, Lady Kettricken, had found time to slip away and greet me and the Fool, and Chade had still found a way to have this chamber well supplied with all we needed. He would not be careless of my friend. Whoever he sent to this chamber would be discreet.

Chade. I took a breath and reached for him with the Skill-magic. Our minds brushed. Chade? The Fool is asleep and I’ve some errands that I’d like—

Yes, yes, fine. Not now, Fitz. We’re discussing the Kelsingra situation. If they are not willing to control their dragons, we may have to form an alliance to deal with the creatures. I’ve made provisions for you and your guest. There is coin in a purse on the blue shelf if you need it. But now I must put my full attention to this. Bingtown claims that Kelsingra may actually be seeking an alliance with the Duchess of Chalced!

Oh. I withdrew. Abruptly, I felt like a child who had interrupted the adults discussing important things. Dragons. An alliance against dragons. Alliance with whom? Bingtown? And what could anyone hope to do against dragons, save bribe them with enough meat to stupefy them? Would not befriending the arrogant carnivores be better than challenging them? I felt unreasonably snubbed that my opinion had not been consulted.

And in the next instant I chided myself. Let Chade and Dutiful and Elliania and Kettricken manage the dragons. Walk away, Fitz.

I lifted a tapestry and slipped into the labyrinth of secret corridors that wormed its way behind the walls of Buckkeep Castle. Once I had known the spy-ways as well as I knew the path to the stables. Despite the passing years, the narrow corridors that crept through interior walls or snaked along the outer walls of the castle had not changed.

But I had. I was no longer a skinny boy or even a youth. I was a man of sixty, and though I flattered myself that I was fit enough still to do a hard day’s work, I was no longer limber and lithe. The narrow corners that I had once ferreted past without a thought now required a bit of negotiating. I reached the old pantry entrance and hunched by the concealed door, ear pressed to the wall, waiting for a quiet moment before I emerged behind a meat rack full of dangling sausages.

I was saved only by the benign chaos of Winterfest. When I stepped out of the pantry into the corridor, a large woman in a flour-dusted apron demanded to know what was taking me so long. “Did you find the goose-grease for me or not?”

“I, I didn’t see it there,” I replied and she responded tartly, “That’s because you went into the wrong pantry! Go along two more doors, down a flight of steps, take the second door to the cold room, and look for it there, in a big brown crock on a shelf. Hurry up!”

She spun around and left me standing. As she walked away, she muttered loudly about hiring new help right before a feast-day. I blew out a nervous breath and turned to find a fellow of about my height and build laboring up the corridor with a heavy brown crock in his arms. I followed him and as he went into the kitchens, I stepped past the kitchen door and its exhaled aroma of fresh bread, steaming soups, and roasting meats and hurried outside.

In the teeming courtyard of Buckkeep Castle on a wintry day, I was just one more man rushing on an urgent errand. I looked up at the sky in surprise. Past noon. I had slept far longer than I’d intended. A brief break in the storms had bared the midday sun, but more snow was surely coming our way. Now I regretted how impulsively I had discarded my cloak the day before. I’d be lucky to regain the keep before the snow came down.

I went first to the infirmary, hoping to apologize to Riddle privately. But it was busier than usual, for apparently some of our guardsmen had gotten into a bit of a brawl last night. No great damage to any of them, save for one fellow who had been bitten on the cheek. The ugliness of that was enough to make anyone wince. Again, the noise and disorder were my allies as I swiftly discovered that Riddle was no longer there. I left, hoping that he was well recovered by now but surmising that he was actually recuperating someplace more conducive to rest. I stood outside the infirmary deciding what I should do next.

I hefted my purse. The coins I had hoped to spend to delight my little daughter still weighted it heavily—now supplemented by what Chade had left me. I had loaded my purse well at Withywoods in the belief that I would indulge her in every possible way on that market day in Oaksbywater. Had it been only yesterday? Bleakness washed over me. What I had intended as a day of pleasure and indulgence had ended in violence and bloodshed. To save the Fool’s life, I had sent her home without me, in the dubious guardianship of Scribe FitzVigilant and Lady Shun. Little Bee, only nine and looking more like a six-year-old. I wondered what sort of day she was having. Nettle had promised to send a bird to let her know I had arrived safely at Buckkeep, and I knew that my elder daughter would never fail me at such a task. So, later today, I would write letters, to FitzVigilant and Revel, but most especially to Bee. A top-notch messenger on a good horse could have them there in three days. Four if more snow fell . . . For now the bird message would have to suffice. And while I had this time, I would take myself to Buckkeep Town, not just to buy myself a fresh set of garb with Chade’s coin but also to buy more gifts for Bee. Winterfest gifts, I decided, to show her I had thought of her even if I could not be with her. I’d indulge myself by indulging her! Even if my gifts would reach her days late.

I chose to hike down to the town rather than Skilling to Dutiful or Nettle to arrange a horse from the stables. Horses did not do well on the steeply cobbled streets, and Dutiful was doubtless still fully engaged with entertaining his trade delegations. Nettle was probably still very angry with me, as I well deserved. No harm in letting time cool her temper a bit.

I found the road wider than I recalled it, with trees cut back from the margin on both sides, and far fewer potholes and muddy swathes than I remembered. And the town was closer than it had been, for its sprawl of houses and shops had begun to crawl up the road to the castle. An area that once had been forest was now the outskirts of the town, with merchants of all sorts, a cheap tavern called the Buck Guard, and what I suspected was a whorehouse behind it. The door of the Bawdy Trout was off its hinges and a scowling innkeeper was repairing it. Past it, old Buckkeep Town was decked out for the feast-day to come, with garlands and evergreen boughs and brightly colored pennants. The streets were busy, not just with deliveries to taverns and inns, but with all the travelers and tradesfolk that prospered during a holiday.

It took some time for me to find the items I needed. In one shop that was obviously accustomed to catering to sailors and guardsmen, I found two cheap ready-made shirts that almost fit, a long vest of brown wool, a heavy cloak, and some trousers that would do for a time. I had to smile as I realized I had become accustomed to a much better quality of clothing. After giving that a thought, I went to a tailor’s shop, where I was swiftly measured and clothing was promised before two days had passed. I feared I would be in Buckkeep at least that long, but mentioned that if the clothing was ready faster, I would pay a bonus. I fumbled my way through estimating the Fool’s height and greatly diminished girth, and they told me that if I returned by late afternoon, they would have smallclothes and two serviceable house-robes for him. I told them he was ill and that soft fabrics would be appreciated. The coins I left with them promised swift work.

With that necessary shopping out of the way, I took myself down to where music and merry chaos dominated the streets. Here was the Winterfest of my youth: puppetry and juggling, song and dance, vendors offering sweets and savory treats, hedge-witches selling potions and charms, girls in holly wreaths and every noisy joy the heart could hope for. I missed Molly, and longed ardently to have Bee at my side, experiencing this with me.

I bought things for her. Ribbons with bells on them, sticks of candy, a silver necklace with three amber birds, a packet of spiced nuts, a green scarf with yellow stars woven in, a small belt-knife with a good horn handle, and then a canvas bag to carry it all in. It came to me that a messenger could just as easily take this bag to her as a simple letter from me, and so I filled it. A necklace made from speckled seashells from some faraway beach, a pomander for her winter woolens chest, and on until the bag would barely close. For the moment, it was a blue-sky day, with a fresh wind that tasted of the ocean. A gem of a day, and I enjoyed imagining her delight in all the trinkets she would discover in this bag. As I loitered amid the merriment, I thought of the words I would write to go with it, in letters written plain and clear that she might read my thoughts herself and know how much I regretted leaving her. But soon the wind brought a fresh bank of dark-gray snow clouds scudding in. Time to return to the castle.

I stopped by the tailor’s shop on my way back and was rewarded with garments for the Fool. As I left, lowering clouds that had been on the horizon stole in. Snow began to fall and the wind bared its teeth as I hurried up the steep road back to the castle. I was passed in at the gate as easily as I had left: The trade delegation and the merrymaking of Winterfest meant that the guards had been ordered to be generous in whom they admitted.

But it reminded me there was still a problem I’d soon have to solve. I needed an identity. Since I had shaved my beard to please my daughter, not only the staff of Withywoods but even Riddle had been astonished at my youthful appearance. After all the years I’d been absent from Buckkeep Castle, I feared to introduce myself as Tom Badgerlock, and not just because the streak of white in my hair that had prompted that name was long gone. The folk who recalled Tom Badgerlock would expect a man of sixty years, not someone who looked to be in his middle thirties.

Instead of using the kitchen entrance, I went to a side hall and entered through a door mostly reserved for couriers and higher-status servants. My bulging bag gained me entry, and to the one under-steward who asked my business, I replied that I had a parcel for Lady Nettle and I was allowed to pass.

The wall hangings and furniture of the castle had changed over the years, but the basic hierarchy of chambers remained as it had been since my boyhood. I went up a servants’ stair, gained the floor reserved for lesser nobility, spent a small amount of time apparently waiting for someone to let me into an apartment there, and, as soon as the corridor was cleared, successfully gained access to the next floor and the door to Lady Thyme’s old chambers. The key turned smoothly and I entered the room. The concealed entrance to Chade’s old chamber was through a wardrobe of musty old women’s clothing.

My crawl through the wardrobe was as ungainly as it had been the night before, and I found myself wondering if all Chade’s secrecy was truly needed. I knew the Fool had asked for these rooms because he still feared pursuit, but I trusted that our passage through the stones would thwart anyone who had been following him. Then I recalled how the White girl had died, with parasites eating her eyes, and decided that caution was ever the better path. Keeping the Fool well hidden could do no harm.

One of Chade’s secretive minions had visited those chambers while I was gone. I needed to meet him. Or her. The Fool’s filthy garments had been taken and the tub had been emptied and pushed into the corner. Last night’s dishes and glasses had been tidied away. A heavy stoneware pot was lidded deep in the hearth, but the smell of braised beef had still escaped to flavor the room. A cloth had been spread on the table, and a loaf wrapped in a clean yellow napkin reposed next to a small dish of pale winter butter. There was a dusty bottle of red wine and a couple of cups, alongside plates and cutlery.

Kettricken was probably responsible for the two sensible linen nightgowns draped over the chair. Two pairs of loose trousers in the same weave were with them. Lamb’s-wool bed stockings were neatly rolled into balls. I smiled, considering it quite possible that the former queen had raided her own wardrobe for these soft things. I gathered the clothing and set it on the foot of the Fool’s bed.

The garments left on the second chair were more puzzling. A sky-blue dress, with dagged sleeves and dozens more buttons than were required to close any garment, was on the chair back. On the seat of the chair, almost-sensible trousers of black wool terminated in cuffs of blue-and-white stripes. The slippers beside them resembled a pair of small boats, with pointed, upturned toes and a thick heel. I thought they were too large for the Fool even if he had been well enough to walk around Buckkeep.

I had been aware of his deep and steady breathing since I entered the chamber. It was good that he still slept, and I suppressed my boyish impulse to wake him and ask him how he felt. Instead, I found paper and sat down at Chade’s old worktable to compose my note to Bee. I was full of words, managed a greeting, and then stared at the paper for a time. There was so much I needed to say, from reassurances that I would quickly return to advice for dealing with FitzVigilant and Shun. Could I be certain that hers would be the only eyes to read what I wrote? I hoped so, and yet my old training came to the fore and I decided not to commit to paper any words that could create ill feeling toward her. So I wrote only that I hoped she would enjoy these small things. As I had long promised, there was a knife for her belt, which I trusted she would use wisely. I reminded her that I would return home as soon as I could, and that I hoped she would use her time well while I was gone. I did not command her to study hard with her new tutor. In truth, I rather hoped that between my absence and the winter holiday, they would set lessons aside for a time. But I did not commit that thought to paper, either. Instead I closed my message by hoping that she had enjoyed Winterfest and noting that I missed her terribly. Then I sat for a time promising myself that at least Revel would be sure that there was some festivity for the holiday. I had intended to find some minstrels that fated day in Oaksbywater. Cook Nutmeg had proposed a menu that Revel had embellished. It was somewhere on my desk at home.

I had to do better by my daughter, and so I would. But there was little I could do about it until I returned home. The gifts would have to suffice until I could be there for Bee.

I spindled my note and tied it with some of Chade’s twine. I found his sealing wax, melted a bit onto the knot, and imprinted the blob with my signet ring. No charging buck for FitzChivalry Farseer, only the badger’s footprint that belonged to Holder Tom Badgerlock. I stood and stretched. I’d need to find a courier.

My Wit prickled. My nostrils flared, trying to find a scent. I did not move, but I let my gaze rove about the room. There. Behind a heavy tapestry of hounds pursuing a deer that concealed one of the secret entryways to the chamber, someone breathed. I centered myself in my body. My own breathing was silent. I did not reach for a weapon but I shifted my weight so that I could stand, move, leap, or drop to the floor in an instant. I waited.

“Don’t attack me, sir, please.” A boy’s voice. The words had a country lad’s drawn-out vowels.

“Come in.” I made no promises.

He hesitated. Then, very slowly, he pushed the tapestry to one side and stepped out into the dim light of the chamber. He showed me his hands, the right one empty, the left holding a scroll. “A message for you, sir. That’s all.”

I assessed him carefully. Young, perhaps twelve. His body had not yet turned the corner to manhood. Bony, with narrow shoulders. He’d never be a large man. He wore the Buckkeep blue of a page. His hair was brown and as curly as a water dog’s, and his eyes were brown as well. And he was cautious. He’d shown himself but not stepped far into the room. He had sensed danger and announced himself to me, which raised him in my estimation.

“A message from whom?” I asked.

The tip of his tongue wet his lips. “A man who knew to send it to you here. A man who taught me the way to come here.”

“How do you know I’m the one it’s for?”

“He said you’d be here.”

“But anyone might be here.”

He shook his head but didn’t argue with me. “Nose broken a long time ago and old blood on your shirt.”

“Bring it to me, then.”

He came like a fox thinking of stealing a dead rabbit from a snare; he walked lightly and did not take his eyes from me. When he reached the table’s edge, he set the scroll down and stepped back.

“Is that all?” I asked him.

He glanced around the room, at the firewood and the food. “And whatever else you might wish me to fetch for you, sir.”

“And your name is . . .?”

Again he hesitated. “Ash, sir.” He waited, watching me.

“There’s nothing else I need, Ash. You may go.”

“Sir,” he replied. He stepped back, not turning nor taking his eyes from me. One slow step after another, he retreated until his hands touched the tapestry. Then he whisked himself behind it. I waited, but did not hear the scuff of his steps on the stairs.

After a moment, I rose silently and ghosted toward the tapestry. But when I snatched it back, empty air met my gaze. He was gone as if he’d never been there. I permitted myself a nod. On his third try, Chade seemed to have found himself a worthy apprentice. I wondered how much of the training he did, or if Lady Rosemary taught the boy, and where they had found him . . . and then I set it firmly out of my thoughts. None of my business. And if I were wise, I’d ask few questions and become as little involved in the current state of assassinations and politics at Buckkeep as I could. My life was complicated enough already.

I was hungry, but thought I’d wait a bit longer to see if the Fool would wake and eat with me. I went back to the worktable and drew Chade’s scroll toward me. Within the first two lines, I felt the webs of Buckkeep intrigue tightening around me again. “As you are here, with little to do other than wait for his health to improve, perhaps you are willing to make yourself useful? Clothing has been provided, and the expectation has been planted that the court will be visited by Lord Feldspar of Spiretop, a small but well-established holding in the far northwest corner of Buck. Lord Feldspar is as stony as his name, fond of drink, and there is a rumor that a copper mine on his holding has recently begun to produce very fine-grade ore. Thus he has come to Buckkeep to be a party to the current trade negotiations.”

There was more. I was never once addressed by name, the handwriting was not recognizably Chade’s, but, oh, the game clearly was. I finished reading the scroll and went to consider the outlandish dress that had been left for me. I sighed. I had some time yet before I would be expected to join them for an evening meal and conversation in the Great Hall. I knew my role. Talk little, listen a great deal, and report back to Chade all details as to who sought to make me an offer and how rich the offer was. I could not imagine what the greater game was. I knew that Chade would have decided what I needed to know and given me exactly that much. Weaving his webs as he ever did.

And yet despite my annoyance, I felt a stirring of the old excitement as well. It was Winterfest eve. The castle kitchen would have outdone itself, there would be music and dancing and folk from all over the Six Duchies. With my new identity and in clothes that would both draw attention to me and mark me as a stranger, I would once more spy for Chade as I had when I was a youth.

I held the dress up against me. No. Not a dress, a fussy and foppish long jacket, to go with the impractical shoes. The buttons were dyed bone, carved into little blue posies, and they were not just on the front but on the long cuffs as well. Lots of buttons. Buttons that did no buttoning but were mere ornamentation. The fabric was soft, a kind I had not seen before, and when I held the garment by the shoulders it proved far heavier than I had expected. I frowned, then quickly realized that the secret pockets had already been loaded for me.

I found a very nice set of small burglary picks and a tiny fine-tooth saw blade. In another pocket was an extremely sharp blade of the sort favored by cutpurses. I doubted I was deft enough to ply that trade. The few times I’d done it for Chade, it had been not for the coins but to see what love-notes were in Regal’s purse, or which servant seemed to possess far more wages than an honest servingman would carry. Years ago. So many years ago.

I heard a low moan from the Fool’s bed. I slung the jacket over my arm and hastened to his side. “Fool. Are you awake?”

His brow was lined, his eyes tightly closed, but at my voice something almost like a smile bent his mouth. “Fitz. It’s a dream, isn’t it?”

“No, my friend. You’re here at Buckkeep. And safe.”

“Oh, Fitz. I am never safe.” He coughed a bit. “I thought I was dead. I became aware, but then there wasn’t any pain, and I wasn’t cold. So I thought I was dead, finally. Then I moved, and all the pains woke up.”

“I’m sorry, Fool.” I was to blame for his most recent injuries. I hadn’t recognized him when I saw him clutching Bee. And so I had rushed to save my child from a diseased and possibly mad beggar, only to discover that the man I had stabbed half a dozen times was my oldest friend in the world. The swift Skill-healing I’d imposed had closed the knife wounds and kept him from bleeding to death. But it had weakened him as well, and in the course of that healing, I’d become aware of the multitude of old injuries and infections that still raged inside him. Those would kill him slowly, if I could not help him gain strength enough for a more thorough healing. “Are you hungry? There’s beef cooked to tenderness by the hearth. And red wine, and bread. And butter.”

He was silent for a time. His blind eyes were a dull gray in the dim light of the room. They moved in his face as if he still strove to see out of them. “Truly?” he asked in a shaky voice. “Truly all that food? Oh, Fitz. I almost don’t dare to move, lest I wake up and find the warmth and the blankets all a dream.”

“Shall I bring your food there, then?”

“No, no, don’t do that. I spill so badly. It’s not just that I can’t see, it’s my hands. They shake. And twitch.”

He moved his fingers and I felt ill. On one hand, all the soft pads of his fingers had been sliced away to leave thickly scarred tips. The knuckles of both hands were overly large on his bony fingers. Once he had had such elegant hands, such clever hands for juggling and puppetry and wood carving. I looked away from them. “Come, then. Let’s take you back to the chair by the fireside.”

“Let me lead, and you only warn me of a disaster. I’d like to learn the room. I’ve become quite clever at learning rooms since they blinded me.”

I could think of nothing to say to that. He leaned heavily on my arm but I let him make his own groping way. “More to the left,” I cautioned him once. He limped, as if every step on his swollen feet pained him. I wondered how he had managed to come so far, alone and blinded, following roads he could not see. Later, I told myself. There would be time for that tale later.

His reaching hand touched the chair’s back and then felt down it to the arm. It took him some time to maneuver himself into the chair and settle there. The sigh he gave was not one of contentment but of a difficult task accomplished. His fingers danced lightly on the tabletop. Then he stilled them in his lap. “The pain is bad, but even with the pain, I think I can manage the journey back. I will rest here, for a time, and heal a bit. Then, together, we will go to burn out that nest of vermin. But I will need my vision, Fitz. I must be a help to you, not a hindrance, as we make our way to Clerres. Together, we will bring them the justice they deserve.”

Justice. The word soaked into me. Chade had always called our assassin’s tasks “quiet work,” or “the king’s justice.” If I took on this quest of his, what would it be? The Fool’s justice. “Food in just a moment,” I said, letting his worry go unanswered for now.

I did not trust him to exercise restraint with how much food he took. I dished the food up for him, a small portion of meat cut into little bites and bread buttered and sliced into strips. I poured wine for him. I took his hand, thinking to guide it to the dish, but I had not warned him, and he jerked back as if I had burned him with a poker, nearly oversetting his dishes. “Sorry,” we exclaimed in unison. I grinned at that, but he did not.

“I was trying to show you where your food was,” I explained gently.

His head was bent as if he was looking down in shame. “I know,” he said quietly. Then, like timid mice, his crippled hands crept to the edge of the table, and ventured cautiously forward until he found the edge of his plate. His hands moved lightly over the dish, touching what was there. He picked up a piece of the meat and put it into his mouth. I started to tell him there was a fork at the side of his plate. I stopped myself. He knew that. I would not correct a tormented man as if he were a forgetful child. His hands crabbed over to the napkin and found it.

For a time, we ate together in silence. When he had finished what was on the plate, he asked softly if I would cut more meat and bread for him. As I did that, he asked suddenly, “So. How was your life while I was gone?”

For a moment, I froze. Then I transferred the cut meat to his plate. “It was a life,” I said, and was amazed at how steady my voice was. I groped for words: How does one summarize twenty-four years? How does one recount a courtship, a marriage, a child, and a widowing? I began.

“Well. That last time I left you? I became lost in the Skill-pillar on the way home. A passage that had taken but moments on my previous journeys took me months. When the pillar finally spat me out, I was near-senseless. And when I came to my wits, some days later, I found you had been and gone. Chade gave me your gift, the carving. I finally met Nettle. That did not go well, at first. I, uh, I courted Molly. We married.” My words ground to a halt. Even telling the tale in such bald terms, my heart broke over all I had had, and all I had lost. I wanted to say we had been happy. But I could not bear to put that in the past tense.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” He spoke the formal words. From him, they were sincere. It took me aback for a few moments.

“How did you . . .?”

“How did I know?” He made a small incredulous sound. “Oh, Fitz. Why do you think I left? To leave you to find a life as close as possible to the one that I had always foreseen would follow my death. In so many futures, after my death, I saw you court Molly tirelessly, win her back, and finally take for yourself some of the happiness and peace that had always eluded you when I was near. In so many futures, I foresaw that she would die and you would be left alone. But that does not undo what you had, and that was the best I could wish for you. Years with your Molly. She loved you so.”

He resumed eating. I sat very still. My throat was clenched so tight that the pain nearly choked me. It was difficult even to breathe past that lump. Blind as he was, I think he still knew of my distress. For a long time he ate very slowly, as if to stretch out both the meal and the silence I needed. Slowly he wiped the last of the meat juices from his plate with his final bite of bread. He ate it, wiped his fingers on the napkin, and then walked his hand over to his wine. He lifted it and sipped, his face almost beatific. He set the cup down and then said quietly, “My memories of yesterday are very confusing to me.”

I held my silence.

“I had walked through most of the previous night, I think. I remember the snow, and knowing that I must not stop until I found some sort of shelter. I had a good stick, and that helps more than I can say when a man has no eyes, and bad feet. It’s hard for me to walk without a stick now. I knew I was on the road to Oaksbywater. Now I remember. A cart passed me, with the driver cursing and shouting at me to get out of the way. So I did. But I found his cart tracks in the snow and knew that if I followed them, they had to lead to some sort of shelter. So I walked. My feet got numb, and that meant less pain, but I fell more often. I think it was very late when I reached Oaksbywater. A dog barked at me, and someone shouted at it. The cart tracks led to a stable. I could not get inside, but there was a pile of straw and manure outside.” He folded his lips for a moment and then said wryly, “I’ve learned that dirty straw and manure are often warm.”

I nodded, then realized he could not see me. “They are,” I conceded.

“I slept a bit, and then woke when the town started to stir around me. I heard a girl singing and recognized one of the old Winterfest songs from when I lived at Buckkeep. And so I knew it might be a good day to beg. Holidays bring out the kindness in some people. I thought I would beg and try to get some food in me and then, if I encountered someone who seemed kind, I would ask them to put me on the path to Withywoods.”

“So you were coming to find me.”

He nodded slowly. His hand crept back to his wine cup. He found it, drank sparingly, and set it down. “Of course I was coming to find you. So. I was begging, but the shopkeeper kept ranting at me to move on. I knew I should. But I was so tired, and the place where I had settled was out of the wind. Wind is a cruel thing, Fitz. A day that is cold but bearable when the air is still becomes a constant torment when a wind rises.” His voice fell away and he hunched his shoulders as if even the memory of wind could freeze him now.

“Then, hmm. A boy came by. He gave me an apple. Then the shopkeeper cursed me and shouted at her husband to come and drive me off. And the boy helped me to move away from the door. And . . .” The Fool’s words trailed away. His head moved, wagging from side to side. I did not think he was aware of it. It reminded me of a hound casting about for a lost scent. Then plaintive words burst from him. “It was so vivid, Fitz! He was the son I was seeking. The boy touched me and I could see with his vision. I could feel the strength he might have, someday, if he was trained, if he was not corrupted by the Servants. I’d found him and I could not contain my joy.” Yellowish tears spilled slowly from his eyes and began to track down his scarred face. All too well, I recalled the request that he had sent his messengers to give me: that I search for the “Unexpected Son.” His son? A child he had fathered, despite all I knew of him? In the time since his messenger had reached me and then died, I’d mulled over a dozen possibilities as to who the mother of such a son might be.

“I found him,” the Fool continued. “And I lost him. When you stabbed me.”

Shame and guilt washed over me in a wave. “Fool, I am so sorry. If only I had recognized you, I never would have hurt you.”

He shook his head. One clawlike hand found his napkin. He mopped his face with it. His words came out as hoarse as a crow’s caw. “What happened, Fitz? What . . . provoked you to try to kill me?”

“I mistook you for someone dangerous. Someone that would hurt a child. I came out of the tavern, looking for my little girl.”

“Your little girl?” His words broke through my explanation in an incredulous shout.

“Yes. My Bee.” Despite all else, I smiled. “Molly and I had a child together, Fool, a tiny girl.”

“No.” His denial was absolute. “No. Not in any future I saw did you have another child.” His brow was furrowed. Scarred as his face was, it was not easy to read his emotions, but he looked almost furious. “I know I would have seen that. I am the true White Prophet. I would have seen that.” He slapped his hand on the table, jerked with the pain, and cradled it to his chest. “I would have seen that,” he insisted again, more quietly.

“But we did,” I said softly. “I know it’s hard to believe. We thought we couldn’t. Molly told me her time for bearing was past. But then she had Bee. Our little girl.”

“No.” He said the word stubbornly. He pinched his lips flat together, and then abruptly his chin trembled like a child’s. “It can’t be. Fitz, it can’t be so. How can that be true? If I did not see such an immense event in your life, what else did I miss? How wrong can I have been about so many other things? Was I wrong about myself?” He fell silent for a time. His blind eyes shifted back and forth, trying to find me. “Fitz. Do not be angry that I ask this, for I must.” He hesitated and then asked in a whisper, “Are you sure? Can you be positive? Are you certain the child was yours, and not just Molly’s?”

“She is mine,” I said flatly. I was astonished at how much insult I took at his words. “Definitely mine,” I added defiantly. “She has a Mountain look to her, like my mother.”

“The mother you scarcely remember.”

“I remember her enough to say that my child looks like her. And I remember Molly well enough to know that Bee is my daughter. Without question. Fool, this is not worthy of you.”

He lowered his eyes and stared at his lap. “So few things are, anymore,” he decided. He rose with a lurch that shook the table. “I’m going back to bed. I don’t feel well.” He shuffled away from me, one knotted hand feeling the air before him while the other curled protectively near his chin.

“I know you’re not well,” I replied, suddenly repentant for how harshly I’d rebuked him. “You are not yourself, Fool. But you will be again. You will be.”

“Do you think so?” he asked. He did not turn toward me but spoke to the empty air in front of him. “I am not certain of that myself. I’ve spent over a decade with people who insisted that I was never who I thought I was. Never the White Prophet, only a boy with vivid dreams. And what you have just told me makes me wonder if they had the right of it.”

I hated seeing him so defeated. “Fool. Remember what you told me so long ago. We move now in a time that you never foresaw. One where we are both alive.”

He made no response to my words. He reached the bed, groped along the edge, then turned and sat down on it. Then he more crumpled than lay down, pulled the covers up over his head, and was completely still.

“I tell you the truth, old friend. I have a daughter, a small girl who depends on me. And I cannot leave her. I must be the one to raise her, to teach her and protect her. It’s a duty I can’t forsake. And one I do not want to.” I tidied as I spoke, wiping away the food he had spilled, corking the remainder of the wine. I waited and my heart continued to sink as he made no response. Finally I said, “What you asked me to do last night. I’d do it for you. You know that. If I could, I would. But now I ask you, as you asked me last night: For my sake, understand that I must say no to you. For now.”

The silence unspooled like a dropped ball of yarn. I’d said the words I must, and their sense would soak into him. He was not a selfish man, nor a cruel one. He’d recognize the truth of what I had told him. I couldn’t go anywhere with him, no matter how badly someone needed to be killed. I had a child to raise and protect. Bee had to come first. I smoothed the bedclothes on my side of the bed. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep. I spoke softly.

“I can’t be here this evening,” I told him. “Chade has a task for me. It may be very late before I come back. Will you be all right alone?”

Still no response. I wondered if he truly had fallen asleep that quickly, or if he was sulking. Leave it alone, Fitz, I counseled myself. He was a sick man. Rest would do more for him than anything else.

Chapter Two

Lord Feldspar

What is a secret? It is much more than knowledge shared with only a few, or perhaps only one other. It is power. It is a bond. It may be a sign of deep trust, or the darkest threat possible.

There is power in the keeping of a secret, and power in the revelation of a secret. Sometimes it takes a very wise man to discern which is the path to greater power.

All men desirous of power should become collectors of secrets. There is no secret too small to be valuable. All men value their own secrets far above those of others. A scullery maid may be willing to betray a prince before allowing the name of her secret lover to be told.

Be very chary of telling your hoarded secrets. Many lose all power once they have been divulged. Be even more careful of sharing your own secrets lest you find yourself a puppet dancing on someone else’s strings.

The Assassin’s Other Tool, Confidence Mayhen

I’d not eaten much, but my appetite was gone. I tidied our table. The Fool was either asleep or feigning it perfectly. I resigned myself to silence from him. With some trepidation, I dressed myself in the clothing that Chade had provided for Lord Feldspar. It fit me well enough, though it was looser around the chest and belly than I had expected. I was surprised at how comfortable it was. I transferred a few of the items from one concealed pocket to another. I sat down to put on the shoes. They had more of a heel than I was accustomed to, and extended far past my foot before terminating in upcurled toes decorated with little tassels. I tried a few steps in them, and then walked the length of the chamber five times until I was certain that I could move with confidence and not trip myself.

Chade had a large looking-glass of excellent quality, as much for his own vanity as for the training of his apprentices. I recall one long night when he had me stand in front of it for most of a watch, trying to smile first sincerely, then disarmingly, then sarcastically, then humbly . . . his list had gone on and on, until my face ached. Now I lifted a branch of candles and looked at Lord Feldspar of Spiretop. There was also a hat, rather like a soft bag, edged with gilt embroidery and a row of decorative buttons and incorporating a fine wig of brown ringlets. I set it on my head and wondered if it was supposed to wilt over to one side as much as it did.

Chade kept a tinker’s tray of odd jewelry in the cupboard. I chose two showy rings for myself and hoped they would not turn my fingers green. I warmed water, shaved, and inspected myself again. I had just resigned myself to creeping out of the room under the smelly garments from Lady Thyme’s old wardrobe when I felt a slight draft. I stood still, listening, and at just the right moment I asked, “Don’t you think it’s time you entrusted me with the trick of triggering that door?”

“I suppose I will have to, now that you are Lord Feldspar and inhabiting the room below.” Chade stepped around the corner, halted, and then nodded his approval at my attire. “The trigger is not where you’d think it would be. It’s not even on this wall. Look here.” He walked to the hearth, swung a brick aside, mortar and all, and showed me a black iron lever. “It’s a bit stiff. I’ll have the boy grease it later.” And so saying, he pulled the lever and the draft was abruptly closed off.

“How do you open the door from my old room?” I’d lost count of how many hours I’d spent searching for that trigger when I was a boy.

He sighed and then smiled. “One after another, my secrets have fallen to you. I’ll confess, I’ve always been amused by your inability to find that one. I thought that surely you would stumble on it by accident if nothing else. It’s in the drapery pull. Close the curtains completely, and then give a final tug. You won’t see or hear a thing, but you can push the door open. And now you know.”

“And now I know,” I agreed. “After half a century of wondering.”

“Surely not half a century.”

“I’m sixty,” I reminded him. “And you started me in the trade when I was less than ten. So, yes, half a century and more.”

“Don’t remind me of my years,” he told me, and then sat down with a sigh. “It’s unfair of you to prate of passing time when it seems to touch you not at all. Tip your hat a bit more to the back. That’s it. Before you go, we’ll redden your nose a little and give you higher color in your cheeks so it will appear you’ve begun your drinking early. And we’ll thicken your brows.” He tilted his head to consider me critically. “That should be enough to keep anyone from recognizing you. What’s this?” he demanded, pulling Bee’s parcel toward him.

“Something that I’d like to dispatch immediately to Withywoods. Things for Bee. I had to leave her quite abruptly, in a very peculiar way. It’s the first Winterfest since her mother died. I’d hoped to be there with her.”

“It will be on its way within the day,” he promised me gravely. “I sent a small troop of guards there this morning. If I’d known you had a message, I would have sent it with them. They’ll travel swiftly.”

“It has little gifts for her from the market. For a late Winterfest surprise. Wait, you sent a troop of guards? Why?”

“Fitz, where are your wits? You left Shun and FitzVigilant there, unprotected. You haven’t even door guards. Luckily I’ve one or two fellows about the place who know their business. Not much muscle among them, but keen eyes. They’ll warn Lant if they see anything threatening. And weather permitting, my troop will be there in three days or so. They’re a rough band, but I’ve seen that their commander is bringing them around. Captain Stout keeps them on a taut leash, until he lets them loose. And then nothing stops them.” He sounded very satisfied with his choice. He drummed his fingers on the table edge. “The daily bird hasn’t arrived, but sometimes that happens when the weather is foul.”

“Daily bird?”

“Fitz, I am a thorough man. I watch over my own. That includes you, for all your years there. And now, when a messageless bird arrives, I know that all is well for Lant and Shun as well. It’s only sensible.”

I’d known he had at least one watcher in place at Withywoods. I hadn’t realized that a daily report was sent to him. Well, not a report. A bird with no message meant all was well. “Chade, I’m ashamed that I gave no thought to the safety of Shun and FitzVigilant when I brought the Fool here. You entrusted them to me. It was a dire situation: I’m afraid it drove all other thoughts out of my head.”

He was nodding as I spoke, his face grave and his mouth without expression. I’d disappointed him. He cleared his throat and very deliberately shifted the topic. “So. Do you think you can masquerade as Lord Feldspar for an evening or three? It would be very handy for me to have a man mingling with the crowd who knew how to listen and how to steer a conversation.”

“I think I can still do that.” I felt abashed at failing him. This was the least I could do. “What were you hoping to discover?”

“Oh, the usual. Anything interesting. Who is trying to make deals out of sight of the crown? Who has been offering bribes to get better trading terms; who has been taking bribes? What is the general feeling about placating the dragons? Of course, the most valuable information you can discover would be any little facts that we aren’t expecting.”

“Do I have any specific targets?”

“Five. No, six, perhaps.” He scratched his ear. “I trust you to find a trail and follow it. I’ll make some suggestions, but keep your ears open for any interesting propositions.”

And for the next few hours he educated me in the various seesaws of power currently in play in the Six Duchies. He described each of the four men and two women that he wished me to spy upon, right down to their preferences for drink, which ones used smoke, and the two who were rumored to be meeting behind their spouses’ backs. Chade gave me a swift tutoring on copper mining so that I could at least appear knowledgeable, and advised me to maintain a crafty silence should anyone ask me detailed questions about my operations or the new vein of ore we had reportedly discovered.

And for a time, I put my life back in the old man’s hands. It would not be fair to say that I forgot my grief at losing Molly or stopped worrying about Bee or resigned myself to the Fool’s declining health. What I did was step outside of my real life and step back into one in which all I had to do was obey Chade’s directives and report back to him what I had learned. There was deep comfort in that. It was almost healing to discover that despite all I had been through, all my losses and all my daily fears and worries, I was still Fitz and this was something I was still very good at.

When he had finished schooling me for my task, he tilted his head toward the Fool’s bed. “How is he?”

“Not himself. In pain and emotionally frail. I upset him and he went back to his bed. And immediately fell asleep.”

“Not surprising. You’re wise to let him sleep.” He picked up Bee’s parcel, weighed it in his hand, and smiled indulgently. “I doubt that any child in Buckkeep Castle will get a heftier sack of holiday loot than this. I’ve an excellent courier. He’ll ride out tonight.”

“Thank you,” I said humbly.

He wagged a dismissive finger at me and then left, taking the package with him. I descended the hidden staircase to the room that had been mine when I was young and closed the door behind me. I halted there briefly to admire the staging of the room. There was a traveling case, of good quality but dusty and battered as if it had come a long way. It was open and partially unpacked, with items of clothing draped carelessly over the chair. Several of the new-appearing items featured a plenitude of buttons. I made a cursory examination of the trunk’s contents. In addition to a selection of clothes that would fit me and were not obviously new, there was all that a man would be likely to pack for an extended stay. Anyone who sought to slip the lock on my room and inspect my things would most likely be convinced that I was indeed Lord Feldspar, right down to my monogrammed kerchiefs. I tucked one of those into my pocket and descended to the merrymaking of Winterfest eve in Buckkeep.

And, oh, how I loved it. There was music and excellent food; drink of all manner flowed freely. Some people were enjoying smoke in tiny braziers at their tables. Young ladies in their best dresses flirted outrageously with young men in bright and impractical garb. More buttons. And I was not the only one in heeled slippers with twirled toes. Indeed my footwear was among the more modest in that regard. It made the lively dances of Winterfest a true contest of agility, and more than one youngster was brought low by an untimely slip.

I had only one bad moment, when I glimpsed Web across the room. I became aware of Buckkeep’s Witmaster in a way that I can’t describe. I think as he quested toward me with his Wit, wondering why I seemed familiar, I somehow became aware of the magic’s touch on me. I turned away and made an excuse to leave that area of the room. I did not see him again that evening.

I located those Chade had bid me find, and insinuated myself into conversations. I appeared to drink a great deal more than I really did, and thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of a mildly inebriated lordling who bragged indiscreetly about the newfound wealth of his holdings. I moved among the merchants and tradesfolk rather than near the dais where the nobility and royalty congregated to socialize with trade delegates from Bingtown, Jamaillia, and Kelsingra. I caught only passing glimpses of Lady Kettricken, dressed in a simple gown of pale yellow with trim of Buckkeep blue.

King Dutiful and Queen Elliania passed through the chamber, pacing sedately, accepting and bestowing greetings from the lesser nobles and well-placed merchants. Dutiful was appropriately solemn and kingly. He had recently begun to cultivate a well-groomed beard, which added to his gravitas. The queen smiled, and her hand rode on the back of Dutiful’s forearm. Her crown sat on a short crop of black curls not much longer than mine; I’d heard she had not allowed her hair to grow since she had lost a girl infant. This marked sign of her continued mourning troubled me even as I too well understood it, but I was glad to see her at the gathering.

The wild girl I had once watched leaping her pony over obstacles was a child no longer. She was small and dark, and one might have expected tall, blond Kettricken, the former Queen of the Six Duchies, to dominate the festivities. But she did not. The two had come into an accord years ago, and balanced each other well. Whereas Kettricken urged the kingdom to embrace new ways, new trading partners, and new ways of doing things, Elliania was a traditionalist. Her matriarchal upbringing in the Out Islands had imbued her with confidence in her right to rule. Her two sons walked behind her, impeccably attired in Buckkeep blue, yet every silver button on their garments featured their mother’s leaping narwhal. I’d known them as babies and as small boys. Those days were long gone now. They were young men now, and Prince Integrity wore the simple crown of the king-in-waiting. Prince Prosper favored his Outislander mother but had developed the Farseer brow. I smiled as the royal family passed, tears of pride stinging my eyes. Our doing, the Fool’s and mine. Peace between the Six Duchies and the Out Islands at last. I feigned a cough to dab at my watering eyes. I turned aside hastily and pushed my way deeper into the crowd. That sort of behavior would never suit Lord Feldspar. Control yourself, Fitz.

Lord Feldspar, Chade and I had decided, bore a greedy merchant’s heart beneath his noble title. He would have no tender feelings toward his rulers, only a stony resolve to retain as much of his tax money as he could. I played my role well. To every minor noble that deigned to introduce himself, I muttered disconsolately over how much of my taxes had gone to fund these festivities and snarled at the thought of my money used to subsidize meat herds for dragons. Dragons! Those with the bad fortune to live near the dragons’ hunting territories should feed them. Or move. It was not up to me to pay for their poor choices! I insinuated myself into conversations near my targets and made sure my complaints were audible.

I had expected that one of our noble guests would propose bypassing the tax collectors of the Six Duchies, but when I was finally targeted it was by a young man from Farrow. He was not a lord or a merchant, but the son of a man who operated freight barges on the river. He smiled and spoke me fair and made a dedicated effort to ply me with stronger drink. He was not one of Chade’s targets, but his sly hints that there was money to be made by a man who knew how to bypass the taxing agents at the river- and seaports made me think he was a thread that would bear following. I used the Skill to reach out mentally to Chade and became aware that my old mentor was using Thick’s strength to help him be fully aware not only of King Dutiful but of several of the coterie members. I kept my sending to him private and small as I drew his attention to my drinking partner.

Ah. Well done. That was all he Skilled back to me, but I shared his sense of satisfaction and knew I had given him the bit of information that made sense of some puzzle he had been working to solve.

I separated myself from the young man to mingle and wander for several hours more. Winterfest was a significant holiday and the dukes and duchesses of all the Six Duchies were in attendance. I saw and was not seen as I recognized many an old friend or acquaintance from my earlier years. Duchess Celerity of Bearns had aged gracefully. Several lifetimes ago she had taken a fancy to FitzChivalry. I hoped she had had a good life. The little lad trotting at her heels was probably a grandson. Perhaps even a great-grandson. There were others, not just nobles but servingfolk and tradesmen. Not as many as I would have recognized a score of years ago. Time’s nets had dragged many of them from this life.

The night grew deep, and the room was warm with the press of bodies and the sweat of the dancers. I was not surprised when the young river trader sought me out to introduce me to a very friendly sea captain from Bingtown. He introduced himself as a New Trader, and immediately shared with me that he had little patience for the Bingtown system of tithes and levies on foreign goods. “The Old Traders are wedged in their ways. If they will not shake off the past and realize they must open their doors to less restricted trade, well, there are those who will find a window.” I nodded to him and asked if I might call on him the day after Winterfest. He gave me a small shingle of wood with the name of his ship and his own name lettered onto its smooth surface. He was staying at the Bloody Hounds near the warehouse docks and would look forward to my visit. Another fish for Chade’s net.

For a time, I indulged myself and took a seat at one of the lesser hearths to hear a minstrel recite a traditional Winterfest tale. When I went seeking some chilled cider, a young woman who had had too much to drink caught me by the arm and demanded that I dance the next measure with her. She could not have been more than twenty, and to me she suddenly seemed a foolish child in a dangerous place. I wondered where her parents were and how they could leave her drunken and alone in the midst of the festival.

But I danced with her, one of the old partner-dances, and despite my fancy toes and lifted heels managed to keep to the steps and mark the time correctly. It was a merry dance, and she was a pretty girl with dark curls and brown eyes and layers upon layers of skirts, all in shades of blue. Yet by the end of the dance I was filled to brimming with loneliness and a deep sadness for all the years that were now behind me. I thanked her, escorted her to a seat near the hearth, and then slipped away. My Winterfest eve, I thought, was over, and I suddenly missed a little hand in mine and big blue eyes looking up at me. For the first time in my life, I wished my little girl had the Skill so that I could reach out to her across the snowy distance and assure her that I loved her and missed her.

As I sought my room, I knew that Chade would be as good as his word. Doubtless a messenger was already in the saddle on his way to Withywoods, my parcel and note in his pack. Yet it would be days before she received it and knew that I had thought of her in the midst of the festivities. Why had I never accepted Chade’s offer to give me a Skilled apprentice at Withywoods, one who could, in my absence, relay news and messages from there? It would have still been a poor substitute for holding my child in my arms and whirling her in a dance at midnight, but it would have been something.

Bee, I love you, I Skilled out, as if somehow that errant thought could reach her. I felt the soft brush of Nettle’s and Chade’s shared thought: I’d had as much drink as was good for me. And perhaps I had, for I Skilled to them, I miss her so.

Neither one had a reply to that, so I bade them good night.

Chapter Three

The Taking of Bee

Sometimes, it is true, a great leader arises who by virtue of charisma persuades others to follow him into a path that leads to greater good. Some would have you believe that to create great and powerful change, one must be that leader.

The truth is that dozens, hundreds, thousands of people have conspired to bring the leader to that moment. The midwife who delivered his grandmother is as essential to that change as is the man who shod his horse so that he might ride forth to rally his followers. The absence of any one of those people can tumble the leader from power as swiftly as an arrow through his chest.

Thus, to effect change does not demand military might nor the ruthlessness of murder. Nor must one be prescient. Gifted with the records of hundreds of prescient Whites, anyone can become a Catalyst. Anyone can precipitate the tiny change that tumbles one man from power and boosts another into his place. This is the change that hundreds of Servants before you have made possible. We are no longer dependent on a single White Prophet to find a better path for the world. It is now within the power of the Servants to smooth the path we all seek to follow.

Instructions, Servant Imakiahen

Snow was falling, white stars cascading down from the black sky. I was on my back, staring up at the night. The cold white flakes melting on my face had woken me. Not from sleep, I thought. Not from rest, but from a peculiar stillness. I sat up slowly, feeling giddy and sick.

I had been hearing the sounds and smelling the smells for some time. In my dazed state, the roasting meat of Winterfest had been enticing, and the crackling sound of the huge logs in the grand hearth in the Great Hall. A minstrel was tuning some sea-pipes, the deepest-voiced of traditional wind instruments.

But now I was awake and I stared in horror. This was no celebration of Winterfest eve. This was the opposite of a gathering to drive darkness from our homes. This was a wallowing in destruction. The stables were burning. The charring meat was dead horses and men. The long, low tones that had seemed to be the slow waking of musical instruments were the confused moaning of the folk of Withywoods.

My folk.

I rubbed my eyes, wondering what had happened. My hands were heavy and floppy, with no strength. They were stuffed into immense fur mittens. Or were they huge white furry paws? Not mine?

A jolt. Was I me? Was I someone else, thinking my thoughts? I shivered all over. “I’m Bee,” I whispered to myself. “I’m Bee Farseer. Who has attacked my home? And how came I to be here?”

I was bundled warmly against the cold, enthroned like a queen in the bed of an open sleigh I did not recognize. It was a marvelous sleigh. Two white horses in red-and-silver harness waited stoically to pull it. To either side of the driver’s seat, cleverly wrought iron hangers held lanterns with glass sides and worked iron scrolls as decorations. They illuminated the cushioned seat for the driver and a passenger, and the gracefully curved edges of the sleigh’s bed. I reached out, thinking to run my hand over the finely polished wood. I could not. I was rolled and wrapped and weighted with blankets and furs that bound my sleepy body as effectively as knotted ropes. The sleigh was drawn up at the edge of the carriageway that served the once-grand doors of Withywoods. Those doors were caved in now, broken and useless.

I shook my head, trying to clear my mind of cobwebs. I should be doing something! I needed to do something, but my body felt heavy and soft, like bags of wet laundry. I could not remember how I had been returned to Withywoods, let alone dressed in a heavy fur robe and bundled into a sleigh. As if I were backtracking my day, trying to find a lost glove, I set what I could remember in order. I’d been in the schoolroom with the other children. Steward Revel, dying as he warned us to run. I’d hidden the other children in the secret passage in the walls of Withywoods, only to have the door closed to me. Fleeing with Perseverance. He’d been shot. I’d been captured. And I had been so happy to be captured. I recalled no more than that. But somehow I’d been brought back to Withywoods, buttoned into a heavy fur coat, and swaddled into a dozen blankets. And now I was here, in a sleigh, watching my stables burn.

I turned my eyes away from the leaping orange flames of the burning stable and looked toward the manor. People, all the people I had known my whole life, were gathered in front of the tall doors of Withywoods. They weren’t dressed for the snow. They wore the clothes they had donned that morning for the day’s work inside the manor. They huddled together, hugging themselves or clinging to one another for warmth. I saw several shorter figures and finally my blurry vision made out that they were the children I had earlier concealed. Against my stern admonition, they had come out and betrayed themselves. My slow thoughts put together the burning stable and the hidden children. Perhaps they had been wise to come out. Perhaps the raiders would burn the house next.

The raiders. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, fighting for clarity of vision and thought.

This attack made no sense to me. We had no enemies that I knew of. We were far inland in the duchy of Buck, and the Six Duchies were not at war with anyone. Yet these foreigners had come and attacked us. They had battered their way into our halls.


Because they wanted me.

The thought made no sense, and yet it seemed to be true. These attackers had come to steal me. Armed men on horseback had run me down. Run us down. Oh, Perseverance. His own blood leaking between his fingers. Was he dead or hiding? How had I ended here, back at Withywoods? One of the men had seized me and dragged me back. The woman who seemed to be in charge of this raid had rejoiced at finding me, and told me that she was taking me home, to where I belonged. I frowned. I’d felt so happy at those words. So cherished. What had been wrong with me? The fog man had greeted me and welcomed me as his brother.

Even though I was a girl. I had not told them that. I had been so suffused with happiness to see them that I could scarcely speak. I had opened my arms to the fog man, and to the plump, motherly woman who had rescued me from the raider who had been choking me. But after that . . . I remembered a warm whiteness. That was all. The memory made no sense but it still filled me with shame. I’d embraced the woman who had brought these killers to my home.

I turned my head slowly. I felt as if I could not do anything quickly. I could not move quickly or think quickly. I had taken a bad fall, I remembered slowly. From a running horse. Had I struck my head? Was that what was wrong with me?

My unseeing eyes had been focused on the burning stables. Two men approached it now, carrying something. Withywoods men, dressed in our yellow and green, in their best clothes. For a Winterfest eve that had become a winter slaughter. I recognized one as Lin, our shepherd. They were carrying something between them. Something that sagged. A body. Around the burning stables, the snow had melted to slush. They trudged on. Closer and closer. Would they walk right into the flames? But as they drew closer, they halted. “One, two, three!” Lin’s voice cracked on the count as they swung the body and then, on three, they let go. It flew into the red mouth of the burning building. They turned. Like puppets traipsing across a stage, they walked away from the flames.

Was that why the stable was burning? To get rid of the bodies? A good hot bonfire was a very effective way to get rid of a body. I’d learned that from my father. “Papa?” I whispered. Where was he? Would he come to save me? Could he save all our people? No. He’d left me and gone off to Buckkeep Castle, to try to save the blind old beggar. He wasn’t going to save me, or our people. No one was.

“I am cleverer than this.” I whispered the words aloud. I had not known I was going to say them. It seemed as if some part of me strove to wake the dull, deadened creature I had become. I looked around fearfully to see if anyone had heard me speak. They must not hear me speak. Because . . . if they did . . . If they did, they would know. Know what?

“Know they aren’t controlling me anymore.”

My whisper was even softer this time. The parts of me were coming back together. I sat very still in my warm nest, gathering my mind and my strength. I mustn’t betray myself until I could do something. The sleigh had been heaped with furs and woolen blankets from the manor. I was wrapped in a heavy robe of white fur, thick and soft, too big for me. It was not from Withywoods. It was no type of fur that I knew and it smelled foreign. A hat of the same fur covered my head. I moved my mittened hands, shifting my arms free of the heavy blankets. I was loaded up like a stolen treasure. I was what they were taking. Me and very little else. If they had come to plunder, I reasoned, the teams and wagons of Withywoods would be standing full of loot and the riches of my home. I saw none of that, not even our riding horses bunched to steal. I was the only thing they were carrying off. They had killed Revel to steal me.

So what would happen to everyone else?

I lifted my eyes. The huddled folk of Withywoods were limned against smaller fires. They stood like penned cattle in the snowy center. Some were held up by their fellows. Faces were transformed by pain and horror into people I dared not recognize. The fires, built of the fine furniture of Withywoods, were not there to warm them but to light the night so they could not elude their captors. Most of the raiders were mounted on horses. Not our horses, nor our saddles. I’d never seen saddles like those, so high in the back. My numbed mind counted them. Not many, perhaps as few as ten. But they were men of blood and iron. Most of them were fair, with yellow hair and stained pale beards. They were tall and hard and some walked with bared blades in their hands. Those men were the killers, the soldiers that had come to do this task. Those men with fair hair like mine. I saw the man who had chased me down, the one who had dragged me, half-strangled, back to the house. He stood face-to-face with the woman who had shouted at him, the plump woman who had made him drop me. And next to them, there, make my eyes see him, yes, there. He was there. The fog man.

Today was not the first time I had seen him.

He had been in Oaksbywater, at the market. He had been there, fogging the whole town. No one who had passed him had turned to look at him. He’d been in the alley, the one that no one was choosing to walk down. And what had been behind him? The raiders? The soft, kind woman with the voice and words that made me love her as soon as she spoke? I was not sure. I had not seen through his fog, had barely seen the fog man himself. I could scarcely see him now. He stood by the woman.

He was doing something. Something hard. It was so hard for him that he had had to stop fogging me to do it. Knowing that helped me to peel my mind clear of his. With every passing moment, my thoughts were more my own. My body was more my own. I felt now the bruises of the day, and how my head ached. I ran my tongue around inside my mouth and found the place where I had bitten my cheek ragged. I pushed my tongue against it, tasting blood and waking the pain, and suddenly my thoughts were my own and only my own.

Do something. Don’t sit still and warm and let them burn the bodies of your friends while Withywoods folk stand shivering in the snow. They were helpless, I perceived, their minds almost as fogged as mine had been. Perhaps I was only able to find myself because of my years of experience at withstanding the pressure of my father’s mind. There they stood, in distress, as indecisive as sheep in a blizzard and as helpless. They knew something was wrong, and yet there they stood. They moaned, they lowed like penned cattle awaiting slaughter. Save for Lin and his partner. Here they came again, out of the darkness, a body slung between them. They trudged, wooden-faced, men carrying out an assigned task. One they had been told not to think about.

I looked at the fog man. More of a fog boy, I decided. His round face had the unfinished, chinless look of a boy. His body was soft, unused. Not so his mind, I suspected. His brow was wrinkled in concentration. The soldiers, I realized suddenly. He was ignoring the Withywoods folk, trusting that the haze he had left them in would not disperse quickly. He held the soldiers still, keeping them listening to the woman with the trustworthy words. His fog wrapped the old man who sat on a black horse.

The old man held his sword in his hand, and the tip that pointed at the ground dripped blackness. The fog was almost a haze I could see. Then I realized that actually I could not quite see through it. It reflected light, so the old man had an aura of red firelight around him. His was a terrifying face, old and fallen, as if he had melted. The bones were hard and his eyes were pale. He radiated bitterness and hatred of everyone who was not as miserable as he was. I groped within my mind and made a tiny hole in my wall so that I could feel what the fog man told the old soldier. The fog man was wrapping him in triumph and success, was feeding him satisfaction and satiation. The task was done. He would be well rewarded, rewarded far beyond his expectations. People would know what he had done. They would hear of it and remember who he had been. They’d regret how they had treated him. They’d grovel before him and beg for him to be merciful.

But now? Now it was time to turn away from the pillaging and raping, time for him and his men to take what they had come for and begin the journey home. If they delayed here, it could only cause complications. There would be more conflict, more killing . . . no. The fog shifted suddenly. Don’t feed him that prospect. Instead the fog became full of the cold and the darkness and how weary he was. The sword was heavy in his hand; his armor bowed his shoulders. They had what they had come for. The sooner they turned back toward Chalced, the sooner he would be in warmer lands with his well-earned prize. The sooner he would look down from his horse on the folk who would regret how they had scorned him.

“We should burn it all. Kill all of them and burn it all,” one of his men offered. He was mounted on a brown horse. He smiled, showing good teeth. His pale hair was bound back from his face in two long braids. His brow was square and his chin firm. Such a handsome man. He rode the horse into the huddled people and they parted like butter melting before a hot spoon. In the midst of them, he wheeled his mount and looked at his commander. “Commander Ellik! Why should we leave one timber standing here?”

The plump woman spoke clearly into the night. “No. No, Hogen, that would be foolishness. Do not be hasty here. Listen to your commander. Ellik knows what is wise. Burn the stable and the bodies. Allow Vindeliar to take care of all the rest. Let us journey home knowing that no one will remember us or pursue us. We have what we came for. Let us go now. With no pursuit to worry about, we can move swiftly back to the warm lands.”

I struggled out of the wallow of blankets and rugs. My boots, they had pulled my boots off my feet and left only my socks. Find my boots or lose my chance to escape? The long robe of heavy white fur reached past my knees. I hiked it up, crawled to the far side of the wagon, and dropped over the side. My legs crumpled under me and my face plunged briefly into the snow. I struggled to get up by pulling at the edge of the sleigh. I hurt all over, but it wasn’t just that. I felt as if I’d been disconnected from my muscles. I wasted precious moments working my legs until I felt I could walk without falling.

And then I stood up. I could walk. But what good would that do? At that moment, I hated being small more than I had ever hated my stature in my life. Yet even if I had been a tall and mighty warrior on a powerful horse, what could I do against so many armed men?

I felt sick and helpless as I realized the larger truth. Not even an army could undo what had been done. Nothing and no one could bring back Steward Revel or unspill FitzVigilant’s blood from the snow or unburn the stables. It was all broken. I might still be alive but I was just a salvaged piece of a life that had been shattered. Not one of us was whole. There was no going back, not for any of us.

I could not decide what to do. I was already getting cold. I could get back into the wagon, burrow under the blankets, and let happen to me whatever might happen. I could run away into the darkness and try to find Perseverance under the snow and the cloak. I could flee to the captured people, and be once more dragged to the wagon. I wondered if I could steel myself and run into the burning stable deep enough to die there. How badly would it hurt?

Cornered wolves fight. Even the cubs.

That thought seeped into my brain, then was frozen and shattered by a long, shrill scream. It seemed so odd that I could recognize who the scream belonged to. It was Shun. I peeked around the side of the wagon. The man who had defied the plump woman gripped Shun by her hair. “We’ll go,” he agreed affably. “But first I’ll enjoy a prize of my own.” He tugged Shun up on her toes. She squealed, sounding like a piglet. At any other time, it would have been a funny sound. Both her hands were on top of her head as she gripped her own hair, trying to take the pressure off her scalp. Her torn blouse gaped wide. It was as red as blood, that dress, with an overlay of white lace in a snowflake pattern. He shook her, not gently. “This one. This little cat tried to stick a knife in me. She’s still got some fight in her. I haven’t had her yet. And in some things, I am not a hasty man.”

Still gripping Shun by the hair, he dismounted. She tried to pull free of him but he just shifted his grip to the back of her head. He was taller than she was and when he held her at arm’s length her swinging fists could not touch him. The men of Withywoods just stood and watched. Their eyes were dull, their mouths slack. No one moved to help her. FitzVigilant would have tried to protect her. But I’d seen him earlier, sprawled in his blood in the snow. Shun struggled against her captor, as helpless against him as I would be. He laughed, and shouted over her shrieks, “I’ll take special care of this one, and then I’ll catch up with you. Before morning.”

The other mounted soldiers were stirring, suddenly interested, fighting the fog man’s calm. Their eyes fixed on the struggling woman like house dogs watching a man tear the last meat from a bone.

The plump woman shot the fog man, Vindeliar, a desperate look. He pursed his mouth until his lips thrust out like a duck’s beak. Even where I stood, ignored by them, I felt the suffocating drag of what he did. My thoughts softened at the edges like candles too near a flame. I had been about to do something, but it could wait. It would have been too much bother. Too much effort. The day had been long, and I was tired. It was dark here, and cold. It was time to find a quiet, safe place and rest. Rest.

I turned back to the sleigh and reached for the edge of it to climb back over the side. My hands in the immense fur mittens slipped and my forehead jolted hard against the wood.

Wake up! Fight. Or run. But do not fall asleep. Wolf-Father shook my awareness as if shaking the life from a hare. I came back to myself with a shudder. Push it back. Push it away. But softly, softly. Don’t make him aware that you fight him.

It was not easy advice to act on. The fog was like cobwebs; it clung and muffled and dimmed my sight. I lifted my head and stared over the sleigh. Vindeliar had the others under his control. It was not that he was forcing them to do anything. It was that he had put their thoughts into a place where rest and sleep sounded more enticing than anything else. He was affecting even the captives. Some were sinking down where they stood, to fall on their sides in the snow.

Shun had ceased her struggles, but the fog did not seem to be touching her. She looked up at her captor, her teeth bared. Hogen stared at her, shook her, and then slapped her. She regarded him with hatred, but she refused to fight. She had realized it only amused him. He laughed, a cruel and brittle sound. Then he seized her by the throat and threw her violently backward. She lay where she landed. The skirts of her dress floated wide, like rose petals on the snow. The fog man’s efforts rolled past her attacker. The handsome man stepped on Shun’s skirts to pin her down as his hands went to his belt buckle.

His mounted commander looked at him with no interest. He lifted his voice and spoke to his men. It was an old man’s thin shout but that did not matter. He knew he would be obeyed. “Finish here. Put the bodies into the fire when you are done. Then follow. We are leaving now.” He spared a glance for the handsome man. “Do not be long, Hogen.” Then he turned his horse’s head and lifted his hand. His mounted men followed him without a backward glance. Others came from the shadows, some on horses, some on foot. More than I had counted. The plump woman and Vindeliar looked around. That was when I realized they were not alone. The others had been unnoticeable to me, as the fog man had intended.

They were wearing white. Or so I thought. But as they passed the firelight and ranged themselves around the plump woman and Vindeliar, I realized their garments were shades of yellow and ivory. They were all dressed alike, as if their close-tailored coats and quilted trousers were a strange livery. They wore knit hats that covered their ears; flaps at the backs of their necks could be wrapped around their throats. I had never seen such hats. Their faces were as similar as if they were siblings, all pale of skin and hair, round-chinned, and rosy-lipped. I could not tell if they were men or women. They moved as if silenced by exhaustion, their mouths downturned. They walked right past the handsome man struggling with his cold, stiff belt as he stood over Shun. They looked at Shun as they passed, pitying her but with no mercy.

The plump woman spoke as they gathered around her. “I am sorry, luriks. I wish as much as you that this had been avoided. But that once begun cannot be undone, as we all know. It was seen that this might happen, but there was no clear vision of the path that would lead both to this not happening and to us finding the boy. And so today we chose a path that we knew must be bloody but would end in the necessary place. We have found him. And now we must take him home.”

Their youthful faces were stiff with horror. One spoke. “What of these ones? The ones that didn’t die?”

“Have no fear for them.” The plump woman comforted her followers. “The worst is over for them, and Vindeliar will ease their minds. They will remember little of this night. They will invent reasons for their bruises and forget what befell them. Gather yourselves while he works. Kindrel, go for the horses. Take Soula and Reppin with you. Alaria, you will drive the sleigh. I am weary beyond saying and still must tend to Vindeliar when all is done here.”

I saw Shepherd Lin and his fellow leave the circle of huddled folk. They carried another body slung between them. Their faces were unconcerned, as if they carried a sack of grain. I saw the handsome man drop to his knees in the snow. He’d opened the front of his trousers and now he pushed Shun’s beautiful red skirts up to bare her legs.

Had she been waiting for that? She launched a tremendous kick at him, aiming for his face. It struck his chest. She gave a deep-throated, wordless cry of refusal and tried to roll to her side and flee, but he seized her by one leg and jerked her back. He laughed out loud, pleased that she would fight because he knew that she would lose. She grabbed one of his dangling braids and jerked it hard. He slapped her, and for an instant she was still, stunned by the force of that blow.

I did not like Shun. But she was mine. Mine as Revel had been, and never would be again. As FitzVigilant had been. They had died for me, trying to stop these strangers from taking me. Even if they hadn’t known it. And I knew, quite clearly, what the handsome man would do after he had hurt and humiliated Shun. He would kill her, and Shepherd Lin and his helper would throw her into the stable fire.

Just as my father and I had burned the body of the messenger.

I moved. I ran, but I ran as a small person in wet and freezing socks, wearing a long, heavy fur robe. That is, I surged and trudged against a low wall of heavy wet snow. It was like trying to run in a sack. “Stop!” I shouted. “Stop!” And the roaring of the flames and the mutters and groans of the gathered folk of Withywoods and Shun’s desperate wordless cries swallowed my words.

But she heard me, the plump woman. She turned to me, but the fog man was still looking at the huddled people and doing whatever magic he was doing to them. I was closer to the handsome man than I was to the plump woman and her followers. I ran at him, screaming wordlessly in a strange harmony with Shun’s cries. He was dragging at her clothes. He had ripped her embroidered Winterfest blouse to bare her breasts to the cold and falling snow and now he was tugging and tearing at her scarlet skirts, but he was trying to do it with one hand. His other hand was fending off the desperate blows and clawing efforts she was making at his face. I was not moving fast but I did not slow down as I thrust at him with the full force of my braced arms.

He grunted slightly, turned a snarling face toward me, and clouted me with an outflung arm. I do not think he even used his full strength, for most of it was devoted to holding Shun on her back. He did not need his full strength. I flew backward and landed in the deep snow. He had struck the air out of my lungs, but even so I was more humiliated than hurt. Gasping and choking, I rolled and wallowed in the snow, finally managing to get to my hands and knees. I drew a painful breath and shouted words that scarcely made sense to me, the most frightening words I could think of. “I will make myself dead if you hurt her!”

The rapist paid no attention to me, but I heard the outraged cries of the plump woman’s followers. She was shouting something in a language I didn’t know, and the pale-faced people suddenly swept in as a mob. Three seized me and set me on my feet, sweeping snow off me so anxiously that I felt like a carpet that was being beaten. I pushed them away from me and tottered toward Shun. I could not see what was happening to her, save that there was fighting there. I fought free of my rescuers, shouting, “Shun! Help Shun, not me! Shun!”

The knot of struggling people seemed to trample Shun and then the fight moved away. The pale folk were not faring well, except that there were so many of them and only one rapist. Time after time, I heard the solid smack of fist on flesh, and someone would cry out in pain. Then one of the plump woman’s minions would fall back, holding a bleeding nose or bending over and clutching a stomach. By sheer numbers they overcame him, flinging their bodies over him and holding him down in the snow. One cried out suddenly, “He bites! Beware!” prompting a sudden reshuffling of the bodies on top of him.

All this took place as I wallowed forward, fell, rose, and finally burst free of the deep snow onto the trampled ground. I flung myself to my knees beside Shun, sobbing, “Be alive! Please, be alive!”

She wasn’t. I felt nothing from her. Then, as I touched her cheek, her staring eyes blinked. She looked up at me without recognition and began to utter short, sharp shrieks as if she were a hen on a threatened nest. “Shun! Don’t be scared! You are safe now! I’ll protect you.” Even as I made those promises, I heard how ridiculous they were. I tugged at her opened top and the torn lace, getting snow from my mittened hands on her bare chest. She gasped and suddenly gripped the ripped edges of the fabric. She sat up, holding her collar closed. She looked down at the fabric in her hands and then said brokenly, “It was the finest quality. It was.” She bowed her head. Sobs rose from her, terrible shaking sobs without tears.

“It still is,” I assured her. “You still are.” I started to pat her comfortingly, then realized my mittens were still laden with snow. I tried to drag my hands free of them, but they were fastened to the sleeves of my fur robe.

Behind us, the plump woman was talking to the man on the ground. “You cannot have her. You heard the words of the shaysim. He values her life beyond his own. She must not be harmed, lest he do harm to himself.”

I turned my head to look at them. The plump woman was nudging her charges, and they were slowly getting off the man. The rapist responded with curses. I did not need to know the language to understand the depth of his anger. The pale folk were tumbling away from him, falling back and stumbling through the deeper snow as he came to his feet. Two were bleeding from their noses. He spat snow, cursed again, and then strode off into the darkness. I heard him address something angrily, the heavy stomping of a startled horse, and then the sounds of a horse pushed abruptly into a gallop.

I had given up on the mittens. I crouched beside Shun. I wanted to talk to her but had no idea what to say. I would not lie again and tell her that she was safe. None of us was safe. She huddled as deep into herself as she could, pulling her knees up to her chest and bowing her head over them.

“Shaysim.” The plump woman crouched in front of me. I would not look at her. “Shaysim,” she said again and touched me. “She is important to you, this one? Have you seen her? Doing important things? Is she essential?” She put her hand on Shun’s bent neck as if she were a dog, and Shun cowered away from the touch. “Is she one you must keep beside you?”

The words sank into me like FitzVigilant’s blood had sunk into the trampled snow. They made holes in me. The question was significant. It had to be answered and it had to be answered correctly. What did she want me to say? What could I say that would make her keep Shun alive?

I still did not look at her. “Shun is essential,” I said. “She does important things.” I flung an arm wide and shouted angrily, “They are all essential. They all do important things!”

“That’s true.” She spoke gently, as if I were a little child. It came to me that perhaps she thought I was much younger than I was. Could I use that? My mind tumbled strategies frantically as she continued to speak. “Everyone is significant. Everyone does important things. But some people are more significant than others. Some people do things that make changes. Big changes. Or they make tiny changes that can lead to big changes. If someone knows how to use them.” She hunched even lower, then thrust her face below mine and looked up at me. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Shaysim? You’ve seen the paths and the people who are the crossroads. Haven’t you?”

I turned my face away. She reached out and took me by the chin to turn my face back to hers, but I put my gaze on her mouth. She could not force me to meet her eyes. “Shaysim.” She made the name a gentle rebuke. “Look at me now. Is this woman significant? Is she essential?”

I knew what she meant. I’d glimpsed it, when the beggar had touched me in the marketplace. There were people who precipitated changes. All people made changes, but some were rocks in the current, diverting the waters of time into a different channel.

I did not know if I lied or told the truth when I said, “She is essential. She is significant to me.” Or if it was inspiration or deception that prompted me to add, “Without her, I die before I am ten.”

The plump woman gave a small gasp of dismay. “Take her up!” she cried to her followers. “Treat her gently. She must be healed of every hurt, comforted of every wrong she has felt today. Be cautious, luriks. This one must live, at all costs. We must keep her out of Hogen’s hands, for thwarted as he is now, he will want her more than ever. He will be most determined. So we must be even more determined, and we must search the scrolls to know what we must do to hold him at bay. Kardef and Reppin, your task tonight will be to confer with the memorizers and see if they can tease out any wisdom for us. For I fear nothing comes to mind.”

“May I speak, Dwalia?” A youngster in gray bowed deeply and held that posture.

“Speak, Kardef.”

Kardef straightened. “The shaysim has called her Shun. In his language, it is a word that means ‘to avoid’ or ‘to beware a danger.’ There are many dream-scrolls that caution us, over and over, to avoid casting significant things into the flames. If translated into his language, could not the dreams have been telling us not ‘shun the flames,’ but ‘Shun not into the flames’?”

“Kardef, you are reaching. That way lies corruption of the prophecies. Beware and beware again of twisting the ancient words, especially when you do it so blatantly to make yourself look more learned than your partner, Reppin.”

“Lingstra Dwalia, I . . .”

“Do I look as if I have time to stand in the snow and argue with you? We should have been away from here before the night fell. With every moment that we linger, the greater the chance that someone may see the flames from a distance and come to see what has happened here. And then must Vindeliar spread his talents even wider, and his control grows more tenuous with each passing moment. Obey me now. Convey the shaysim and the woman to the sleigh. Mount your horses, and two of you assist Vindeliar to the sleigh as well. He is nearly spent. We must away right now.”

Her orders issued, she turned and looked down at me where I crouched by Shun. “Well, little shaysim, I think you have what you wished. Let’s get you onto the sleigh and be on our way.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“And yet you will. We all know you will, just as clearly as you do. For, from this point in time, only two possible outcomes have been documented. You go with us. Or you die here.” She spoke with calm assurance, as if pointing out that rain could not fall on a cloudless day. I heard her absolute belief in her own words.

Once, my foster-brother Hap had amused me for almost an hour by showing me how, long after he had plucked a string, the wood of his harp still vibrated to its song. I felt it then, how the woman’s words woke a harmony inside me. She was right. I knew it was true, and that was why I had threatened them with my death. Tonight, I would either leave my home with them or die here. All the circumstances that might lead to another outcome from this moment were too remote, too fantastic to hope for. And I knew that. Perhaps I had known it since I woke up this morning. I blinked and a shiver ran down my back. Was this happening now, or was it the remembrance of a dream?

Strong arms were plucking me out of the snow, and voices exclaimed in dismay at the frost coating my wet socks. The one who carried me spoke comforting words I did not understand. I lifted my head and saw that four of them were carrying Shun. It was not that she was heavy, but that she struggled in a disconnected way as if her legs and arms were all different creatures.

The woman they called Dwalia had proceeded to the sleigh. She was already in the back, making a fresh nest in the furs and blankets. I was handed up to her, and she set me between her legs, facing away from her, with my back warmed by her front and her arms around me. I did not like being so close to her, but I was wedged there. Shun they loaded like freight, and then heaped blankets over her. Once they let go of her she ceased struggling and lay like dead meat under the mounded wraps. Part of her skirt had snagged on the edge of the sleigh. The flap of red was like a mocking tongue.

Someone spoke to the horses and they moved off. I was facing backward. I listened to the sounds of their hooves dulled by the falling snow, the squeaking of the wide wooden runners, and the fading crackle of the flames that ate the stable. The folk of Withywoods, my folk, were slowly reentering the house. They did not look at us. We left the light of the burning stables behind and entered the long carriageway that led away from Withywoods. The lanterns swung and a bubble of light danced around us as we flowed down the avenue of arched, snow-laden birches.

I did not even realize the fog man was in the sleigh until he spoke to Dwalia. “It’s done,” he said and heaved a big sigh of satisfaction. Definitely a boy, I realized. He spoke with a boy’s voice as he added, “And now we can go home, away from the cold. And the killing. Lingstra Dwalia, I did not realize there would be so much killing.”

I felt her turn her head to look at him where he sat, up front with the driver. She spoke softly, as if I were asleep. I wasn’t. I didn’t dare try to hide in sleep. “We did not intend for there to be any killing. But we knew that the chances of avoiding all killing were nearly impossible. We had to use the tools we had, and Ellik is a man full of bitterness and hate. The wealth and comfort he expected in his elder years escaped him. He lost his position, his fortune, and all his comforts. He blames the whole world for that. He seeks to rebuild in a few years what it took him a lifetime to acquire. And so he will always be more violent, more greedy, more ruthless than he need be. He is dangerous, Vindeliar. Never forget that. He is especially dangerous to you.”

“I don’t fear him, Lingstra Dwalia.”

“You should.” Her words were both a warning and a rebuke. Her hands moved, pulling more blankets over both of us. I hated the touch of her body against mine but could not find the will to shift. The sleigh lurched forward. I stared at the passing forests of Withywoods. I did not even have the heart to bid it a tearful farewell. I had no hope. My father would not know where I had gone. My own people had given me up, simply standing and going back into Withywoods manor. None had shouted that they would not let me go. No one had tried to take me back from my captors. I faced what my strangeness had done to me: I had never really belonged to them. Losing me was a small price to pay for the invaders to leave with no more bloodshed. They were right. I was glad they had not fought to keep me. I wished there had been a way to save Shun without having her carted off with me.

The corner of my eye caught a movement. The swaying lanterns made the trees at the edge of the drive seem to cast iron bars of blackness on the snow. But this was not a movement born of that light. This motion was standing snow, gripped by a hand black with blood, and above all a pale face with staring eyes. I did not turn my head, or cry out, or catch my breath. I let nothing in me betray to anyone that Perseverance stood in my Elderling cloak and watched us pass him by.

Chapter Four

The Fool’s Tale

When winter’s clutch is cold and dark

And game is scarce and forest stark,

This songster to the hearth retreats

To warm his cheeks and icy feet.

But on the hill and in the glen

Are hunters hardier than men.

With lolling tongues and eyes that gleam

They surge through snow with breath like steam.

For in the hunt there is no morrow,

Time does not wait. There is no sorrow

As blood spills black and snarls are rife.

For life is meat, and death brings life.

—A song for Nighteyes and his friend, Hap Gladheart

The stairs seemed steeper than I remembered. When I reached my old bedchamber, I entered it as cautiously as befit an erstwhile assassin. I closed and locked my door, put wood on the fire, and for a short time considered simply getting into the bed and going to sleep. Then I drew the curtains shut and inspected the area where they were fastened to the rod. Yes. I saw it now, as I had not in all those years. Another tug on the drapery pull triggered the door panel, but no sound or crack betrayed it. Only when I pushed on it did it swing silently open and the narrow black staircase appear before me.

I climbed the risers, stumbling once when my curly toe hooked on the step. Up in Chade’s old workroom, Ash had come and gone. Our dirty dishes had been tidied away, and a different pot simmered at the edge of the hearth. The Fool had not moved since I left him, and I crossed the room anxiously to lean over him. “Fool?” I said softly, and with a cry he flung his arms wide and sat up to cower behind his raised hands. One flying hand glanced off my cheek. As I stepped back from his bed, he cried, “I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me!”

“It’s only me. Only Fitz.” I spoke calmly, trying to keep the anguish from my voice. Eda and El, Fool, will you ever recover from what you endured?

“I’m sorry,” he repeated breathlessly. “So sorry, Fitz.” He was breathing hard. “When they had me . . . they never woke me gently. Or allowed me to sleep until I woke. I so feared sleep I would bite myself to stay awake. But always, eventually, one sleeps. And then they would wake me, sometimes just a few moments later. With a little barbed blade. Or a hot poker.” His grimace had barely the semblance of a smile. “I hate the smell of fire now.” He dropped his head back on the pillow. Hatred surged in me and then passed, leaving me empty. I could never undo what they had done to him. After a time, he rolled his head toward me and asked, “Is it day now?”

My mouth had gone dry and wordless. I cleared my throat. “It’s either very late at night or very early in the morning, depending on how you think of such things. We spoke last in early afternoon. Have you been sleeping all this time?”

“I don’t exactly know. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell. Give me a few moments, please.”

“Very well.”

I retreated to the far end of the room and studiously ignored him as he tottered from the bed. He found his way to the garderobe, was there for some time, and when he emerged called to ask if there was wash-water.

“In a pitcher next to the bowl on the stand by your bed. But I can warm some for you if you wish, too.”

“Oh, warm water,” he said, as if I had offered him gold and jewels.

“Shortly,” I replied. I set about my task. He groped his way to the chair by the fireside and sat down. I marveled at how quickly he had learned the room. When I brought the warmed water and a washing cloth, he reached for it immediately and I realized that he had been silent so he could track my activity by what he could hear. I felt as if I spied on him as he washed his scarred face and then repeatedly scrubbed his eyes to clear the gummy mucus from his lashes. When he had finished, his eyes were clean but reddened at the rims.

I spoke without apology or preamble. “What did they do to your eyes?”

He set the cloth back in the bowl and clutched his damaged hands together, gently rubbing the swollen knuckles. He was silent as I cleared the table. Very well, then. Not yet. “Are you hungry?” I asked him.

“Is it time for a meal?”

“If you’re hungry, it’s time for your meal. I’ve eaten too much already. And possibly drunk more than I should have as well.”

His response shocked me. “Do you truly have another daughter beside Nettle?”

“I do.” I sat down in my chair and pulled one of the shoes off. “Her name is Bee. And she is nine years old now.”


“Fool, what purpose could I have for lying to you?” He made no answer to that. I reached down and unfastened the second shoe. I pulled it free and put my foot flat on the floor. My left calf cramped abruptly and I exclaimed in pain and bent to rub it.

“What’s wrong?” he asked in some alarm.

“Ridiculous shoes, courtesy of Chade. Tall heels and pointed tips curling up at the toes. You’d laugh if you could see them. Oh, and the jacket has a skirt that goes nearly to my knees. And buttons shaped like little blue flowers. And the hat is like a floppy sack. Not to mention the curly wig.”

A small smile quirked his mouth. Then he said gravely, “You’ve no idea how much I’d love to see it all.”

“Fool, it’s not idle curiosity that makes me ask about your eyes. If I knew what was done to you, it might help me undo it.”

Silence. I removed my hat and set it on the table. Standing, I began to unbutton the jacket. It was just slightly too tight in the shoulders and suddenly I could not endure how it bound me. I gave a sigh of relief, draped it on the chair back, and sat down. The Fool had picked up the hat. His hands explored it. Then he set it, wig and all, upon his head. With apparent ease, he twitched the hair into place and then effortlessly arranged the hat into an artful slouch.

“It looks far better on you than it did on me.”

“Fashion travels. I had a hat almost like this. Years ago.”

I waited.

He sighed heavily. “What have I told you and what haven’t I? Fitz, in my darkness, my mind slips around until I scarcely trust myself at all anymore.”

“You’ve told me very little.”

“Have I? Perhaps you know very little, but I assure you that night after night, in my cell, I spoke with you at length and in detail.” A wry twist of his mouth. He lifted the hat and set it on the table, where it crouched on its wig like a small animal. “Each time you ask me a question, it surprises me. For I feel that you were so often with me.” He shook his head, then leaned back suddenly in his chair and for a time appeared to stare at the ceiling. He spoke into that darkness. “Prilkop and I left Aslevjal. You know that. We journeyed to Buckkeep. What you may never have guessed is that we used the Skill-pillars to do so. Prilkop spoke of having learned it from his Catalyst, and I, I had my silvered fingertips from when I had touched Verity. And so we came to Buckkeep and I could not resist the temptation to see you one last time, to have yet another final farewell.” He snorted at his own foolishness. “Fate cheated us both of that. We lingered for a time but Prilkop was anxious to be on his way. Ten days he allowed me, for as you recall I was still very weak, and he judged it dangerous to use the pillars too frequently. But after ten days he began to chafe to be on our way again. Nightly he urged me to leave, pointing out what I knew: that together you and I had already worked the change that was my mission. Our time together was done, and long past done. Lingering near you would only provoke other changes in the world, changes that might be far less desirable. And so he persuaded me. But not completely. I knew it was dangerous, I knew it was self-indulgent even as I carved it. The three of us together, as we once had been. You, Nighteyes, and me. I shaped it from the Skill-stone and I pressed my farewell into it. Then I left my gift for you, knowing well that when you touched it, I would be aware of you.”

I was startled. “You were?”

“I told you. I have never been wise.”

“But I felt nothing of you. Well, there was the message, of course.” I felt cheated by him. He had known that I was alive and well, but had kept his own situation concealed from me.

“I’m sorry.” He sounded sincere. After a moment, he continued. “We used the pillars again when we left Buckkeep. It was like a child’s game. We jumped from one standing stone to the next. Always he made us wait between our journeys. It was . . . disorienting. It still makes me queasy to think of it. He knew the danger of what we did. On one of our leaps . . . we traveled to an abandoned city.” He halted, then spoke again quietly. “I hadn’t been there before. But there was a tall tower in the middle of it, and when I climbed those stairs, I found the map. And the broken window and the fingerprints in the soot from the fire.” He paused. “I am sure it was the map-tower you visited once.”

“Kelsingra. So the Dragon Traders name it now,” I said, not wanting to divert him from his revelations.

“At Prilkop’s insistence, we stayed there five days. I remember it . . . strangely. Even knowing what the stone can be and do, having it speak to one continually is wearing. I felt I could not escape the whispers no matter where I went. Prilkop said it was because of the silver Skill on my fingertips. The city drew me. It whispered stories to me when I slept, and when I was awake it tried to draw me into itself. I gave in once, Fitz. I took off my glove and I touched a wall in what had been a market, I think. When next I knew myself as myself, I was lying on the ground by a fire and Prilkop had all our things packed. He wore Elderling garb and had found some for me as well. Including the cloaks that help one hide, one for each of us. He demanded that we leave immediately, declaring that travel through the pillars was less dangerous to me than spending another day in the city. He said it had taken him a day and a half to find me, and that after he had dragged me away I had slept for another full day. I felt I had lived a year in Kelsingra.

“So we left.” He paused.

“Are you hungry?” I asked him.

He considered the question carefully. “My body has not been accustomed to regular meals for quite some time. It is almost strange to know that I can ask you for food and you will give it to me.” He coughed, turning aside as he did so and hugging his belly against the strain. The coughing went on for some time. I fetched him water and he sipped from the cup, only to go off into an even worse spate of coughing and wheezing. When he could draw a full breath and speak, tears had tracked down his cheeks from the effort. “Wine, if we have it. Or brandy. Or more water. And something to eat. But not a lot, Fitz. I must go slowly.”

“That’s wise,” I told him, and found that the pot held a creamy chowder of whitefish, onions, and root vegetables. I served him up a shallow bowl of it and was relieved when his groping fingers found the spoon I’d placed within his reach. I set a cup of water next to it. I regretted that his eating would put an end to his tale-telling, for it was rare beyond rare for the Fool to be so forthcoming. I watched him spoon up soup carefully and convey it to his mouth. Another spoonful . . .

He stopped. “You’re watching me so closely that I can feel it,” he observed unhappily.

“I am. I apologize.”

I rose and poured a small amount of brandy into a cup. Then I arranged myself in the chair with my feet outstretched toward the fire and took a measured sip of the brandy. When the Fool spoke, it surprised me. I continued to watch the fire, and listened without comment as he spaced his tale out with slow mouthfuls of the chowder.

“I remember how you warned the prince . . . well, he’s King Dutiful now, isn’t he? How you warned him about using the Skill-pillars to go to an unfamiliar destination. You are right to worry about that. Prilkop assumed the pillars would be just as they were the last time he’d used them. We stepped into the pillar in the map-city and suddenly found ourselves facedown on the ground with barely room to struggle out from under the stone.” He paused to eat more chowder.

“The pillar had been toppled. Deliberately, I suspect, and we were fortunate that whoever had done it had not been more thorough. It had fallen so that the top of it rested on the rim of a fountain’s bowl. Long dry and deserted: That city was not like Kelsingra. It showed the signs of ancient war and more recent pillaging. Deliberate damage. The old city was on the highest hills on an island. As to where exactly that island is, I could not tell you. It was unfamiliar to me. Decades ago, when I first traveled here, I did not pass through the place. Nor did I on my return journey here.” He shook his head. “When we journey back, I do not think we can rely on that path. What would happen to us if there was no room to emerge from a stone? I’ve no idea. And no wish to discover it.”

More soup, and a bit spilled. I said nothing, and watched only out of the corner of my eye as he groped for the napkin, found it, and wiped at his chin and nightshirt. I sipped more brandy and took care that my cup made a small sound as I set it back on the table.

“When we had bellied out from under the pillar, it took us half a day to hike through the ruins. The carvings, what little remained of them, reminded me of what I’d seen in Kelsingra and on Aslevjal. Most of the statues had been shattered, and many of the buildings had been raided for stone. The city was broken. I’d hear a shout of laughter and half a sentence whispered by my ear, and then a distant bit of music. The discord rang terribly against me. I tell you, if I had had to remain there any longer than we did, I would have gone mad. Prilkop was heartsick. Once, he said, it had been a place of beauty and peace. He hurried me through it despite how weary I was, as if he could not bear to witness what it had become.

“Are you drinking brandy without me?” he asked suddenly.

“Yes. But it’s not very good brandy.”

“That’s the worst excuse I’ve ever heard for not sharing with a friend.”

“It is. Will you have some?”


I fetched another cup and poured him a small measure. While I was up, I added a log to the fire. I suddenly felt very comfortable and weary in a good way. We were warm and dry on a winter night, I’d served my king well this evening, and my old friend was at my side and slowly recuperating. I felt a twinge of conscience as I thought of Bee, so far away and left to her own devices, but comforted myself that my gifts and letter would soon be in her hands. She had Revel and I liked her maid. She would know I was thinking of her. Surely after I had spoken to both Shun and Lant so severely, they would not dare to be cruel to her. And she had her riding lessons with the stable lad. It was good to know she had a friend, one she had made on her own. I dared to hope she had other household allies I knew nothing about. I told myself I was foolish to worry about her. She was actually a very capable child.

The Fool cleared his throat. “That night, we camped in the forest at the edge of the broken city, and the next morning we hiked to where we could look down on a port town. Prilkop said it had grown greatly since last he had seen it. Its fishing fleet was in the harbor, and he said there would be other ships coming from the south to buy the salted fish and fish oil and a coveted leather made from very heavy fish skin.”

“Fish leather?” The question leapt from me.

“Indeed, that was my reaction. I’d never heard of such a thing. But there is a trade in it. The rougher pieces are cherished for polishing wood or even stone, and the finer pieces are used on the grips of knives and swords; even soaked in blood, they don’t become slippery.” He coughed again, wiped his mouth, and took more brandy. When he drew breath to go on, it wheezed in his throat. “So. Down we went, in our winter clothes, to that sunny town. Prilkop seemed sure of a welcome there, so he was surprised when the folk stared at us and then turned away. The city on the hilltop was regarded as being haunted by demons. In that town, we saw abandoned buildings that had been built from the stone salvaged from the city but were now considered haunted by dark spirits. No one welcomed us, even when Prilkop showed them silver coins. A few children followed us, shouting and throwing pebbles until their elders called them back. We went down to the docks, and there Prilkop was able to buy us passage on an ill-kept vessel.

“The ship was there to buy fish and oil and stank of it. The crew was as mixed a lot as I’ve ever seen; the youngsters aboard looked miserable and the older hands were either tremendously unlucky or had suffered repeated rough treatment. A missing eye here, a peg for a foot on another man, and one with only eight fingers left to his hands. I tried to persuade Prilkop that we should not board, but he was convinced that if we did not depart that town we’d lose our lives that night. I judged the ship just as poor a choice, but he was insistent. And so we went.”

He paused. He ate some more soup, wiped his mouth, sipped his brandy, and carefully wiped his mouth and fingers again. He picked up the spoon and set it down. Sipped again from his brandy cup. Then he pointed his blind eyes my way, and for the first time since we had met again, a look of pure mischief passed over his face. “Are you listening?”

I laughed aloud, to know he still had that spirit in him. “You know I am.”

“I do. Fitz, I feel you.” He held up his hand, showing me the fingertips that had once been silvered with Skill and were now sliced away to a smooth scar. “I took back my link to you long ago. And they cut the silver from my fingertips, for they guessed how powerful it was. So, in the years of my confinement, I thought I imagined my bond with you.” He tipped his head. “But I think it’s real.”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve felt nothing in all the years we were separated. Sometimes I thought you must be dead and sometimes I believed you had forgotten our friendship entirely.” I halted. “Except for the night your messenger was killed in my home. There were bloody fingerprints on the carving you had left for me, the one of you, Nighteyes, and me. I went to brush them away, and I swear that something happened.”

“Oh.” He caught his breath. For a time, he stared sightlessly. Then he sighed. “So. Now I understand. I did not know what it was, then. I did not know one of my messengers had reached you. They were . . . I was in great pain, and suddenly you were there, touching my face. I screamed for you to help me, to save me or to kill me. Then you were gone.” He blinked his blinded eyes. “That was the night—” He gasped for air suddenly and leaned on the table. “I broke,” he admitted. “I broke that night. They hadn’t broken me, not with the pain or the lies or the starvation. But that moment, when you were there and then you were not . . . that was when I broke, Fitz.”

I was silent. How had he broken? He had told me that when the Servants tormented him, they wanted him to tell them where his son was. A son he had no knowledge of. That, to me, had been the most horrific part of his tale. A tortured man who is concealing knowledge retains some small portion of control over his life. A tortured man who has no knowledge to barter has nothing. The Fool had had nothing. No tool, no weapon, no knowledge to trade to make his torment cease or lessen. The Fool had been powerless. How could he have told them something he didn’t know? He spoke on.

“After a time, a long time, I realized there was no sound from them. No questions. But I was answering them. Telling them what they needed to know. I was screaming your name, over and over. And so they knew.”

“Knew what, Fool?”

“They knew your name. I betrayed you.”

His mind was not clear, that was obvious. “Fool, you gave them nothing they did not know. Their hunters were already there, in my home. They’d followed your messenger. That was how the blood got on the carving. How you felt me there with you. They’d already found me.” As I said those words, my mind went back to that long-ago night. The Servants’ hunters had tracked his messenger to my home and killed her there before she could deliver the Fool’s words to me. That had been years ago. But only weeks before, another of his messengers had reached Withywoods and conveyed his warning and his plea to me: Find his son. Hide him from the hunters. That dying messenger had insisted she was being pursued, that the hunters were hot on her trail. Yet I’d seen no sign of them. Or had I not recognized the signs they had left? There had been hoofprints in a pasture, the fence rails taken down. At the time, I’d dismissed it as coincidence, for surely if they’d been tracking the messenger, they would have made some attempt to determine her fate.

“Their hunters had not found you,” the Fool insisted. “They’d trailed their prey there, I think. But they were not looking for you. The Servants who tormented me had no way of knowing where their hunters were at that moment. Not until I screamed your name, over and over, did they know how important you were. They had thought you were only my Catalyst. Only someone I had used. And abandoned . . . For that would be what they expected. A Catalyst to them is a tool, not a true companion. Not a friend. Not someone who shares the prophet’s heart.” We both held a silence for a time.

“Fool, there is something I do not understand. You say you have no knowledge of your son. Yet you seem to believe he must exist, on the word of those at Clerres who tormented you. Why would you believe they knew of such a child when you did not?”

“Because they have a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand predictions that if I succeeded as a White Prophet, then such an heir would follow me. Someone who would wreak even greater changes in this world.”

I spoke carefully. I didn’t want to upset him. “But there were thousands of prophecies that said you would die. And you did not. So can we be sure these foretellings of a son are real?”

He sat quietly for at time. “I cannot allow myself to doubt them. If my heir exists, we must find him and protect him. If I dismiss the possibility of his existence, and he does exist and they find him, then his life will be a misery and his death will be a tragedy for the world. So I must believe in him, even if I cannot tell clearly how such a child came to be.” He stared into darkness. “Fitz. There in the market. I seem to recall he was there. That I touched him and in that moment, I knew him. My son.” He drew a ragged breath and spoke in a shaky voice. “All was light and clarity around us. I could not only see, I could see all the possibilities threading away from that moment. All that we might change together.” His voice grew weaker.

“There was no light. The winter day was edging toward evening, and the only person near you was . . . Fool. What’s wrong?”

He had swayed in his chair and then caught his face in his hands. Then he said in a woeful voice. “I don’t feel well. And . . . my back feels wet.”

My heart sank. I moved to stand behind him. “Lean forward,” I suggested quietly. For a wonder, he obeyed me. The back of his nightshirt was wet with something that was not blood. “Lift up your shirt,” I bade him, and he tried. With my help, we bared his back, and again he did not protest. I lifted a candle high. “Oh, Fool,” I said before I could think to control my voice. A large and angry swelling next to his spine had split open and was leaking a thin, foul fluid down his scarred and bony back. “Sit still,” I told him and stepped away to the water warming by the fire. I soaked my napkin in it, wrung it out, and then warned him, “Brace yourself,” before applying it to the sore. He hissed loudly, and then lowered his forehead onto his crossed arms on the table.

“It’s like a boil. It’s opened and draining now. I think that might be good.”

He gave a small shudder but said nothing. It took me a moment to realize he was unconscious. “Fool?” I said, and touched his shoulder. No response. I reached out with the Skill and found Chade. It’s the Fool. He’s taken a turn for the worse. Is there a healer you can send up to your old rooms?

None that would know the way, even if any were awake at this hour. Shall I come?

No. I’ll tend to him.

Are you certain?

I’m sure.

Probably better not to involve anyone else. Probably better it was only him and me, as it had been so often before now. While he was unaware of pain, I lit more candles to give me light, and brought a basin. I cleansed the wound as well as I could. He was limp and still as I trickled water onto it and sponged away the liquid that flowed out. It did not bleed. “No different from a horse,” I heard myself say once through my gritted teeth. Cleaned, the split boil gaped on his back as if some vile mouth had opened in his skin. It went deep. I forced myself to look at his abused body. There were other suppurations. They bulged, some shiny and almost white, others red and angry and surrounded by a network of dark streaks.

I was looking at a dying man. There was too much wrong with him. To think that somehow food and rest could bring him closer to healing was folly. It would prolong his dying. The infections that were destroying him were too widespread and too advanced. He might even now be dead.

I set my hand to the side of his neck, placing two of my fingers on the pulse point there. His heart was still beating: I felt it there in the feeble leaping of his blood. I closed my eyes and held my fingers there, taking a peculiar comfort in that reassuring beat. A wave of dizziness passed through me. I had been awake too long, and drunk too much at the feast long before I’d added brandy with the Fool to the mix. I was suddenly old, and tired beyond telling. My body ached with the years I’d heaped on it and the tasks I’d demanded of it. The ancient, familiar pain of the arrow scar in my back, so close to my spine, twitched to wakefulness and grew to an unavoidable deep throb, as if someone’s finger were insistently prodding the old injury.

Except that I no longer had that scar. Or the pain from it. That realization whispered into my awareness, light as the first clinging snowflakes on a window. I did not look at it, but accepted what was happening. I let my breathing slow and remained very still inside my own skin. Inside our skin.

I slipped my awareness from my own body into the Fool’s and heard him make a soft sound, a wounded man disturbed in deepest sleep. Do not worry. I am not after your secrets.

But even the mention of secrets roused him. He struggled a little, but I remained still and I do not think he could find me. When he subsided, I let my awareness tendril throughout his body. Gently. Go softly, I told myself. I let myself feel the pain of his back injury. The boil that had drained was not as dangerous as the ones that had not. It had emptied itself but the poisons from some of the others were working deeper into his body and he had no strength to fight them.

I turned them back. I pushed them out.

It did not take that much effort. I worked carefully, asking as little of his flesh as I could. In some other place, I set my fingers to the sores and called up the poison. Hot skin strained to the breaking point opened under my touch, and the poisons trickled out. I used my Skill-strength in a way that I had not known it could be used, yet it seemed so obvious to me there and in that moment. Of course it worked this way. Of course it could do this.




Someone seized me and jerked me back. I lost my balance and fell. Someone tried to catch me, failed, and I struck the floor hard. It knocked the wind out of me. I gasped and wheezed and then opened my eyes. It took a moment for me to make sense of what I saw. The dying firelight illuminated Chade standing over me. His face was seized with horror as he stared down at me. I struggled to speak and could not. I was so weary, so very tired. Sweat was drying on my body, and my clothing clung to me where it was soaked. I lifted my head and became aware that the Fool was slumped forward on the table. The red light of the fire showed pus oozing from a dozen injuries on his back. I rolled my head and my gaze met Chade’s horrified stare.

“Fitz, what were you doing?” he demanded, as if he had caught me in some foul and disgusting act.

I tried to draw breath to respond. He looked away from me and I became aware that someone else had entered the room. Nettle. I knew her as she brushed against my Skill-sense. “What happened here?” she demanded, and then as she stepped close enough to see the Fool’s bared back, she gasped in dismay. “Did Fitz do this?” she demanded of Chade.

“I don’t know. Build up the fire and bring more candles!” he ordered in a trembling voice as he sank into the chair I had left empty. He set his shaking hands on his knees and leaned down toward me. “Boy! What were you doing?”

I’d remembered how to pull air into my lungs. “Trying to stop . . .” I pulled in another breath. “. . . the poisons.” It was so hard to roll over. I ached in every fiber of my body. When I set my hands to the floor to try to lever myself up, they were wet. Slippery. I lifted them and brought them up to my eyes. They were dripping with watery blood and fluid. Chade shoved a table napkin into my hands.

Nettle had thrown wood on the fire, and it was catching. Now she kindled fresh candles and replaced the ones that had burned to stubs. “It stinks,” she said, looking at the Fool. “They’re all open and running.”

“Heat clean water,” Chade told her.

“Shouldn’t we summon the healers?”

“Too much to explain, and if he dies it were better that it did not have to be explained at all. Fitz. Get up. Talk to us.”

Nettle was like her mother, stronger than one expected a small woman to be. I had managed to sit up, and she seized me under my arms and helped me to my feet. I caught my weight on the chair and nearly overset it. “I feel terrible,” I said. “So weak. So tired.”

“So now perhaps you know how Riddle felt after you burned his strength so carelessly,” she responded tartly.

Chade took command of the conversation. “Fitz, why did you cut the Fool like this? Did you quarrel?”

“He didn’t cut the Fool.” Nettle had found the water I’d left warming by the fire. She wet the same cloth I’d used earlier, wrung it out, and wiped it gingerly down the Fool’s back. Her nose wrinkled and her mouth was pinched tight in disgust at the foul liquids she smeared away. She repeated the action and said, “He was trying to heal him. All of this has been pushed from the inside out.” She spared me a disdainful glance. “Sit on the hearth before you fall over. Did you give a thought to simply using a pulling poultice on this instead of recklessly attempting a Skill-healing on your own?”

I took her suggestion and attempted to collapse back to the hearth in a controlled fashion. As neither of them was looking at me, it was a wasted effort. “I didn’t,” I said, beginning an attempt to explain that I had not, at first, intended to heal him. Then I stopped. I wouldn’t waste my time.

Chade had suddenly sat forward with an enlightened expression on his face. “Ah! Now I understand. The Fool must have been strapped to a chair with spikes protruding from the back, and the strap slowly tightened to force him gradually onto the spikes. If he struggled, the wounds became larger. As the strap was tightened, the spikes went deeper. These old injuries appear to me as if he held out for quite a long time. But I would suspect there was something on the spikes, excrement or some other foul matter, intended to deliberately trigger a long-term infection.”

“Chade. Please,” I said weakly. The image he painted made me queasy. I hoped the Fool had remained unconscious. I did not really want to know how the Servants had caused his wounds. Nor did I want him to remember.

“And the interesting part of that,” Chade went on, heedless of my plea, “is that the torturer was employing a philosophy of torment that I’ve never encountered before. I was taught that for torture to be effective at all, the victim must be allowed an element of hope: hope that the pain would stop, hope that the body could still heal, and so on. If you take that away, what has the subject to gain by surrendering his information? In this case, if he was aware that his wounds were deliberately being poisoned, once the spikes had pierced his flesh, then—”

“Lord Chade! Please!” Nettle looked revolted.

The old man stopped. “Your pardon, Skillmistress. Sometimes I forget . . .” He let his words trail away. Nettle and I both knew what he meant. The type of dissertation he had been delivering was fit only for an apprentice or fellow assassin, not for anyone with normal sensibilities.

Nettle straightened and dropped the wet cloth in the bowl of water. “I’ve cleaned his wounds as well as water can. I can send down to the infirmary for a dressing.”

“No need to involve them. We have herbs and unguents here.”

“I’m sure you do,” she responded. She looked down on me. “You look terrible. I suggest we ask a page to fetch you breakfast in your room below. He’ll be told that you overindulged last night.”

“I’ve just the lad for the job,” Chade declared abruptly. “His name is Ash.”

He flicked a glance at me, and I did not betray to Nettle that I’d already met the lad. “I’m sure he’ll do fine,” I agreed quietly, even as I wondered what plan Chade was unfolding.

“Well, then, I’ll leave you two. Lord Feldspar, I’ve been informed by Lady Kettricken that you begged for a brief audience with her tomorrow afternoon. Don’t be late. You should join those waiting outside her private audience chamber.”

I gave her a puzzled glance. “I’ll explain,” Chade assured me. More of his plans unfurling. I held in a sigh and smiled weakly at Nettle as she left. When Chade rose to seek out his healing herbs and unguents, I unfolded myself gingerly. My back was stiff and sore and the elegant shirt was pasted to me with sweat. I used what water was left in the pot to cleanse my hands. Then I tottered over to claim a seat at the table.

“I’m surprised Nettle knew the way here.”

“Dutiful’s choice. Not mine,” Chade replied brusquely. He spoke from across the room. “He’s never liked my secrets. Never fully understood how necessary they are.”

He came back from a cupboard holding a blue pot with a wooden stopper in it, and several rags. When he opened it, the pungency of the unguent stung my nose and somewhat cleared my head. I rose and before he could touch the Fool, I took the rags and medicine from him. “I’ll do it,” I told him.

“As you wish.”

It troubled me that the Fool was still unaware of us. I set my hand to his shoulder and quested slightly toward him.

“Ah-ah!” Chade warned me. “None of that. Let him rest.”

“You’ve grown very sensitive to Skill-use,” I commented as I scooped some of the unguent onto the rag and pushed it into one of the smaller wounds on the Fool’s back.

“Or you’ve grown more careless in how you use it. Think on that, boy. And report to me while you repair what you’ve done.”

“There’s little to tell that I didn’t Skill to you from the festivities. I think you have a quiet but effective pirate trade on the river that is avoiding all tariffs and taxes. And a sea captain ambitious enough to try to extend it to trade with Bingtown.”

“And you know full well that is not what I need reported! Don’t quibble with me, Fitz. After you asked me about a healer, I tried to reach you again. I could not, but I could sense how intensely involved you were elsewhere. I thought I was not strong enough, so I asked Nettle to try to reach you. And when neither of us could break in on you, we both came here. What were you doing?”

“Just”—I cleared my tight throat—“trying to help him heal. One of the boils on his back opened by itself. And when I tried to clean it for him, I became aware that . . . that he’s dying, Chade. Slowly dying. There is too much wrong with him. I do not think he can gain strength fast enough for us to heal him. Good food and rest and medicine will, I believe, only delay what is inevitable. He’s too far gone for me to save him.”

“Well.” Chade seemed taken aback by my bluntness. He sank down into my chair and drew a great breath. “I thought we had all seen that, down at the infirmary, Fitz. It was one reason why I thought you’d want a quieter place for him. A place of peace and privacy.” His voice trailed away.

His words made what I faced more real. “Thank you for that,” I said hoarsely.

“It’s little enough, and sad to say I doubt there is more I could do for either of you. I hope you know that if I could do more, I would.” He sat up straight, and the rising flames of the fire caught his features in profile. I suddenly saw the effort the old man was putting into even that small gesture. He would sit upright, and he would come up all those steps in the creaking hours before dawn for my sake, and he would try to make it all look effortless. But it wasn’t. And it was getting harder and harder for him to maintain that façade. Cold spread through me as I faced the truth of that. He was not as near death as the Fool was, but he was drifting slowly away from me on the relentless ebb of aging.

He spoke hesitantly, looking at the fire rather than at me. “You pulled him back from the other side of death once. You’ve been stingy with the details on that, and I’ve found nothing in any Skill-scroll that references such a feat. I thought perhaps . . .”

“No.” I pushed another dab of unguent into a wound. Only two more to go. My back ached abominably from bending over my task, and my head pounded as it had not in years. I pushed aside thoughts of carryme powder and elfbark tea. Deadening the body to pain always took a toll on the mind, and I could not afford that just now. “I haven’t been stingy with information, Chade. It was more a thing that happened rather than something I did. The circumstances are not something I can duplicate.” I suppressed a shudder at the thought.

I finished my task. I became aware that Chade had risen and was standing beside me. He offered me a soft gray cloth. I spread it carefully over the Fool’s treated back and then pulled his nightshirt down over it. I leaned forward and spoke by his ear. “Fool?”

“Don’t wake him,” Chade suggested firmly. “There are good reasons why a man falls into unconsciousness. Let him be. When both his body and his mind are ready for him to wake again, he will.”

“I know you’re right.”

Lifting him and carrying him back to the bed was a harder task than it should have been. I deposited him there on his belly and covered him warmly.

“I’ve lost track of time,” I admitted to Chade. “How did you stand it in here, all those years, with scarcely a glimpse of the sky?”

“I went mad,” he said genially. “In a useful sort of way, I might add. None of the ranting and clawing the walls one might expect. I simply became intensely interested in my trade and all aspects of it. Nor was I confined here as much as you might suspect. I had other identities, and sometimes I ventured forth into castle or town.”

“Lady Thyme,” I said, smiling.

“She was one. There were others.”

If he had wanted me to know, he would have told me. “How long until breakfast?”

He made a small sound in his throat. “If you were a guardsman, you’d likely be getting up from it by now. But for you, a minor noble from a holding that no one’s ever heard of, on your first visit to Buckkeep Castle, well, you’ll be forgiven for sleeping in a bit after last night’s festivities. I’ll pass the word to Ash and he’ll bring you food after you’ve had a bit of a nap.”

“Where did you find him?”

“He’s an orphan. His mother was a whore of the particular sort patronized mostly by wealthy young nobles who have . . . aberrant tastes. She worked in an establishment about a day’s ride from here in the countryside. A useful distance from Buckkeep Town for the sorts of activities a young noble might wish to keep secret. She died messily in an assignation gone horribly wrong, for both her and Ash. An informant thought I might find it useful to know which noble’s eldest son had such proclivities. Ash was a witness, not to her death but to the man who killed her. I had him brought to me and when I questioned him about what he had seen, I found he had an excellent eye for detail and a sharp mind for recalling it. He described the noble right down to the design of the lace on his cuffs. He’d grown up making himself useful to his mother and others in her trade, and thus he has a well-honed instinct for discretion. And stealth.”

“And the collecting of secrets.”

“There is that, too. His mother was not a street whore, Fitz. A young noble could take her to the gaming tables or the finer entertainments in Buckkeep Town, and not be shamed by her company. She knew poetry and could sing it to a small lute she played. He’s a lad who has walked in two worlds. He may not have court manners yet, and one can hear he’s not court-born when he speaks, but he’s not an ignorant alley rat. He’ll be useful.”

I nodded slowly. “And you want him to page for me while I’m here so . . .?”

“So you can tell me what you think of him.”

I smiled. “Not so he can watch me for you?”

Chade opened his hands deprecatingly. “And if he does, what would he see that I don’t already know? Consider it part of his training. Set him some challenges for me. Help me hone him.”

And again, what was I to say? He was doing all for the Fool and me that could be done. Could I do less for him? I had recognized the unguent I’d pushed into the Fool’s wounds. The oil for it came from the livers of a fish seldom seen in our northern waters. It was expensive, but he had not flinched from giving it to me. I would not be chary of giving him whatever I could in return. I nodded. “I’m going down to my old room to sleep for a bit.”

Chade returned my nod. “You have overtaxed yourself, Fitz. Later, when you’ve rested, I’d like a written report on that healing. When I reached for you . . . well, I could find you, but it was as if you were not yourself. As if you were so immersed in healing the Fool that you were becoming him. Or that the two of you were merging.”

“I’ll write it down,” I promised him, wondering how I could describe for him something I didn’t understand myself. “But in return, I’ll ask you to select for me new scrolls on Skill-healing and lending strength. I’ve already read the ones you left for me.”

He nodded, well pleased that I’d asked for such things, and left me, slipping out of sight behind the tapestry. I checked on the Fool and found him deeply asleep still. I hovered my hand over his face, loath to touch him lest I rouse him but worried that my efforts might have woken a higher fever in him. Instead, he seemed cooler and his breathing deeper. I straightened, yawned tremendously, and then made the error of stretching.

I muffled my yelp of pain. I stood still for a long moment, then carefully rolled my shoulders. I hadn’t imagined it. I reached behind myself and gingerly tugged my shirt free of where it had adhered to my back. Then I found Chade’s mirror. What I saw confounded me.

The oozing wounds on my back were far smaller than those on the Fool’s; nor were they puffed and reddened with infection. Instead they gaped, seven small injuries as if someone had repeatedly stabbed me with a dagger. They had not bled much; I judged them shallow. And given my propensity to heal quickly, they might very well be gone by the end of tomorrow.

The conclusion I had to reach was obvious. In Skill-healing the Fool’s wounds, I had taken on these small twins. A sudden memory stirred, and I examined my belly. There, just where I had closed the wounds my knife had made on the Fool’s body, was a series of reddened dents. I prodded one and winced. Not painful but tender. My whirling thoughts offered me a dozen explanations. In sharing strength with the Fool, had I actually shared flesh with him? Were his wounds closing because mine were opened? I draped my shirt around me, added wood to the fire, gathered my buttony jacket, and scuffed down the dusty steps to my old bedchamber. I hoped I would find some answers in the scrolls that Chade had promised me. Until I did, I would keep this small mishap to myself. I had no desire to participate in the experiments that Chade would doubtless envision if he knew of this.

I shut the door and it became undetectable. A peek out of my shuttered window told me that a winter dawn was not far away. Well, I would take what sleep I could still get and be grateful. I added a log to the dying fire on my hearth, draped my ruined finery on a chair, found Lord Feldspar’s sensible woolen nightshirt, and sought my boyhood bed. My drowsy eyes wandered the familiar walls. There was the wandering crack in the wall that had always reminded me of a bear’s snout. I had made that gouge in the ceiling, practicing a fancy move with a hand axe that had flown out of my grip. The tapestry of King Wisdom treating with the Elderlings had been replaced with one of two bucks in battle. I preferred it. I drew a deep breath and settled into the bed. Home. Despite all the years, this was home, and I sank into sleep surrounded by the stout walls of Buckkeep Castle.

Chapter Five

An Exchange of Substance

I am curled warm and snug in the den. Safe. I am tired and if I shift too much, I feel the marks of teeth on my neck and back. But if I am still, then all is well.

In the distance, a wolf is hunting. He hunts alone. It is a terrible sound he makes, desperate and breathless. It is not the full-throated howling of a wolf that calls to his pack. It is the desperate yipping and short breathless howls of a predator who knows his prey is escaping. He would be better to hunt silently, to save his failing strength for running instead of giving tongue.

He is so far away. I curl tighter in the warmth of my den. It is safe here and I am well fed. I feel a fading sympathy for a wolf with no pack. I hear the broken yipping again and I know how the cold air rushes down his dry throat, how he leaps through deep snow, extending his full body, literally flinging himself through the night. I remember it too well, and for an aching moment, I am him.

“Brother, brother, come, run, hunt,” he beseeches me. He is too distant for me to know more of his thought than this.

But I am warm, and weary, and well fed. I sink deeper into sleep.

I woke from that dream a lifetime away from the last time I had hunted with the wolf. I lay still, troubled and feeling the fading threat of it. What had woken me? What needed to be hunted? And then I became aware of the smell of hot food, bacon and meal-cakes and the reviving fragrance of tea. I twitched fully awake and sat up. The sound that woke me had been the closing of my door. Ash had entered, set down a tray, stirred up my fire and fed it, taken my soiled shirt, and done it all so silently that I had slept through it. A shudder of dread ran over me. When had I become so complacent and senseless as to sleep through intruders in the room? That was an edge I could ill afford to lose.

I sat up, winced, and then reached behind me to touch my back. The wounds were closing and had stuck to the mildly itchy wool. I braced myself and plucked the nightshirt free of them, all while berating myself for sleeping too soundly. Ah. Too much to eat, too much to drink, and the exhaustion of a Skill-healing. I decided I could excuse my lack of wariness on those grounds. It did not totally banish the chagrin I felt. I wondered if Ash would report my lapse to Chade, if he would praise the lad, and if perhaps they would laugh about it.

I stood up, stretched cautiously, and told myself to stop being such a child. So Ash had fetched my breakfast and I’d slept through it. It was ridiculous to let it bother me.

I had not expected to be hungry after all I’d eaten the night before, but once I sat down to the food, I found I was. I made short work of it and then decided I would check on the Fool before taking a bit more sleep. The Skill-work last night had taxed me far more than any other endeavor I’d taken on recently. He had been the receiver of that work: Had it exhausted him as it had me?

I latched the main door to my room, triggered the secret door, and went softly up the stairs, back into a world of candles and hearth-fire twilight. I stood at the top of the steps and listened to the fire burning, something muttering and tapping in a pot on the hearth-hook, and the Fool’s steady breathing. All trace of last night’s activities had been cleared away, but at one end of Chade’s scarred worktable, clean bandaging, various unguents, and a few concoctions for the relief of pain had been left out. Four scrolls rested beside the supplies. Chade seemed always to think of everything.

I stood looking down at the Fool for some time. He lay on his belly, his mouth slightly ajar. Lord Golden had been a handsome man. I recalled with the regret of loss the clean planes of his face, his light-gold hair and amber eyes. Scars now striated his cheeks and thickened the flesh around his eyes. Most of his hair had succumbed to ill health and filth; what he had left was as short and crisp as straw. Lord Golden was gone, but my friend remained. “Fool?” I said softly.

He made a startled sound somewhere between a moan and a cry, his blind eyes flew open, and he lifted a warding hand toward me.

“It’s just me. How are you feeling?”

He took a breath to answer and coughed instead. When he had finished, he said hoarsely, “Better. I think. That is, some hurts have lessened, but the ones that remain are still sharp enough that I don’t know if I’m better or just becoming more adept at ignoring pain.”

“Are you hungry?”

“A bit. Fitz, I don’t remember the end of last night. We were talking at the table, and now I’m waking up in the bed.” His hand groped toward his lower back and cautiously touched the dressings there. “What’s this?”

“An abscess on your back opened. You fainted, and while you could not feel the pain, I cleaned it out and bandaged it. And a few others.”

“They hurt less. The pressure is gone,” he admitted. It was painful to watch his progress as he maneuvered his body to the edge of the bed. He worked to get up with as few motions as possible. “If you would put the food out?” he asked quietly, and I heard his unvoiced request that I leave him to care for himself.

Under the hopping kettle lid I found a layer of pale dumplings over a thick gravy containing chunks of venison and root vegetables. I recognized one of Kettricken’s favorite dishes and wondered if she was personally selecting the Fool’s menus. It would be like her.

By the time I had set out the food, the Fool was making his way to the hearth and his chair. He moved with more certainty, still sliding his feet lest there be an obstacle, still leading with an outstretched hand, tottering and wavering, but not needing or asking my help. He found the chair and lowered himself into it. He did not allow his back to rest against the chair. As his fingers butterflied over the cutlery, I said quietly, “After you’ve eaten, I’d like to change the dressings on your back.”

“You won’t really ‘like’ to do it, and I won’t enjoy it, but I can no longer have the luxury of refusing such things.”

“That’s true,” I said after his words had fallen down a well of silence. “Your life still hangs in the balance, Fool.”

He smiled. It did not look pretty: It stretched the scars on his face. “If it were only my life, old friend, I would have lain down beside the road and let go of it long ago.”

I waited. He began to eat. “Vengeance?” I asked quietly. “It’s a poor motive for doing anything. Vengeance doesn’t undo what they did. Doesn’t restore whatever they destroyed.” My mind went back through the years. I spoke slowly, not sure if I wanted to share this even with him. “One drunken night of ranting, of shouting at people who were not there”—I swallowed the lump in my throat—“and I realized that no one could go back in time and undo what they’d done to me. No one could unhurt me. And I forgave them.”

“But the difference, Fitz, is that Burrich and Molly never meant to hurt you. What they did, they did for themselves, believing you dead and gone. And for them, life had to go on.”

He took another bite of dumpling and chewed it slowly. He drank a bit of yellow wine and cleared his throat. “Once we were a good distance offshore, the crew did what I had known they would. They took whatever we had that they thought was of value. All the little cubes of memory stone that Prilkop had painstakingly selected and carried so far were lost to him. The crew had no idea what they were. Most could not hear the poetry and music and history that were stored in them. Those who could were alarmed. The captain ordered all the cubes thrown overboard. Then they worked us like the slaves they intended us to become once they found a place to sell us.”

I sat silent and transfixed. The words came from the usually reticent Fool in a smooth flow. I wondered if he had rehearsed his tale during his hours alone. Did his blindness accentuate his loneliness and propel him toward this openness?

“I was in despair. Prilkop seemed to harden every day, muscled by the work, but I was too recently healed. I grew sicker and weaker. At night, huddled on the open deck in the wind and rain, he would look up at the stars and remind me that we were traveling in the correct direction. ‘We no longer look like White Prophets, we two, but when we make shore, it will be in a place where people value us. Endure, and we will get there.’ ”

He drank a bit more wine. I sat quietly and waited while he ate some food. “We got there,” he said at last. “And Prilkop was almost correct. When we reached port, he was sold at the slave auction and I . . .” His voice trickled away. “Oh, Fitz. This telling wearies me. I do not wish to remember it all. It was not a good time for me. But Prilkop found someone who would believe him, and before many days had passed, he came back for me. They bought me, quite cheaply, and his patron helped us complete our journey back to Clerres and our school.”

He sipped his wine. I wondered at the gap in his story. What was too terrible for him to remember?

He spoke to my thought. “I must finish this tale quickly. I have no heart for the details. We arrived at Clerres, and when the tide went out, we crossed to the White Island. There our patron delivered us to the gates of the school. The Servants who opened the doors to us were astonished, for they immediately recognized what we were. They thanked our patron, rewarded him, and quickly took us in. Collator Pierec was the Servant in charge now. They took us to the Room of the Records, and there they leafed through scrolls and scripts and bound pages until they found Prilkop.” The Fool shook his head slowly, marveling. “They tried to reckon how old he was, and failed. He was old, Fitz, very old indeed, a White Prophet who had lived far past the end of his time of making changes. They were astonished.

“And more astonished when they discovered who I was.”

His spoon chased food around his bowl. He found and ate a piece of dumpling, and then a piece of venison. I thought he was making me wait for the tale, and taking pleasure in my suspense. I didn’t begrudge him this.

“I was the White Prophet they had discarded. The boy who had been told he was mistaken, that there was already a White Prophet for this time, and that she had already gone north to bring about the changes that must be.” He clattered his spoon down suddenly. “Fitz, I was far more stupid than the Fool you have always named me. I was an idiot, a fatuous, mindless . . .” He strangled on his sudden anger, knotting his scarred hands and pounding them on the table. “How could I have expected them to greet me with anything except horror? For all the years they had kept me at the school, confined me, drugged me that I might dream more clearly for them . . . For the hours they spent needling her insidious images into my skin to make me unWhite! For all the days they tried to confuse and confound me, showing me dozens, hundreds of prophecies and dreams that they thought would convince me I was not what I knew myself to be! How could I have gone back there, thinking they would be glad to see me, and quick to acknowledge how wrong they had been? How could I think they would want to know they had made such an immense error?”

He began to weep as he spoke, his blinded eyes streaming tears that were diverted by the scars on his face. Some detached part of me noted that his tears seemed clearer than they had been and wondered if this meant some infection had been conquered. Another, saner part of me was saying softly, “Fool. Fool, it’s all right. You are here with me now, and they cannot hurt you anymore. You are safe here. Oh, Fool. You are safe. Beloved.”

When I gave him his old name, he gasped. He had half-risen to stand over the table. Now he sank back down into Chade’s old chair and, heedless of his bowl and the sticky table, put his head down on his folded arms and wept like a child. For a moment his rage flared again and he shouted, “I was so stupid!” Then the sobbing stole his voice again. For a time, I let him weep. There is nothing useful anyone can say to a man when such despair is on him. Shudders ran over him like convulsions of sorrow. His sobs came slower and softer and finally ceased, but he did not lift his head. He spoke to the table in a thick, dead voice.

“I had always believed they were mistaken. That they truly had not known.” He gave a final sniff, a sigh, and lifted his head. He groped for his napkin and wiped his eyes with it. “Fitz, they knew. They had always known I was the one. They knew I was the true White Prophet. The Pale Woman was the one they had made. They made her, Fitz, as if they were trying to breed a pigeon with a light head and tail. Or as if you and Burrich were breeding for a colt with the stamina of the stud and the temperament of the dam. They’d created her there in the school, and they’d taught her and filled her with the prophecies and dreams that suited their purposes. They’d made her believe and twisted her dreams to make them foretell what they wanted to happen. And they’d sent her out. And held me back.” His head sank down. He pillowed his brow on his forearms and fell silent.

One of Chade’s exercises when he was training me was to put the pieces of something back together. It began with simple things: He’d drop a plate, and I would have to reassemble it to the best of my ability. The challenges advanced. The plate would fall, and I had to look at the pieces and mentally assemble it. Then I would be presented with a bag of pieces of something, broken crockery or cut harness or something of that ilk, and I had to put them back into a whole. After a time, the bag would hold not just the destroyed item but other random bits of things that looked as if they belonged with it. It was a physical exercise to teach my mind to assemble bits of facts and random gossip into a comprehensible whole.

So now my mind was at work, assembling bits so that I could almost hear the snicking of the pieces of a teapot being put back together. The messenger’s tale of bearing children who were taken from her meshed with the Fool’s tale of the Servants creating their own White Prophets. The race of Whites with their gift of prescience had vanished from our world long ago; the Fool had told me that when we were still boys. He claimed the Whites had begun to intermarry with humans, diluting their bloodlines until those who carried that heritage showed no sign and often were unaware of it. And he had added that only rarely was a child born who, by chance, reflected that ancient heritage. He had been one such, and was fortunate enough that his parents knew what he was. And they knew there was a school at Clerres where children who showed the physical traits of Whites were taken and taught to record their dreams and their flashes or visions of the future. Vast libraries of recorded visions were held there and studied by the Servants so they might learn the events that the future of the world would turn upon. And so, while he was very young, his parents had given him to the Servants to be taught to use his talents for the good of all mankind.

But the Servants had not believed he was the one true White Prophet. I had known a little of that. He had confided that they had held him there long past the time when he felt he needed to be out, changing the world’s events to set us all on a better path. I had known that he had escaped them and set out on his own, to become what he had believed he must be.

And now I knew the darker side of that place. I had helped Burrich to select breeding lines for dogs and horses. I knew how it was done. A white mare and a white stallion might not always yield a white foal, but if they did, chances were that if we bred that white offspring to another white horse, or bred it back to a sibling, we would get yet another white foal. And so, if King Shrewd desired it, he could have generations of white horses for his guard. Burrich had been too wise a horse-breeder to inbreed our stock too deeply. He would have been shamed to have a crippled or malformed foal born due to his negligence.

I wondered if the Servants shared his morality in that regard. Somehow I doubted it. So if the Servants desired it, they could likewise breed children with the pale skin and colorless eyes of White Prophets. And in some, prescience would manifest. Through those children, the Servants could gain the ability to glimpse the future and the various paths it might take, depending on events large and small. By the Fool’s account, they had been doing it for generations, possibly since before he was born. So now the Servants had a vast reservoir of possible futures to study. The future could be manipulated, not for the benefit of the world at large, but for the comfort and good fortune of the Servants alone. It was brilliant, and it was obscene.

My mind made the next leap. “How can you fight people who know your next move before you do?”

“Ah.” He sounded almost pleased. “You grasp it quickly. I knew you would. Even before I give you the final bits, you see it. And yet, Fitz, they don’t. They didn’t see me returning at all. Why? Why would they resort to something as crude as physical torture to find out what I knew? Because you made me, my Catalyst. You created me, a creature outside of any future ever seen. I left you because I knew how potent we were together. I knew that we could change the future of the world, and I feared that if we remained together, with me blind to the future, we might set terrible things in motion. Unintentionally, of course, but all the more powerfully for that. So I left you, knowing it tore your heart as deeply as it tore mine. And blind, even then, to the fact that we had already done exactly that.”

He lifted his head and turned his face toward me. “We blinded them, Fitz. I came seeking you, a lost Farseer. In almost every future I could foresee, either you never existed or you died. I knew, I knew that if I could see you through and keep you alive, you would be the Catalyst to set the world into a new and better path. And you did. The Six Duchies remained intact. Stone dragons rose into the air, the evil magic of Forging was ended, and true dragons were restored to the world. Because of you. Every time I snatched you back from the brink of death, we changed the world. Yet all those things the Servants had also glimpsed, even if they believed they were unlikely to come to pass. And when they sent out their Pale Woman to be the false White Prophet, and kept me confined to Clerres, they thought they had guaranteed the outcomes they wished. You would not exist.

“But we thwarted them. And then you did the unthinkable. Fitz, I died. I knew I would die. In all the prophecies I’d ever read in the Clerres library, in all the dream-visions I’d ever had, I died there. And so I did. But in no future foreseen by anyone, ever, in all their trove of prophecies, was I pulled back alive from the other side.

“That changed everything. You flung us into a future unseen. They grope now, wondering what will become of all their plans. For the Servants do not plan for decades, but for generations. Knowing the times and means of their own deaths, they have extended their lives. But we have taken much of that power from them. The White children born since my ‘death’ are the only ones who can look into the future from that time. They grope through the futures where once they galloped. And so they must seek that which they most fear now: the true White Prophet for this generation. They know he is out there, somewhere, beyond their knowledge and control. They know they must seize him soon, or all they have built may come tumbling down.”

His words rang with his conviction. And yet I could not keep a smile from my face. “So you changed their world. You are the Catalyst now. Not me.”

All expression fled his face. He stared past me, his filmed eyes fixed and distant. “Could such a thing be?” he asked in wonder. “Is that what I glimpsed, once, in the dreams where I was not a White Prophet?”

“I have no answer for that. I may no longer be your Catalyst, but I am certain I am not a prophet, either. Come, Fool. The dressings on your back have to be changed.”

For a time he was very silent and still. Then, “Very well,” he acceded.

I led him across the room to Chade’s table. He sat down on the bench there and his hands fluttered, settled, and then explored the tabletop, finding the supplies Chade had set out for me. “I remember this,” he said quietly.

“Little has changed here over the years.” I moved to the back of his seat and studied his nightshirt. “The wounds have oozed. I put a cloth on your back, but they’ve soaked through that as well. Your nightshirt is stuck to your back. I’m going to fetch warm water, soak it loose, and clean them again. I’ll fetch you a fresh nightshirt now and set the water to warm.”

By the time I returned with the basin of water and the clean shirt, the Fool had arranged my supplies for me. “Lavender oil, by the scent of it,” he said, touching the first pot. “Beargrease with garlic in here.”

“Good choices,” I said. “Here comes the water.”

He hissed as I sponged it onto his back. I gave the half-formed scabs time to soften and then gave him the choice. “Fast or slow?”

“Slow,” he said, and so I began with the lowest one on his back, a puncture far too close to his spine. By the time I had painstakingly freed the fabric from the oozing wound, sweat had plastered his hair to his skull. “Fitz,” he said through clenched teeth. “Just do it.”

His knotty hands found the table’s edge and gripped it. I did not rip the shirt free, but I peeled it away from him, ignoring the sounds he made. At one point he hammered on the stone table with his fist, then yelped at that pain and dropped his fist to his lap and his brow to the table. “It’s done,” I told him as I rolled the lifted shirt across his shoulders and let it drape there.

“How bad are they?”

I pulled a branch of candles closer and studied his back. So thin. The bones of his spine were a row of hummocks down his back. The wounds gaped bloodlessly at me. “They’re clean, but open. We want to keep them open so that they heal from the inside out. Brace yourself again.” He kept silent as I wiped each injury with the lavender oil. When I added the beargrease with garlic, the scents did not blend well. I held my breath. When each had been tended, I put a new cloth over his back, trusting the grease to hold it in place. “There’s a clean shirt here,” I said. “Try not to displace the dressing as you put it on.”

I walked to the other end of the room. His injuries had spotted his bedding with blood and fluid. I would leave a note asking Ash to bring fresh linens. Then I wondered if the boy could read, and decided it was likely so. Even if his mother had not demanded it of him for her business, Chade would have immediately set him to learning. For now, I turned his pillows and tugged the bedding straight.

“Fitz?” he called from the worktable.

“I’m here. Just straightening your bedding.”

“You’d have made a fine valet.”

I was silent for a moment, wondering if he mocked me.

“Thank you,” he added. And then, “Now what?”

“Well, you’ve eaten and we’ve changed the dressings. Perhaps you’d like to rest some more.”

“In truth, I am tired of resting. So weary of it, in fact, that I can do nothing except seek my bed again.”

“It must be very boring.” I stood still and watched him haltingly totter toward me. I knew he did not want me to offer help.

“Ah, boredom. Fitz, you have no idea how sweet boredom can be. When I think of endless days spent wondering when next they would return to take me, and what new torment they might devise, and if they might see fit to give me food or water before or afterward . . . well, boredom becomes more desirable than the most extravagant festival. And on my journey here, oh, how I longed for my days to be predictable. To know if the person who spoke to me was truly kind or cruel, to know if there might be food that day, or if I would find a dry place to sleep. Ah.” He had almost reached me. He halted where he was, and the emotions that passed over his face tore me. Memories he would not share with me.

“The bedstead is right there, to your left. There. Your hand is on it.”

He nodded to me, and patted and felt his way back to the side of the bed. I had opened the blankets to the linens for him. He turned and sat down on the bed. A smile crossed his face. “So soft. You’ve no idea, Fitz, how much this pleases me.”

He moved his body so carefully. It reminded me of Patience toward the end of her years. It took him time to maneuver so that he could lift his legs up onto the bed. The loose trousers bared his meager calves and the distorted knobs of his ankles. I winced as I looked at his left foot. To call it a foot was a charity. How he had walked on that I did not know.

“I had a stick to help me.”

“I didn’t speak that aloud!”

“I heard that little sound you made. You make it when you see anything hurt. Nosy with a scratch on his face. Or the time I had a sack put over my head and took a beating.” He lay on his side and his hand scrabbled at the bedcovers. I pulled them up over him with no comment. He was silent for a minute and then said, “My back hurts less. Did you do something?”

“I cleaned out the injuries and put dressings on them.”


And why should I lie? “When I touched you to clean the first boil that had broken, I . . . went into you. And encouraged your body to heal itself.”

“That’s . . .” He groped for a word. “. . . interesting.”

I had expected outrage. Not his hesitant fascination. I spoke honestly. “It’s a bit frightening, too. Fool, in my previous experiences with Skill-healings, it took a real effort, often the effort of an entire coterie, to find a way into a man’s body and provoke it to work harder at healing itself. So to slip into awareness of your body so easily is unsettling. Something is strange there. Strange in the same way that it was too easy to bring you through the Skill-pillars. You took back our Skill-bond, many years ago.” It was a struggle to keep rebuke from my voice. “I look back on the night when we came here and I marvel at my foolhardiness in making the attempt.”

“Foolhardiness,” he said softly, and laughed low. He coughed then and added, “I believe my life was in the balance that night.”

“It was. I thought I had burned Riddle’s strength to bring you through. But the degree of healing you already showed when we arrived here makes me wonder if it wasn’t something else.”

“It was something else,” he said decisively. “I can’t claim to know this and yet I feel certain I am right. Fitz, all those years ago when you brought me back from the dead, you found me and put me into your own flesh while you entered my dead body and forced it back into life, as if you were lashing a team to pull a wagon from a swamp. You were ruthless in what you did. Much as you were when you risked all, not just you and me, but Riddle, to bring me here.”

I lowered my head. It was not praise.

“We passed each other as we each resumed life in our own bodies. Do you remember that?”

“Somewhat,” I hedged.

“Somewhat? As we passed, we merged and blended.”

“No.” Now he was the one who was lying. It was time to speak the truth. “That is not what I recall. It was not a temporary merging. What I recall is that we were one. We were not wholes blending as we passed. We were parts, finally forming a whole. You and me and Nighteyes. One being.”

He could not see me and yet he still averted his face, as if I had said a thing too intimate for us to witness. He bowed his head, a small affirmation. “It happens,” he said softly. “A mingling of beings. You’ve seen the results, though you may not have recognized it. I certainly didn’t. That tapestry of the Elderlings that once hung in your room.”

I shook my head. I’d been a child the first time I’d seen it. It was enough to give anyone nightmares. There was King Wisdom of the Six Duchies, treating with the Elderlings, who were tall, thin beings with unnaturally colored skin, hair, and eyes. “I don’t think that has anything to do with what I’m talking about now.”

“Oh, it does. Elderlings are what humans may become through a long association with dragons. Or more commonly, what their surviving offspring may become.”

I saw no connection. “I do recall, long ago, when you tried to convince me that I was part dragon.”

A smile twisted his weary mouth. “Your words. Not mine. But not so far from what I was theorizing, even if you’ve phrased it very poorly. Many aspects of the Skill put me in mind of what dragons can do. And if some distant ancestor of yours was dragon-touched, so to speak, could it be why that particular magic manifests in you?”

I sighed and surrendered. “I’ve no idea. I don’t even know quite what you mean by ‘dragon-touched.’ So, perhaps. But I don’t see what that has to do with you and me.”

He shifted in the bed. “How can I be so tired, and not one bit sleepy?”

“How can you start so many conversations and then refuse to finish any of them?”

He went off into a coughing fit. I tried to tell myself he was feigning it but went to fetch him water anyway. I helped him sit up and waited while he drank. When he lay back down, I took the cup and waited. I said nothing, simply stood by the bed with the cup. After a time I sighed.

“What?” he demanded.

“Do you know things you aren’t telling me?”

“Absolutely. And that will always be true.”

He sounded so much like his old self and took such obvious pleasure in the words that I felt almost no annoyance. Almost.

“I mean about this. About what bonds us in such a way that I can take you with me through a Skill-pillar, and almost without effort enter your body to heal it?”


“I was exhausted afterward, but that was from the healing, I think. Not from the joining.” I would say nothing of what it had done to my back.

I thought he would detect I was holding something back. Instead he spoke slowly. “Because perhaps the joining already exists and always does.”

“Our Skill-bond?”

“No. You haven’t been listening.” He sighed. “Think again about the Elderlings. A human lives long in the company of dragons, and eventually he begins to take on some of the traits of the dragon. You and I, Fitz, lived in close company for years. And in the healing that was actually a snatching back from death, we shared. We mingled. And perhaps we became, as you claim, one being. And perhaps we did not completely sort ourselves back into our own separate selves as thoroughly as you think. Perhaps there was an exchange of our very substances.”

I thought about this carefully. “Substances. Such as flesh? Blood?”

“I don’t know! Perhaps. Perhaps something more essential even than blood.”

I paused to sort the sense from his words. “Can you tell me why it happened? Is it dangerous to us? Something we must try to undo? Fool, I need to know.”

He turned his face toward me, took a breath as if he was going to speak, then paused and let it out. I saw him thinking. Then he spoke simply, as if I were a child. “The human that lives too long near the dragon takes on aspects of the dragon. The white rose that is planted for years beside the red rose begins to have white blossoms threaded with red. And perhaps the human Catalyst who is companion to a White Prophet takes on some of his traits. Perhaps, as you threatened, your traits as a Catalyst have infected me as well.”

I studied his face for signs of a jest. Then I waited for him to mock me for my gullibility. Finally I begged him, “Can you just explain?”

He blew out a breath. “I’m tired, Fitz. And I’ve told you as clearly as I can what I think may be happening. You seem to think we are becoming or were ‘one thing,’ as you so gracefully put it. I think that our essences may be seeping across to the other, creating a bridge between us. Or perhaps it’s a vestige of the Skill-bond we once shared.” He leaned his poor head back on the pillows. “I can’t sleep. I’m weary and tired, but not sleepy. What I am is bored. Horribly bored with pain and darkness and waiting.”

“I thought you just said that being bored—”

“Is lovely. Horribly lovely.”

Well, at least he was showing signs of his old self. “I wish I could help you. Sadly, there isn’t much I can do about your boredom.”

“You already did something for me. The sores on my back are much better. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And now I fear I must leave you for a time. I’m supposed to meet with Lady Kettricken, as Lord Feldspar of Spiretop. I will need to dress for that role.”

“And you must go right now?”

“I should, if I’m to be properly dressed and in line for a private audience with her. I’ll come back afterward. Try to rest.”

With regret, I turned away. I knew how the time must drag for him. He had always been a lively fellow, a juggler, a tumbler, adept at sleight of hand, with a mind as quick and clever as his fingers. He had cavorted through King Shrewd’s court, quick with a witty retort, always a part of the gay whirl that Buckkeep society had been when I was very young. Now sight and clever fingers and agile body had all been taken from him. Darkness and pain were his companions.

“After Prilkop’s benefactor bought me from my ‘owner,’ at an insultingly low price I might add, we were fairly well treated. His new patron was not a noble but a fairly wealthy landowner. It was only by the greatest of good fortune that the man was well versed in the lore of the White Prophets.”

He paused. He knew I had halted, intrigued by his words. I tried to calculate how much time had passed. It was difficult to tell in the perpetual twilight of the room. “I have to leave soon,” I reminded him.

“Do you truly?” he asked, a mocking lilt in his voice.

“I do.”

“Very well.”

I turned.

“For ten days, we rested and were well fed in his home. He arranged new garments for us, packed provisions, and then he himself drove the horse and cart to Clerres. It was a journey of nearly a month to get there. Sometimes we camped, and at other times we were able to stay at inns. Both Prilkop and I worried greatly at what the man was sacrificing of pocket and time to get us there, but he would always say he was honored to do it. Our road led us through a mountain pass, nearly as frozen and cold as a Buckkeep winter, and then down, down we went. I began to recognize the scents of the trees, and I knew the names of the wayside flowers from my boyhood. Clerres itself had grown a great deal since last I had seen it, and Prilkop was astounded that the place he remembered as a simple village had grown to an edifice of walls and towers and gardens and gates.

“Yet so it was. The school had prospered, and in turn the city had prospered, for there was a trade now in the searching of prophecies to give advice to merchants and would-be brides and builders of sailing ships. From far and near they came, to pay a fee in the hope of getting an audience with the Head Servant, and then to tell their tale to him. And if he judged them worthy, they could buy a license for a day or three or twenty, and cross the causeway to the White Island. There, one of the acolyte Servants would be put to researching the prophecies to see if any pertained to that particular venture or wedding or voyage.

“But I am getting ahead of myself.”

I clenched my teeth and then let him win. “Actually, you’ve gone backward in your telling, as you well know. Fool, I desperately want to hear this story, but I must not be late to my audience.”

“As you wish.”

I had taken four steps when he added, “I only hope I am not too weary later to tell you the rest.”

“Fool! Why are you being like this?”

“Do you really want to know?” The old lilt of mockery was back in his voice.


He spoke more softly and soberly than he had before. “Because I know it makes you feel better when I mock you.”

I turned to look back at him, denial on my lips. But some trick of the firelight showed him to me as he was. Not at all like my friend of old. He looked like a badly carved puppet of himself, something as battered and ragged as a beloved old toy. The light touched the scars on his face, the gray-painted eyes, and the straw-thatch of hair on his skull. I couldn’t utter a word.

“Fitz, we both know I teeter on a knife’s edge. It’s not if I will fall, but when. You are keeping me balanced there and alive. But when it happens, as I fear it must, it will not be your fault. Nor mine. Neither of us could have steered this fate.”

“I’ll stay if you want me to.” I threw aside all thoughts of courtesy to Kettricken and duty to Chade. Kettricken would understand, and Chade would have to live with it.

“No. No, thank you. Suddenly I am feeling ready to sleep.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I promised him.

His eyes had closed, and perhaps he already slept. I left quietly.

Chapter Six

The Witted

When Regal the Pretender retreated to the inland duchies, the coastal duchies were left rudderless. Strong as the dukes of Bearns, Shoaks, and Rippon were, they were each too engrossed in defending their own coasts to mount any meaningful unified response to the Red Ships. The titular Duke of Buck, a cousin to the Pretender Regal, was little more than a placeholding puppet who could do nothing to rally the nobles.

It was at this time that Lady Patience, queen of the former King-in-Waiting Chivalry, rose to prominence. What began with the selling of her jewels to keep the warships of Buck manned and active soon consumed almost all of her personal fortune as she worked to keep up the spirits of her farmers and miners, as well as rallying the lesser nobility to organize their own forces to repel the invaders.

This was the situation to which Queen Kettricken returned. Pregnant with the Farseer heir, she and her minstrel, Starling Birdsong, were transported from the Elderling lands to the battlements of Buckkeep Castle, flown there by an immense dragon. King Verity escorted her to safety before rejoining his dragon mount. With the other Elderling warriors astride their dragon steeds, he took to the air to resume the great battle he had begun against the Red Ships. Few were present to witness the king’s return to Buckkeep, and had his queen not been there to attest to his presence, with the minstrel Starling Birdsong to swear truth to it, her sudden appearance would have seemed almost magical. The sparkling dragons that filled the sky had been a terrifying sight to the defenders of Buck until the queen revealed that they were no danger to the folk of Buck, but instead were in the command of their rightful king, and had come to defend them.

On that day, before nightfall, all the Red Ships were driven from the shores of Buck. The legions of dragons swiftly spread out, securing the entire coastline of the Six Duchies before the moon had waxed twice full again. Many a shoreline defender and doughty sailor can attest to how the dragons would appear as distant sparkling lights in the sky, which grew larger and larger until their power and majesty sent the raiders fleeing.

Against this backdrop, the Mountain princess turned Six Duchies queen returned to accept her crown. Lady Patience remained at her side for the remaining months of the war, advising her and putting the reins of power securely into her hands. With the birth of the heir, the succession was secured.

A Brief History of the Monarchs of the Six Duchies

I descended, shut the door, peeked out through my shuttered window, and was horrified. Truly the morning had fled while I was with the Fool. I was still in my nightshirt, unwashed, unshaven, and possibly already late for my audience with Kettricken. To add to my annoyance, Ash had visited my rooms again. The fire was freshly stirred and a new outfit for Lord Feldspar had been draped on the chair. His rescued brown wig had been transferred to a fresh hat and carefully brushed. Well, growing up the son of a courtesan had at least taught Ash some useful valet skills. I knew I had latched my door. I wondered if Chade had given him a key or if he had slipped the lock. It wasn’t an easy lock to jigger. I tried not to let that question distract me as I quickly washed, shaved, stanched the bleeding from my hasty blade, and dressed in the fresh garments.

One of the scabbed wounds on my back had broken open as I took off my nightshirt. I put on Lord Feldspar’s long-sleeved tunic and a gaudy vest over it, hoping the stripes of bright color were in honor of Winterfest. I dreaded the idea that the imaginary lord dressed this way every day. The leggings were moderately comfortable, and the vest admirably concealed no less than six tiny pockets of various nasty things. Settling the wig and the ridiculously tiny hat pinned to it consumed more minutes than I liked, and yet I knew it was the one piece that must be done perfectly. I pinched and scratched at my nose until it was the appropriate shade of red. Soot from the fire with a few drops of water made my brows heavier. The heeled shoes with the silly toes slipped onto my stocking feet and the moment I stood up one of my feet cramped abominably. I kicked the shoes off and stamped around the room until it passed. Then, muttering curses on Chade, I put them back on and left my room, locking the door behind me.

My foot cramped again twice before I reached the bottom of the stairs, and it was all I could do to keep my steps steady and betray no sign of how badly I wanted to hop and stamp. Kettricken’s audience chamber had once served as a private parlor for Queen Desire and her ladies. This I knew only because I had been told of it; that woman had never tolerated me within her sight, let alone within her private chambers. I dismissed the last clinging shreds of childhood dread as I approached the tall oak doors. They were closed. Outside on several benches perched those hopeful of currying influence with the king by bestowing their attentions and gifts upon his mother. I took my place at the end of a lavishly cushioned bench and waited. Eventually, the door opened, a young noblewoman was ushered out, and a rather bored page in white-and-purple livery approached the next aspirant and ushered him in. When the page returned, I made myself known to her and resumed my wait on the bench.

I had rather expected that I would not have to wait in line, but Kettricken was true to her Mountain roots. Each petitioner was invited in turn and allotted time with Lady Kettricken, and then was ushered out. I sat and waited, with my foot spasming inside the evil shoe and a pleasant and hopeful expression on my face. When finally the page beckoned to me, I rose and managed to follow her into the room without limping. As the tall doors closed behind me, I allowed myself a smile. There was a cozy hearth, several comfortable chairs, and a low table with cushions around it. A collection of curious or beautiful objects from every one of the Six Duchies was displayed on various tables about the room. Some might have seen it as a blatant display of wealth, but I divined the truth of it. Kettricken had never had any great use for possessions. These gifts, these tokens of esteem from the lords and ladies of the Six Duchies and from foreign lands and emissaries, must not be discarded. And so she kept them here, in a casual and cluttered display that ran counter to her austere Mountain upbringing. I let my eyes wander over them briefly before making my obeisance to Kettricken.

“Courage, you may go. Let the kitchen know my guests and I are ready for our refreshment. Please let Witmaster Web also know that I am ready to see him at his earliest convenience.”

I remained standing until the little page had left the room, and was grateful when Kettricken wearily gestured me to a seat. She pursed her lips as she regarded me and then asked, “Is this mummery yours, Fitz, or another puppet show from Chade?”

“Lord Chade facilitated it, but I agreed that it was the prudent thing to do. As Lord Feldspar I am able to move about Buckkeep Castle as your guest for Winterfest without exciting comment.”

“After all these years, I should be resigned to the need for such deceptions. But they only make me long for simple truth. One day, FitzChivalry Farseer, I would like you to stand before the court and be acknowledged as yourself and given credit for your many years of service to the crown. One day you should take your rightful place at Dutiful’s side, and be openly recognized as his mentor and protector.”

“Oh, please don’t threaten me with that,” I begged her, and she smiled tolerantly and drew her chair a bit closer to mine.

“Very well, then. But what of your daughter. What of clever little Bee?”

“Clever little Bee.” I repeated her words. They numbed my mouth.

“So I have heard, in the missives Lant has sent Nettle. She received one just two days ago. She was quite relieved to hear her sister was doing so well at her lessons. Indeed, that in some areas, such as her reading and writing, she scarcely needs his instructions.”

“I think she is a bright child,” I conceded. Then, disloyally, I added, “But I am sure that all fathers think their daughters are clever.”

“Well. Some fathers do. I hope you are one of them. Nettle was startled that her sister was developing very differently from how she had feared. When the news reached me, I was very pleased. And intrigued. I had feared the child would not survive, let alone prosper. But my intent is that we will send for her, and then I can see for myself.” She folded her hands and rested her chin on her fingers. She waited.

“Perhaps the next time I come to Buckkeep, I will bring her with me,” I offered. I hoped my desperation did not sound in my voice. Bee was too little, too different to be brought to court. How much did I dare tell Kettricken?

“Then you do not intend to stay long with us?”

“Only until the Fool is hearty enough to endure a Skill-healing.”

“And you think that will be so soon that your little daughter will not miss you?”

Oh, Kettricken. I did not meet her eyes. “Probably later rather than sooner,” I admitted reluctantly.

“Then we should send for her now.”

“Traveling conditions are so harsh . . .”

“There is that. But in a comfortable carriage, accompanied by my personal guard, she might do well. Even through the storms. I am sure they will manage to find respectable inns every night.”

“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

The look she gave me implied her plan was immutable. “I have,” she said, and with that settled, she changed the topic. “How fares Lord Golden?”

I started to shake my head and then shrugged instead. She had made her plans for Bee, but I would let her distract me while I planned my own campaign. “Better than he was, in some ways. Warm, clean, fed, and some of his lesser injuries have begun to heal. But he is still closer to death’s door than to the gates of health.”

For a moment, her years showed on her face. “I could scarcely believe it was him. If you had not been there to vouch for it, I would never have suspected it. Fitz, what happened to him? Who did this?”

I wondered if the Fool would want his tale shared. “I am still drawing the full tale out of him.”

“When last I saw him, years ago, he said he would return to the place where he was taught.”

“And he did.”

“And they turned on him.”

Kettricken could still take me by surprise with her leaps of intuition. “So I believe. Lady Kettricken, I am sure you recall how private a man the Fool was.”

“And is. I know what you will next suggest, that I visit him myself. And I shall. In truth, I have already called on him twice, and each time found him sleeping. But visits would be much easier for me if you and Lord Chade had not squirreled him away into your old den. I’m a bit old to be stooping and scuttling through narrow hideaways. Surely he would be better off in a chamber that offered him light and air.”

“He is fearful of pursuit, even within the stout walls of Buckkeep. I think he will sleep best where he is right now. And as for light, well, it means little to him now.”

She shuddered as if my words were arrows that had struck her. She turned her face away, as if to hide from me the tears that filled her eyes. “That grieves me beyond words,” she choked out.

“And me.”

“Is there any hope that with the Skill . . .?”

The very question I still pondered. “I do not know. He is very weak. I do not wish to restore his sight if it takes the last of his strength and he dies of it. We will have to be very cautious. We have made some small progress already, and as he eats and rests and gains strength, we will do more.”

She nodded violently to that. “Please. But, oh, Fitz, why? Why would anyone treat him so?”

“They thought he knew something, and was keeping it from them.”


I hesitated.

She turned back to face me. Weeping seldom makes a lady lovelier. Her nose had reddened and the rims of her eyes had gone pink. She no longer tried to disguise the tears running down her face. Her voice was harsh. “I deserve to know, Fitz. Do not play Chade with me. What secret could possibly be worth resisting what they did to him?”

I looked at my feet, ashamed. She did deserve to know. “He knew no secret. He had no knowledge to give them. They demanded to know where his son was. To me he has said that he has no knowledge of any such son.”

“A son.” A strange look came over her face, as if she could not decide whether to laugh or weep. “So. Are you finally giving a definite answer to the question Starling put to him so many years ago? He is, then, a man?”

I took breath, paused, and then replied, “Kettricken, he is what he is. A very private person.”

She cocked her head at me. “Well, if the Fool had given birth to a son, I think he would remember that. So that leaves him only the male role.”

I started to say that not every child was fathered in the same way. The thought of how King Verity had borrowed my body to lie with her, leaving me for a night in his old man’s skin, swept through my mind like a storm. I folded my lips on my words and looked aside from her.

“I will visit him,” she said quietly.

I nodded, relieved. There was a tap at her door. “I should go now, so you may meet your next supplicant.”

“No, you should stay. The next visitor concerns you.”

I was not entirely surprised when a page ushered Web into the room. He halted inside the door while two serving girls entered with trays of refreshments. They arranged everything on a low table while we all looked at one another. Web scowled briefly at my disguise, and I saw him reorder his impression of the man he had glimpsed last night. It was not the first time he had witnessed me assume a different character. As he evaluated me in my new guise, I studied him as well.

Web had changed since last we had spoken. For a number of years following the death of his Wit-bird Risk, he had not repartnered. That loss had wrought a change in him. When I had lost my wolf, I felt as if half my soul had gone missing, as if there were too much empty space in both my mind and my body. For a time, I had seen that same emptiness in Web when he and Nettle’s brother Swift would visit Molly and me at Withywoods. His eyes had lost their bird-brightness, and he had walked as if he were anchored to the earth. He had seemed to age decades in a matter of months.

Today he walked with his shoulders squared, and his gaze darted quickly around the room, taking in every detail. The difference was a good one, as if he had rediscovered youth. I found myself smiling at him. “Who is she?” I greeted him.

Web’s eyes met mine. “He. Not she. A young kestrel named Soar.”

“A kestrel. A bird of prey. That must be different for you.”

Web smiled and shook his head, his expression as fond as if he spoke of a child when he said, “We both have so much to learn of each other. We have been together less than four months. It is a new life for me, Fitz. His eyesight! Oh, and his appetite and his fierce joy in the hunt.” He laughed aloud and seemed almost breathless. There was more gray in his hair and deeper lines in his face, but his laugh was a boy’s.

I felt a moment of envy. I recalled the headiness of the first days with a new partner. As a child, I had joined myself to Nosy without the least hesitation, and experienced a summer with the full senses of a young hound amplifying my own. He had been taken from me. Then there had been Smithy, the dog I had bonded to in complete defiance of Burrich and common sense. Lost to me when he gave his life defending my friend. They had been companions to my heart. But it had been Nighteyes the wolf who had wrapped his soul around mine. Together we had hunted and together we had killed, both game and men. The Wit bonded us to all life. From him, I had learned to master both the exhilaration of the hunt and the shared pain of the kill. Recalling that bond, my envy faded. No one could replace him. Could another woman ever be to me what Molly had been? Would I ever have a friend who knew me as the Fool did? No. Such bonds in a man’s life are unique. I found my tongue. “I’m happy for you, Web. You look a new man.”

“I am. And I am as sad for you as you are glad for me. I wish you had a Wit- companion to sustain you in your loss.”

What to say to that? There were no words. “Thank you,” I said quietly. “It has been hard.”

Kettricken had kept silent during our exchange, but she watched me keenly. The Witmaster found a cushion and lowered himself to sit beside the table. He offered Kettricken a wide smile and then regarded the food with interest.

Kettricken smiled in return. “Please, let us not wait for formalities. Be at ease, my friends. It has given me great pleasure to watch Web recover his spirits. You should meet Soar, Fitz. I do not say that he might make you reconsider your decision to remain alone, but he has certainly given me reason to doubt my own unpartnered status.” She gave a small shake of the head. “When I saw the pain you felt at Nighteyes’s passing, I thought I wanted none of that, ever. And again when Web lost Risk, I told myself that I had been wise to refrain from sharing my heart with an animal, knowing eventually I must feel the tearing pain of departure.” She lifted her eyes from watching Web pour tea for all of us and met my incredulous gaze. “But witnessing Web’s joy in Soar, I wonder. I have been alone so long. I grow no younger. Must this be a regret I take to my grave, that I did not understand fully the magic I possessed?”

She let her words trail away. When she turned to meet my gaze, there were echoes of hurt and anger in her eyes. “Yes. I am Witted. And you knew, Fitz. Didn’t you? Long before I suspected, you knew. And you knew the Wit that so endangered Dutiful when he was a boy came from me.”

I chose my words carefully. “My lady, I think it as likely that it came from his father as from you. And ultimately, it matters little where it came from. Even now, to possess the Wit can bring—”

“It mattered to me,” she said in a low voice. “And it matters still. What I felt between Nighteyes and me was not imaginary. If I had realized that during our sojourn in the Mountains, I would have let him know what that support meant to me.”

“He knew,” I said, recklessly interrupting her. “He knew, never fear.”

I saw her take a breath, her breast rising and falling with the emotion she contained. Her Mountain training was all that kept her from berating me. Instead, she said quietly, “Sometimes thanking someone is more important to the person giving the thanks than the one who receives it.”

“I’m sorry.” Words I was heartily sick of saying. “But we were struggling with so much else. I had only the barest understanding of the Wit then, and even my grasp of what the Skill could be was tenuous. If I had told you that I suspected you were Witted, then what? I certainly could not have taught you how to manage a magic that I did not myself control well.”

“I understand that,” she said. “But nonetheless I think my life has been less fulfilling than it might have been.” In a lower voice she added, “And much lonelier.”

I had no response. It was true. I had known of the loneliness that devoured her once King Verity was transformed into a stone dragon and taken from her forever. Could an animal companion have helped her to bear that? Probably. Yet it had never occurred to me to tell her that I had sensed a feeble pulsing of the Wit in her. I had always believed it so slight that it did not matter. Unlike myself, where the Wit had demanded from my earliest childhood that I find a soul to share my life. I moved slowly across the room and sat down at the low table. Kettricken came to take her place. She spoke to me in a calmer voice as she picked up her cup. “Web tells me that it is not too late. But also not a thing for me to rush into.”

I nodded and sipped from my own cup. Was this discussion why she had summoned me? I could not imagine where it was leading.

Web looked up at Kettricken. “The bond must be mutually beneficial,” he said. He darted a glance at me as he continued, “Kettricken’s duties often confine her to the castle. Were she to bond with a large animal, or a wild creature, it would limit their time together. So I have suggested to her that she consider beasts that would be comfortable sharing her lifestyle. Cats. Dogs.”

“Ferrets. Parrots,” I pointed out, relieved to move the conversation to a different arena.

“And that is why I’ve a favor to ask of you, Fitz,” Web said abruptly.

Startled, I met his gaze.

“I know you will say no, but I am pressed to ask you anyway. There is no one else who can help her.”

I looked at Kettricken in dismay, wondering what she needed.

“No. Not Lady Kettricken,” Web assured me.

My heart sank. “Then who is she and what does she need?”

“She’s a crow. If you two come to an understanding, she’ll share her name with you.”

“Web, I—”

He spoke over my objection. “She has been alone for about six months. She was sent to me, seeking my help. She was hatched with a defect. When she fledged out, several of her pinions in each wing were white. At an early age, she was driven out of her murder. Assaulted and badly injured by her own family, she was found by an elderly shepherd. He took her in and helped her heal. For eight years they were companions. Recently, he died. But before he died, he contacted me and then sent her on to me.”

He paused, waiting for the question he knew I would ask.

“She left her Wit-partner?” I was incredulous at such faithlessness.

Web shook his head. “The shepherd was not Witted. He was simply a man with a kind heart. And due in no small part to the efforts of the Farseer crown, he was able to reach out to the Old Blood community to find her a new home. No, don’t speak, let me finish my tale. Crows are social creatures. If she is forced to live a solitary life, she will go mad. Furthermore, with her striped wings, she cannot join other crows. They will turn on her for her differences. And finally, she does not seek a Wit-bond, only a human companion. For company and for protection.”

Kettricken dropped words into my silence. “It seems the perfect fit to both of us.”

I drew breath to respond and then sighed it out silently. I knew why Web could not take her on. Nor could Lady Kettricken be seen with a crow upon her shoulder: Battlefield scavenger and bird of ill omen, a crow companion would not do for her. I already knew I would not do it. I would find someone else, but for now, instead of outright refusing, I said, “I will think about it.”

“You should,” Web approved. “Even simple companionship with an animal is not a thing to take lightly. A crow can live a score of years, and it is not unheard of for one to reach thirty. Having met her, I judge you two would be well matched in temperament.”

Knowing what Web thought of my temperament, I was more convinced than ever that I wanted nothing to do with that bird. I would find her an appropriate companion. Perhaps Tallerman would not mind a crow in the stables at Withywoods. So I nodded without speaking.

They both took it as surrender. Kettricken poured more tea, and the next hour passed with us speaking of old times. Web told perhaps too many stories of Soar, but Kettricken and I both understood. And from those stories, it was natural that the talk turned to Old Blood, and Kettricken’s feeble command of the Wit-magic and what it might mean. What it had meant to her she shared more fully now: She had reached out to my wolf and he had accepted that faint connection. His friendship had sustained her more than I had realized.

Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Kettricken asked if Bee had either the Wit or the Skill. I cannot say why it was so unsettling for her to ask that question. Certainly I had few secrets left from either of them. Yet in some odd way, Bee felt like a secret, something private and precious that I did not want to share. I had to fight not to lie. I told them that as far as I could determine, my little daughter possessed neither of those magics in any strength. At most, she could sense the Skill in Nettle and me, but I received no sense of it from her. Then I added that, as young as she was, it was hard to tell such a thing.

Web quirked an eyebrow. “Usually the Wit manifests young in children. She has shown no predilection for bonding with an animal? No intrinsic understanding of their ways?”

I shook my head. “But, to be honest, I’ve kept her away from such dangers. I know what it is to bond too young and without guidance.”

Web frowned. “So there are no animals in her life?”

I hesitated, trying to decide what answer he would like to hear. I pushed myself toward the truth. “She has been learning to ride her horse. At an early age, when we first tried to teach her, she seemed uncomfortable with such an idea. Frightened, even. But of late, she has made good progress. She does not dislike animals. She likes kittens. The shepherd’s dog likes her.”

Web was nodding slowly. He looked at Kettricken when he said, “When she arrives, I would like to speak with her. If she has inherited Old Blood from her father, then the sooner we all know, the better for her to master her magic.”

And Kettricken inclined her head gravely, as if the permission were hers to give. I felt a wave of misgiving but decided that, for now, I would say nothing. I made a note to myself that Web had known Kettricken desired to bring Bee to Buckkeep before I did. With whom else had she discussed this? I needed to find what was behind her resolution. But discreetly. Boldly, I turned the conversation. “What of the princes? Has either Prosper or Integrity shown signs of the Wit or the Skill?”

Kettricken’s smooth brow furrowed. She took a breath and considered well her words before she replied, “We believe both princes have the Skill, their heritage magic as Farseers. But it does not seem that either one has a strong talent for it.” She did something with her eyes as she met my gaze. It was not a wink or an eye roll toward Web, but only the slightest flicker of movement that let me know this was not a topic she wished to discuss before the Witmaster. So, my erstwhile queen had learned discretion and secrecy. Perhaps Buckkeep had changed her as much as she had changed it.

She turned the talk to other topics and I let her. Web was garrulous as ever, and astute at getting other people to talk. I tried to stay to safe topics—sheep and orchards and the repairs I’d been making to Withywoods—but I am sure I told him far more about myself and my situation than I intended. The food was long gone and the last of the tea standing cold in our cups when Kettricken smiled at both of us and reminded us that others awaited her attention outside the audience chamber.

“Please tell Lord Golden that I will call on him this evening. Late, I fear, for there will be yet more celebration of the dark’s turning and I must attend. But when I may, I will come to him, and hope that he does not mind too much if I wake him. If he prefers not, leave a note for me to say he does not desire company.”

“Boredom besieges him in his infirmity. I daresay he will welcome the company.” I decided it for him. It would be good for him.

Web spoke. “And, Fitz, when can I expect a visit from you? I’d like to introduce you to the crow. I will not say that her company is a burden to me, but Soar does not regard her with welcome . . .”

“I understand. I will come tomorrow morning, if Lord Chade does not give me any other errands. I may have to spend my day in Buckkeep Town.” I rebuked myself for being reluctant to help him. I would go. I was confident that the crow would find me an unsuitable partner.

Web smiled at me. “Excellent. I’ve told her a great deal about you and shared Wit-knowledge of you. Within a day or so, I must be on my way. So she may find you before then. She’s eager to meet you.”

“And I as eager to meet her,” I replied politely. And with that I made my bows and left Lady Kettricken’s audience chamber wondering if Riddle had ever considered having a pet bird.

Chapter Seven

Secrets and a Crow

With the Red Ships at our doors and our noble King Shrewd failing in both body and mind,

The young bastard saw his opportunity. He felled him. With magic and might of muscle,

He took from the duchies the king they needed. And from Prince Regal he stole

His father, his mentor, his rock of wisdom.

The kindness bestowed on a bastard felled him.

And the Bastard laughed. In his murderous triumph, sword bared and bloody, he soiled with murder

The keep that had sheltered his worthless life. Cared he nothing for the great hearts

That had fostered him, fed him, clothed and protected him. He loved only bloodshed.

No loyalty did the Bastard cede to king or country.

Wounded in heart, sorrowing as a son, burdened with the concerns of a country at war,

The prince, now king, stepped forward to his tasks. His brothers dead or fled, to him fell

The heavy crown. To him fell the mourning, and to him, the protecting. The last son,

The loyal son, the brave prince became the king of the racked and troubled land.

“Vengeance first!” weary King Regal cried. To his shelter flocked his dukes and nobles.

“To the dungeons with the Bastard!” they pleaded with one voice. And so King Regal

Did his duty. To cell and chains went the conniving Bastard, the Witted One, the Regicide.

To dark and cold he was sent, as befitted such a dark and cold heart.

“Discover his magic,” the king bade his loyal men. And so they tried. With questions and fists,

Clubs and iron, with cold and dark, they broke the traitor. They found no nobility, no cleverness,

Only wolf-greed and dog-selfishness. And so he died, the Traitor, the Witted One, the Bastard.

Of no use to anyone but himself had his life been. His death freed us from his shame.

—“King Regal’s Burden,” a song by Celsu Cleverhands, a Farrow minstrel

I tottered back to my room, silently cursing my painful shoes. I needed to sleep. Then I would check on the Fool, and after that, I thought with a sigh, I would once more assume my role as Lord Feldspar. There would be feasting, dancing, and music again tonight. My mind wandered to Bee, and I felt that sudden gulf of guilt. Revel, I told myself sternly. He would see that Winterfest was well kept at Withywoods. And surely Shun would not allow the holiday to go by without appropriate foods and festivity. I only hoped they would include my child. I wondered again how long I would be away from her. Was Kettricken wiser than I? Would it be best to send for her?

I was chewing my lip at that thought as I reached the top of the stairs. When I looked down the corridor and saw Riddle standing outside my door, my heart lifted as it does when one sees an old friend. Then as I drew closer it sank again, for his face was solemn and his eyes opaque as when a man hides his feelings. “Lord Feldspar,” he greeted me gravely. He bowed, and I took care that the bow I gave him was little more than a nod. Farther down the hallway, two servants were replenishing the corridor lamps.

“What brings you to my door, good man?” I took care that my words held the right amount of disdain for a messenger.

“I bring you an invitation, Lord Feldspar. May I step within your chambers and recite it for you?”

“Of course. A moment.” I patted about in my garments, found my key, and, opening the door, I preceded him into the room.

Riddle shut the door firmly behind us. I removed the wig and hat gratefully and turned to him, expecting to see my friend. But he still stood at the door as if he were no more than a messenger, his face both grave and still.

I said the words I hated most. “I’m so sorry, Riddle. I had no idea what I was doing to you. I thought I was giving the Fool my strength. I never intended to steal from you. Have you recovered? How do you feel?”

“I’m not here about that.” He spoke flatly. My heart sank.

“Then what? Sit, please. Shall I call for someone to bring us food or drink?” I asked. I tried to keep my words warm, but his manner warned me that his heart was sealed against me right now. I could not blame him.

He worked his mouth, took in a deep breath, and then let it out. “First,” he declared, in a voice almost hard despite its shaking, “this is not about you. You can be offended. You can offer to kill me—you’re welcome to try to kill me. But it’s not about you or your pride or your place at court, or who Nettle is or my common parentage.” His words grew more rushed and impassioned as he spoke, and the color rose higher in his face. Anger and pain sparked in his eyes.

“Riddle, I—”

“Just be quiet! Just listen.” He took another breath. “Nettle is pregnant. I will not let her be shamed. I will not let our child be shamed. Say what you will, do what you will, she is my wife and I will not let our joy be dirtied with politics and secrets.”

I was the one who sat down. Luckily, the bed was behind me when I did so. If he had driven the air out of me with a blow to my belly, the impact could not have been stronger. Words rattled in my head. Pregnant. Shamed. Wife. Dirtied. Secrets.

A baby.

I found my voice. “I’m going to—”

Riddle crossed his arms on his chest. His nostrils flared and he exclaimed defiantly, “I don’t care what you do. Understand that. Do whatever you wish, but it won’t change anything.”

“—be a grandfather.” I choked on the word. Incredulity melted his face and he stared. It gave me the moment I needed to organize my thoughts. Words tumbled from my lips. “I have money saved. You can have it all. You must leave soon, before travel is too difficult for her. And I think you must flee the Six Duchies entirely. She is the Skillmistress; she is too well known for you to . . .”

“We are not leaving!” Anger tightened his slack face. “We refuse. We were lawfully wed—”

Impossible. “The king forbade it.”

“The king can forbid whatever he likes, but if a man and a woman make their vows before the Witness Stones, with at least two witnesses—”

“Only if one is a minstrel!” I interrupted him. “And the witness must know both parties.”

“I wager the Queen of the Six Duchies knows us both,” he said quietly.

“Kettricken? I thought Kettricken was a party to forbidding the marriage.”

“Kettricken is not the Queen of the Six Duchies. Elliania is. And she comes from a place where a woman can marry whomever she wishes.”

It all fit together as tightly as the blocks that make up an arch. Almost. “But your other witness had to be a minstrel . . .” My words trickled away. I knew who their minstrel had been.

“Hap Gladheart.” Riddle confirmed it quietly. A smile almost twisted his face. “Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”

My fostered son. He’d been delighted to call Nettle sister. I found I had clamped both hands over my mouth. I tried to think. So. Married. In public and yet in secret. Yes, Elliania would do it, and possibly not realize that in flaunting her husband’s authority she was doing far more than simply asserting her belief that a woman should have complete control over who she wed. Or didn’t wed, and merely slept with.

I let my hands fall away from my mouth. Riddle still stood as if he expected me to leap to my feet and pummel him. I tried to recall if I’d even felt that impulse. I hadn’t. No anger: That was drowned in dread.

“The king will never accept this. Nor Kettricken, nor Chade. Oh, Riddle. What were the two of you thinking?” Joy warred with tragedy in my voice. A child, a child that I knew Nettle wanted. A child that would change their lives completely. My grandchild. And Molly’s.

“Babies happen. For years, we have been cautious. And lucky, I suppose. And then we were neither. And when Nettle realized she was pregnant, she told me she intended to be happy about it. No matter what she must do.” His voice changed and suddenly my friend spoke to me. “Fitz. We are neither of us youngsters. This may be our only chance for a child.”

No matter what she must do. I could almost hear Nettle’s voice saying those words. I took a deep breath and tried to reorder my thoughts. So. This was something done. They were wed, they were going to have a baby. Useless to advise them against having the baby, useless to remonstrate with them over defying the king. Begin now, where they are.

In danger. Foolishly defiant.

“What does she plan to do? Go to the king, tell him she is both married and pregnant?”

Riddle’s dark eyes met mine and I saw something like pity there. “She shared her news with Queen Elliania only. Only we four know that Nettle is with child. And only five people know that we are truly wed. Not even to her brothers has she confided the news. But she told Elliania. The queen is ecstatic. And full of plans for the child. She did some sort of needle-dangling magic over Nettle’s palm, and she is certain our child will be a girl. Finally, a daughter born to the Farseer motherhouse. And hence a future Narcheska.”

“I’m confused,” I said after a silence.

“As well you should be. As I was when they first told me. First, you must understand how close Nettle and Queen Elliania have become over the years. They are nearly of an age. Both felt like outsiders when first they came to Buckkeep Castle court: Elliania an Outislander, and Nettle a simple country girl made a lady. When Elliania realized that Nettle was her husband’s cousin, she claimed her as kin.”

“Her husband’s second cousin?”

Riddle shook his head. “A member of her new motherhouse.” At my puzzled expression, he added, “You have to think of it from Elliania’s perspective. In the Outislander culture, the mother’s lineage is what matters. It was terribly hard for Elliania to come here to be the Farseer queen. If she had stayed in her own land, she would have become the Narcheska of her motherhouse. Equivalent to a queen. She bartered that away to save her mother and her little sister Kossi, and to finally ensure peace between the Six Duchies and the Out Islands. That she and Dutiful came to love each other was simply the kindness of fate.

“You know how Elliania has grieved that she has borne only two sons. Her grief at her failure to provide a daughter to send back to the Out Islands and reign after her mother as Narcheska consumes her.”

“What of Kossi? Surely her younger sister would be next in line for that title?”

Riddle shook his head. “No. We saved Kossi’s life, but her health never recovered. She was nearly two years in the Pale Woman’s captivity. Two years of starvation, cold, and mistreatment. She is a brittle woman, frail as dried twigs. And she has shown a marked dislike for the company of men. She will bear no children.”

“I recall she had a girl cousin . . .”

“Disliked by both Elliania and her mother. One of the reasons for her desperate desire to present a girl to her motherhouse.”

“But Nettle’s child is no kin to Elliania at all!”

“She is if Elliania says she is. There is a saying there. ‘Every mother knows her own child.’ Thus, when Elliania draws up genealogies, you are Patience’s son.”

I was hopelessly befuddled. “What does that have to do with it?”

He smiled. “You Farseers are an inbred lot. And yet pitiable by Outislander standards. Generations without a female child. It left Elliania wondering if there were any true descendants of the original Farseer motherhouse. In her desperate quest for a female of true lineage, she had the most doddering of the minstrels singing themselves hoarse with genealogies. Do you know who Queen Adamant is?”


“The first Farseer to stake a claim on the cliffs of Buck was Taker. He himself was an Outislander, and is seen as something of a rogue there, for he forsook his own motherhouse to establish a new one here. He took a wife from among the people he conquered. Her name was Adamant. We now call her Queen Adamant. The first of the Farseer motherhouse.”

“Very well.” I didn’t see where any of this was going.

“Patience and Chivalry were very distant cousins, according to Elliania. Both descended by wandering lineage from Adamant. She of the ‘copper-gleaming hair and violet eyes,’ according to one very old ballad. Hence you are doubly descended from that motherhouse. That makes Nettle the rightful ‘Narcheska’ of the Farseer line. The motherhouse that Elliania joined. Her kin. And hence a possible source of an heir for Elliania.

“The thought that there have been generations with no female offspring to refresh the line troubles her. And at the same time, it has comforted her. She now feels the fault is with the Farseer males, who cannot seem to seed girls in their wives’ wombs. For years, she tormented herself that it was her own failing that she had borne only two males. She has known for years about Nettle’s true parentage and sees her opportunity to right a great wrong done to Nettle by raising Nettle’s child as a Narcheska. After a dearth of females, Nettle was born, finally, a true daughter of the Farseer motherhouse. But instead of being celebrated, she was hidden in the shadows. Concealed from the royal court. Her parentage denied. And only brought to Buckkeep when she became useful to the Farseers.”

I was silent. I could not deny the truth of his words. It stung badly to hear them uttered by her husband and my friend. I had believed I was protecting her. As I was protecting Bee by keeping her away from Buckkeep? There was an uncomfortable thought. I tried to justify myself.

“Nettle is the bastard daughter of a bastard son of an abdicated prince, Riddle.”

A flash of anger. “Here, perhaps. But in the Out Islands our child might well be seen as a princess of their line.”

“You and Nettle would do that? Leave Buckkeep and the court and go to the Out Islands?”

“To save my daughter being seen as a shame and a bastard? Yes. I would.”

I found I was nodding in agreement. “And if the child is a boy?”

He heaved a sigh. “That will be a different battle, on a different day. Fitz, we were friends before I fell in love with your daughter. I’ve felt guilty that I did not come to you before this. That I did not reveal our marriage to you.”

I didn’t hesitate. I’d had too much time in the last few days to remember all sorts of decisions that had been taken out of my hands. “I’m not angry, Riddle.” I stood and held out my hand. We clasped wrists and then he embraced me. I spoke by his ear. “I thought you had come here in fury over what I did to you as we passed through the Skill-pillars.”

He stepped back from me. “Oh, I’ll leave that to Nettle. If she hasn’t blasted the skin from your flesh with her words yet, you’ve that to look forward to. I don’t know what will come of this, Fitz, but I wanted you to know that I’ve done my best to be honorable.”

“I can see that. As you always have, Riddle. No matter what comes of this, I will take your side and Nettle’s.”

He gave a tight nod, then heaved a deep sigh and went over to sit on the chair I had offered him earlier. He clasped his hands and looked down on them.

“There’s more, and it’s bad news,” I guessed.

“Bee.” He said her name, took a deep breath, and then sat, wordless.

I sank back down onto the bed. “I remember what you said at the tavern, Riddle.”

He looked up at me suddenly. The muscles in his face were tight. “And the situation hasn’t changed, Fitz. Nor the outcome. Nettle said she would talk to you, that this wasn’t my burden. But it is. Even if I were not married to your daughter, as your friend it would still be my duty. Fitz, you have to give her up. You have to bring her here, to Buckkeep, where she can be properly supervised and educated. You know that. You do.”

Did I? I clenched my teeth to hold back my angry response. I thought back over the last month. How many times had I resolved to do better with Bee? And failed. How many times had I set her aside to deal with disasters and mayhem? I’d involved my nine-year-old daughter in disposing of a body and concealing a murder—even if she didn’t know I’d killed the messenger. For the first time I thought of the potential danger to my child, if, indeed, there were pursuers still searching for the messenger. Or assassins seeking Shun and FitzVigilant. Chade had put those two with me for safekeeping, secure in his belief that I would protect them. I’d given no thought to that at all when I’d left everyone to bring the Fool to Buckkeep. No consideration that Bee might be in danger from assassins seeking their targets in my home. That last attempt on Shun’s life had been a poisoning. The assassin had killed a kitchen boy instead of Shun. A sloppy job. And what if his next attempt was just as sloppy? Winterfest would open the doors of Withywoods to all sorts of folk. What if the assassin poisoned more than a single dish in his next try for Shun?

Why hadn’t I seen this before?

“I’ve lost my edge,” I said quietly. “I’m not protecting her.”

Riddle looked puzzled. “I’m talking about your being a father, Fitz, not her guardsman. I think you’re more than capable of protecting her life. But someone has to make sure she has that life for you to protect. Give your daughter an education and the opportunities appropriate to her station. The manners, the dress, the social experiences. She is the daughter of Lady Molly, as well as the child of Holder Badgerlock. It would be very appropriate for her to come to court and spend time with her sister.”

He was right. But, “I can’t give her up.”

Riddle stood, squared his shoulders, and spoke firmly. “Then don’t. Come with her, Fitz. Find a new name and come back to Buckkeep. This is where Bee belongs. And where you belong. And you know that.”

I stared at the floor. He waited some time for me to speak, and when I did not, he said more softly, “I’m sorry, Fitz. But you do know that we’re right.”

He left quietly and as he shut the door behind him I wondered how difficult that had been for him. We’d known each other a long time. He had begun as a sort of spy for Chade and a bodyguard for when I needed someone to watch my back. He’d become a comrade and someone I’d trusted as we’d experienced terrible things. And then, somehow, he’d become the man who courted my daughter. Riddle would be the father of my grandchild. Strange. I’d trusted him with my life, more than once. I had no choice now, in that he must be trusted with not just my daughter’s heart but the fate of the child they would have. I swallowed. And with Bee? Because I was failing her.

If I gave Bee to Riddle and Nettle, I could undertake the Fool’s vengeance.

That traitorous thought made me want to vomit.

I got up suddenly. I could not think about it at the moment. I tried so hard, but there was just not enough time or enough of me. And trying was not doing. “Oh, Molly,” I said aloud and then clenched my jaws together. There had to be an answer, but I couldn’t see it. Not now.

Time to go check on the Fool. I went to the window and looked out. I felt as if it should be late afternoon bordering on evening. Too much had happened already today. Kettricken was Witted. She was interested in Bee. Web wanted me to adopt a crow. I was to be a grandfather, possibly the grandfather of a Narcheska. And Riddle believed I was a failure as a father and wished to take my child from me. As I turned to head toward the stairs, Nettle tugged on my thoughts.

Riddle told me. No point in pretending I did not know. She would feel the current of concern in my thoughts.

I knew he would, though I wish he had left it to me. Something about manly honor. Did you shout at him? Tell him he had shamed me and therefore you?

Of course not! Her prickly sarcasm stung me. Need I remind you that I am a bastard and know what it is to be seen as my father’s shame?

Which is why you have always denied me entirely.

I . . . what? I never denied you. Had I? Uncertainty flavored my thoughts. Memories flooded in. I had. Oh, yes, I had. Only to protect you, I amended. Times were harsher then. To be not just the Bastard’s daughter, but the child of the Witted Bastard, possibly possessing that dirty magic . . . some folk would have seen fit to kill you.

So you let Burrich claim me.

He kept you safe.

He did. Her words were relentless. And it kept you safe, when you chose to pretend you were dead. It kept the Farseer reputation safe, too. No inconvenient bastards to muddle the line of succession. Safe. As if “safe” were more important than anything else.

I hemmed my thoughts tightly from her. I was not sure what she was trying to tell me, but I was certain of one thing. I didn’t want to hear it.

Well, my child will know who her parents are! And she will know who her grandparents were! I will see to that, I will give her that, and no one will ever be able to take it away from her!

Nettle, I— But she was gone. I didn’t reach after her. There was another daughter I had failed. I’d let her grow up believing she was the daughter of another man. I’d let her mother and Burrich believe I was dead. I’d told myself, all those years, that I was keeping her safe. But she had felt denied. And abandoned.

I thought of my own father, as I seldom did. I’d never even looked in his eyes. What had I felt, that he had abandoned me in Buckkeep to the care of his stablemaster? I stared at nothing. Why had I done the same to my elder daughter?

Bee. It wasn’t too late for me to be a good father to her. I knew where I should be right now, and if I used the Skill-pillar, I could be there before nightfall. It was a little dangerous, but hadn’t I risked more than that bringing the Fool through? It would be days before I dared risk any more healing on him. I should go home, gather Bee, and bring her back to Buckkeep. Not to give her up to Nettle, not for us to stay here, but to have her by me while I had to be here to tend the Fool. It made sense. It was what I should do.

The upper chamber was dark save for the reddish light from the fire. The Fool sat in the chair in front of it. I bit my tongue before I could ask him why he was sitting in the dark. He turned his face toward me as I approached. “There’s a message for you. On the table.”

“Thank you.”

“A young man brought it. I’m afraid that when he walked in, I was half-asleep. I screamed. I don’t know which of us was more terrified.” His voice reached for a note of mockery, and failed.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to rein in my wayward thoughts. There was no sense in sharing my anguish with him. There was nothing he could do to help me, except feel ashamed that he had pulled me away from my child.

I made myself focus on his string of anxious words.

“And now I’m afraid to go back to sleep. I didn’t think of other people coming and going from here. I don’t know how it could have escaped me. I know they must. But I can’t stop thinking about them. What if they talk to others? People will know I’m hiding here. It won’t be safe.”

“I’m going to light some candles,” I told him. I did not say that I needed to see his face because I could not tell how serious he was. As I kindled the first one, I asked him, “How are you feeling? Better than yesterday?”

“I can’t tell, Fitz. I can’t tell yesterday from early this morning. I can’t tell early this morning from midnight. It’s all the same for me, here in the dark. You come and you go. I have food, I shit, I sleep. And I’m frightened. I suppose that means that I’m better. I remember when all I could think about was how badly every part of my body hurt. Now the pain has subsided to where I can think about how scared I am.”

I lit a second candle from the first one and set them in the holders on the table.

“You don’t know what to say,” he observed.

“I don’t,” I admitted. I tried to set my own fears aside to deal with his. “I know you are safe here. But I also know that no matter how often I say that, it won’t change how you feel. Fool, what can I do? What would make you feel better?”

He turned his face away from me. After a long moment, he said, “You should read your message. The boy blurted out it was important before he ran away.”

I picked up the small scroll on the table. Chade’s spy-seal was on it. I broke the wax free and unrolled it.

“Fitz. Do I look that frightful? When I sat up in my chair and screamed, the boy screamed, too. As if he’d seen a corpse rise from the grave and shriek at him.”

I set the scroll aside. “You look like a very ill man who was deliberately starved and tortured. And your color is . . . odd. Not tawny, as you were in the days of Lord Golden, nor white as you were when you were King Shrewd’s jester. You are gray. It’s not a color one would expect a living man to be.”

He was silent for so long that I turned my eyes back to the scroll. There was to be another festive gathering tonight, the final one of the Winterfest before our nobility once more dispersed to their own duchies. Queen Elliania urged everyone to attend and asked everyone to wear their best to celebrate turning toward the growing light. Chade suggested that perhaps Lord Feldspar should make a trip to town and purchase some finery for the occasion. He suggested a tailor’s shop, and by that I knew that the garments would have been ordered and rushed to be prepared for me.

“You’re an honest man, Fitz.” The Fool’s voice was dull.

I sighed. Had I been too honest? “What good would it serve for me to lie to you? Fool, you look terrible. It breaks my heart to see you this way. The only thing I can offer myself or you is that as you eat and rest and grow stronger, your health will improve. When you are stronger, I hope to use the Skill to urge your body to repair itself. That is the only comfort either of us has. But it will take time. And demand our patience. Haste will not serve us.”

“I don’t have time, Fitz. Rather, I do. I have time to get better or time to die. But somewhere, I am sure, there is a son who needs to be rescued before the Servants of the Whites find him. With every day, with every hour, I fear they have already secured him. And with every day and every hour, I am mindful of the continued captivity of a hundred souls in a faraway place. It may seem it has little to do with us and Buckkeep and the Six Duchies, but it does. The Servants use them with no more thought than we give to penning up a chicken or wringing a rabbit’s neck. They breed them for their insights into the future, and they use those insights to make themselves omniscient. It bothers them not at all when a baby is born who will never walk or can barely see. As long as they are pale and have prescient dreams, that is all they care about. The power of the Servants reaches even to here, twisting and turning events, bending time and the world to their will. They have to be stopped, Fitz. We have to go back to Clerres and kill them. It must be done.”

I said what I knew was true. “One thing at a time, my friend. We can only attempt one thing at a time.”

He stared sightlessly at me as if I had said the cruelest thing in the world to him. Then his lower jaw trembled, and he dropped his face into his broken hands and began to sob.

I felt sharp annoyance and then deep guilt that I’d felt it. He was in agony. I knew it. How could I feel annoyed at him when I knew exactly what he was experiencing? Hadn’t I felt that way myself? Had I forgotten the times when my experiences in Regal’s dungeons had washed over me like a wave, obliterating whatever was good and safe in my life and carrying me right back into that chaos and pain?

No. I tried to forget that, and in the last decade of years, for the most part I had. And my annoyance with the Fool was not annoyance but extreme uneasiness. “Please. Don’t make me remember that.”

I realized I’d said the betraying words out loud. His only response was to cry louder, in the hopeless way of a child who has no hope of comforting himself. This was misery that could not yield, for he sorrowed for a time he could not return to, and a self he would never again be.

“Tears can’t undo it,” I said and wondered why I uttered the useless words. I both wanted to hold him and feared to. Feared that it would alarm him to be touched and feared even more that it would draw me tighter into his misery and wake my own. But at last I took the three steps that carried me around the table. “Fool. You are safe here. I know you can’t believe it just yet, but it’s over. And you are safe.” I stroked the broken hair on his head, rough as the coat of a sick dog, and then pulled him closer to cradle his head against my sternum. His clawlike hands came up and clutched my wrist, and he held himself tighter against me. I let him have his tears. They were the only things I could give him then. I thought of what I had wanted to tell him, that I had to leave him for a few days to get Bee.

I couldn’t. Not right now.

He was slow to quiet and even when his sobs ceased, the breath shuddered in and out of him. After a time, he patted my wrist tentatively and said, “I think I’m all right now.”

“You aren’t. But you will be.”

“Oh, Fitz,” he said. He pulled away from me and sat up as straight as he could. He coughed and cleared his throat. “What of your message? The lad said it was important.”

“Oh, it is and it isn’t. The queen wishes us to be dressed in our finest for the last night of Winterfest revelry, and that means I must make a trip down to Buckkeep Town to secure some clothing.” I scowled to myself as I reflected I would have to go as Lord Feldspar in his awful garb. But not in those shoes. Oh, no. I wasn’t walking on icy cobbles in those shoes.

“Well. You’d best be on your way, then.”

“I should,” I agreed reluctantly. I didn’t want to leave him alone in his darkness. Yet I didn’t want to stay where his despondency could infect me. I had come up the stairs thinking that I could safely confide Nettle’s news to him. For a moment, I had seen him as the friend and counselor he was in our youth. Now the news was ash on my tongue. Here was another Farseer he had not foreseen. His talk of deformed babies had chilled me; how could I tell him my first grandchild was expected? It might plunge him into yet another dark spiral. Worse would be to tell him I had to be gone for six to eight days. I could not leave him to fetch Bee. But I could agree to having her brought here. I would talk to Kettricken about it tomorrow. Together we would arrange it.

You do your duty to your friends. How often had Nighteyes sat beside me when I sought to lose myself in futile Skilling attempts? How often had Hap staggered me back to the cabin and deliberately given me less than the amount of stunning drugs I’d commanded him to fetch? I did not even want to think of the weeks, and then months, Burrich had spent trying to help me make the transition back from wolf to human. My friends had not abandoned me, and I would not abandon the Fool.

But he could still abandon me. And he did. He levered himself up from the table. “You should go and do your errand, Fitz,” he said. He turned and almost as if he were sighted walked back to the bed.

As he clambered into it and drew up the blankets I asked him, “Are you certain you want to be alone now?”

He did not reply. And after a time I realized he wasn’t going to. I felt unreasonably hurt at this. A dozen scathing comments went unsaid by me. He had no idea of what I had given up for him. Then the moment of anger passed and I was grateful I had not spoken. I never wanted him to know what I had sacrificed for him.

And there was nothing left for me to do but my duty. I went down the stairs, freshened my appearance as Feldspar, and defiantly put my own boots back on.

Winterfest might celebrate the lengthening of the days but it did not mean that we were on the road to spring. Yesterday’s clouds had snowed themselves to nothing. The sky overhead was as deep and pure a blue as a Buck lady’s skirts, but more clouds clustered on the horizon. Frost coated the festive garlands that festooned the shopfronts. The packed snow on the street squeaked under my boots. The cold had subdued the holiday spirit, but scattered vendors of winter sweets and toys still shouted their wares to hasty passersby. I passed a miserable donkey with icy whiskers, and a hot-chestnut vendor who could barely keep his brazier lit. He warmed his hands over his wares, and I bought a dozen just to carry them in my chilled fingers. Overhead, the gulls wheeled and screamed as they always did. Crows were noisily mobbing a tardy owl they had found. By the time I reached the street of the tailors, my drunkard’s nose was as red from the cold as Chade could ever have wished. My cheeks were stiff and my lashes clung together briefly each time I blinked. I gathered my cloak more closely around myself and hoped that the new clothing that awaited me was not as foolish as what I was wearing.

I had just located the correct shop when I heard a voice call, “Tom! Tom! Tom!”

I remembered in time that I was Lord Feldspar. So I did not turn, but a boy on the street shouted to his friends, “Look, it’s a talking crow! He said ‘Tom.’ ”

That gave me the excuse to turn and look where the lad was pointing. Perched on a signboard across the street was a bedraggled crow. It looked at me and screamed shrilly, “Tom, Tom!”

Before I could react, another crow dived on it, pecking and flapping and cawing. In response to that attack, a dozen more birds appeared as if from nowhere to join in the mobbing. As the beleaguered bird took flight, I caught a glimpse of white pinions among her black ones. To my horror, one of the other crows struck her in midair. She tumbled in her flight and then in her desperation took refuge under the eaves of a nearby shop. Two of her attackers made passes but could not reach her. The others settled down on nearby rooftops to wait. With the instincts of all bullies, they knew that eventually she would have to emerge.

Then, in the way of their kind, they would peck her to death for being different.

Oh, Web, what have you gotten me into? I could not, could not, take in another orphan. She would have to fend for herself. That was all. I would have to hope that she would make her way back to him. I wished he had not sent her in search of me. I hardened my heart and went into the tailor’s shop.

My new accoutrements began with a very short blue cape trimmed in layers of snowflake lace. I wondered if the tailor had jumbled Chade’s order with one for a lady, but the tailor and her husband gathered round me to try it on and make some adjustments to the ties. They then brought out the matching cuffs for my wrists and ankles. The tailor made a mouth at the sight of my distinctly unfashionable boots but agreed that they were probably more suitable for the snow. I promised her that the lace cuffs would be worn with my most fashionable bell-toed shoes, and she appeared mollified. The lad who had delivered the order had paid them in advance, so all I had to do was accept the package and be on my way.

As I came out of the shop, the light of the short winter afternoon was starting to leak away. Cold was settling on the town, and the traffic in the streets had thinned. I did not look toward the crow hunched under the eaves nor at her gathered tormentors. I turned my steps toward Buckkeep. “Tom! Tom!” she cried after me, but I kept walking.

Then, “Fitz! Fitz!” she cawed shrilly. Despite myself, my steps faltered. I kept my eyes on the path before me as I saw others turning to stare at the crow. I heard the frantic beating of wings and then heard her shriek, “Fitz—Chivalry! Fitz—Chivalry!”

Beside me, a thin woman clasped her knotted hands to her breast. “He’s come back!” she cried. “As a crow!” To that, I had to turn, lest others mark how I ignored this sensation.

“Ar, it’s just some fellow’s tame crow,” a man declared disdainfully. We all turned our eyes skyward. The hapless bird was flying up as high as she could, with the mob in pursuit.

“I heard you split a crow’s tongue, you can teach it to talk,” the chestnut vendor volunteered.

“Fitz—Chivalry!” she shrieked again as a larger crow struck her. She lost her momentum and tumbled in the air, caught herself, and flapped bravely, but she had fallen to a level below the murder of crows and now they all mobbed her. In twos and threes they dived on her, striking her, tearing out feathers that floated in the still air. She fought the air to try to stay aloft, helpless to protect herself from the birds that were mobbing her.

“It’s an omen!” someone shouted.

“It’s FitzChivalry in beast form!” a woman cried out. “The Witted Bastard has returned!”

And in that instant, terror swept through me. Had I thought earlier I recalled what the Fool was enduring? No. I had forgotten the icy flood of certainty that every hand was against me, that the good people of Buck dressed in their holiday finery would tear me apart with their bare hands, just as the flock of crows was tearing that lone bird apart. I felt sick with fear, in my legs and in my belly. I began to walk away and at every step I thought they must see how my legs quavered, how white my face had gone. I gripped my package with both hands and tried to walk on as if I were the only one uninterested in the aerial battle overhead.

“He’s falling!” someone shouted, and I had to halt and look up.

But she wasn’t falling. She’d tucked her wings as if she were a hawk and she was diving. Diving straight at me.

An instant to see that, and then she had hit me. “I’ll help you, sir!” the chestnut vendor shouted and started toward me, his tongs raised to strike the flapping bird tangled in my cloak. I hunched my shoulders and turned to take the blow for her as I wrapped her in the fabric.

Be still. You’re dead! It was the Wit I used to speak to her, with no idea if she would hear my thoughts. She had become still as soon as I covered her and I thought it likely she actually was dead. What would Web say to me? Then I saw my foolish hat and flopping wig lying in the street before me. I snatched it up and under the guise of catching my parcel to my chest I held the crow firm as well. I whirled on the well-meaning chestnut vendor. “What do you mean by assaulting me?” I shouted at him as I jammed hat and wig back onto my head. “How dare you humiliate me like this!”

“Sir, I meant no ill!” the vendor cried, falling back from me. “That crow—!”

“Really? Then why did you charge at me and nearly knock me to the ground, if not to expose me to ridicule?” I tugged vainly at my lopsided wig, settling it oddly on my head. I heard a boy laugh, and a mother rebuke him with barely contained merriment. I glared in their direction and then one-handedly made my wig and hat worse. There were several guffaws from behind me. I whirled, letting my hat and wig nearly leave my head again. “Imbeciles! Ruffians! I shall see the Buckkeep town guards know about the dangers on this street! Assaulting visitors! Mocking a guest of the king! I want you to know, I am cousin to the Duke of Farrow, and he will be hearing about this from me!” I puffed out my cheeks and let my lower lip tremble in feigned rage. My shaking voice I did not have to manufacture. I felt half-sick with fear that someone would recognize me. The echo of my name seemed to hang in the air. I turned on my heel and did my best to flounce with indignation as I strode hastily away. I heard a little girl’s voice ask, “But where did that bird go?”

I did not loiter to see if anyone would answer her. My apparent discomfiture at losing my hat and wig seemed to have provided them with some amusement, as I had hoped. Several times before I was out of sight I made seemingly vain attempts to adjust both. When I judged I was far enough away, I stepped into an alley and drew up my hood over my hat and wig. The crow was so still within the fold of my cloak that I feared she was truly dead. She had struck me quite hard, hard enough to break a bird’s neck, I surmised. But my Wit told me that while she might be stunned and stilled, life still beat in her. I traversed the alley and walked down the winding way of Tinker Street until I found another, narrower alley. There I finally unfolded the wrap of cloak that cradled her still, black form.

Her eyes were closed. Her wings were clapped neatly to her body. I have always been impressed with how birds could fold two limbs so smoothly that, had you never seen a bird before, you would believe it only had legs. I touched her gleaming black beak.

She opened a shining eye. I put a hand on her back, trapping her wings to her side. Not yet. Stay still until we are somewhere safe.

I felt no return of the Wit from her, but her obedience made me believe she had understood me. I arranged crow and parcel under my cloak and hurried on toward Buckkeep Castle. The road was better maintained and more traveled than it had once been, but it was still steep and icy in some places. The light was fading and the wind rising. The wind picked up snow crystals as scathing as sand and blasted them at me. Carts and wagons bearing provisions for this final evening of merrymaking passed me. I was going to be late.

Inside my cloak, the crow had become restive. She shifted and clung to my shirtfront with beak and claws. I reached in to touch her and offer her support. She fluttered violently and the hand I drew back had fingertips of blood. I reached her with the Wit. Are you hurt?

My thought bounced back to me as if I had thrown a pebble at a wall. Despite that, her pain washed against me and prickled up my spine. I spoke aloud in a quiet voice. “Stay under my cloak. Climb up to my shoulder. I’ll keep still while you do that.”

For a time, she did not move. Then she gripped my shirt with her beak and climbed me, reaching to claim a fresh beak-hold with every few steps. She became a lump on my shoulder under my cloak and then moved around to make me a hunchback. When she seemed settled, I straightened up slowly.

“I think we’ll be fine,” I told my passenger.

The winds had shepherded in the clouds and now they released a fresh fall of snow. It came down in thick clumps of flakes that whirled and danced in the wind. I bent my head and trudged up the steep hill toward the keep.

I was admitted back into the castle grounds without question. I could hear the music and the murmur of voices from the Great Hall. Already so late! The crow-mobbing had delayed me more than I had realized. I hastened past servants bearing trays and well-dressed folk who were less late than I was, and up the stairs. I kept my hood up, my gaze down, and greeted no one. The moment I was inside my room, I lifted my snowy cloak away. The crow gripped the back of my collar, and my wig was tangled in her feet. As soon as she was uncovered, she lifted from the nape of my neck and attempted to fly. With my wig and hat weighing her down, she plummeted to the floor.

“Keep still. I’ll free you,” I told her.

After several minutes of struggling, she lay on her side, one wing half-open and the hair of the wig snarled around her feet. The white pinions interspersed with the black ones were clearly visible now, the feathers that meant every other crow in the world would attempt to kill her. I sighed. “Now keep still and I’ll free you,” I repeated. Her beak was open and she was gasping. One bright black eye stared up at me. I moved slowly. It seemed impossible that she had tangled her feet so thoroughly in such a short time. Drops of her blood were scattered on the floor. I spoke to her as I tried to untangle her. “Are you hurt badly? Did they stab you?” With my Wit I tried to radiate calm and reassurance to her. Are you hurt? I offered the question, trying not to press against her boundaries. Her pain washed against me. She fluttered wildly, undoing much of my untangling effort, and then fell still again. “Are you hurt badly?” I asked her again.

She closed her beak, looked at me, and then croaked, “Plucked! Plucked my feathers!”

“I see.” Wonder at how many human words she knew mingled with relief that she could give me information. But a bird was not a wolf. Trying to interpret what I felt from her was difficult. There was pain and fear and a great deal of anger. If she had been my wolf, I would have known exactly where she was injured and how badly. This was like trying to communicate with someone who spoke a different language. “Let me try to get you free. I need to take you to a table and better light. May I pick you up?”

She blinked. “Water. Water. Water.”

“And I will get you water, too.” I tried not to think of how time was fleeting. As if in response to my worry, I felt a questioning twinge from Chade. Where was I? The queen had asked Dutiful to be sure I was present, a most unusual request from her.

I’ll be there soon, I promised, fervently hoping I would be. I triggered the secret door and then scooped the crow from the floor, holding her safely but loosely in my hands as I carried her up the dark stairway.

“Fitz?” the Fool asked anxiously before I had reached the last step. I could just make out his silhouette in the chair before the fire. The candles had burned out hours ago. My heart sank at the worry in his voice.

“Yes, it’s me. I’ve an injured crow with me, and she’s tangled in my wig. I’ll explain in a moment, but for now I just need to set her down, get some light, and give her water.”

“You have a crow tangled in your wig?” he asked, and for a wonder there was a trace of both amusement and mockery in his voice. “Ah, Fitz. I can always trust you to have some sort of bizarre problem that breaks my ennui.”

“Web sent her to me.” In the darkness, I set her down on the table. She tried to stand, but the strands of hair wrapped her too well. She collapsed onto her side. “Be still, bird. I need to get some candles. Then I hope I’ll be able to untangle you.”

She remained quiescent, but day birds often go still in the dark. I groped through the dimly lit chamber to find additional candles. By the time I had lit them, put them in holders, and returned to the worktable, the Fool was already there. To my surprise, his knotted fingers were at work on the locks of hair that were wrapped so securely about the bird’s toes and legs. I set my candles down at the far end of the table and watched. The bird was still, her eyes occasionally blinking. The Fool’s fingers, once long, elegant, and clever, were now like knotted dead twigs. He was speaking to her softly as he worked. The hand with the deadened fingertips gently bade her feet be still as the fingers of his other hand lifted and pulled at strands of hair. He spoke in a murmur like water over stones. “And this one must go under first. And now we can lift that toe from the loop. There. That’s one foot almost clear. Oh, that’s tight. Let me push this thread of hair under . . . there. There’s one foot cleared.”

The crow kicked the free leg abruptly, and then subsided as the Fool set his hand to her back. “You will be free in a moment. Be still, or the ropes will just get tighter. Struggling against ropes never works.”

Ropes. I held my silence. It took longer than a moment for him to untangle her second foot. I nearly offered him scissors, but he was so intent on his task, so removed from his own misery, that I banished my concerns about the passing time and let them be. “There you are. There,” he said at last. He set the hat and battered wig to one side. For a breath, she lay still. Then, with a twitch and a flap, she was on her feet. He didn’t try to touch her.

“He will want water, Fitz. Fear makes one so thirsty.”

“She,” I corrected him. I went to the water bucket, filled a cup, and brought it back to the table. I set it down, dipped my fingers in it, held them up so the bird could see water drip back into the cup, and stepped away. The Fool had taken up the hat and the wig that was fastened to it still. Wind, rain, and the crow-struggle had taken a toll on the wig. Parts were tangled into a frizz while other locks hung lank and wet.

“I don’t think this can be easily mended,” he said. He set it back on the table. I took it up and ran my fingers through the hair, trying to bring it back to some semblance of order. “Tell me about the bird,” he requested.

“Web asked me if I could take her in. She had, well, not an owner. A friend. Not a Wit-bond, but a human who helped her. She was hatched with some white feathers in her wings—”

“White! White! White!” the bird suddenly croaked. She hopped over to the water, a typical crow’s two-footed hop, and stuck her beak deep into the water. As she drank thirstily, the Fool exclaimed, “She can talk!”

“Only as birds do. She repeats words she has been taught. I think.”

“But she talks to you, through your Wit?”

“Not really. I can sense her feelings, distress, pain. But we are not bonded, Fool. I do not share her thoughts, nor she mine.” I gave hat and wig a shake. The crow squawked in surprise and hopped sideways, nearly oversetting the water. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” I said. I looked woefully at the wig and hat. There was no mending them. “A moment, Fool. I must speak to Chade.” I reached out to Chade through the Skill. My wig has been damaged. I do not think I can appear as Lord Feldspar tonight.

Then come however you may, but make it soon. Something is brewing, Fitz. Queen Elliania bubbles with it. At first I thought she was angry, for when she greeted me, her eyes were cold and bright. But she seems oddly warm, almost jubilant, leading the dancing with an enthusiasm I’ve never seen before.

Did you ask Dutiful if he had any idea what is brewing?

Dutiful does not know. I felt him throw his Skilling wide, including Dutiful in our mental conversation.

Perhaps Dutiful does not think there is anything wrong with his queen so obviously enjoying herself this evening, the king suggested sarcastically.

There is something in the wind. I feel it! Chade replied.

Perhaps I might know my wife’s moods better than you do? Dutiful retorted.

I wanted no more of their fractiousness. I will be down as soon as I can, but not as Lord Feldspar. The wig is ruined, I fear.

At the least, dress fashionably, Chade ordered me irritably. If you come down in a tunic and trousers, you will turn every head. Nor can you wear what was ordered for Lord Feldspar. There must be items in Lord Feldspar’s wardrobe that he has not yet worn. Choose from among them, and quickly.

I shall.

“You have to go.” The Fool spoke into the silence after my Skilling.

“I do. How did you know?”

“I learned to read your exasperated little sighs long ago, Fitz.”

“The wig is ruined. And with it, my identity as Lord Feldspar. I must go to my room, sort through clothing, dress, and go down as someone entirely different. I can do it. But I do not delight in it as Chade does.”

“And as I once did.” It was his turn to sigh. “How I would love to have your task tonight! To choose clothing and go down well dressed, with rings and earrings and scent, and mingle with a hundred different folk, and eat well-prepared food. Drink and dance and make jests.” He sighed again. “I wish I could be alive again before I have to die.”

“Ah, Fool.” I began to reach for his hand, and then stopped. He would startle back in terror if I touched him, and when he did that, it woke hurt in both of us.

“You should go right now. I’ll keep the bird company.”

“Thank you,” I said, and meant it. I hoped she would not panic suddenly and dash herself against the chamber walls. As long it was mostly darkened, I thought she would be fine. I had nearly reached the top of the stairs when his query reached me.

“What does she look like?”

“She’s a crow, Fool. A grown crow. Black beak, black feet, black eyes. The only thing that sets her apart from a thousand other crows is that she was hatched with some white upon her feathers.”

“Where is she white?”

“Some of her pinions are white. When she opens her wings, they are almost striped. And there were a few tufts of white on her back or head, I think. The others ripped out some of her feathers.”

“Ripped,” the Fool said.

“White! White! White!” the bird cried out in the darkness. Then, in a soft little mutter, so that I was barely sure I heard it, she muttered, “Ah, Fool.”

“She knows my name!” he exclaimed in delight.

“And mine. More’s the pity. It was how she forced me to stop for her. She was shouting ‘FitzChivalry! FitzChivalry!’ in the middle of Tailors Street.”

“Clever girl,” the Fool murmured approvingly.

I snorted my disagreement and hurried down the stairs.

Chapter Eight


And back-to-back those brothers stood

And bade farewell their lives,

For round them pressed the Red Ship wolves,

A wall of swords and knives.

They heard a roar and striding came

The bastard Buckkeep son.

Like rubies flung, the drops of blood

That from his axe-head spun.

A path he clove, like hewing trees,

As bloody axe he wielded.

Blood to his chest, the bastard came,

And to his blade they yielded.

’Twas Chivalry’s son,

His eyes like flame,

Who shared his blood

If not his name.

A Farseer son,

But ne’er an heir

Whose bloodied locks

No crown would bear.

“Antler Island Anthem,” Starling Birdsong

I was pulling off my clothes before I was halfway down the stairs. I emerged into my room, shut the door, and hopped from one foot to the other as I pulled off my boots. None of what I had worn today could I wear down to the gathering in the Great Hall. All it would take was one style-obsessed idiot to recognize a garment he had earlier seen on Lord Feldspar.

I began to drag clothing from his wardrobe, then forced myself to stop. I closed my eyes and visualized last night’s gathering. What had they had in common, all those peacocks parading their finery? The long-skirted jackets. A plenitude of buttons, most of them decorative rather than functional. Fussy lace at throat and wrist and shoulder. And the clash of bright colors. I opened my eyes.

Scarlet trousers, with rows of blue buttons down the outsides of the legs. A white shirt with a collar so high it near-choked me. A long blue vest with tufts of red lace at the shoulders and red buttons like a row of sow’s nipples down the chest. A massy silver ring for my thumb. No. None of that. My own trousers from Withywoods, laundered and returned, thanks to Ash. The plainest of the fussy shirts in a foresty green. A brown vest, long, with buttons, but ones of horn. And that was all I had time for. I looked in the glass and ran my hands through my rain-damp hair. It lay down, for now. I chose the plainest of the small hats: To go bareheaded would attract more stares than any hat. It would have to do. I hoped to look poor enough that no one would seek to be introduced to me. I chose the least uncomfortable of the shoes and pulled them on. Then, with the re-woken expertise of my youth, I rapidly loaded my concealed pockets, transferring my small weapons and envelopes of poison and lock picks from the jacket I had worn earlier today, trying not to wonder if I would use them if Chade ordered me to. If it came to that, I’d decide then, I promised myself, and turned away from that stomach-churning question.

On my way! My Skilling to Chade was tight and private.

Who are you? His question reminded me of our old game. Create an identity in the space of a heartbeat.

I’m Raven Kelder. Third son of a minor lord in rural Tilth. I’ve never been to court before, I’ve only arrived at Buckkeep tonight, and I’m dazzled by all I see. I’m dressed plainly and rather unfashionably. I’ll be full of foolish questions. My father died late, my brother only recently inherited, and he’s pushed me off the holding and told me to seek my own way in life. And I’m more than happy to be having an adventure and spending my share of my small inheritance.

Good enough! Come, then.

And so Raven Kelder hurried down the wide stairs and immersed himself in the crowd thronging the Great Hall. Tonight was Last Night for Winterfest. We’d celebrated the turning from dark to light, and tonight was our final feast before we settled down to outlast the storms and cold of winter. One more night of fellowship, song, feasting, and dancing, and tomorrow the nobility of the Six Duchies would begin to drain out of Buckkeep Castle and trickle back to their own holdings. Usually it was the most subdued of the Winterfest nights, a time of bidding farewell to friends, for the winter’s harsh weather cut down on travel. When I was a lad, the nights that followed Last Night were for indoor pursuits: the fashioning of arrows, weaving, carving, and sewing. The younger scribes would bring their copy work to the Great Hearth and listen to the minstrels as they worked.

I had expected slow ballads from the minstrels, mulled drinks, and quiet conversations. Instead I walked into a hall where folk were once more dressed in their best garments and jewelry, and minstrels played lively tunes that set toes to tapping and brought dancers out onto the floor. And as I entered, the middle of the dance floor was dominated by the King and Queen of the Six Duchies. The plague of buttons that had attacked my wardrobe had not spared the royal couple. Hundreds of buttons, in silver and ivory and mother-of-pearl, decorated the queen’s dress. They ticked and rattled against one another as she trod the lively steps. Dutiful’s garments were burdened with multiple buttons of horn, ivory, bone, and silver in a more sedate but no less rattling display. I stood several layers of folk back in the crowd and watched them. Dutiful’s eyes had not left Elliania’s face: He seemed as entranced with her as he had when they were courting. The queen’s cheeks were flushed and her lips parted as she breathlessly kept the pace of the lively dance. As the music skirled to a close, he lifted her and whirled her around while she braced her hands on his shoulders. The applause of the crowd was unrestrained and unfeigned. His grin was white in his dark beard, and Elliania’s cheeks were red. Both of them were flushed and laughing as they left the dance floor and retreated to their elevated thrones at the end of the room.

I drifted in the crowd like a bit of seaweed caught on a tide change. Chade, I decided, was correct. There was an undercurrent of excitement tonight, a spice of curiosity in the air. The queen’s request that all attend in their best finery had been heeded. Clearly something special was to occur, perhaps a bestowal of honors, and the room simmered with expectations.

I had time to visit a wine cask and secure a glass for myself before the musicians began to fuss with their instruments prior to choosing the next tune. I maneuvered myself into a position where I had a clear view of the high dais and yet remained at the edges of the crowd. Dutiful said something to the queen; she smiled and shook her head. Then she stood and, with a gesture, silenced the minstrels. The quiet rippled out until the entire gathering had stilled and all attention had focused on her. Dutiful, still seated on his throne, looked askance at her. She smiled at him and patted his shoulder reassuringly. She took a breath and turned to address her nobility.

“Lords and ladies of the Six Duchies, I have excellent news to share with you. And I fondly believe you will celebrate it as jubilantly as I shall!” After her years in the Six Duchies, her Outislander accent had faded to a charming lilt. Dutiful was watching her with one raised eyebrow. At a nearby table, Lord Chade looked somewhat concerned, while Kettricken’s face was full of speculation. The Skillmistress sat at Lord Chade’s left hand. Nettle’s face was grave and thoughtful. I wondered if she even heard Elliania’s speech or if her mind was full of her own dilemma. The queen took a few moments to survey her listeners. No one spoke; the servants stood still. She let the silence build. Then the queen cleared her throat.

“I have long agonized that there have been no females born to the Farseer line during my reign as queen. Heirs I have given my king. I am proud and glad of our sons, and believe they will reign here well after their father. But for my own land a princess is required. And such I have been unable to bear.” Her voice faltered and broke on the last words. King Dutiful was looking at her with concern now. I saw the Duchess of Farrow lift a hand to her mouth. Tears started down her cheeks. Evidently our queen was not the only one who struggled to bear a living child. Was that what she would announce tonight? That she was with child again? Surely Dutiful would have been told, and the announcement delayed until the pregnancy was assured.

Queen Elliania lifted her head. She glanced at Dutiful as if to reassure him and then said, “But of course, there is a Farseer princess. She has long dwelled among us, tacitly known to many and yet unacknowledged by her dukes and duchesses. Two days ago, she gave me portentous news. She will soon bear a child. I myself swung a needle on a thread over her palm, and my heart leapt with joy when its swinging foretold a girl child in her womb. Ladies and gentlemen of Buckkeep Castle, my dukes and duchesses of the Six Duchies, you will soon be blessed with a new Farseer princess!”

What had begun as gasps of astonishment was now a rising mutter of voices. I felt faint. White-faced, Nettle stared straight ahead. Chade had a stiff smile of feigned puzzlement on his face. Dutiful, mouth ajar, stared in horror at his queen and then betrayed Nettle by swinging his gaze to her.

Elliania seemed completely immune to the catastrophe she was wreaking. She looked out over her audience with a wide smile and then laughed aloud. “And so, my friends, my people, let us acknowledge what many of us have long known. Skillmistress Nettle, Nettle Farseer, daughter of FitzChivalry Farseer, cousin to my own dear husband, and a princess of the Farseer line, stand forth, please.”

I had folded my arms across my chest. At the mention of my daughter’s rightful name, and my own, I had to fight to keep breathing. Whispering in the hall rose to the level of chirring summer insects. I scanned the faces. Two young ladies exchanged delighted glances. One gray-haired lord looked scandalized while his lady held her hands before her mouth in horror at the scandal. Most of Elliania’s audience was simply dumbstruck, waiting for whatever might happen next. Nettle’s eyes were wide, her mouth ajar. Chade’s face was ashen. Kettricken’s slender fingers covered her mouth but could not conceal the joy in her eyes. My gaze flickered to King Dutiful. For a long moment, he was frozen. Then he rose, to stand beside his queen. He extended a hand to Nettle. His voice shook but his smile was genuine as he said, “Cousin, please.”

Fitz. Fitz, please. What . . . The desperate Skilling that reached me from Chade was nearly incoherent.

Be calm. Let them handle it. What other choice did we really have? If it had been someone else’s life, someone else’s secret, I might have found the tableau charming. The queen, her cheeks flushed and eyes bright with delight at honoring Nettle; Dutiful, his hand outstretched to welcome his cousin to the most dangerous moment of her life; and Nettle, her teeth showing in something not quite a smile, her gaze fixed, unmoving at the table.

I saw Riddle, too. He had always had a talent for moving unobserved in crowded situations. Now he carved through the melee like a shark through water. I saw the determined look on his face. If they turned on Nettle, he would die fighting to protect her. By the set of one shoulder, I knew he already had his hand on the haft of his knife. Chade, too, marked his passage. I saw him make a small motion. Wait, his hand said, but Riddle moved closer.

Lady Kettricken moved gracefully to stand behind Nettle’s chair, then bent down and whispered something to her. I saw Nettle take a breath. She rose, her chair scraping back on the floor. The erstwhile queen paced at her side as she escorted Nettle to the throne dais. There, as was proper, they both curtsied deeply. Kettricken remained at the bottom of the steps while Nettle managed to ascend all three. Dutiful took her hands in his. For a moment, their bowed heads were close together. I am sure he whispered something. Then they straightened, and Queen Elliania embraced her.

Nettle had locked her thoughts down so firmly that I could not even reach out to her with reassurance. Whatever she felt, she betrayed only pleasure as she thanked the king and queen for congratulating her on her child. She said nothing of the revelation of her parentage. Truly, Elliania had the right of it when she said it was a secret already known to many. The stamp of the Farseer line was on Nettle’s face, and many of the older folk had known of the scandalous gossip about FitzChivalry and Lady Patience’s maid. Patience’s transfer of Withywoods to Lady Molly, supposedly in honor of Burrich’s selfless sacrifice to the Farseer family, would have only confirmed that Molly’s daughter was mine. A larger omission was mention of Nettle’s marriage or the father of her child. Those ripe bits of gossip would be well chewed tomorrow. I watched my daughter as she began to turn and return to her seat, but Kettricken stopped her and held her there, her hands on her shoulders. I saw Riddle look up at her, white-faced, a mere man among many as the woman he loved was proclaimed a princess. My heart went out to him.

Kettricken spoke now, her voice cutting through the rising murmur. “For years many have persisted in believing that FitzChivalry Farseer was a traitor. Despite what I have recounted of that fateful night when I fled Buckkeep, the taint on his name has lingered. So I would ask if any minstrel here knows of a song, sung but once in this hall? Tagson, son of Tag, son of Reaver, sang it. It was the true tale of the doings of FitzChivalry Farseer, when he came to the aid of his king in the Mountains. Do any minstrels here know it?”

My mouth went dry. I’d never heard the song, but I’d been told of it. In my lifetime, I’d been the subject of two songs. One, “Antler Island Tower,” was a rousing ballad that recounted how I had fought against the Red-Ship Raiders when by treachery they had managed to gain a foothold on Antler Island. It had been composed during the Red-Ship Wars by an ambitious young minstrel named Starling Birdsong. The melody was pleasing and the refrain was memorable. When first it had been sung, the folk of Buckkeep Castle had been willing to believe that enough Farseer blood ran through my bastard veins that I might be a hero, of sorts. But that had been before my fall from grace, before Prince Regal had convinced all of my treachery. Before I’d been thrown into his dungeon on the accusation of killing King Shrewd. Before I had supposedly died there, and vanished from Buckkeep history and public knowledge forever.

Yet there had been a second song, one that not only celebrated my Farseer blood and Wit-magic, but asserted that I had risen from my grave to follow King Verity on his wild quest to wake the Elderlings and bring their aid to the Six Duchies. As in the Antler Island song, strands of truth had been braided with poetry and exaggeration. To my knowledge, only one minstrel had ever sung it in Buckkeep, and he had done so to assert that those with the Old Blood Wit-magic could be as loyal and noble as anyone else. Many of the listeners on that day had not welcomed such an opinion.

Kettricken’s eyes roved over the gallery where the minstrels were gathered. I watched with relief as they exchanged puzzled glances and shrugs. One fellow folded his arms on his chest and shook his head in disgust, evidently displeased that anyone would wish to sing the praises of the Witted Bastard. One harper leaned over the railing to consult a graybeard below. The fellow nodded and even though I could not hear him, I suspected he admitted to having heard the song once, but the eloquent lift of his shoulders denied any real knowledge of the words, tune, or authorship. Just as my heart began to slow and the look of disappointment to settle on Lady Kettricken’s face, a matronly woman dressed in an extravagant gown of blue and green stepped from the crowd. As she made her way forward into the open space before the royal dais, I heard a scattering of applause and then someone cried out, “Starling Birdsong! Of course!”

I wondered if I would have recognized my old lover without that call. Her body had changed with the years, her waist thickening and her curves growing. In the be-buttoned layers of lush fabrics that made up her gown, I did not recognize the tough and pragmatic wandering minstrel who had also followed Verity into the Mountain Kingdom to wake the Elderlings. She had let her hair grow long, and the streaks in it were silver, not gray. She wore jewels on her ears and wrists and fingers, but as she advanced, she was stripping the rings from her hands.

The look of disappointment on Kettricken’s face had been replaced with one of delight. “Well, here is a minstrel of yore who has let many years pass since we last heard her lift her voice. Our own Starling Birdsong, now Lord Fisher’s lady wife! Do you remember the song of which I spoke?”

Despite her years, Starling flourished a curtsy and then rose gracefully. Age had lowered the timbre of her voice, but the music had not left it. “Lady Kettricken, King Dutiful, and Queen Elliania, if it please you, I have heard the song sung but once. And do not think me a jealous minstrel when I say, while the threads of truth ran strong through it, the words rattled against one another as painfully as gravel in a boot, and the tune was stolen from an ancient ballad.” She shook her head, lips folded, and then said, “Even if I recalled every word and note, I would not think it a kindness to you if I sang it.”

She paused, head lowered respectfully. Despite all my misgivings, I almost smiled. Starling. So well she knew how to whet the appetite of an audience! She waited until precisely the moment when Kettricken drew breath to speak; then she raised her head and offered, “But I can sing you a better song, if you would, my lady and once my queen. If you with a nod allow me, if my king and my queen grant permission, my tongue can be freed from its long-imposed silence, and sing to you I shall, of all I know of the Witted Bastard. Of FitzChivalry Farseer, son to Chivalry, loyal to King Verity, and, to the last breath of his days, a truehearted Farseer, despite his ignoble birth!”

The music rose and fell in her words: she was tuning and preparing her voice. I saw her husband now, Lord Fisher, standing at the edge of the crowd, a proud smile on his face. His shoulders were as broad as ever; he wore his graying hair in a warrior’s tail. Ever he had gloried in the popularity of his wild minstrel wife. The look of enjoyment on his face was not feigned; he basked in her reflected glory. She had not come to the festival tonight as Starling the minstrel but as Lady Fisher. And yet this was the moment she had dreamed of, for all those years. She would not let it pass her by, and he would rejoice in it with her. She looked round at her audience as if to ask them, Shall I sing?

She could and she must. The lords and ladies of the Six Duchies already hung on her every word. How could King Dutiful forbid it, when his own queen had revealed the bastard daughter of the bastard Farseer, sheltered and then exalted as Skillmistress at Buckkeep Castle? Lady Kettricken exchanged a look with her son and his wife. And then she nodded, and the king spread his hands in permission.

“Does my harp come?” Starling turned to her husband, and he in turn gestured wide. The doors to the Great Hall opened and two healthy lads appeared, a grand harp supported between them. I had to smile. For it to appear so quickly, she must have ordered it the moment Kettricken asked if any recalled that song. And such a harp! This was no wandering minstrel’s harp! Sweat stood out on the boys’ faces, and I wondered how far and fast they had lugged the beast. She had timed her delaying perfectly for its arrival. They brought it forward and set it down: It stood as high as Starling’s shoulder. She glanced toward the minstrel gallery, but someone had already stepped forward, bearing his own stool. He placed it before the harp, and then I saw the only awkward moment in her performance. Her gown had never been cut for her to be seated behind a harp with the instrument leaned back on her shoulder. With a fine disregard for modesty, she lifted her skirts and bundled them out of the way, displaying legs still shapely and stockinged in bright green, and dainty blue slippers with silver buttons. She woke the harp, running her fingers lightly up and down the strings, letting them barely speak, as if they whispered to her that they were in tune and waiting for her.

Then she plucked three strings, one after another, as if she were dropping gold coins on a path and bidding us follow. The notes became a chord, and her other hand began to pluck a lilting melody. Then she lifted her voice.

This, I knew, was the song she had waited a lifetime to sing. Always, always, she had wanted to leave a song that would linger in Six Duchies memory and be sung over and over. When first I had met her, she had spoken with hungry ambition of how she would follow me and record my deeds and fate so that she might be witness to a turning point in Six Duchies history. And witness she had, but her lips had been stilled and her song unsung, by royal decree that what had happened in the Mountains must ever after be kept secret. I was dead and must remain so until the Farseer throne was returned to stability.

Now I stood and I listened to my own tale. How long had she honed those words, how many times had she practiced the music that flowed effortlessly and faultlessly from her fingers? This was her highest achievement. I knew that before she was two verses into the song. I had heard her sing other minstrels’ work, and I had heard her sing songs and play music of her own composing. Starling was good. No one could ever deny that.

But this was better than good. Even the minstrel who had earlier scowled seemed bespelled by her words and notes. This was the music she had saved, and these were the words she had turned and shaped as if she were a wood carver. I knew the story of my own life, and most of the court would know at least some of it. But she sang me from an abandoned bastard child to a hero, to a shameful death in a dungeon and a crawl out of a forgotten grave, until I stood before a stone dragon, one that had drunk the life from King Verity, and looked up at her as she and Queen Kettricken departed.

For a time she plucked strings and wove chords, letting that part of the tale sink in. It was not how it had been sung before, and many a face was puzzled. Then, with a sudden sweep of her fingers, she struck up a martial air and finished the tale. I myself had told her what happened after they had departed astride a single dragon with the heart of a king bearing them back to Buckkeep. Verity-as-Dragon had set out to pit himself against the whole of the Outislander fleet, to save his queen, his unborn child, and his entire beloved kingdom from the ravages of the Red Ships. Tears rolled down Kettricken’s cheeks as she listened, and King Dutiful was rapt, his mouth slightly ajar.

And so it was me and my Wit-companion—my wolf Nighteyes—who had woken the other sleeping dragons. We had battled Regal’s corrupt Skill-coterie and their hapless apprentices, and in shedding blood we had woken the stone dragons to a semblance of life and sent them winging after Verity, a veritable army at his back. She gave three verses to how the dragons had followed the king, describing half a dozen of their varied shapes, and then recounted how swiftly the Red Ships had been driven from our shores. Verity-as-Dragon had led and the other dragons had followed, taking the battle to their islands. Queen Elliania, of Outislander blood, listened with her face grave and nodded as if to confirm all that Starling told of those bloody days.

Again, an interlude of only music. Gradually, the tempo slowed and the chords deepened. She sang then of how the Bastard and his wolf, knowing they were dead to all, knowing that the name of FitzChivalry Farseer would ever be tarnished with shame and accusations of treachery and cowardice, walked away into the depths of the Mountain forests. Never again, she sang, would they hunt the green hills of Buck. Never could they come home. Never would their deeds be known. Never. Never. The tale and the song slowed, and became a trickle of wistful notes. They dwindled. Silence.

I do not know how long the song lasted. I came back to the Great Hall and the gathered nobles of the Six Duchies as if I had been on a long journey. Starling sat before her tall harp, her head bent forward and her brow resting on its dark wood. Her face glowed with perspiration. She breathed as if she had run over nine hills. I stared at her. She had been a stranger, a lover, a nemesis, and a betrayer to me. And now she was my historian.

When the applause came, it began as a whisper and rose to a roar. Starling lifted her head slowly and I followed her gaze as she looked around at the faces of her audience. Tears tracked down the faces of many, and anger sat on some. I saw a stony-faced woman sneer at the emotion of the lady next to her. Another noble shook his head and leaned close to whisper to his companion. Two young women were embracing each other, overcome with the romance of the story. The Duchess of Bearns hugged herself tight, her clasped hands under her chin, her head bent over her hands. The Duke of Rippon appeared to be telling the people around him, “I knew it. I always knew it,” as his big hands beat against each other.

And I? How to describe that vindication? I stood among them, unknown and unseen, but feeling as if we had finally come home, my wolf and I. I felt a sharp pang that the Fool had not been here to hear this, and realized I was trembling, as if I had come in from somewhere very cold and was shaking as the warmth finally came back into my body. I was not weeping, and yet the water ran from my eyes until I could scarcely see.

Dutiful’s gaze scanned the crowd, and I knew he was looking for me, but he was searching for me in the guise of Lord Feldspar. Lord Chade stood and moved slowly from his place at the high table. I thought he was going to Kettricken, but then his steps wavered and he began to wend his way through the crowd. I watched him, puzzled, and then with horror realized that he had seen me and was coming straight toward me.

No, I Skilled to him, but he was sealed tight—not to keep me out but to keep whatever he was feeling in. When he reached me, he took a firm hold of my arm. “Chade, please, no,” I begged him. Had the old man’s mind turned?

He looked at me. His cheeks were wet with tears. “It’s time, Fitz. Time and past time. Come. Come with me.”

The people standing closest to me were watching and listening. I saw one man’s eyes widen and his face transform from puzzlement to shock. We were in the midst of the crowd. If they turned on me now, they could tear me apart. There was no retreat here. And so, as Chade tugged at my arm, I let myself be led. My knees felt loose: I felt as if I walked like a puppet, jouncing with every step.

No one had expected this. Queen Elliania smiled joyously, but all color had drained from Nettle’s face. Kettricken’s chin trembled and then her face crumpled and she wept as if I were King Verity himself walking toward her. As we passed Starling, she lifted her head. When she saw me her hands flew to her mouth. Her eyes went wide and greedy, and some part of me thought, Already she plans what song she will make of this.

The empty space between the crowd and the king and queen’s dais was an endless desert we crossed. King Dutiful’s face was white and stark. What are you doing? What are you doing? he demanded of us, but Chade did not hear him and I had no answer to give. A tumultuous roar of confusion, whispers, speculations, and then shouts rose behind us. Nettle’s eyes were black in a face carved of ice. Her fear soaked me. When we stood before my king, I went to my knees more out of sudden weakness than from any sense of propriety. My ears were ringing.

Dutiful saved us all.

He shook his head slowly as I stared up at him. “Never is over,” he proclaimed to the crowd. He looked down at my upturned face. I stared up at him. I saw King Shrewd and King Verity there. My kings, looking down at me with earnest sympathy. “FitzChivalry Farseer, too long have you sojourned among the Elderlings, your memory spurned by the very people you saved. Too long have you been in a place where the months pass as if days. Too long have you walked among us in false guise, deprived of your name and your honor. Rise. Turn and face the folk of the Six Duchies, your folk, and be welcomed home at last.” He bent and took my arm.

“You’re shaking like a leaf,” he whispered by my ear. “Can you stand up?”

“I think so,” I muttered. But it was his strength that pulled me to my feet. I stood. I turned. I faced them all.

The roar of acclaim broke over me like a wave.

Chapter Nine

The Crown

As I have risked my life for this knowledge, I expect that for my next piece of information, I will be paid more handsomely! When you first approached me for these “small tasks” as you called them, there at Buckkeep Castle, I had no idea what sorts of missions you would be assigning me. As I have said in the past, I will continue to convey interesting information to you, but nothing that I feel undermines or exploits my friendships.

Kelsingra is indeed a city of wonders past imagining. Information is stored in almost every stone there. I have heard that there is even more to be found in the Elderling archives recently discovered in the city, but I am not invited to enter, and I won’t risk my friends’ trust by attempting to go there. A great deal of information about Elderlings is available in the walls of the old market space and one can’t help but be aware of it, even just strolling by on an evening. If you wish to advance me some coin and ask specific questions, I will answer the ones that I can. Had I not lost a hand to a windlass, I would not be in need of your funds. Nonetheless, I will remind you that I have my pride. A simple sailor you may think me, but I have my own code of honor.

But to your most pressing question. I have seen no “silvery river or stream.” And as I traveled there on the Rain Wild River and then up one of its tributaries, I assure you that I saw a great many rivers and streams feeding into that vast waterway. They were gray with silt. I suppose they might appear silvery in some lights.

However, I think I have had tidings of what it is that you seek. It is not a river, but a well. Silvery stuff rises within it, and the dragons seem to find it almost intoxicating. The location of this well and its very existence are supposed to be a great secret, but for one who can hear dragons, their clamor when the stuff rises close enough to the surface for them to drink betrays it. At other times, I imagine it must be drawn up in a bucket for them. I was obliged to keep my questions on this topic oblique. Two of the young keepers have little tolerance for brandy, and we had a lovely wandering conversation until their commander arrived and berated them and threatened me. This Rapskal seems a very unsettled sort of person, capable of carrying out his various threats against me if he found me encouraging his men to drunkenness. He demanded that I leave Kelsingra, and the next morning I was escorted from my accommodations to the next departing ship. He did not ban me from the city as I have heard other travelers and entrepreneurs have been banned, but I think I shall let some time pass before I attempt another visit.

I will anticipate your next letter of credit and your queries. I am still quartered at the Splintered Fid, and messages sent to that inn will reach me.


It was dawn when I fell facedown on my bed. I was exhausted. I had climbed the stairs, eager as a boy to tell the Fool all that had transpired, only to find him soundly asleep. For a time, I had sat by his bed, wishing he could have been there with me. When I dozed off in the chair, I’d surrendered and tottered back down the stairs to my bed. I closed my eyes and slept. I sank into sweet oblivion, and then jerked awake as if someone had stuck a pin in me. I could not free myself from the sensation that something was wrong: terribly, terribly wrong.

I could not sleep. Danger, danger, danger thrummed through my nerves. I seldom felt such unease without a reason. Years ago, my wolf had always been at my back, using his keener sense to warn me of lurking intruders or unseen watches. He was gone these many years, but in this he remained. When something prickled against my senses, I had learned to pay attention.

I remained perfectly still on my bed. I heard only what I expected to hear, the winter wind outside my window, the soft sounds of the fire, my own breathing. I smelled nothing beyond my own smells. I opened my eyes to slits, feigning sleep still, and studied what I could of the room. Nothing. With Wit and Skill, I sensed all around me. There was nothing to alarm me. And yet I could not shake my anxiety. I closed my eyes. Sleep. Sleep.

I slept, but I did not rest. My heart was a wolf, hunting over snow hills, not for prey but for his lost pack. Hunting and hunting and hunting. Howling out my pain to the night, I ran and ran and ran. I woke sweaty and still in my clothes. I had a moment of stillness and then heard the tiny scratch at my door. My senses remained wolf-sharpened from my dream. I crossed the room and opened the door while Ash was still poking at the lock.

Without a trace of embarrassment, he removed the pick from the lock, stooped, picked up the breakfast tray, and carried it into my room. Moving efficiently, he set out my breakfast. Then he moved a small table that had been by my bed. He unslung a pouch from his shoulder, removed papers from it, and laid them out in orderly rows.

“What are those? Are they from Chade?”

He pointed to each category. “Letters of congratulation. Invitations. Petitions for you to use your influence. I did not read them all, only the ones that looked useful. I expect you will have a host of them every day now.”

My unwanted correspondence arranged, he looked around my chamber for his next task. I was still grasping that reading my private correspondence was part of what he considered his duty. I saw only a shadow of disapproval in his eyes as he took in my rumpled clothes before he offered, “Have you any washing, my lord? I should be happy to take it to the laundry folk.”

“Yes, I suppose I do. But I don’t think guests use the washerfolk that way. And I am not your lord.”

“Sir, I do believe all of that changed last night. Prince FitzChivalry, I should be greatly honored to convey your dirty smallclothes to the washerfolk.” A grin twitched and then disappeared.

“Are you being cheeky with me?” I was incredulous.

He lowered his eyes and observed quietly, “Not cheeky, sir. But one bastard may rejoice at another lowborn’s good fortune, and dream of better days for himself.” He cocked his head at me. “Chade has had me hard at learning the history of the Six Duchies. Did you know that one queen-in-waiting actually gave birth to a bastard, and that he rose to be King of the Six Duchies?”

“Not quite. You are thinking of the Piebald Prince. And that did not end well for him at all.” His cousin had killed him for being Witted and had taken the throne.

“Perhaps not.” He glanced at my breakfast tray and tugged the napkin straight. “But he had a moment, didn’t he? Someday, I’d like a moment. Does it seem fair to you that how we are born determines how we are seen for the rest of our lives? Must I always be the son of a whore, a bawdyhouse errand boy? A few promises and a ring, and you might have been the king. Did you never think of that?”

“No,” I lied. “It was one of the first lessons I had from Chade. Think of what is and don’t let what might have been distract you.”

He nodded to that. “Well, being Lady Rosemary’s apprentice is definitely a step up in my life. And if the opportunity presents itself, I will imagine a better status for myself. I respect Lord Chade, but if one only remains what one is today, well . . .” He tipped his head at me with a speculative look.

That stung, a bit. “Well. No offense taken, Ash, and if you continue with your lessons and your present master, then yes, I think you can rightly dream of better days.”

“Thank you, sir. Your clothes, then?”

“A moment.” As I began to strip off my sweaty shirt and crumpled trousers, Ash went to Lord Feldspar’s traveling trunk and began to pull out garments. “This won’t do,” I heard him mutter. “Nor this. Not now. What’s this? Perhaps.”

But when I turned back to him to accept the clothing he was offering me, his eyes were very wide. “What’s wrong?”

“Sir, what happened to your back? Were you attacked? Should I request a private guard for you? One on your door?”

I reached around to touch the sore spots on my back. I was startled that they were not completely healed. One was still oozing and two others were sore to the touch. And I could not think of a ready lie to explain what must look like a number of small puncture wounds on my back. “A bizarre accident, not an attack. My shirt, please.” I tried to sound as if I were accustomed to having some young man as my valet. Wordlessly, he shook it out and held it open for me. I turned and met his eyes. He glanced away. He knew I was lying about my back. But was I? It had been, after all, a bizarre accident. I said nothing as I accepted clean smallclothes, trousers, and stockings. I was pleased that he had chosen clothes far more sensible than those Lord Feldspar had been flaunting. There were still a multitude of buttons, but fewer that poked me. My boots, newly cleaned, were ready for me. I felt a measure of relief as I sat down to put them on. “Thank you. You’re good at this.”

“I served my mother and the other women of the house for years.”

I felt a little sinking of my heart. Did I want to know more about this apprentice of Chade’s? But that sort of an invitation could not be heartlessly ignored. “So I heard.”

“Lord Chade was never my mother’s patron, so you need not fear he is my father. But he was always kinder to me than most. I began running errands for him when I was about ten. So, when my mother was . . . killed, and I was forced to flee, he sent someone to find me. And he saved me.”

Tumbling facts falling into place. Chade was a patron of the house where Ash’s mother worked, just not his mother’s patron. Some kindness, and probably the boy had begun spying for him without even knowing he was doing it. Some coins to run an errand, and a few casual questions, and Chade would learn things about the other patrons. Enough to put the boy’s life in danger when his mother died? A story there. Too many stories. Which noble son had taken his deviation too far? I didn’t want to know. The more I knew, the more involved I would be. Last night, I’d been netted as neatly as a fish. I already knew that the more I thrashed, the tighter the web would become. “I’m tired,” I said, then amended it to a weary smile and, “I’m already tired and the day has only just begun. I’d best check on my friend. Ash, count me among the friends you could run to, did you ever need that again.”

He nodded gravely. Another noose of spiderweb wrapped around me. “I’ll take these to the washerfolk for you, and bring them back this afternoon. Do you require anything else of me?”

“Thank you. That will be all for now.”

I heard a distant echo of Verity in my voice. Verity dismissing his man who always attended him. Charim. That had been his name. So long ago. I half-expected Ash to be offended at my dismissal, but he bobbed a bow and went out the door with my laundry over his arm. I sat down to the tray of food that he had brought and made a start on it. Was the food better today? Was FitzChivalry Farseer supplied a better breakfast than Lord Feldspar? And if he was, what did that say for the expectations folk would have, both low and high? Would nobles try to curry favor with me? Underlings seek employment with me? I sampled some of the missives Ash had left. Favor begged, fawning invitations, and overly kind congratulations on my return. I closed my eyes tight and opened them again. The stack of correspondence was still there. Eventually, I’d have to deal with it. Or perhaps that was one of Ash’s duties. He’d said he’d read most of it, without apology.

Where would I fit into Dutiful’s court now? And how could I leave it? What of my Bee? I still had not had a chance to tell Kettricken to send for her, but it seemed that I must, for it came to me suddenly that those who connected me with Tom Badgerlock would know there was a second, secret Farseer daughter. Did I control any aspect of my life any longer? The life I had led for the past forty years was suddenly shattered to fragments. Lies and deceptions had been swept aside. Well, some lies and deceptions. I needed to talk to Chade: A tale must be concocted about what I had been doing all those years. Would we admit my part in the freeing of Icefyre, the black dragon? Reveal that I had snatched Dutiful back from a misadventure with the Witted and preserved him for the throne? How did Tom Badgerlock intersect with FitzChivalry Farseer? It suddenly seemed to me that truth-telling was just as hazardous as lying. One little bit of truth might lead to requiring another revelation. Where would it end?

I concentrated on eating, not letting myself dwell on all the questions crowding into my brain. I had no intention of leaving my room today until someone Skilled to me or sent me a message. Too many juggling balls had been lofted for me to chance stepping into a seething current.

So when I heard the light tap at my door, I set down my cup and stood immediately. The tap came again. And not from the chamber door, but from the concealed door that led to Chade’s old lair. “Fool?” I queried softly, but no one replied. I triggered the door.

It was not the Fool who waited there, but the crow. She looked up at me, turning her head to regard me with one bright eye. Then, as if she were the queen herself, she hopped gravely down the remaining steps and into the center of the room.

It is common for folk who are not Witted to think that those of us with Old Blood can talk to any animal. We can’t. The Wit is a mutual exchange, a sharing of thoughts. Some creatures are more open than others; some cats not only will talk to anyone, but will natter on or nag or pester with absolutely no restraint. Even folks with but the tiniest shred of the Wit will find themselves standing to open the door before the cat has scratched at it, or calling the cat from across the room to share the best morsel of fish. Having been bonded to a wolf for so many years set my thoughts in a pattern that, I believed, made all creatures of that family more open to me. Dogs, wolves, and even foxes have communicated with me from time to time. One hawk I have spoken with, at the bidding of her mistress. One small ferret, ever a hero in my heart. But no Witted one can simply arrow thoughts at a creature and expect to be understood. I considered trying, but the Wit swiftly becomes an intimate sharing. And I had little desire to develop such a bond with this bird. So I did not use the Wit, but only words, as I said to her, “Well, you look much better than the last time I saw you. Would you like me to open the window for you?”

“Dark,” she said, and I was astonished at the clarity of the word, and how appropriate it was. I had heard birds trained to speak, but usually the human words they uttered were simple repetitions bereft of sense or context. The crow walked rather than hopped across the room and studied the window before fluttering to the top of my clothing chest. I did not stare at her. Few wild creatures are comfortable with that. Instead, I stepped carefully past her and opened the window.

Wind and chill came in: The storms of the past few days had paused but clouds promised more snow tonight. For a moment I stood and stared out over the castle walls. It had been years since I had studied this view. The forest had retreated. I could see farm cottages where once there had been only sheep pastures, pastures where there had been forest, and stumplands beyond that. My heart sank; once we had hunted there, my wolf and I, where now sheep pastured. The world had to change and for some reason the prosperity of men always results in them taking ever more from wild creatures and places. Foolish, perhaps, to feel that pang of regret for what was gone, and perhaps it was only felt by those who straddled the worlds of humans and beasts.

The crow fluttered to the windowsill. I stepped back carefully to give her room. “Farewell,” I wished her and waited for her to go.

She cocked her head and looked at me. In that quick way birds have, she twisted her head again and looked out over the world. Then she opened her wings and with a flutter crossed the room and landed with a rattle of crockery on my breakfast tray. Wings spread wide, as if to remind me, she said, “White! White!” Then without hesitation she snatched up and swallowed a shred of bacon. She stabbed at a bit of leftover bread and with a shake scattered it over the floor. She eyed it for a moment, and then disregarded it as she clattered her bill in a dish that had held apple compote.

While she dismembered my breakfast, I went to Lord Feldspar’s trunk. Yes, Chade had supplied him well. I found the bottle of ink and a quill pen. I thought for a bit, then cleared the correspondence from the table. I reversed the quill, dipped the feathered end into the ink bottle, and studied it. It would do. “Crow. Come here. I’ll paint you black.”

She dropped the piece of bacon she’d been trying to shred. “White! White!”

“No white,” I told her. I focused my Wit. No white.

She cocked her head and pointed one bright eye at me. I waited. With a clatter that sent my spoon to the floor, she lifted from my tray and hopped to the table.

“Open your wings.” She stared. I slowly lifted my arms wide. “Open. Show me the white.”

To understand what someone wants is not the same as trusting. She tried. She opened her wings. I tried to dab black on, but she fluttered her wings and spattered ink all over us. I tried again. I talked to her as I worked. “I’ve no idea if this will stand up to rain. Or wind. Or if your feathers will stick together. Open them. No, leave them open. So the ink dries. That’s it!

By the time I began work on the second wing, she was more cooperative. My arms and my correspondence were freckled with ink. I finished her second wing and went over the first one again. Then I had to make her understand that I had to paint the undersides of her wings as well. “Now dry!” I warned her, and she stood, wings outstretched. She rattled her pinions to put them in order and I was glad to see little spatter of ink. And when she folded them, she looked to me like an ordinary black crow.

“No white!” I told her. She turned her head and preened her feathers to smoothness. She seemed satisfied with my work, for she hopped abruptly back into the middle of my plate.

“I’ll leave the window open for you,” I told her, and left her there, making a mess of my unfinished breakfast.

I pulled the door shut behind me, for what Chade had told me once was true. That open window and this opened door together created a terrific draft in the apartments.

I climbed the steep steps wondering how I could convey to the Fool all that had happened in one night. A foolish grin took command of my face. For the first time, I allowed myself to admit that part of me rejoiced. So long, so long, I had stood at the edge of the forest, looking at the lit windows in the distance. Buckkeep Castle was my home, had always been my home. Despite all my misgivings and fears, I allowed myself to imagine, for one delicious moment, that I could stand to my king’s left side during his judgments or be seated at the high table during a banquet. I imagined my small daughter dancing with me in the Great Hall. I would tell the Fool and he would understand my torn feelings. Then, with a rush of regret, I wished again that the Fool had been there last night, to see and hear Starling singing of my courage and brave and selfless deeds.

But he would have seen nothing of it. And like a hunted stag run off a cliff over a frozen lake, my mood plummeted into dark and cold. My exultation vanished and I almost dreaded telling him. Yesterday I had not mentioned Nettle’s pregnancy. Today I feared to tell him of King Dutiful’s public recognition of me.

My steps had slowed and by the time I reached the top of the stairs, I was plodding. So I was not prepared to see the Fool seated at Chade’s table, six candles burning bright in a tight circle before him. I was even less prepared for the lopsided smile with which he greeted me. “Fitz!” he exclaimed, almost merrily, the scars on his face contorting his smile to a puppet’s grin. “I’ve news to share!”

“And I,” I rejoined, my spirits daring to lift a bit.

“It’s good news,” he told me, as if I could not have guessed that. I wondered if he was going to tell me my own tidings, and immediately resolved that if he wished to do so and take pleasure in it, then I would let him.

“So I see,” I told him, taking a seat at the table opposite him.

“No, you don’t!” he rejoined, his laughter bubbling up at a jest I didn’t share yet. “But I do!”

I sat for a long moment in silence, waiting for him to add words to that. Then, as often had happened in our youths, I suddenly grasped the meaning he intended. “Fool! You can see?”

“I just told you that,” he responded, and burst into hearty laughter.

“Look at me!” I commanded him, and he lifted his eyes but they did not meet my gaze. To my deep disappointment, they were still clouded and gray.

The smile on his face faded a little. “I can see light,” he admitted. “I can tell light from darkness. Well, that’s not it exactly. Being blind isn’t darkness as you know darkness. Oh, it doesn’t matter, so I won’t try to explain it except to say, I know there are candles burning on the table before me. And when I turn my face away, I know there are not candles over there. Fitz, I think my eyesight is coming back. When you used the Skill on me that night . . . I knew that the sores on my back began to heal. But this is so much more than that.”

“I did nothing to your eyes that night. It may simply be that a natural healing process has begun.” I bit back the warning that nearly burst from me. Don’t hope too much. I knew how tenuous his health was. And yet, he could now perceive light. That had to mean he was starting to rally. “I’m glad for you. And we must keep you on the path. Have you eaten today?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve eaten. Chade’s boy brought food, and seemed less fearful of me. Or perhaps more fascinated by the bird. And then Chade himself came by, with a parcel of things for you. Fitz! He told me all. And I am . . . befuddled. And happy for you. And frightened. How can such a time be, such a world where things happen that I never foresaw! And he told me that Starling played your story and sang it beautifully! Is it truly so? Did I dream it?”

A lurch of disappointment. I had not known how much I wished to tell him myself until I found he already knew. But his smile at my good fortune was everything I could have wished for.

“No. It was all true. It was wonderful.” And with him, I shared the moments that few others would have understood. I told him how Celerity, the Duchess of Bearns, heir to her sister Lady Hope, had set her hands on my shoulders. I had stared into her clear eyes. There were lines at the corners of her eyes and framing her mouth, but still a determined girl met my gaze. “I never doubted you. You should not have doubted me,” she had said, and kissed my mouth softly before turning and walking quickly away, her husband shooting me a puzzled glare before he hastened after her. I recounted how Queen Elliania had cut a silver narwhal button from her cuff and given it to me, bidding me wear it always. He smiled to that, and then his face grew thoughtful when I told him that people I scarcely recalled had taken my hand and pressed it, or slapped my shoulder. Some had smiled incredulously, a few had wept. Very disconcerting were those who tipped me a wink or leaned in to whisper, “Remember well that I kept your secret,” and messages of that ilk. Worst of all was a young guardsman who strode boldly past the waiting nobility. Sparks of anger had danced in his eyes as he said, “My grandfather died thinking he had sent you to your death. To the end of his days, Blade believed he had betrayed you. He, I think, you might have trusted.” Then he had turned on his heel and was been engulfed by the crowd before I could speak a word to him.

I found myself speaking softly as if I were telling an old tale to a young child. And giving it a happy ending, when all know that tales never end, and the happy ending is but a moment to catch one’s breath before the next disaster. But I didn’t want to think about that. I didn’t want to wonder what would happen next.

“Did Chade say why he had done it?” he asked me.

I gave a shrug he could not see. “He said it was time. That both Shrewd and Verity would have wanted it to happen. Having emerged from the shadows himself, he said he could not leave me there.” I rummaged on one of Chade’s shelves and then another before I found what I sought. Spirits of wine. I lit my own candle at the fire and found a rag. I dampened the rag and began to remove my ink freckles. They were hard to get off. Good for the crow, annoying for me. I moved to Chade’s mirror, scrubbing at the spots on my face.

“What is that smell? What are you doing?”

“Getting ink off my face. I was painting the crow’s white feathers black so she could go out without being pecked and chased.”

“Painting a crow. Prince FitzChivalry amuses himself painting crows the day after his acknowledgment by the throne.” He laughed. A very good sound.

“Chade left a package for me?”

“At the end of the table,” he said. He had fixed his gaze once more on the candles, reveling in whatever trace of their brilliance he could perceive. And so I did not take any of them, but moved the parcel to their vicinity and began to unfasten it. It smelled of earth. It was wrapped in leather, and tied with leather straps. The knots were green with disuse, and the white-edged stains on the leather were from damp. The ties had not been undone in a very long time, and I suspected that at some point it had been stored outdoors, perhaps for a winter. Possibly buried somewhere. As I worked on the knots, the Fool observed, “He left you a note as well. What does it say?”

“I haven’t read it yet.”

“Shouldn’t you read it before you open the parcel?”

“Did he say I should?”

“He seemed to take a very long time to think about it, and then he wrote only a few words. I heard the scratching of his pen, and many sighs.”

I stopped working on the straps. I tried to decide which made me more curious, the letter or the parcel. I lifted one candle and saw the single sheet of paper on the table. I’d missed it in the dimness. I reached, trapped it, and slid it toward me. Like most of Chade’s missives there was no date, no greeting, and no signature. Only a few lines of writing.

“What does it say?” the Fool demanded.

“ ‘I did as he bade me. The conditions were never met. I trust you to understand. I think you should have it now.’ ”

“Oh. Better and better,” the Fool exclaimed. And added, “I think you should just cut the straps. You’ll never get those old knots out.”

“You already tried, didn’t you?”

He shrugged and tipped a grin at me. “It would have saved you the trouble of struggling with them.”

I tormented both of us by working at the stubborn knots for some little time. Leather that has been knotted, wet, and then left to dry can seem as hard as iron. In the end, I drew my belt-knife and sawed through the straps. I tugged them off the parcel and then struggled to unfold the leather that surrounded whatever it was. It was not soft leather, but heavy, the sort one would use for a saddle. It creaked as I pried it open and brought out something wrapped in a still-greasy cloth. I set it with a thunk on the table.

“What is it?” the Fool demanded, and reached to send his fingers dancing over the concealed item.

“Let’s find out.” The greasy cloth proved to be a heavy canvas sack. I found the opening, reached in, and pulled out . . .

“It’s a crown,” the Fool exclaimed, his fingers touching it almost as soon as my eyes saw it.

“Not exactly.” Crowns are not usually made of steel. And Hod had not been a maker of crowns but a maker of swords. She had been an excellent weaponsmaster. I turned the plain circlet of steel in my hands, knowing this was her work, though I could not have explained to anyone how I recognized it. And there, there was her maker’s mark, unobtrusive but proud inside the circlet.

“There’s something else here.” The Fool’s hands had gone questing like ferrets into the opened leather parcel, and now he held out a wooden tube to me. I took it silently. We both knew it would contain a scroll. The ends of the tube were plugged with red wax. I studied it in the candlelight.

“Verity’s seal,” I told him softly. I hated to mar the imprint, but nonetheless I dug the wax out with my belt-knife, and then tipped the tube and shook it. The scroll was stubborn. It had been in there a long time. When it finally emerged I just looked at it. Water had not touched it.

“Read it,” the Fool’s whisper urged me.

I unrolled the vellum carefully. This was Verity’s hand, the careful lettering of a man who loved to draw, to make maps and chart terrain, to sketch fortifications and draw battle plans. He had written large, dark, and plain. My king’s hand. My throat tightened. It was a moment before I could speak. My voice was higher as I spoke past tightness.

“Be it known by my seal on this document and by the testimony of the trusted bearer, Chade Fallstar, that this scroll is the true desire of King-in-Waiting Verity Farseer. In plain words let me say, I leave today on a quest from which I may not return. I leave my queen, Kettricken of the Mountains, with child. If in my absence my father, King Shrewd, should die, I commend my lady to the protection of my nephew FitzChivalry Farseer. If word of my death be returned, then I desire that he be recognized formally as protector of my heir. If my queen perish and my heir survive, then I stipulate that FitzChivalry Farseer is to reign as regent until such time as my heir is able to assume the throne. And if none survive me, neither father, nor queen, nor heir, then it is my will that FitzChivalry Farseer be recognized as my heir. It is not my wish that my younger brother, Regal Farseer, inherit my crown. I do most ardently urge that my dukes recognize and affirm my will in this matter.” I paused to catch my breath. “And his signature is below it.”

“And this would have been your crown.” The Fool’s scarred fingertips traced the rim of the simple circlet. “Not a jewel to be touched. And sword-steel, by the feel of it. Wait, wait! Not so plain, perhaps. Here. What is this?”

I took the crown from him and tilted it to the candlelight. It was engraved into the plain circlet. “A charging buck.”

“He gave you that emblem.”

“Verity did,” I said quietly. My voice tightened up a notch as I observed, “It’s just the charging buck. There is no slash across it to mark me a bastard.”

There was a very long silence. The candles burned and at the other end of the room a log slumped on the hearth. “Do you wish it had come to pass?” the Fool asked me.

“No! Of course not!” That would have been like wishing death on Shrewd and Kettricken and her then-unborn child. “But . . . I do wish I had known. There were times when it would have meant a great deal to me.” A tear tracked down my cheek. I let it fall.

“And not now?”

“Oh, and still now. To know he thought me worthy to guard his queen, and his child. And to step up and claim the throne after him.”

“Then you never wished to be king?”

“No.” Liar. But the lie was so old and so oft repeated that most of the time I believed it.

He gave a small sigh. When I realized it was of relief, not sadness for the smallness of my ambitions, I wondered why. He answered before I asked.

“When Chade told me you had been formally acknowledged, and that most of the folk there were inclined to lionize you and welcome you home, I worried. And when my fingers touched your crown, I feared.”

“Feared what?”

“That you would want to stay here at Buckkeep Castle. That you would enjoy being seen as what you have always been, not the king-in-waiting but the king-in-the-shadows.”

Such a title to give me. “And that made you fear . . . what?”

“That you would be reluctant to leave the acclaim you had finally earned. That you would go without heart to my errand.”

To deflect him from any thoughts of the murders he’d assigned me, I hastily referenced his other errand. “Fool, I will do all I can to find the son you suspect you have left somewhere. Doubtless it would make my task much easier if you could recall for me the women you have lain with who might have borne such a child, and when it might have happened.”

He gave a snort of displeasure. “Fitz! Have you listened not at all to what I told you? There is no such woman, nor a child conceived in that way. I told you that.”

My mind reeled. “No. No, you didn’t. I am sure that if you had told me such a thing, I would have remembered it. And that I would have immediately asked, as I do now, then how have you made a son?”

“You don’t listen,” he said sadly. “I explain things quite clearly, but if it’s not what you expect to hear, you set it aside. Fitz. This crown. Would it fit?”

“It’s not a crown, not really.” He had changed the subject again. I knew that he would not explain until he decided to. I tried to conceal my relief that he’d let me get away with my deflection as I turned the cold steel in my hands. The last time I’d worn a crown, it had been wooden and decorated with roosters. No. Don’t summon that memory now. I lifted the circlet and set it on my head. “It fits, I suppose. I’m not sure how it’s supposed to fit.”

“Let me touch it.” He rose and groped his way around the end of the table to where I sat. His hands felt for me, found a shoulder, the side of my face, and then fluttered up to my head and the crown there. He lifted it slightly, and then, with no self-consciousness at all, measured the length of my hair. He walked his fingers down my face, touching the break in my nose, the old scar, the scruff of beard on my chin. If anyone else had done it, it would have felt invasive. Insulting. But I knew he was comparing what I looked like now with what he recalled.

He cleared his throat then lifted the circlet in his hands. He spoke more gravely than I had ever heard him as he uttered the words, “FitzChivalry Farseer. I crown you King-in-the-Shadows of the Six Duchies.” He set the circlet on my head, settling it carefully. The steel was cold and heavy. It settled there as if it would never move again. He cleared his throat once more and after a pause he added, “You’re a handsome man still, Fitz. Not as pretty as before Regal broke your face. But you’ve aged well, I judge.”

“That old Skill-healing.” I shrugged. “My body just keeps repairing itself, whether I wish it or not.”

I took off the steel crown and set it on top of the oily canvas that had sheltered it. Light ran along the edge of it like blood on a sword blade.

“I wish that were my situation,” the Fool returned. His gaze went back to the candles. For a long time, we were both silent. Then he said softly, “Fitz. My eyes. Being blind . . . they used that. To make me fearful and cowering. I need to see. I dread the thought of setting out on our quest still blinded. I will if I must. But . . . Could you . . .”

So much for my deflection. I had told him I could not go on his quest, but he persisted in ignoring what I’d said. Let it go. “Tell me what they did to your eyes,” I said as quietly.

He held up a helpless hand. “I don’t know. Perhaps they did not even intend to do it, but once it was done, they made full use of it. They . . . oh, Fitz. There was a beating. And another one. My eyes were swollen shut. And another beating. And—”

I stopped him. “And when the swelling went down, you could no longer see.”

He drew in a deep breath. I saw how he fought to tell me a tale of things he wanted only to forget. “At first, I kept thinking it was night. Or that I was in a dark cell. They did that sometimes. If you are in the dark always, you can’t tell how much time has passed. I think, I think that sometimes they brought me water and food at very long intervals, and sometimes they brought me food quickly. To confuse me about time passing. It was a long time before I realized I couldn’t see. And a longer time before I knew it wasn’t going away.”

“That’s enough. I just needed to know a bit, to help me.”

Another silence. Then he whispered, “Will you try now?”

I was silent. To do so would risk my own vision. Could I tell him that while such hope burned in his face? He looked more like my old Fool than he had since Aslevjal. His vision was so important to him. Restoring it was key to his quest, and his ridiculous quest to assassinate all the Servants was the only purpose that he had left to him. Last night I’d had the triumph of a dream I’d never allowed myself to dream. Could I destroy his hopes today?

I’d be careful. So careful. Surely I’d be able to tell if I were endangering myself?

Was I more like Chade than I wished to be? Did I always want to find out how far I could push the magic, what I could do if no one restrained me? I pushed aside the itching question.

“Now? Why not?” I said. I pushed my chair back and walked around the table to him. “Face me,” I told him quietly. Obediently, he turned away from the candles. I pulled one of them closer and studied his face in its flickering light. He had scarring on the tops of his cheeks, right below the deep hollows under his eyes. It was the sort of puckering seen on the faces of men who have been in many fistfights. The skin splits easily where flesh is a thin layer over bone. I moved my chair, placing it so that I faced him. I sat down. “I’m going to touch you,” I warned him and took his chin in my hand. I turned his face slowly from side to side, studying the scars that meticulous torture and crude battering had left there. I remembered suddenly how Burrich had studied my face after Galen had beaten me. I set two fingers to his face and pressed gently as I traced a circle around his left eye. He winced more than once. Then the right. It was the same. I guessed at bone that had fractured and healed unevenly. In one place, there was a definite dent in his facial bones near his temple. Touching that made me feel queasy. But could that have been what blinded him? I didn’t know. I took a deep breath. I would be careful this time. I vowed I would not risk either of us. I set my hands to both sides of his face. I closed my eyes. “Fool,” I said softly. And just that easily, I found him.

And the Fool was there. The last time, he had been deeply unconscious, unaware of how I moved through him with his blood. Now I felt his hands come to rest on mine. That would help. I knew how his face had looked but he would recall how his face had felt. I started with my fingertips under his eyes. I called to mind the drawings in Chade’s old scrolls from the Flayer, and the human skull that probably still reposed in the cabinet in the corner. I whispered as our hands moved together. “When adjacent bone breaks, sometimes it fuses incorrectly. Here. Feel that? We need to undo that.”

And so we worked, not quickly. We moved bone, bit by tiny bit. Where his face had broken, it had healed with ridges and seams. Some reminded me of the cracks one makes when one taps a hard-boiled egg before shelling it. It was not something to be hurried, the painstaking exploration of the bones of his face. As we worked, touch and Skill combined, and we followed one fine crack down from the lower rim of his left eye to his upper jaw. The tops of his cheekbones were a maze of tiny cracks. At the outer corner of his right eye, a hard blow had crushed bone, leaving an indentation that pressed on the tissue beneath it. We worked for some time, moving tiny bits of bone to both ease pressure and fill the hollow.

To describe it makes it seem a simple thing. It wasn’t. The tiny movements of minuscule motes of bone were still a breaking away and a re-forming. I clenched my jaws against the Fool’s pain until my own head pounded with it. We did no more than the lower expanses below both his eyes. My strength was flagging and my determination failing me when the Fool lifted his hands from the backs of mine.

“Stop. Stop, Fitz. I am so tired now. It hurts. And the pain wakes all the memories.”

“Very well,” I agreed hoarsely, but it took some time for me to separate my awareness from his body. I felt as if I returned to my own flesh from a long and vivid nightmare. The last step of that withdrawal was my lifting of my hands from his face. When I opened my eyes to regard him, the room swam before me. I felt a moment of terror. I’d gone too far and damaged my sight! But it was only weariness. As I stared, the dim room yielded to my vision. I shuddered with relief. The candles had burned down to half their length. I did not know how much time had passed, but my shirt was sweated to my back and my mouth as dry as if I had run to Buckkeep Town and back. As soon as I released the Fool from my touch, he dropped his face into his hands and cradled it, his elbows on the table.

“Fool. Sit up. Open your eyes. Tell me if we accomplished anything.”

He obeyed me but he shook his head as he did so. “I did not close my eyes. I kept them open. Hoping. But nothing changed.”

“I’m sorry.” And I was. I was sorry he was blind and fiercely glad I had not lost my own sight trying to heal his. I had to ask myself how hard I had truly tried. Had I been holding back? I didn’t want to think I had, but I could not find an honest answer. I thought of telling the Fool my fear. What would he ask of me? That I help him regain sight in one eye by giving up one of mine? Would he demand that much of me? Would I agree or deny him? I measured myself and found I was less courageous than I’d believed. And more selfish. I leaned back in my own chair and closed my eyes for a time.

I jolted awake when the Fool touched my arm.

“So you were asleep. You suddenly became very quiet. Fitz. Will you be all right?” There was apology in his voice.

“I will. I’m just very tired. Last night’s . . . revelation exhausted me. And I didn’t sleep well.” I reached up to rub my eyes, and flinched at my own touch. My face was swollen and warm to the touch, as if I’d been in a fight.


I gingerly prodded the tops of my cheekbones and the outer sockets of my eyes. Even if I had not given him his vision back, I would pay a toll for what I had done.


None of the other Skill-healings I’d assisted with had affected me this way. Thick had done a prodigious amount of healing on Aslevjal Island and shown no ill effects at all. The only difference that came to my mind was my connection to the Fool. It was far more than a Skill-connection: When I had called him back from the other side of death, we had had a moment of profound joining. Perhaps we had never truly parted.

I blinked and measured my vision again. I noticed no difference, no hazing. I was almost certain that while we had repaired bone, we hadn’t done anything that would benefit his eyesight. I wondered if I would have the courage to attempt any further healing. I thought of all I had glimpsed that was broken inside him, all the lingering infections and badly healed damage. How much of that must I take on if I continued my attempts to heal him? Could anyone fault me for refusing to make such a sacrifice? I cleared my throat.

“Are you certain there is no difference in your vision?”

“I can’t really tell. Perhaps I perceive more light. My face is sore, but in a different way. The soreness of healing, perhaps. Did you find anything when you were . . . inside my body? Could you tell what stole my sight?”

“It’s not like that, Fool. I could tell that there were breaks in your facial bones that hadn’t healed properly. And I put them on the path to healing, and tried to undo some of the places where the bones were not aligned as they should be.”

He lifted questioning hands to his face. “Bones? I thought the skull was one bone, mostly.”

“It’s not. If you wish, later I can show you a human skull.”

“No. Thank you. I’ll take your word for it. Fitz, I can tell by your voice that you found something else. Is more wrong with me than you wish to tell me?”

I chose my words carefully. No lies this time. “Fool, we may have to go more slowly with your healing. The process is demanding for me. We must employ good food and rest as much as we can, and save magical efforts for the more difficult injuries.” I knew those words were true. I tried not to follow that thought to its logical conclusion.

“But—” he began and then halted. I watched the brief struggle in his expression. He so desperately needed to be well and on his quest and yet, as a true friend, he would not ask me to exert myself past my strength. He’d seen me exhausted from Skill-efforts, and knew what the physical demands could be. I did not need to tell him that the healings might do actual injuries to me. He did not need to bear the guilt for what I’d already done to myself. That was my own doing. He turned his clouded gaze back to the candles. “Where did Motley go?”


“The crow,” he seemed embarrassed to reply. “Before she went down to you, we were talking, well, not really, though she knows quite a few words and almost seems to make sense sometimes. I asked her, ‘What’s your name?’ Because, well, because it was so quiet up here. At first she said random things in reply. ‘Stop that!’ and ‘It’s dark’ and ‘Where’s my food?’ And finally she said back to me, ‘What’s your name?’ It rattled me for a moment, until I realized she was just mimicking me.” A tentative smile dawned on his face.

“So you named her Motley?”

“I just started calling her Motley. And shared my food with her. You said she came down to you and you painted her. Where is she now?”

I hated to tell him. “She came down the stairs and tapped at the secret door. I let her into my room, where she ate half my breakfast. I left the window open for her; I suspect she’s gone by now.”

“Oh.” The depth of disappointment in his tone surprised me.

“I’m sorry.” He said nothing. “She’s a wild creature, Fool. It’s for the best.”

He sighed. “I am not certain you are correct about that. Eventually, the ink will fade, and then what? Her own kind attacks her, Fitz. And crows are flock birds, unaccustomed to being solitary. What will become of her?”

I knew he was right. “I don’t know,” I said quietly. “But I also don’t know what else I can do for her.”

“Keep her,” he suggested. “Give her a place to be and food. Shelter from storms and her enemies.” He cleared his throat. “The same things that King Shrewd offered to a misfit creature.”

“Fool, I scarcely think that’s a valid comparison. She’s a crow, not a youngster alone in the world.”

“A youngster. In appearance. Young in terms of my kind, yes. Naïve and unlearned in the wider world in which I found myself. But almost as different from King Shrewd as a crow is from a man. Fitz, you know me. You’ve been me. You know that you and I are as much unlike as we are alike. As like and unlike as you and Nighteyes were. Motley, I think, is as like me as Nighteyes was like you.”

I pinched my lips shut for a moment and then relented. “I’ll go and see if I can find her for you. And if I can find her, and if she will come, I’ll bring her up here to you. And set out water and food for her.”

“Would you?” His scarred smile was beatific.

“I will.” And I rose in that moment, and went down the steps and opened the door to my room. Where I found Motley waiting.

“Dark,” she informed me gravely. She hopped up a step, then the next one, and on the third one she turned to look back at me. “What’s your name?” she demanded of me.

“Tom,” I said reflexively.

“Fitz—Chivalry!” she squawked derisively, and continued her hopping ascent.

“FitzChivalry,” I agreed, and found myself smiling. I followed her to make her comfortable.

Chapter Ten



Befriending the scarred man has not been as difficult as we thought it might be. I have realized that part of my reluctance for this assignment was that I feared his appearance. My greatest hurdle, I now perceive, was that I needed to overcome my fear of him before I could lull his fear of me.

It has not been easy to observe him while remaining unobserved as you requested. His blindness seems to have enhanced his other senses. Sometimes, if I arrive before he wakes, I can spend some little time before he is aware of me, but thrice now he has turned his face unerringly toward me and asked, “Who is there?” And his fearfulness is such a sad thing to behold that I have not had the will to pretend I am absent. Once, when I crept into the chamber, I found him fallen by the bed and unable to rise. In his distress and pain, he was unaware of me and struggled for some time. I judged that, although he still possesses some strength, he is in such pain that he is unable to raise his body from certain positions. I tried to be an observer only, but when I could stand it no longer, I scuffed my feet as if I had just entered and immediately called out to him that I would be happy to help. It was still difficult for me to put my hands on him and harder still for me to allow him to grip me to help him rise. But I overcame my dislike of his touch, and I think it gained me a great deal of regard and trust from him that I did so.

He has not been as reticent to speak to me as you said he might, but instead has shared many tales of his boyhood as King Shrewd’s jester, and stories of himself and Prince FitzChivalry when they were boys. He has also told me tales of his journey to the Mountain Kingdom with Queen Kettricken and his days there when all believed King Verity was dead and the true Farseer lineage come to an end. And I have heard of the days he spent in the Mountains helping to seek the king, and of his times with Prince FitzChivalry there. Truly, they are tales of heroism and courage beyond any I could have imagined. And I have undertaken to write them down in a separate document, for I think there may be events there that even you have not heard about previously.

For now, I judge I have completed this assignment. I have gained his trust and his confidence. I know that was the sole aim of this exercise, but I will tell you also that I feel I have gained a friend. And for that, my good master, I thank you as much as I thank you for my other instruction.

As you bade me, I have kept my secret and neither seems to have perceived it. The test will be, of course, when they meet me in my true guise. Will either recognize me? I will wager the blind will perceive more than the sighted one.

The Apprentice

After I’d left the Fool with Motley, I had returned to my room, intending to think. But instead, exhausted by the Skill-healing, I had slept. And when at last I woke, I had no idea what time of day it was.

I rubbed the sleep from my face, wincing at the tenderness around my eyes, then went to the looking glass and discovered that indeed I looked as bad as I felt. I had feared to find darkness and bruising. Instead my face was puffy and swollen, with a few spatters of ink still. Well, I supposed that was better than looking as if I’d had both eyes blacked in a tavern brawl. I went to the window, opened the shutters, and looked out on the setting sun. I felt rested, hungry, and reclusive. The idea of leaving my room and venturing out into Buckkeep Castle to find food daunted me.

What was my role to be, now that I was FitzChivalry once more? Even now that I was rested, my efforts to put what had happened into political, social, and familial context had failed. In truth, I’d been expecting that someone would summon me. I’d expected a missive from Kettricken, or a Skill-nudge from Chade or Nettle or Dutiful, but there had been nothing. Slowly it came to me that perhaps my relatives were waiting to hear from me.

I dampened a towel in my ewer and put the cool bandage over my swollen face. Then I sat down on the edge of my bed, composed myself, stiffened my resolve, and reached out to Nettle.

How are you? A question that might have been banal at any other time was now freighted with significance.

How are you? she echoed me. You’ve been so quiet!

I’m stunned still.

Are you happy it happened?

I had to think about that for a long moment. I think I am. But I’m probably as frightened as I am happy. And you?

It changes so many things in such profound ways. We shared a time of quiet awareness of each other. Her thoughts touched me hesitantly. Yesterday. I am so sorry for the things I said. Today, when I think of how I struck at you, I’m appalled. Mother, when she was carrying, would have bursts like that. Lightning strikes of wild emotions. Burrich would send me out with the older boys and he would stay and face her and weather her storm. It always ended with her weeping in his arms. I felt so annoyed with her, for being so emotional and weak. Wryly she added, Why does understanding come so late to us?

Poor Burrich.

I felt her amusement. And poor Riddle, I suppose?

He can withstand it. As Burrich did. And so can I, Nettle. Your mother and I had a few moments like that when she was carrying Bee. It almost comforts me to imagine that they weren’t entirely my fault!

Actually, I’m certain they were. She was gently mocking me, I realized with surprise. And enjoyment.

You’re probably right, I admitted. I pulled my thoughts away from Molly before my sorrow could rise. Then I thought again of Bee. Now was not the time to insist to Nettle that I could be a good father and that I was determined to keep Bee at my side, because all of that would be balanced on the issue of what happened next to the resurrected FitzChivalry Farseer. Back to the matter at hand. At some point, we must gather to speak of what has happened. The quiet had begun to seem ominous to me.

We did. We wondered why you did not join us, and Lord Chade said that it was probably a very large shock for you. He urged us to give you time to reach your own decisions.

No one summoned me.

A moment of startled silence. No one summoned me, either. Not Chade, or Dutiful. We simply gathered in Verity’s tower early this morning and tried to make sense of what must come next.

Oh. I pondered that for a moment. Not including myself was not the same as being excluded. Of course they would meet there and at that hour. I pulled my thoughts back on course. Who was there?

Who you might expect. The king and queen, Lord Chade, Lady Kettricken, myself. Lady Rosemary. Riddle, of course.

Of course? That last name had not seemed obvious to me at all. And what was decided?

About you? Nothing. We had much else to discuss. Your situation is worth an entire meeting on its own.

So, what was discussed?

I wish you had been there. Summarizing is not going to convey all the currents and tides that moved there. Lord Chade came thinking he might rebuke the queen for her headlong action and thinking that perhaps I had influenced her. Queen Elliania rapidly cleared those thoughts from his mind and I am pleased to say that both her husband and Lady Kettricken sided with her. Lady Kettricken then spoke of Riddle’s long service to Chade, to you, to the crown in general, and said that as it was completely within her power to do so, he is now Lord Riddle of Spruce Keep.

I’ve never heard of Spruce Keep.

Evidently it exists on the older maps of the Mountain Kingdom, with a different name in the Mountain tongue. It’s deserted now, and probably has been for several generations. The fortification there may not be standing at all anymore. But as the Mountain Queen pointed out, it matters little what is there. He now has title to it. Evidently it was one of her brother’s holdings and has sat empty since before his death. And she says that “lord” is not an appropriate translation of the Mountain concept of what that title would be, but that also matters little. Riddle has the appropriate attitude of being willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

I sat and silently pondered that. Bitter mixed with the sweet. Kettricken was right. In the Mountains, the rulers were not named king or queen, but Sacrifice. And they were expected to be willing to do anything, even to accept death, in the service of those they ruled. Had not Riddle done that, and more than once? And yet he had been judged too common to marry a Farseer daughter, even one that was a bastard. Denied for years. And in a night, solved. Why had it taken so long? Anger rumbled through me like thunder in the distance. Useless anger. Let it go.

Will you wed officially now?

It will be recognized that we are wed.

She was safe. My daughter and her unborn child were safe. The level of relief that washed through me must have reached Nettle.

You were that concerned for me?

It has long bothered me that you were not allowed to wed as you wished. And when Riddle told me there would be a child, well. I have been a bastard Farseer in Buckkeep Castle, Nettle. I would not wish it on anyone.

Have you eaten today?

Some breakfast. A crow took the rest.


A long tale. One that involves Web.

Are you hungry? Come eat with us.


The high table. In the Great Hall. Suppressed amusement.

I may. I pulled my thoughts back into my own mind and stared at the wall. How could I do this? Just leave my room, walk down the stairs, enter the Great Hall, and seat myself at the high table. Would a place be waiting for me? Would people stare at me and whisper behind their hands?

Impulsively, I Skilled to Chade. Was it hard to come out of the labyrinth and into the light?

Whatever are you talking about? Fitz, are you well?

Nettle invited me to join you for dinner. At the high table.

My heart beat twelve times before he responded. It is what will be expected, yes. Your absence today has been rather dramatic and suspenseful for some. A few nobles who had planned to depart early today, now that Winterfest is over, have delayed their departures. I think they hope for a second glimpse of the mysteriously young and alive FitzChivalry Farseer. Given all that happened last night, it will cause far more speculation if you do not appear at dinner. And your question makes sense to me now. For me, the only difficulty was to ease back into society rather than exploding into it. I was a rat lurking behind the walls for many years. Longing for society, for light and moving air. My transition was less abrupt and strange than yours will be. But as I told you last night, Fitz, it is time and past time. I will expect to see you at dinner.

I veiled my thoughts from him. Anxiety twisted my guts.

Dress appropriately, he suggested.

What? I felt a rush of dismay.

I could almost hear his sigh. Fitz. Straighten your thoughts. Tonight you will be FitzChivalry Farseer, the Witted Bastard, abruptly revealed as the hidden hero of the Red-Ship War. It’s your new role here at Buckkeep Castle, just as Lord Chade is mine. And Dutiful is the king. We all parade our roles, Fitz. Sometimes, in the comforts of our own chambers, we are who we are with old friends. Or at least who our old friends expect us to be. So, think well on it, and live up to the expectations of the folk of Buckkeep Castle, both noble and humble. It is not a time for you to be unremarkable. Prepare.

I found your note. And the crown.

Do not wear that!

I laughed out loud. It had not even crossed my thoughts to do so! I just wanted to thank you. And to let you know I understand.

He sent me no words, only a shared emotion that I had no name for. Snapping my teeth after meat I could not kill, Nighteyes might have named it. The poignant regret of nearly claiming something. I wondered what Chade had dreamed of claiming. A throne? Or perhaps a woman named Laurel.

He departed from my mind. I sat, blinking. Slowly it came to me that Chade was completely right. So, my role was the mysterious returning Witted Bastard, wronged all those years ago. What part of that was untrue? So why was I so acutely uncomfortable at being that? I put my elbows on my knees and lowered my face into my hands, then jerked upright when my fingers touched my swollen eyes. I got up and fetched my looking-glass and studied my reflection again. Could I have chosen a worse time to look peculiar?

I looked down at the clothing that Ash had chosen for me that morning. Then I scooped an armful of extra clothing from the traveling trunk, triggered the door, and went back up to the lair. I did not have much time. I took the stairs two at a time and was speaking before I entered the room. “Fool, I need your help!”

Then I felt foolish. For both Ash and the Fool turned toward me. They had been seated at the table, feeding things to the crow. She had made a remarkable mess of bread bits and scattered grain and was now holding down a chicken bone as she stripped meat from it.

“Sir?” Ash responded as the Fool turned to me and said, “Fitz?”

I did not have time for subtleties. “I’m not sure my clothing is right. I’m to join the king and queen at the high table, with Lord Chade and Lady Nettle. There will be others there, looking on. And I must present myself as FitzChivalry Farseer, the Witted Bastard, returned from his sojourn among the Elderlings. Last night was one thing. They were taken by surprise. But tonight, Chade has said I must give them—”

“The hero,” the Fool said quietly. “Not the prince. The hero.” He turned to Ash and spoke as if I were incompetent to answer. “What is he wearing?”

Ash bristled, just a trifle. “The clothing I chose for him earlier in the day.”

“I’m blind,” the Fool reminded him tartly.

“Oh. I beg pardon, sir. He has on a brown vest decorated with buttons of horn over a white shirt, the sleeves cut full, with a dozen or so buttons on long cuffs. The collar is open at the throat. He is wearing no jewelry. His trousers are a darker brown, with a line of buttons, also horn, down the outer seams. He’s wearing heeled shoes with a plain but lifted toe.” He cleared his throat. “And his face is splotched with mud.”

“It’s ink!” I objected.

“As if that matters,” the boy muttered.

The Fool interrupted. “The buttons. How recent a fashion are they here?”

“A few folk were wearing them last summer, but now everyone—”

“Fitz, come here. Stand before me.”

I did as he told me, amazed to see that he almost looked animated. I wondered when anyone had last demanded his help. When he felt me standing before him, he lifted his hands and ran them over my garments as if I were a horse he was considering buying. He felt the fabrics, touched the rows of buttons, tugged at my collar, and then touched my chin.

“Don’t shave,” he instructed me abruptly, as if I had been poised with razor in hand. “Ash. Can you cut the buttons from the trousers and leave no trace they were ever there?”

“I think so.” The boy sounded a bit sullen.

“Come, Ash,” the Fool cajoled him. “You grew up in a bawdyhouse, where daily, women presented themselves to be what men fancied. This is the same thing. We must give them what they want to see. Not a fashionable gentlemen dressed to impress, but a hero returned from the outskirts of society. He has been hidden amongst us since he returned from the Elderlings, living as a humble rural landholder. Slice the buttons off the trousers! We must make him look as if he has not mingled in court society for close to twoscore years. Yet we must also make it appear that he has tried to dress to the style. I know that Chade knows well how to play this sort of a game. We will need powder and paint, to emphasize the old break in his nose and the scar on his face. Some jewelry, but nothing too fine. Silver suits him better than gold.”

“My fox pin,” I said quietly.

“Perfect,” the Fool agreed. “Ash?”

“A hat. Almost no one goes bareheaded anymore. But simpler. Without feathers, perhaps.”

“Excellent. Go fetch. I think you’ve the head for this game. Indulge yourself.”

As easily as that, he had stroked the boy’s pride smooth. The lad flashed a smile at me as he rose and then vanished, headed toward the crawlway that would exit into Lady Thyme’s chamber.

“The fox pin,” the Fool demanded of me.

“And there is now a silver narwhal button that the queen gave me last night,” I remembered.

I took the button from my pocket and the fox pin from inside my shirt, where habit had placed it when I dressed. His crippled hands worked awkwardly at the collar of my shirt, folding the fabric and then securing it with the pin so that it suddenly looked and felt like a different garment to me. By the time he had finished and I had scrubbed the last of the ink spots from my face, Ash was back with a full armload of belts, vests, paint, powder, and a very sharp knife. The lad sheared the buttons from my trousers and then plucked the loose threads away. He was good with face paint; I almost asked if he had applied it for his mother, and then bit back the question. He traded my belt for a heavier one, and my belt-knife for a more substantial blade, one that verged on being a short sword. The hat that he produced for me had undoubtedly been made for a lady, sixty or seventy years ago. Ruthlessly, he stripped the feathers from it before handing it over to the Fool, who felt it carefully, and then commanded the boy to restore two small feathers and add a leather strap with a showy buckle to the crown. The silver button they threaded with heavy twine and fastened to my wrist. “We should order a fine silver chain for that,” the Fool suggested and the boy grinned, dug in a small box, and produced one.

“Excellent choice!” the Fool praised him as he fingered the fish-scale links, and in a trice they had redone the narwhal.

By the time they finished, they were both chortling and congratulating each other. Ash seemed to have lost all uneasiness around the Fool; indeed, they seemed to have established a swift camaraderie. “The final touch for the Witted Bastard,” the Fool exclaimed. “Motley. Will you ride on his shoulder and be his Wit-beast for the evening?”

“No,” I said, appalled, even as the bird cocked her head at me and responded, “Fitz—Chivalry!”

“She can’t, Fool. She’s not my companion. It will offend Web if I pretend she is. And I have no way to reassure her that she is safe in such a crowded and noisy space.”

“Ah, well.” The Fool understood immediately, even if he could not conceal his disappointment.

Ash had tilted his head and was looking at me speculatively. “What?” I asked, thinking that he’d found something awry in my garments.

He glanced away from the Fool but tipped a nod toward him. “He says he was there. With you, in the Mountains, when you woke the dragons and sent them to aid King Verity.”

I was startled both by the lad being brave enough to ask such a question and by the idea that the Fool would have spoken so freely to him of our time together. “It’s true,” I managed to say.

“But the minstrel didn’t mention him at all last night.”

The Fool gave an abrupt caw of laughter, and the crow immediately mimicked him.

“And that is true also,” I agreed.

“But Lady Starling said she sang true.”

“Everything she sang was true. I will leave it to you as to whether the truth can exist with details omitted, or if those lacks make a lie of it.”

“He told me that he rode a dragon behind a girl who had been carved from the same stone as the dragon and that they flew up into the sky and saw some of the battles.” The lad was getting bolder. The Fool gave me a sightless glance.

“I myself saw him fly away on the back of a dragon. Girl-on-a-Dragon we called her. And if he has favored you with an account of battles he saw, well, then you know more of it now than I’ve ever heard.”

A slow smile spread over the boy’s face. “Then he’s a hero, too.”

I nodded. “Without him, Queen Kettricken would never have reached the Mountains alive. And I would have died of an arrow wound before ever we went on our quest to seek King Verity. So, yes, he is a hero, too.” I glanced over at the Fool. His face was very still, his fingers perched on the table’s edge.

“She left out a lot.”

“She did.”


Before I could respond, the Fool intervened. “Perhaps someday you should ask her that.” I did not miss the lilt of amusement in his voice as he imagined such an encounter.

“I have to go.” A thought came to me and I dared it. “Fool, you should dress and come with me. I think you are strong enough to manage it, at least for an hour or so.”

“No.” His response was swift and strong.

I regretted my words instantly. The old light that had shone so briefly in his face, his pleasure in helping me and telling Ash stories, had vanished as if it had never been. The fear was back and he cringed back in his chair. I looked at him and wondered how he had ever managed to muster his courage to travel so far to find me, alone, hurt, and blind. Had he expended the last of his spirit to do so, and would he never recover to be once more the Fool I had known?

“You don’t have to,” I said quietly.

He spoke swiftly, his words tumbling out. “I’m still in danger, Fitz. I know you think I’m foolish. I know you can’t possibly believe that here, in Buckkeep Castle, they could not only come after me but take me back. But they could. I know this as clearly as I know . . . as I know that you are my friend. There are very few things I know anymore, Fitz. Few things I am certain about, but you are one of them. And the other is that the danger to me is real.” His voice had become softer and softer as he spoke. On his last words, he folded his hands and looked down at them as if he could see them. Folded, they no longer resembled hands. There were knots of white and lumps of red and speckles of scars. I looked away from them.

“I’ll stay with him, sir,” Ash said quietly. I hadn’t asked him to, and wouldn’t have thought of it, but the moment he volunteered, I was grateful.

“I know you have to go,” the Fool said. Quiet desperation was in his voice.

“I do.” I’d felt several nudges from Chade, and Nettle was now pressing against my thoughts. It was important that I appear. Dutiful and Elliania were delaying their entrance until I could walk in with them. Much longer and it would appear that we slighted our nobles.

I’m coming now, I Skilled back to them and then closed my thoughts to them. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I assured the Fool, and “Soon!” the crow echoed. She hopped closer to the Fool and tilted her head.

“Motley’s worried about you,” Ash said as gently as if he were coaxing a child. “She’s trying to look into your face.”

I did not think it would work. I was not sure what I felt as the Fool’s clenched hands slowly opened. He beckoned to the bird and she hopped closer. “Here’s a bit of bread for her,” Ash whispered, and dropped a torn crust into the Fool’s hand. He closed his fingers on it, forcing the bird to stand near and take it in chunks as he held it.

“Soon,” I promised the Fool, and rose and left the table. I was halfway down the steps when Ash caught up with me.

“Sir, sir,” he called in a carrying whisper. “Let me adjust your collar.” But when he was closer to me, he spoke other words by my ear, for me alone to hear. “He is not as strong as he tries to show himself to you. Earlier today, I found him on the floor near the hearth, trying to rise. It was hard for him to make himself take my hand. Harder for him to endure the pain as I helped him back to his feet. You see him walk, and he can rise from a bedside or a chair. But once on the floor, he could not lift himself.” And again in his whisper, he added, “There, that’s much better.”

“Thank you,” I told him, letting my voice carry as he did. I caught his hand and gripped it briefly; I knew he understood my unvoiced gratitude. Hard news for me to hear, and harder to know that my friend concealed his infirmity from me. I went the rest of the way down the stairs to my old room with a heavy heart.

No sooner had I closed the hidden door behind me than I heard a forceful rap at the chamber door. “A moment,” I called, and Riddle spoke through the door, saying, “That’s a moment more than I’m to give you.” As I opened the door, he told me, “I’ve been sent to fetch you and bring you down to dinner regardless of objections or appearance. But actually, I think you’ve done very well with yourself.”

“And you,” I returned his barbed compliment, for truly Riddle looked little like his normal self. His white shirt was cuffed and collared in purple. Kettricken’s Mountain colors. His trousers were black. He was allowed to wear simple boots. I felt envy.

He lifted his chin and showed me his profile. “You don’t think I look more noble-blooded already? It’s Kesir Riddle now, which Kettricken explains would translate more as ‘servant’ than ‘lord,’ given the Mountain Kingdom philosophy on the duties of rulers. But tonight they will call me Kesir Riddle and I will sit at the high table.”

“Were you sent to escort me there, lest I fail to arrive on time? Or am I to be seen with you to impart my paternal approval of your marriage to my daughter?”

“Both, perhaps. Though I will admit it seems a bit odd that you should be in that role when you actually appear to be younger than I am.”

I had just shut the door behind me and locked it, or I think I would have insisted he stand beside me before the looking-glass. I turned my gaze on him and studied him in silence. Riddle was Riddle, and so I had seen him through the years. While he was scarcely a graybeard, when I surveyed him I noted the lines that now framed his mouth and that his hair was retreating from his brow. He grinned suddenly.

“You’ve missed your moment to charitably disagree with me, Tom. Oh. It’s time to abandon that, too, isn’t it? Come, Prince FitzChivalry Farseer. It’s time to descend and face the hordes of well-wishers.” He linked his arm through mine and marched me off with him as if he were escorting me to the gallows. As we walked the corridor and descended the stair, I pulled my awareness in. Prince FitzChivalry Farseer. Hero. Humble hero, coming out of a long exile in Withywoods after spending decades amongst the mythical Elderlings. I was the son of Chivalry Farseer, nephew to Verity. Cousin to King Dutiful. Defender of the crown. What would the folk, common and noble, want to see in this handcrafted hero?

By the time we were striding past folk in the halls, I knew that I was taciturn, but not too grave. I would be as interested in people as Web was, and whenever possible I would turn the conversation to who they were and what they had done. I would talk little and listen well. Modesty about my exploits would serve me until Chade and I could take counsel and decide exactly which ones were for public discussion.

Ah, that evening. I had made us all tardy, and I realized belatedly that I had significantly heightened Nettle’s anxiety by doing so. I walked at her left side and Riddle on her right, and as we processed through the corridors to the Great Hall, she whispered to me that I must come to the dawn meetings in Verity’s tower if I was to understand what was happening in Buckkeep Castle. For tonight, follow Chade’s lead and if in doubt, Skill to her for direction. I successfully concealed my amusement at her dictatorial tone by watching Riddle endeavoring to master his nervousness.

The Great Hall had been rearranged for the occasion. There was the high table, on its dais so all might watch the king and queen dine. A second, lower dais had been erected before it for chosen favorites and the dukes and duchesses in attendance. I found it reassuring, as it might act as a sort of barricade for any lesser assassin who might try to eliminate me. In the center of the hall, there was a third dais, bedecked with evergreen and holly thick with berries, as if we were just now commencing to celebrate Winterfest. Starling was seated there, before her harp, in the most extravagant minstrel’s garb that I had ever seen. As we entered, she struck a series of chords connected by stair steps of notes. She continued to play as we were seated, softening her volume when a page announced each of us as we took our places on the dais. I was introduced after Nettle and before Riddle, so the ripple of talk at my name muffled any astonishment there might have been to hear him named as not only a landed noble but wed to Lady Nettle.

The food was brought to us swiftly. I am sure it was excellent, though I barely noticed. I ate little and drank less and looked around with wide eyes as if I had never seen the Great Hall before. And in truth, I had not ever seen it from that vantage point. As the dishes were being cleared and wine and brandy brought, Starling struck up her harp more aggressively, and soon launched into a second rendition of last night’s song. I noted that she had modified it somewhat, and wondered if that had been Chade or Kettricken’s work. This night, there was mention of King Shrewd’s jester and how he had aided Kettricken’s escape and accompanied her on her flight to her father’s house. The Fool was given credit for rescuing me when I was injured and restoring me to Kettricken’s side. He was even mentioned as helping me wake the stone dragons that had risen to Verity’s aid. It pleased me to hear him given his due before such an august company, and I wished he had been there to hear it.

I was even more astonished at the end, when after her final notes had nearly finished vanishing to a whisper, she suddenly struck up a reverential air. From the far end of the hall came Lady Rosemary, bearing what appeared to be a jewel-studded casket. As she approached, Starling sang of Verity’s regard for me, and how he had left me a final token of that respect, to be claimed by me if ever I returned to Buckkeep Castle. I divined what was in the box even before Lady Rosemary presented it to the king and queen. Dutiful opened the chest and lifted from it the steel circlet. It had been polished and it shone. With trembling hands he took out his father’s scroll. I knew with heartfelt certainty that he had never seen or read it before, for his voice shook as he read Verity’s words. He carried the crown with his lady beside him until he stood in the center of the room near Starling’s harp. As she played, he called me forth to kneel before him while he set it on my brow. “Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, son of King-in-Waiting Chivalry Farseer,” he publicly named me.

And so I was crowned twice that day.

Then he bade me rise and embraced me. A roar of acclaim rose and for a time faces and sounds seemed to recede around me. Then, “Don’t faint!” my king exhorted me quietly, and I drew a deep breath lest that happen. I followed them back to the high dais, the circlet cold and heavy on my brow.

A long evening followed. The tables were cleared and carried away. Kettricken’s guard was formed up around me to honor me, as every duchy was named and their nobility summoned to greet me. Duchess Celerity was hardest for me to face, but she had said her words the evening before, and so she but took my hands and wished me well as her husband offered me a stiff bow.

The Duke and Duchess of Tilth presented another difficulty, as they escorted their daughter, a sturdy girl of perhaps seventeen years, and introduced her as Lady Meticulous, “unspoken for” as yet. They told me that she enjoyed riding and hawking and extended an immediate invitation that I might join them on the morrow for a winter hunt. The girl looked at me with such frank and undismayed appraisal that I barely managed to respond that I had a previous engagement and regrettably could not join them. The duchess immediately suggested that perhaps I would be free the next day. I was horribly grateful when Nettle leaned over to say that as she had not seen me for some time, she hoped to occupy most of my days for the next month.

“Ah, then we shall have to invite you to Tilth in the spring,” the girl’s father observed brightly as his wife folded her lips in disappointment, and I managed to nod acquiescence to that.

I do not know how many hours we were there. People came, presented themselves, commented on past connections, many of them extremely tenuous, and then moved on. The noise of conversation in the hall was a constant. I looked up to see that Starling had her own circle of admirers asking questions about her adventures. Both she and her husband appeared to be basking in the crowd’s adoration. As I was not. I envied them their ability to relax and be flattered. I watched the crowd with an assassin’s eyes, noting faces and names, alert for signs of hidden hostility, storing information and connections until I thought my brain would burst. The stares and glares that I noted were not many, but I suspected that for every minor noble who openly disdained the Witted Bastard, six would smile to my face while imagining putting a knife in my back.

The smile on my face felt stiff and aching long before King Dutiful declared that we were all sated with too much good food, good wine, and good fortune and that we would now retire. We left as we had arrived, a formal exit from the Great Hall accompanied by the Buckkeep Blue Guard all the way to his private chamber.

It was a large and comfortable room with many cushioned chairs, a large hearth with a hearty fire, and a table laden with yet more refreshments and a selection of brandy and wines. Even when King Dutiful had assured the serving staff that we were fine and dismissed them, I still felt somewhat constrained by the company. They were my closest friends and my family, and it took me a few silent moments to identify my problem. I had been a different person to every single one of them. What role was I expected to play this night? And if I decided to simply be myself, which self was that? The killer Chade had trained, Dutiful’s protector and mentor, Riddle’s brother-in-arms, Nettle’s negligent father? All me and all not me.

Kettricken looked directly at me and heaved a great sigh. “Oh, my friend, I’m so glad it’s all over,” she said, and went to a chair and sat down.

“It’s never over,” Dutiful observed wearily.

“But the worst of it is,” his mother asserted. “For years it has been like a barbed thorn in my heart that Fitz did so much, sacrificed so much, and only a few knew of it. Now they know at least some of what he did. Now he can come home to us, can eat meals with us and walk in the gardens and ride in the hunt, and answer to his rightful name. And his little girl will soon arrive here and come to know the rest of her family!”

“Then will we reveal that Badgerlock is also Fitz? It may bring the rest of his deeds to light if we do, for there are many who know that Badgerlock and Riddle were among those who accompanied Prince Dutiful to Aslevjal. Will people be offended that Lady Molly of Withywoods was married to the Witted Bastard and they lived right under their noses all those years?” Nettle posed her query to all of us.

“But,” Kettricken said, and then fell unhappily silent.

“Let people make up their own explanations.” Riddle chuckled. “I imagine many will claim to have known all along, and they will be the ones least likely to ask questions.”

I shot him a gaze of pure admiration. I looked to Chade to see him share that approval, but the old man looked distracted and displeased.

“It will all be sorted out,” Dutiful said comfortingly, “but it will take time. And simply because Fitz can now move openly within Buckkeep Castle does not mean that he will joyfully give up his quiet life and private ways.” Regretfully, he added, “Or that all will be glad to see the Witted Bastard return to Buckkeep and polite society.”

Chade abruptly interrupted. “Nettle, I must ask you to apply your Skill for me. It’s Sildwell. I sent him with messages and gifts to Withywoods. He was to Skill to me when he arrived safely. All this evening, I’ve felt him pecking at my thoughts like a woodpecker on a tree, but his Skill ebbs and flows as if blown by the wind.”

“Sildwell? The apprentice who left the Silver Coterie?” She looked startled, and my heart sank a bit. What had Chade been up to?

“Yes. As he seemed unable to get along with his fellows in the coterie and you gave him leave to depart, I thought to train him as a messenger, one that could occasionally employ his Skill-talents as well. He’s a tough young man and an excellent horseman.”

“His Skill was erratic,” Nettle observed somewhat acerbically. “And his manners appalling.”

“Practice may improve both of those things,” Chade replied. “In any case, I sent him off to Withywoods with messages and small gifts for FitzVigilant and Bee and so on. And he seems to be trying to tell me he has reached Withywoods but he cannot find Bee. And FitzVigilant has been injured. Or burned. I cannot make out what he is trying to convey to me. If you would reach to him?”

“He can’t find Bee?” I interrupted.

Nettle shook her head at me, her mouth pinched with disapproval. “Take no alarm. Sildwell is disorganized and ill mannered. And possibly drunk. There were a number of reasons I chose to discontinue his Skill-training. Let’s not panic.”

I took a breath. Chade was scowling. He’d been caught going behind Nettle’s back to co-opt a former apprentice as his personal Skilled messenger. I wondered if he’d intended more than that. I noticed he’d mentioned Lant but said nothing of Shun. Was she a bigger secret than I’d realized?

Nettle took a seat on the divan. “Let’s resolve this swiftly and put everyone’s mind at ease. Dutiful, will you join us? Fitz?”

Although a joining of Skill-strength did not require physical proximity, each of us moved to sit beside her. Chade came to stand behind her. As I took my place and opened my Skill to theirs, it felt rather like wading into a river. No. Being a stream merging with a river. Together, we rushed out toward the messenger.

I knew nothing of Sildwell, so I let the others guide us. We reached, I felt the connection, and then it failed and faded. I had never felt such a thing in the Skill. I tried not to let my puzzlement be a distraction. Nettle gathered us as if she were plaiting a rope and again she reached.

Skillmistress! Sildwell seemed as startled as he was relieved. I cannot . . . And he was gone, like a voice swept away by wind or the glimpse of someone in a heavy snowfall. Fog . . . stable fire . . . no one knows of . . . strange folk.

Fire in my stables? Fear leapt in me and I shoved it down relentlessly. I glanced at Chade. His eyes were wide with fear. I reached behind Nettle, took his hand, and squeezed it. Small and tight, I sent a thought to him. Don’t distract the others. First we discover the truth. I felt his assent but his fear did not abate. I tried to wall in mine. Nettle was taking control of Sildwell. I felt her reach and try to shape him into himself.

Apprentice Sildwell. Gather yourself. Focus. Choose one thought to convey. Be calm. Form the thought in your mind. Hold it. Polish it. Now. Slowly. Extend the thought to me.

So calm and structured. As she instructed Sildwell, I felt Nettle reinforce his awareness of himself as a solid and separate entity from the Skill-current that we all navigated. She abruptly spoke aloud to me. “Da. Calm yourself. I need your strength right now. Lord Chade. Now is not the time for this panic.” Then I felt her dismiss us and put her focus back on the youngster. I tried to help her as she attempted to wrap him in confidence. And, Now, she invited him.

There is no Lady Bee here. Some folk died in a fire. They all are strange. Then, as if something else flowed and washed against us, his thoughts were swept away. All was fog, as if we were on a gray sea in a gray fog in a constant wash of gray rain. Frightening . . . That thought broke through stronger than the others, and then there was nothing. No sense of anyone, anywhere in the Skill-current.

Chade’s grip on my hand had tightened. In that physical touch, our rising fears became one thing. I could hear his shuddering breath.

Later. Rest now. Nettle arrowed the thought at Sildwell with a fierce strength, but it was an arrow sent toward a target that no one could see.

We were abruptly seated on a divan in the comfortable chamber in Buckkeep. I shot to my feet. “I’m going now.”

“Yes,” Chade confirmed. He gripped the back of the divan with both hands.

“What was that?” Dutiful demanded of all of us. I scarcely heard him. Dread was rising in me like cold water in a flood. Something was terribly wrong at Withywoods. A fire in the stables? Lant injured? Bee was there, as good as alone if Lant was injured. So far away from me. “I’m leaving,” I repeated. My voice had no strength. Chade nodded and reached for me.

“Perhaps a dragon,” Nettle said softly. “We know that the stone dragons often distorted memory and perception when they over flew a battle.”

“The confoundment,” Elliania confirmed. “Many of our warriors spoke of it. The battle would be lost and over, and few had more than fragmentary memories of what had happened.”

“And the living dragon Tintaglia was able to bend our thoughts and change our Skilling,” Nettle recalled slowly. “Dragons have visited Bearns. It may be that one had descended on Withywoods. We should wake Thick and see if he can reach through the fog and get some sense out of Sildwell.”

Chade gripped my arm, leaned heavily on me for a moment. “To my room. I have everything you need there.” He suddenly pulled himself up straight. “There is no time to lose.”

As we moved toward the door, his strength seemed to come back to him. “Da?” Nettle asked in consternation.

“I must go to Withywoods tonight, via the stones. Riddle, arrange a horse for me, please.”

“Don’t you think that—”

I didn’t want to waste words or time. I spoke over my shoulder. “No Lady Bee? A fire? Regardless of his Skill-ability, all is not well there. I should never have left her there alone.” I reached the door, Chade beside me.

“FitzVigilant is with her,” Nettle reminded me. “He’s young but he has a good heart, Fitz. He would not let harm come to her. I think something or someone has befuddled Sildwell. His talent was always uneven.” She tried to speak calmly but her voice was a notch too high.

“He said Lant was injured. Or burned? If he’s injured he can’t protect anyone. I’m going now. By the pillars.” The unease was building to a panic in my chest. I tried to push it down. Be calm. No wild imaginings. Just get there and find out what was real. But the messenger’s words stabbed me with a thousand fears. A fire. Bee missing. Had the fire spread to the manor? Had she hidden in the walls and died there, unseen? I dragged in a deep breath and tried to sound reasonable. And calm. “Once I am there, I will let you know what has happened.”

Nettle opened her mouth to object but Riddle spoke quickly. “Fitz is right. Let him go. Fitz, do you want me with you?”

I did. He had Skill-strength to lend and was good with a sword, and I had no idea what I was going into. But I would not again leave a daughter unguarded. “No. But thank you, my friend. Guard what we love here and my mind will be easier for that.”

I had one glimpse of Nettle’s grateful face and then the door closed behind us.

“Let’s get you on your way,” Chade insisted. From somewhere he had summoned the strength of a much younger man. He hastened down the corridor and up the grand stairs. He took them two at a time and I kept pace with him.

“Chade?” I began and “Not yet,” he replied breathlessly. His stride lengthened. He ran and I followed. He slammed into his room, startling his valet and a servant stoking the hearth fire. He dismissed them both abruptly, and they went with much bowing to me, a performance that made me uncomfortable until Chade shut the door on them. Once we were alone, he threw open his wardrobe. “Your feet are smaller than mine. Can you manage in my boots?”

“I imagine so,” I said, and he pulled out a heavy pair of riding boots. A thick cloak and a woolen shirt followed, billowing as he threw them toward me.

“Change while I talk,” he instructed me, and his voice was fraught with emotion. I was already dragging on the boots.

“I had bits of Skilling from Sildwell before I asked Nettle to help me. All of it was disturbing. He could find no sign of Lady Bee or Lady Shun. ‘They are unknown here,’ he said at one point. Or seemed to say, through a fog and a roaring. He described a ‘great fire’ and I think he told me that your folk there seemed unconcerned by it. You experienced what it was like, trying to receive his thoughts.”

“When?” I demanded. How dare he hide this from me! “How long ago?”

He stared at me, his anger rising to meet mine. “Moments before I asked Nettle for help. Did you think I would wait?” He handed me a very plain sword in a leather sheath. There was dust on it, and the belt that held it was stiff. I buckled it round me without comment. I drew it out, looked at it, and sheathed it again. Plain but very well made.

“Give me that,” Chade suggested, and I realized I was still wearing the sword crown. I pulled it free and handed it to him. He tossed it on his bed. I dragged the woolen shirt over my head and shoved my arms out the sleeves. As I swept the cloak over my shoulders, I told him, “Tell the Fool why I’ve gone. He’ll understand.”

“Skill to me as soon as you arrive there. Please.”

“I shall.”

I did not care who turned as I passed or who stared after me as I pounded down the great stair, through the halls of Buckkeep Castle, and out into the courtyard where a boy held the reins of a fine roan mare. Her eyes were bright with intelligence, her long legs straight and strong. “Thank you,” I called as I seized her reins and mounted. As I wheeled her toward the gate, the lad shouted something about Lord Derrick’s horse, and I saw that a long-legged black was being led toward the steps. I’d taken the wrong horse. But too late. Nothing would turn me back now.

“Go!” I told her, voice and heels, and leaned forward.

Chapter Eleven


To Prince FitzChivalry

Sir. For many years I have held your secret as closely as you have held mine. My king entrusted it to me that I might better understand all that you did in that difficult time. My pride had been gravely injured by the ruses that you and your friend Lord Golden had played upon me. I would let you know that for years now I have better understood your role in those events. I do not forget all you have done for me. I recall well that but for you I would not be alive today. I write to you to remind you that I remain ever in your debt, and that if there is ever any way in which I can serve you, I beg that you will ask it of me.

Please know I make this offer with all sincerity.

Lord Civil Bresinga

The roan mare lifted herself into a gallop and we were through the gate before anyone had a chance to either challenge us or wave us through. She was a spirited creature and seemed to relish the idea of a night gallop. Her Wit shimmered between us, seeking a confirmation from me that we would become the best of friends. But my heart was frozen with fear and I held myself small and still. Her hooves threw up chunks of packed snow from the carriageway, and the wind of our passage squeezed my face in an icy grip. A cart trail turned off toward the Witness Stones. The snowy road was less packed, and her pace slowed despite my efforts to hurry her. I blessed the brief break in the storms that let the moon and starlight reflect from the snowy fields. I pressed her and as the trail became just a rumpling in the deep snow, she lunged and surged through it. Long before we reached the stones, I had made my decision. Regal’s apprentices and journeymen had taken horses through Skill-pillars before. True, some had lost their wits doing it, but I was far more seasoned at the Skill than they had been. And my need was far greater.

At the summit of the hill, I pulled her in, let her breathe, and then reined her close to the stones. Roan. With me. I pressed my Wit against all her senses, and it shocked me when she welcomed me. She tossed her head and showed me one white-rimmed eye as I slapped the stone with a bared hand and simultaneously wheeled her in. For a long moment she leapt through a starlit sky, and then we plunged out and she landed, stiff-legged and heaving under me, on the top of Gallows Hill. A three-day journey done in an instant. Wind and falling snow had erased almost every trace of my previous passage. The roan tossed her head, eyes and nostrils wide. Her strange exhilaration swept through me. I fought through a wave of vertigo before I found both common sense and my Wit, then wrapped her in reassurance and comfort, praised her, and promised her warmth and oats and fresh water. I walked her down the snowy hill. A small bit of patience now would pay off in the stamina to finish the ride.

Once our path met with a packed trail, I nudged her to a trot, and then as we came to a road, I pushed her up to a gallop. When I felt her begin to labor beneath me, I pulled her in, and again we walked. I had never had a deep faith in either Eda or El, but that night I prayed to Eda that I would find my child hidden but safe. I tormented myself with a thousand theories as to what might have happened. She had been trapped in the walls without food or water. She had been in the stables when they burned. Smoke had overcome her. Shun had done something dreadful to her and then fled after setting the house afire.

But none of my wild theories would explain why my household staff would claim to know nothing of Lady Bee or Lady Shun. I chewed my information a dozen different ways but made a meal from none of it. The night was cold and weariness welled in me. The closer I came to Withywoods, the less inclination I felt to be there. I should have stopped at Oaksbywater for the night. The thought surprised me and I shook my head to clear it from my mind. I pushed the mare back to a gallop, but I felt more heavyhearted than ever when I saw the lights of Withywoods through the trees.

Steam was rising from the roan’s withers when I pulled her in before the manor house. Even in the cold night, I could smell the stench of the burnt stables and the animals that had been in it. The loss of the building and the horses was a separate stabbing blow that made real the possibility that I had lost my little daughter as well. But as I swung down from the saddle, shouting for servants and stable boys, my heart lifted that I could see no damage to the house. The fire had not spread. I suddenly felt incredibly weary and woolly-witted. Bee, I said to myself, and pushed the haze of sleepiness away.

Chade. I’m here. Stables burned.

My Skill-message went nowhere. It was a terrible sensation, as if for one moment I was smothered and fighting for breath. Chade! Nettle! Dutiful! Thick! With each effort, the sense of suffocation increased. The Skill-current was there, I could almost touch it, but something shredded my sending into scattered threads. Exhaustion rose like a tide, stifling my terror. My fear became despair and I abandoned the effort. I shouted again and was relieved to hear my own voice.

A houseman pulled the door open for me and I heard it drag across the threshold. In the light from the lamp he lifted, I saw the damage that had been done. Someone had beaten the doors of my home in. That stung me to full alertness again. “What’s happened here?” I demanded breathlessly. “Where’s Revel? Where’s FitzVigilant? And Bee and Shun?”

The man goggled at me. “Who?” he demanded, and then, “The scribe is long abed, sir. Since his accident, he has been poorly. The whole household is abed, except for me. I can fetch Steward Dixon, but Holder Badgerlock, you look exhausted. Mayn’t I build up the fire in your chamber and see you there? And in the morning—”

“How did the stable burn down? Where is my daughter? Where is Lord Chade’s messenger Sildwell?”

“Lady Nettle?” the man queried me earnestly, and I gave him up for an idiot. Don’t ask questions of idiots: Find the likeliest person to have an answer. “Wake the steward and have him meet me in my private study immediately. Not the estate study, my private study! Have him bring FitzVigilant!”

I strode past the man, snatching the lamp from his hands and shouting over my shoulder, “And find someone to see to that horse!” before I broke into a run. Bee would be there. I knew she would be there. It was the one place she always felt safe, the secret that only she and I shared. I tried to ignore other damage to the house as I raced through corridors and up stairs. I passed a door that had been forced and still hung off its hinges. A tapestry had sustained a slash and hung crookedly, one corner puddled on the floor. My mind could not encompass it. My stables had been burned, someone had attacked Withywoods and marauded through its corridors, my daughter was missing, and the door servant seemed completely at ease with whatever had happened. “Bee!” I shouted as I ran, and I continued to shout her name until I reached the door of the study. Throughout the house, I heard doors opening and querying voices raised. I didn’t care who I roused. Why should anyone be sleeping when the daughter of the house was missing?

The doors of my study had been forced, the fine wood splintered. Two of my scroll racks leaned drunkenly against each other, their contents spilled to the floor. My desk had been ransacked, my chair overturned. I cared nothing for that destruction, nor for any stolen secrets. Where was my little girl? I was panting as I strove to align the doors so that I could close them and work the catch to the hidden labyrinth. “Bee,” I told her, my voice cracking with hope. “Papa’s home, I’m coming. Oh, Bee, please be there.”

I worked the catch hidden in the door hinge and then hunched over to enter the secret spy-ways that wended behind the paneled corridors of Withywoods. I found her tiny hidey-hole. It was empty and looked untouched, her cushions and pens just as she had left them. The fragrance of one of her mother’s candles still hung in the air. “Bee!” I called, still hoping I might hear an answer from her. Hunched over, I followed her chalk marks toward the entry in the pantry. I was horrified to see other markings on the walls, her clear letters indicating passageways that I’d never explored.

I saw a litter of objects on the floor of the passage ahead and smelled urine. When I reached a spill of unused candles and the mouse-gnawed remains of a loaf of bread, I was completely puzzled. I traveled on toward the pantry exit. There were burnt candle stubs discarded on the floor, a wet shawl that was not Bee’s moldering in a pile, and then I found the pantry entry door ajar. I shouldered it wider and squeezed out, then shut it firmly behind me. Not even I could see where it had been.

This time of year, there should have been a store of hams and smoked fish and strings of sausages swinging from the storage hooks. There was nothing. Taken as plunder? Sausages? It made no sense. I knew of no one who would attack Withywoods. Adding that the culprits had stolen sausages only made the riddle ridiculous.

I stepped from the pantry into the kitchen. A scullery maid was there, her winter shawl flung around her shoulders over her nightdress. Lark. That was her name, a second cousin to Cook Nutmeg and a recent hire. “Oh! Holder Badgerlock! Where did you come from? We didn’t expect you home so soon, sir!”

“Obviously not! Where is my daughter? And where is Lady Shun?”

“Sir, I’m sure I don’t know. I thought you had gone to Buckkeep Castle to see Lady Nettle. And I don’t know Lady Shun. Still new here, sir.”

“What happened here while I was gone?” I met her question with one of my own.

She pulled her shawl more warmly around her shoulders. “Well, sir, you went to town. Scribe FitzVigilant returned and told us you had decided to travel on to Buckkeep Castle. And then we had the Winterfest. And the fire in the stables. And that fight, though no one saw that. Someone was drunk probably, or several someones. Scribe Lant couldn’t even say who stabbed him or why. Some of the other men were knocked about, a black eye here, a tooth gone there. You know how menfolk are. And then we had that messenger, who I think is less than a half-wit, with his parcels for folk no one’s heard of. And now, tonight, you popping out of the pantry. And that’s all I know, sir. Oh, and the steward, shouting us out of bed and telling us to bring you a tray with hot tea and some food to your study. Is that why you’re here in the kitchen, sir? Was there something else you wanted?”

I turned away from her prattling and ran once more through the halls of my home. My heart pounded in my ears and I was thirsty but there was no time to stop to drink. I was trapped in a hideous, twisted nightmare, a dragon-tainted dream in which nothing made sense and I could not wake. Bee’s room was empty, the hearth fire burned out to ashes and the stones long cold, her wardrobe dragged open and her little tunics flung about. I looked under her bed, crying her name hopelessly. I felt I could not drag enough air into my lungs. I could not order my thoughts. I suddenly, desperately wanted to just curl up on her bed and sleep. Not think about any of this.

No. Onward.

I found Lady Shun’s room in the same sort of chaos it always was. I could not tell if it had been ransacked. Her bed was cold and unslept in, the bedding dragged half onto the floor. One of the hangings had been torn loose. On I went. My chamber had been rummaged through as well. I didn’t care. Where was my child? I left the corridors of bedrooms and ignored the few sleepy and frightened servants I passed in the hall as I ran again to the schoolroom and the scribe’s quarters adjacent to it. I flung open the door to FitzVigilant’s room and felt an unmanning wave of relief when he sat up in his bed. “What is it?” he demanded, face pale and eyes wide. “Oh. Badgerlock! Back so soon?”

“Thank Eda! Lant, where are they, where are Shun and Bee? What happened to the stables?”

The growing consternation on his face made me want to strike him. “The stables burned down on Winterfest eve. I suppose someone was careless with a lamp. Shunanbee? What is that?”

I was gasping for air now. “Lady Shun. My daughter, Lady Bee, my little girl. Where are they? Did they perish in the fire?”

“Holder Badgerlock, calm yourself. I do not know the ladies you speak of. Surely your stepdaughter is Lady Nettle, the Skillmistress at Buckkeep Castle?”

He sat up slowly and painfully, his blankets falling back to reveal heavy bandaging around his chest. It startled me. “What happened to you?” I demanded.

His eyes flew wide and for a moment his pupils became so large I felt I looked into blackness inside his head. Then he rubbed his face with both hands and when he looked at me again, a sickened and awkward smile spread over his face. “So embarrassing to admit this. I drank too much on Winterfest eve. I was found after the fire. Somehow I took a stab wound. Possibly from a hayfork or a tool of some kind during the fire? It seems to have missed anything vital, but given the injuries I was already recovering from, it has made me an invalid again. I must apologize to Lady Nettle that I have been quite unable to function as an instructor for the children since then.”

I staggered to a chair and sat down. The room whirled round me. Lant regarded me with deep concern. I could not stand his stupefied sympathy. I wanted to pound his face to a bloody ruin with my fists. I closed my eyes and reached out to the king’s Skill-coterie.

I have been in howling storms in which a shout is reduced to a whisper, moved across the sea’s featureless face in a gray fog that does not yield to human eyes. That was what I found. My Skill was quenched, damped like wet firewood that will not catch regardless of the flame put to it. I focused, I strained my Skill to a needle-point, then flung it wide to the sky. Nothing. I was trapped in my body. I could not reach for help. I wondered suddenly how I could be sure I was not in a dream of a dragon’s making. Could I be sure I was not trapped inside the Skill-pillar and this all some insane illusion of my own making? What test could I give myself?

“Where is Revel?” I demanded of FitzVigilant. Again he stared at me blankly. “I told Dixon to bring you and Revel, and meet me in my private study. Oh.” Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect him to find me here in Lant’s room. I rose. “Get up, Lant. I need you with me.”

Something flickered in his eyes. I thought he would whine and protest that he was hurt and it was the middle of the night. Instead I think I glimpsed, finally, the man that Nettle and Riddle had claimed him to be. “Give me a moment,” he said quietly. “And I will be with you. In your private study?”

“The estate study,” I amended.

I left him there, rising slowly and stiffly from his bed. My boots rang in the halls as I strode back to the study. Time after time, I saw the marks that suggested there had been armed invaders in my home. A long score down the paneling as if an edged weapon had been parried aside and dragged there. A broken wall sconce.

The double doors to the estate study had been battered open. Inside the room, a tray with a steaming pot of tea and sliced meat, bread, and cheese awaited me. There were slashes in the hangings that covered the doors to the garden, and something dark had stained the carpet. The wolf in me woke. I took a deep snuff of the room. Old blood. That was blood, on the floor of my study. The wolf within me crouched low and every sense I possessed suddenly flared. There was danger here still. Be still, be silent and watchful.

Dixon, Revel’s assistant, arrived, bearing a tray with brandy on it. “It’s so pleasant to have you home again, sir, even on such short notice. I went to your private study, but when you were not there, I brought your food here.” His words said one thing, his tone quite another. He was a short, stout man, dressed impeccably, even at this late hour. He smiled at me.

Contained. Time to be contained. Everything I felt was compressed into a cold stone box. I needed answers. “Thank you. Put it on the table and sit down, Dixon.”

I waited until he had tentatively settled on a chair. He looked around and gave a tiny sigh of disapproval. The put-upon servant summoned late by the unworthy master. I watched him with every fiber of my being as I asked him, “Where is Steward Revel tonight?”

I got what I had feared. That wash of confusion across his face, his dilated pupils, and then a shamed laugh as he said, “Sir, I don’t know of whom you speak. I am steward for Withywoods. Or have I displeased you so that this is how you tell me I am replaced?”

“Not at all. Revel was steward before you, of course. Do you recall him now?”

The confusion again and a flickering of fear on his features. Then his face smoothed. “I’m sorry, sir, I do not. I think . . . perhaps he had left before I was hired?”

“Lady Shun spoke highly of you.”

Confusion crawled toward panic. “Sir, I don’t know—”

“And little Lady Bee.” I pressed blindly on, not knowing what I was seeking, but willing to crack the man like a nutshell to get at the knowledge I needed.

“Bee . . .”

“Who set fire to the stables?”

He made a sound without words.

“Who attacked the manor? Did they take Lady Bee and Lady Shun? Kill them? What happened?”

The man’s head bobbed and his chest heaved. His lips puffed in and out with his audible breathing. He rocked back and forth in his chair, his mouth working wordlessly. Froth began to gather at the corner of his mouth.

“Holder Badgerlock! Sir! Please!” A shrill young voice full of anxiety. Out in the corridor, another outraged voice shouted, “You, boy, come back here! Don’t you dare go in there!”

I turned my head away just as Dixon collapsed to the floor. He twitched and shuddered. A fit. I’d had many in my lifetime. My conscience squirmed but I kicked it aside and left him jerking as I turned to see who had interrupted me.

It was Tallerman’s son. The stable boy with the unlikely name. His face was white and strained, and he carried one arm curled protectively against his chest. He darted toward me as the study door was snatched wide open by an outraged Bulen. Lant’s manservant had obviously dressed hurriedly, for his shirt was half-buttoned. “Your pardon, Holder Badgerlock. This boy is ill and half-mad, and this is how he repays our care of him! Young sir, come with me immediately, or risk being turned out in the morning.”

“Holder Badgerlock! Say you know me! Please, say you know me!” The boy’s voice had gone shrill and broken as Bulen advanced on him. He leaned away from Bulen’s grasping hand as he made his plea.

“Of course I know you. You’re Tallerman’s son, from the stables.” I turned to Bulen and spoke severely. “And it is not your place to turn out any of my people, Bulen!”

Bulen halted where he stood. He had not been long employed at Withywoods. I had assigned him to be Lant’s manservant. He was still learning his duties. And his place. He looked at me uncertainly as he protested, “Sir, the boy is a beggar, found injured and taken in. He insisted on speaking with Scribe FitzVigilant when we found him, and the scribe summoned a healer and has allowed him to stay in the classroom during his recovery. But he speaks wild and fearsome and . . .”

“Leave, Bulen. Take Dixon with you and put him in his bed. I’ll deal with the boy. Perseverance. That’s it, that’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Oh, thank the gods, you know me, I’m not mad! I’m not a beggar! Sir, sir, they came and they killed and burned, and I tried to get away with her, I got her on a horse and we rode, but they shot me and I fell. And I didn’t know any more until they were leaving and they went past me in a sleigh drawn by white horses and I saw Bee, all wrapped in white furs, in the sleigh. They took her, sir, and they left the stables afire, and no one here but me even tried to put out the flames. Some of the horses got out and some were stolen, I think, and some burned in their stalls. With my pa and grandpa’s bodies, sir! I saw them dead there! And my own ma does not know me and says she never had such a son as me! Oh, sir, they took Bee, they took her and no one knows me. No one!”

“I know you,” I said in a trembling voice. “I know you, boy. Oh, my Bee! Was she hurt? Who were they? Where did they go?”

But the lad had begun to shake as if he had an ague, and when I put my arms around him to steady him, he fell toward me, crying like a much younger child. I gathered him to my chest and held him, my thoughts racing. He spoke against my chest. “They shot me. I felt the arrow go right through me. Through my shoulder,” he sobbed. “I woke up under a cloak. Her cloak. She hid me with it, I think. I kept it. So fine and light. I was trying to save Bee and she saved me.”

My mind leapt. “A butterfly cloak.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Come over by the fire. Sit down.” I looked around. Bulen still stood in the doorway, eyes wide. Dixon lay on the floor, no longer jerking, but lying half-curled on his side, staring at nothing. “Bulen!” I snapped and the young man jumped. “See to Dixon. Take him to his bed. Then ask Scribe FitzVigilant to give me bandages and some of the salves Lord Chade gave him, if he has any left. Go quickly.”

“I can fetch the salves for you, if you wish.” That was Lant, holding on to the door frame with one hand. He looked pale and as his gaze took in Dixon on the floor, he demanded, “What is going on here? Is this boy bothering you with his wild tales?”

“Lant. Just the salves and bandages, please. Let Bulen deal with Dixon. He’s had some sort of fit.” Then I ignored all of them as I steered the stable lad toward the fire. I hooked a chair with one foot and dragged it close to the hearth. “Sit here, Perseverance. And let me see your injury.”

The boy sat down as soddenly as an armful of wet laundry. He hunched there, staring at the fire. I left him and went to the brandy. I poured a jot, tossed it down, then poured another and took it to the boy. “Drink this,” I told him. He didn’t respond. I leaned down to look in his face. He shifted his eyes to meet mine. I put the glass in his hand.

“They said I was a beggar. And crazy. My own ma wouldn’t let me in the door. I was all blood and she sent me up to the manor and wouldn’t take me in.” His voice rose higher and higher on each word until it ended in a strangled squeak.

I said the only words I had to comfort him. “I know you,” I said. “You are Perseverance, son of Tallerman, grandson of Tallman, and you worked in my stables. You cared for my daughter’s horse and you’ve been teaching her to ride. Drink that.”

He lifted the glass and smelled it. He took a sip, shuddered, but at a look from me drank the rest in a gulp. He gasped and took three breaths before he could speak. “What happened to them? What’s wrong with them? All of them? I told them Steward Revel was dead and they said, ‘Who’s Revel?’ I said, ‘They took Bee. We have to go after her!’ and they said they didn’t know her. And when I tried to go after her by myself, they accused me of trying to steal her horse.”

I refilled his glass. “You went after them?” Did he know where they’d taken her?

“I tried, sir. But the snow and the wind erased everything. I had to turn back. I was still bleeding. I’m so sorry, sir. I’m sorry I didn’t bring her back.”

“Perseverance, I don’t know what happened here, but we will puzzle it out. First you have to think back to the very beginning. I saw you watching us as we left for Oaksbywater. You were about to exercise a horse. Tell me everything from there. Every single thing. As it happened. Each and every thing you remember from that moment on. Go on. Drink the brandy. One gulp and it’s down. There. Oh, it wasn’t that bad, was it? Now. Talk to me. Just talk.”

I thudded a chair down facing him and sat, our knees almost touching. I focused myself on him, Wit and Skill. I felt almost nothing from him with my Skill-sense. Some folk were like that. But all of us live inside animals and even though I did not know him well, we had both loved Bee. So I did as Burrich had done so often to me, breathing calmness and safety at him, willing that he would smell and sense that I was here to protect him and he was safe. I forced my own body to relax as well, and I slowed my breathing. In a few moments, I saw his shoulders ease. Brandy and the Wit. “Just talk to me,” I suggested again. He nodded slowly.

He was well into describing a day of ordinary stable work when Lant brought the bandages and salves. I motioned the scribe to be silent and sit down. He was grateful to do so. As Perseverance spoke of his routine day and the tears for things lost rolled down his cheeks, I opened his shirt and looked at his shoulder. I doubted the bandage had been changed today. He winced as I peeled it off him. The wound was ugly. The arrow had gone through his shoulder, but not as cleanly as I’d hoped. His injury had been given all the careful attention that I’d expect most healers to devote to a beggar child.

I set out salves and bandaging and washed the wound front and back with wine. He gritted his teeth when I picked at a scrap of his shirt fabric working out of the wound. I got a grip on it and tugged it out. Blood followed. He looked down at it and went paler. “Keep talking,” I told him, and he recounted how a man had come with a donkey and cart and some abused bull-pups. I nodded, and washed his shoulder again with the wine.

I was pushing salve into the wounds when he told me what I didn’t know, which was how Lant and Lady Shun and Bee had returned late that night. Lant had escorted Shun into the house and left my Bee in the cold and snowy wagon. Lant’s brow wrinkled at the tale, and when the boy told of the house steward coming to carry her inside, Lant stood up and said stiffly, “I don’t know why you are listening to the boy. He’s either mad or malicious beyond explaining. I know nothing of a Lady Shun, nor a child named Bee. Call the house steward and see what Dixon has to say of this wild tale.”

“Sit down,” I said to Lant through gritted teeth. Something had been done to his mind, and I could forgive him not recalling Bee or Shun, but I could not forgive how he had left my child to the care of a stable boy and a house steward after I had placed her in his care. “Be absolutely silent. And, no, you are not dismissed to your room. Stay until I tell you that you may go.”

“Do you speak this way to me because I am a bastard? For my blood is just as good as yours and—”

“I doubt that. I am Prince FitzChivalry, as you well know, son of King-in-Waiting Chivalry Farseer, and now recognized as such by the king. So sit and be silent.”

Such a dark moment to flaunt my grand new status. He looked at me, uncertain how to react. Then he closed his lips. I took out my belt-knife and began to cut bandaging to the proper size. “You are truly him? The Witted Bastard?” Those words came from Perseverance. The boy’s eyes were wide.

“I am.”

I did not expect what he next said. A tremulous smile broke on his tearstained face. “He was right. He did know. My grandfather said as much, for he knew your father and said no one could be mistaken who had seen him. My father used to agree with him, but I think it was only so he would stop insisting on it. Sir, I am proud to serve you, as my family has served your family for generations. And here and now, I vow my loyalty to you. And to your daughter, Princess Bee. Forever and ever.”

“Thank you.” What else does one say when a boy promises his life and loyalty? I closed my heart to the storm of emotions his words woke in me and spoke soothingly. “Continue telling me what happened, Perseverance.”

“I mean it, sir.” A boy’s tender feelings that such an offer might be disdained as childishness rode in his words.

“I know you do.” I spoke severely. “And right now, I am holding you to it. I need what you are doing now. I need to know every bit of what you know. Keep talking.”

And so I heard of how he had gone to his lessons the next day, and my daughter had been there. He spoke of his conversation with Bee and how she had told him what I’d done. She’d been proud of me. Proud. I glanced at Lant as the lad spoke. His face was a mixture of emotions. Did he remember snatches of that day, scrubbed clean of Shun’s presence? But as Perseverance began to tell of the sounds they had heard and how Lant had gone to see what they were, the scribe began shaking his head again. I gave him a look and he stopped.

So I learned that Revel had spent the last moments of his life trying to save the Withywoods children. Truly, I’d never given the man the credit he deserved. And as the tale wound on, I heard of my Bee hiding the children where she had believed they would be safe, only to be deprived of that safety herself. Perseverance told me of the slaughter he’d seen in the stables, slain men sprawled with their throats cut as they did their daily chores, his own father and grandfather among them, and of stepping over bodies to saddle Priss, and the wild ride he and Bee had made in the hope of getting help.

His detailed account of the attack ended with the arrow. He had come to consciousness only in time to see them leaving with Bee. He had returned to the manor, to the stables still on fire and the folk he had known all his life denying that he had ever existed. I stopped him there. He had begun to shake as he spoke of it. “That’s enough. Let it go for now, Perseverance. I know the truth of your words. Now, I want you to think, but not speak, of the people you saw. Think about each one of them, and when you are ready tell me about them, one at a time.” This, I had been taught by Chade, was the best way to gain information from one who had not been trained to report as I had. A question such as Was he tall? or Was he bearded? could carry the untrained mind to imagining something that had not been there.

He was silent as I bandaged his shoulder. It was infected, but no worse than such wounds always were. When I had finished, I helped him with his shirt and then brought him food and another jot of brandy. “Drink that first. Down in a gulp. Then you can eat while you talk to me.”

He took the brandy down, gasped and choked even more than he had on the first two, and quickly took a piece of bread to clear the taste from his mouth. I waited. He was as close to drunk as I wanted him, his thoughts wide and unguarded. And he told me what I would expect a stable boy to notice. White horses, with peculiar flat saddles, and big horses suited for men who might wear chain mail. Saddles on the big horses that sounded almost Chalcedean in design.

They spoke a foreign tongue. I asked no question, but he told me of a man on a horse who shouted, “Krintzen, krintzen!” over and over.

Kar inte jhen. Chalcedean for “sit down.”

Chalcedeans in Buck. A raiding force? One that had crossed Shoaks Duchy and Farrow to raid an isolated manor in Buck? Why? To steal my daughter? It made no sense. Not until he told me that a pleasant-faced woman was with them, seeking a pale boy or young man. Then I knew what they had come seeking. The Unexpected Son, the child whom the Fool’s messenger had urged me to find and protect. I still had no idea who or where that lad might be, but the puzzle began to make sense. Hostages to exchange. Who better to take than the daughter of the house and a noble lady?

When he spoke of how markedly pale some of the younger invaders were, the ones who wielded no weapons but aided those who did, when he spoke of their light hair and pale eyes and their pale garments, my blood ran cold. Were these the messenger’s pursuers? Of course they were. She had said she was being hunted. The Fool’s wild warnings were suddenly solid and real. These pale folk must be Servants from Clerres. As the Fool had warned me, the Servants had been tracking the messenger. And following him as well? Would they want to recover the Fool as well as find this Unexpected Son? Did they think I had found and concealed him at Withywoods and so sought him there? But what were they doing with Chalcedeans? Were they mercenaries in their hire? How had they come so far and deep into Buck Duchy without being reported to anyone? There was a regular patrol that rode the king’s highways, mostly to discourage highwaymen, but also to take reports of unusual events. A troop of horse of that size, ridden by obvious foreigners, would certainly have been reported to them. If people remembered seeing them.

“That’s all I remember, sir.” The boy looked drained. And suddenly appeared as tired as I felt. I doubted that he had been sleeping well.

I sorted the information I had and tried to find sense in it. They would have taken Bee and Shun as hostages. They would want the Unexpected Son in trade for them. I did not have him, but I did have the Fool. Could I use him as bait to lure them in? Did he have the strength to agree to such a gambit?

And then my logic fell into discordant pieces. If Bee was a hostage, their power was in dangling her before me, not vanishing without a trace and clouding the memories of those they left behind. Unless they had a stronghold close by, a secure place from which to negotiate. What would I do in their place? Take the hostages to the Chalcedean border or the seacoast? Negotiate from there, demand that we bring the Unexpected Son there? Perhaps. “Eat some food. I’ll be back in a moment.” I turned and pointed a finger at Lant. “Stay there. I want to talk to you.”

He didn’t say a word.

As I walked down the corridor to the chamber that had been Bee’s nursery, the enormity of the disaster suddenly swept through me. I staggered to one side and caught myself on the wall. I stood for a moment, my vision black at the edges. Then with a surge I slashed at my weakness, damning it for daring to overcome me just when I most needed to be calm and rational. Emotion must be contained until I had all the information I needed with which to plan a course of action. Now was not the time to hate myself or give in to useless wishes for what I should have, might have, could have done. There was only the now, and I must be keen and remorseless if I was to find and follow their trail. I entered the nursery. Here, at least, no one had bothered to toss furniture and search for plunder. Perhaps no one had hidden here, perhaps the room had been missed. Why couldn’t Bee have hidden here and been safe? Useless question.

I found cushions and a blanket and went back to my study. I threw them down on the hearth, refusing to feel anything about Molly’s pretty things so roughly used. I pointed at them. “Perseverance. After you’ve eaten, rest there. Try to sleep. If you recall anything more, no matter how trivial it might seem, I want to hear it.”

“Sir,” he said. He put his attention back on the food, hunching over it like a half-starved hound. He’d probably been unable to eat much the last few days. Now he would eat and then he’d be able to sleep. I looked at him for a moment. Fatherless, unknown to his mother, and I was the only one in his world who remembered his name. Mine now, sworn to me. First vassal for the bastard prince. So fitting, somehow.

I seized my chair, dragged it across the room, and sat down facing Lant. I’d moved so close that he had to sit up straight to avoid his sprawled legs tangling with mine as I sat down. “It’s your turn. Tell me everything you remember from the time I cut the dog’s throat.”

He stared at me and then licked his lips. “We had gone to town. And a man was cruel to his dog, so you knocked him down and gave the dog a quick death.”

“Why had we gone to town, Lant?”

I watched his face, saw his mind skip and jump, finding what he was allowed to recall. “To get some more tablets for my students.”

I nodded. “Then we went to the inn to eat. And both Riddle and I left in a hurry. Why?”

He swallowed. “You didn’t say.”

I nodded again. I moved toward him, not with my body, but first with my Wit, sensing him as another living creature, and then with my Skill. I did not know if I could push into his mind, but I suspected someone had. I recalled a brief conversation I’d had with Chade. He’d asked me if I thought the Skill could be used to make a man forget something. I’d told him I didn’t want to consider ever using the magic that way. Both times I’d seen it done had been disastrous for me. When my father, Chivalry, had made the Skillmaster Galen forget how much he hated him, the man had turned his hatred for my father onto his son. The irony was that Galen had used the magic in a similar way on me. He’d invaded my mind and left me “misted,” as Verity had put it. Galen had used his Skill to convince me that I had little talent for the magic. Even after my king had done his best to clear the clouds from my mind, I’d never had full confidence in my abilities again. I’d always wondered if that forced forgetting had been what made my Skill-magic so erratic.

I didn’t want to invade the man’s mind. But my repeated questioning of Dixon had not given me any information and had pushed him into a seizure. I couldn’t risk that with Lant. From what Perseverance had told me, Lant had taken that stab wound when he’d been held captive with the others in the carriageway. Did that mean he’d tried to fight them? Perhaps that was where I should begin.

“Let me see your injury,” I requested.

He startled and leaned back from me. “The healer has treated it. It’s healing as well as could be expected.”

“And what did he say it looked like?”

“It’s a puncture. From a tine.”

“Or a blade. He said it looked like a sword-thrust, didn’t he?”

His eyes went very wide. He began to shake his head, a small denial at first and then a more frantic one.

“Sir? Prince FitzChivalry Farseer?”

I turned my attention from him to the man who stood in the doorway, startled at how he had named me. He was young, scarcely past his teens, and dressed in the livery of a royal messenger. His nose and the tops of his cheeks were bright red with cold, and he looked exhausted. “Sildwell,” I greeted him.

He looked mildly surprised that I knew his name. “Yes. They told me to come back here and talk to you.”

I heaved a sigh. “Come in, get warm by the fire, and please start this conversation as if you have at least a little training as a messenger.”

“It’s the fog,” he said. He walked to the fire and stood beside Perseverance. “It makes it hard to care. All I want to do is sleep and not think about anything.” I became aware the boy had curled up and was deeply asleep on the floor. The messenger looked down at him, glanced at the glowering FitzVigilant, and then stood straighter. Reaching into the satchel at his side, he took out the baton that proclaimed him a true messenger. He held it as he spoke. “Sir, I bring you tidings from Lord Chade of Buckkeep Castle. I was to deliver these tidings and gifts to Lady Bee, Lady Shun, and Scribe FitzVigilant of Withywoods. But on arriving here, I was told that two of those recipients were unknown here. I endeavored to Skill this information to Lord Chade to request his further instructions. Although I am not highly Skilled, I have never encountered difficulties with the simple relaying of information. This time, however, I was not able to make myself understood. I next undertook to send a messenger bird. I asked for one to be brought to me and was told the manor had no such birds. I knew that was untrue. I found all the birds dead on the floor of the pigeon-house. Throttled, their necks broken. No one had even cleared the bodies away. When I endeavored to bring this to the attention of the steward, he said that the manor had no pigeon-house. He said this as he stood looking at it with me.

“I believe you were with the others when Lady Nettle attempted to Skill to me. You already know how little success we had. After a long and frustrating day of disbelief and lies, I decided to go down to Withy and have a glass of ale. My insistence that I had a message for two nonexistent ladies had not made me the most welcome fellow here. But as I rode, the fog and heaviness that seemed to fill the air began to dissipate. By the time I reached Withy, I was able to communicate clearly with Lord Chade and the King’s Own Coterie. They directed me to return here as swiftly as possible and say that Thick and Lord Chade hope to arrive here by morning. He directed me to arrange to have mounts waiting for them at the Judgment Stone on Gallows Hill as soon as there is daylight. So I did.” He looked uneasy for a moment. “I feared no one here would obey me, so I hired horses in Withy, to be taken to Gallows Hill in the morning. I said you would pay very well.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Will Lady Nettle not accompany Lord Chade and Thick?”

He raised his brows. “Sir, I was told she is with child. Hence she cannot use the pillars.”

“And why not?”

“It was in a recent translation that Lord Chade brought to our attention. Perhaps you have not heard of it. A pregnant Skill-user who moves through the stones often emerges, er, unpregnant.”

“She miscarries her child?”

“No, sir. It’s darker than that. Her pregnancy vanishes. There are two accounts of it happening. And a third account of a fine mare that was led through a Skill-portal to be serviced by a stallion. Close to her time to bear, she was taken home again, but emerged from the Skill-pillar empty-wombed.”

Cold rose in me. I had never heard of such a thing. It came to me again that we knew nothing of how the portals worked. An unborn child vanished. To where? How? It didn’t matter in some ways. Gone was gone. I spoke faintly. “Thank Eda Chade found that scroll!”

“Yes, sir. So Lady Nettle will stay behind. Lord Chade and Thick will come here to experience this fog I’ve described. And perhaps to see if Thick can prevail against it.”

I tried not to feel hope. I dreaded seeing Chade and telling him that I had no idea what had become of Shun. Time to dig a bit more. I rang for a servant and waited. When some small time had passed, I stepped out into the hall and shouted for Bulen. As I reentered the room, FitzVigilant asked, “Are you finished with me? Can I go back to my bed now? I am not well, as you can see.”

I tried to speak kindly. “I can see that, Lant. And I see something that you cannot. Your mind has been hazed. Things have happened here in the last few days that you can no longer recall. You know what the Skill-magic is; you’ve heard of it. Someone has used the Skill or something very like it to confuse you. You walk past carpet stained with blood and doors that have been battered open, and you see nothing odd. Servants have been slaughtered and you do not miss them. Two of our household are missing. Lady Bee, my young daughter, has been taken, and Lady Shun has vanished. I don’t know if she was killed and her body burned in the stable fire, or if she is also kidnapped.” My voice had begun to shake. I paused and took several long breaths. “Tonight I will try to find out if anyone in our household recalls any detail of that night. For that sleeping lad is truly a stable boy born and bred here, the third generation of his family to serve mine. And he spoke the truth, a truth you cannot remember.”

FitzVigilant’s face had grown more and more still as I spoke. Halfway through my speech, he had begun to shake his head. When I had finished, he sat back in his chair and folded his arms on his chest. “Holder Badgerlock, you sound as mad as he does.”

“I’m sure I do. But I assure you, I am not. Where is Bulen?”

“Gone back to bed, I imagine. As I wish I could.”

I wanted to strike him. Then, as swiftly as the hot anger had come, it drained out of me. He could not help how clouded his mind was. I looked at Sildwell. “It’s hopeless,” he said. “Perhaps Lord Chade and Thick will be able to get through to him. But I have never felt anything like this myself. As if I think and move through a thick soup of weariness and discouragement.”

I was silent for a moment. “I thought it was only me,” I said.

He shook his head. “No. The farther I got from this place, the more my spirits lifted and my mind cleared. Making myself come back was difficult. I simply did not want to travel up the road. It’s like someone placed a magical spell over all of Withywoods to discourage visitors.”

“Maybe they did,” I wondered grudgingly. I looked at FitzVigilant and tried to make my voice kind. “Go to bed, Lant. I’m sorry for all that has befallen you, for what you know and what you don’t know. Go to bed and sleep while you can. Tomorrow will be a long and weary day for all of us.”

Lant needed no more urging. He rose and glared at me with narrowed eyes. “Woken in the middle of the night to be insulted and ordered about. This is not why I came here.”

He was angry. As I would have been angry, I imagine. I tried to keep my voice level. “If you could remember that Nettle and Chade actually sent you here as a tutor for young Lady Bee . . .” Then I gave it up as hopeless.

He turned from me and went out the door without a word. I turned to Sildwell. “Did they give you a chamber?”

“They did.”

“Then I suggest you get what rest you can as well.”

“Thank you, sir.” He tipped his head toward the brandy. “Would you mind if I took that with me for company?”

He was certainly not a shy fellow. Appalling manners indeed. I liked him. “Go ahead. And thank you for all you have done today.”

“You’re welcome, sir. But I shall be very happy to leave your home as soon as I possibly can.” He sketched me a bow and hooked the bottle of brandy on his way to the door.

I sat down in the chair that Lant had vacated and stared at the fire. I could not feel anything. I tried to find my heartache over Bee, my anger at what had happened, but not even my guilt came to torment me. Discouragement as thick as soup. I felt useless, helpless, and weary. Sildwell was right. A cloud of dullness and discouragement hung over Withywoods. Sadness was all I could provoke in myself. I should be furious. I should thirst for vengeance. Instead I thought of killing myself. No. Not yet. I rose and covered the stable boy more warmly. My vassal.

I took a candle and wandered the halls. I went first to my own room, but could not settle there. I went again to Lady Shun’s room, but if there were clues in that disorder, they escaped me. I did not like the woman, but I had no desire to see her kidnapped or dead and burned. I went to Bee’s room. Among the scattered possessions, I glimpsed the seashells we had bought for her strewn across the floor. And the warm red shawl sprawled across a chair. The kerchiefs she had intended for Revel rested undisturbed on a table by her bed. She’d never had the pleasure of gifting them to him.

I left her room and drifted through the halls until I came to my ruined study. I entered and almost thought of building a fire and ordering my thoughts by writing them down. Instead, I triggered the secret door and returned to Bee’s tiny hidden chamber. As I turned the corner to enter it, my Wit told me that someone awaited me there. I felt a sudden leap of hope, only to confront a small black cat blinking resentfully at my candlelight. He was curled on the cushions in perfect ease and regarded me as an annoying but unimportant intruder. We looked at each other.

She’s not here.

She is Bee?

The girl who promised me fish and sausage if I would catch rats and mice for her.

I contained my impatience. Someone stole her. Can you tell me about the people who took her?

They took all the fish. And the sausages, too.

I noticed that. What else?

Some of them stank. Some did not.

I waited for a time. Cats themselves may be very chatty, but they seem to resent it in anyone else. Cats like listeners. But when he had sat regarding me for some time, I dared to ask, Anything else?

They came for her. The ones that did not stink.


A silence fell between us. My question went unanswered. Finally I said aloud, “I wonder if they found all the fish and sausages? I think I shall go down to the pantry to find out.”

I took my shortened candle and left him, eeling my way through the wandering passages. I stepped over the gnawed bread, and took up one of the fallen candles and kindled it from my failing one. It had been nibbled by mice, but not badly. I listened at the door before pushing it open and emerging into the storage room. The sacks of beans and peas and grains had been left. The raiders had taken meat and fish, the two supplies that any traveler depletes first. Could I deduce anything from that?

Gone. Confirmed the cat.

“Do you care for cheese at all? Or butter?”

The cat looked at me speculatively. I pushed the door to the labyrinth closed and went down a short stairway into the cold-room, lined with stone. Here on shelves were crocks of summer butter and wheels of cheese. Either the raiders had not fancied these or they had not discovered the cold-room. I took out my belt-knife and carved a wedge of cheese. As I did so, I became aware that I was hungry. I felt shamed by that. My child and Lady Shun had vanished from Withywoods. Carried off by brutes into the cold and dark. How could I feel such ordinary things as hunger? Or sleepiness?

Yet I did.

I pared off another generous wedge and went back to the kitchen. The cat followed me and when I sat down at the table, he leapt up on it. He was a handsome fellow, very tidy in black and white, the picture of health save for the kink in his tail. I broke off a chunk of the cheese and set it down before him. By the time I returned to the table with a piece of bread and a mug of ale, he had finished it and hooked a second slab toward himself. I ignored that. We ate together and I tried to be patient. What could a cat know, I wondered, that would do me any good?

He finished before I did and sat cleaning his whiskers and dabbing at his face. When I set my mug down on the table, he stopped and looked at me. The ones that didn’t stink had no scent of their own at all.

A shiver ran up my spine. The Scentless One, my wolf had called the Fool. Because he had no scent. And he was invisible to my Wit. Would that be true of all folk with White in their bloodlines?

Once they had her, they stopped killing. They took only her. And one other.

I did not appear too interested. I rose and went back to the cold-room. I emerged with more cheese. I sat down at the table, broke off a respectable piece, and placed it before the cat. He looked down at it, then up at me. They took a woman.

Lady Shun.

I do not bother with the names of humans. But that might have been her name. He bent his head to eat his cheese.

“The girl who promised you fish and sausages. Did they . . . hurt her?”

He finished part of the cheese, sat up, and then suddenly decided to groom his front claws. I waited. After a time, he looked up at me. I scratched her once. Hard. She took it. He hunched over the remainder of the cheese. Pain is not the thing she fears. I teetered between feeling comforted and horrified. I left him eating and went back to the estate study. The boy did not stir as I put the last of the wood into the fire. With a sigh, I took up Chade’s wet cloak and the lantern I’d earlier taken from the door servant. I lit it again and carried it down the hall.

My errand had been firewood, but when I stepped outside into the clear night, my mind cleared. The bite of the cold seized me and the terrible lassitude that was misting my mind receded a bit in the physical discomfort. I walked instead to the burnt ruin of my stables. As I did so, I crossed the drive in front of Withywoods. Snow had fallen recently. There were no tracks to read. I moved in wide circles around the stable and then between the house and stables, looking for sleigh tracks. But the fresh snow had gentled all tracks to dimples. The tracks the runners had left were indistinguishable from the marks of the carts and wagons we used on the estate. I walked through the darkness down the long drive that led up to Withy. Somewhere Per had bled and somewhere Bee had been captured. But I found no traces of either event. I found my horse’s tracks, and the hoofprints of Sildwell’s horse. No others. No one else had come this way for days. Falling snow and wind had softened all traces of the raiders’ passage as smoothly as whatever magic had misted my people’s memories of them.

I stood for a time staring off into the darkness as the wind chilled and stiffened my body. Where had they taken my child and why? What good was it to be a prince if he was as helpless as a penniless bastard?

I turned and walked slowly up the carriageway to the manor, feeling as if I breasted an icy winter storm. I did not want to go to this place. With every step, I felt more downhearted. I went slowly to one of the firewood stacks and filled a sling of my cloak with enough wood for what remained of the night. My steps dragged as I carried it up the steps of my home.

Chapter Twelve

The Shaysim

Corioa, the first Servant, wrote thus of his White Prophet: “He is not the first to come, nor will he be the last. For to every generation is given one who walks among us and, by virtue of his ability to see all the possibilities, guides us to the best future there may be. I have chosen to call myself his Servant, and to record the dreams of my pale master, and to keep count of the ways in which he makes the crooked path straight and safe.”

So Corioa was the first to name himself Servant. Some think he was also Terubat’s Catalyst. As to that, the records from that day are so fragmented that this Servant thinks it an unsafe assumption.

And contrary to many Servants who have gone before me, and been the primary recorders of the deeds of the White Prophet of their days, I will state clearly what some may rebuke me for. Must there be only one? And if this is so, who determines who that single White Prophet is from among those who show us a pale face and colorless eyes? And exactly when, pray tell, does a “generation” begin and end?

I ask these questions not to spread discord or doubt, but only to plead that we Servants open our eyes as wide as those of the White Prophets we serve. Let us admit there are many, many futures. At countless crossroads, the future becomes the past and an infinite number of possibilities die as an infinite number are born.

So let us no longer call the pale child Shaysa, Who Is the One, as we used to name him in our most ancient tongue. Let us call him Shaysim, Who May Be the One.

Let us no longer be blind to our own vision. Let us recognize that when the Servants select, as we must, the Shaysa, then we have determined the fate of the world.

—Servant Cetchua, of the 41st Line

We traveled.

They were a bigger group than I had thought. There were the soldiers, about twenty of them, and Dwalia’s followers, also about twenty. I rode in the big sleigh, and we followed two other smaller ones full of supplies. The soldiers and Dwalia’s followers rode horseback. We traveled by night for the most part. We did not move quickly, for we avoided the king’s highway, instead crossing pastures and following wandering farm roads. We seemed to skirt forest and cross unsettled land, avoiding the farmsteads I sometimes glimpsed. Darkness and cold and the steady thudding beat of the trotting team filled my senses. At other times, the team dragged us through unbroken snow, surging forward with the sleigh sawing and tipping behind them.

I felt cold all the time, even when I was well bundled in furs and robes. When they put up the tents during the day and told me to sleep, I was so cold I could not relax my muscles. Yet the cold I felt had nothing to do with my body. I think it was the same cold that had stilled Shun. She was still as ice on a lake. Even when she moved, she walked like a stiffened corpse. She didn’t speak and scarcely tended to herself. One of Dwalia’s girls took it upon herself to drape Shun in a heavy white fur coat. The same girl, Odessa, would put food into her hands or push a mug of hot soup into her grip. Then sometimes Shun would eat and sometimes she would sit and hold the mug until the hot soup went scummy and cold. Odessa would take the mug and dump the soup back into the shared pot. And Shun, cold and empty, would crawl across the blankets and skins back to the far corner of the tent.

Odessa had long dark hair that was thin, and patchy, pale white skin, and eyes the color of sour milk. One of her eyes wandered in its socket. Her bottom lip sagged open. It was hard for me to look at her. She looked diseased, and yet she moved as if she were healthy and strong. She sang softly as she rode her white horse by our sleigh, and sometimes laughed aloud with her companions at night. Yet there was a wrongness about her, as if she had been born half-finished. I tried not to stare at her. It seemed that whenever I did turn my head to look at her, her wandering eye was already gazing at me.

By day, we camped in the forest, usually well away from the road. Even in the darkest night, when snow fell and the wind blew, the teams and the riders pushed on. One of the pale folk was always at the front, and they followed her without question. A dim part of my mind speculated that they were retracing their steps, returning as they had come. I tried to wonder where they had come from, and why, but my thoughts were as thick as cold porridge.

White. There was so much white. We traveled through a world cloaked in white. Snow fell almost daily, softening and smoothing the land. When the wind blew, it sculpted the snow into flows and mounds as pale as the faces of Dwalia’s followers. Their tents were white, and many of the robes and blankets were white, and the fogs that seemed to billow and bloom around us as we traveled were white. Their horses were white and fog gray. My eyes were always weary. I had to peer to make the shapes of the people separate from the general whiteness of the icy world.

They spoke to one another, but their conversations flowed past me and made no more sense than the sound of the sleigh’s runners sliding over the snow. The language they spoke rippled and flowed, the words running into one another as their voices trilled up and down, as if they sang their words to one another. I learned a few of their names, but only by repetition. The name they gave to me was Shaysim, a whispery, shivery sort of a sound. Either few of them spoke my language or they did not think it worth trying to speak to me. They talked above me and around me as they chivvied me from the sled and into the tent and back again. They put bowls of food into my hands and then took them away. They gave me almost no privacy, though they had the decency to allow Shun and me to move away from them when the pressure of bladder or bowel had to be answered.

Since I had spoken out for Shun, they had not questioned that I wanted her beside me at all times. I chose to sleep beside her, and during the day she rode near me in the big sleigh. Sometimes Dwalia and Odessa and the fog man, Vindeliar, rode with us. Sometimes they rode horses, or one of them would sit up front next to the driver. I did not like them to be near me, yet I felt safer when they rode in the sleigh. They spoke to one another in low voices, making a harmony with the sound of the creaking harness, hooves, and shushing runners. When they were not there, the dark pressed closer. Several times I came out of my daze to realize that soldiers were riding alongside our sleigh. Some of them stared at Shun as if they were dogs circling an abandoned table, trying to decide if they dared snatch a bone left on a plate. She did not seem to see them, but they made my blood run cold. There was one with hair the color of ripe acorns; he was the one I noticed most often because once or twice he moved up to ride alone by the sleigh. The others always came in pairs or as a trio, to stare at Shun and talk and laugh in short, harsh bursts. They would stare at her for a time, or me. I would try to stare back at them, but it was hard when my thoughts were so woolly and soft. Soon their faces would soften, their mouths sometimes hanging slightly ajar, and then they would drop back to join the soldiers that rode behind us. The fog boy did that to them, I think.

We traveled through the long winter nights, in the darkest hours when most folk were asleep. Twice, as we emerged from forest toward a country road, I saw other folk riding past us. I saw them, but I did not think they saw us. Into my mind drifted the old tales, of worlds that brushed against ours but only touched for a moment. It was like that, as if a pane of misty glass separated us. It never occurred to me that I should cry out for help. This was my life now, sitting in Dwalia’s sleigh and being carried off through a snowy world. My life had been placed in a narrow track and I moved on it as surely as a hound following a scent.

Shun and I shared a corner of the big tent at night. I would have welcomed her back against mine, for even on the mounded furs and beneath the heavy robes, I felt cold. I think Shun felt at least as cold as I did, but when I once rolled against her in my sleep, she gave a short, sharp shriek that woke me, Dwalia, and Odessa. Shun did not say anything, but she moved as far away from me as she could, taking most of the furs with her. I didn’t complain. It was not a thing to question, any more than I questioned the thin, dark soup that accompanied every meal, or the way that Odessa groomed my scruff of hair and rubbed lotions into my hands and feet at dawn before we went to bed. Her hands were cold and so was the lotion, but I could not find the will to resist her. “So your skin will not crack, Shaysim,” she would say, her words soft and wet from her mouth that never quite closed. Her touch chilled me as if Death herself caressed my hands.

So the harsh days quickly became routine. Captivity dazed me. I did not ask questions or speak to my captors. I rode in silence, too full of confusion to object to being stolen. We would halt, and I would be left in the sleigh while Dwalia’s helpers scurried around us like ants. Fires were built and tents erected. Ellik’s raiders had their own tents and their own camp a short distance from ours. Dwalia’s people cooked and took food to them in a three-legged pot, but the soldiers and the pale folk never ate together. I wondered vaguely if Captain Ellik kept them separate from us or if Dwalia insisted on it. When the food was ready, I was summoned from the sleigh. They fed me, we all slept during the short winter day, and as each evening deepened, we rose, ate again, and journeyed on.

On a snowy dawn several days into our journey, I finished the food in my bowl. I did not want the thin brown brew they gave me to drink but it was warm and I was thirsty. I drank it, and almost as soon as I swallowed the last of it I felt my stomach protest. I rose and followed Shun, who evidently had the same mission. She led me some small distance from the camp to an area of bushes cloaked in snow. I squatted behind them to relieve myself when she suddenly spoke to me from close by. “You have to be more careful. They think you are a boy.”

“What?” I was as startled that she finally spoke as at her words.

“Sshh! Speak softly. When you come with me to piss. You should stand for a time and fumble at your trousers as if you are pissing, then walk a short way and squat to do the real thing. They all believe you are a boy, someone’s lost son. That’s the only thing that saved you, I think.”

“Saved me?”

“From what happened to me.” She bit off each word savagely. “From the raping and beating. If they find out you are not a boy, not the lost son, they’ll do it to you, too. Before they kill us both.”

My heart pounded high up in my chest and throat. I felt as if I could not get a breath.

“I know what you are thinking, but you’re wrong. You are not too young for it to happen to you. I saw one of them chasing one of the kitchen girls after they came out of whatever place they had hidden in. I heard her scream.”

“Who?” I pushed the word out on the small puff of air left in me.

“I don’t know their names,” she spat at me, as if I’d insulted her by insinuating she might know the names of servants. “And what does it matter now? It happened to her. It happened to me. They came into my room. One seized my jewelry box. Two others came after me. I threw things at them and screamed and hit them. My maid fought, but only for a moment. Then she stood like a cow and watched when they attacked me. She didn’t make a sound when they pushed her down on the floor and took her. It took two of them to hold me down. I fought them.” A tiny bit of pride in those words, and then it became ash as she choked. “But they laughed while they did it to me. Mocked me because they were stronger. Afterward, they dragged me out to be with the others. The only reason it didn’t happen to you was because they think you’re a boy and special somehow.” She looked away from me. How angry she was at me, that they had not hurt me as they had hurt her! She stood slowly, letting her skirts fall around her. “You probably think I should thank you for saving me. Well, I’m not sure you did. Maybe that last man would have left me alive, and at least I’d still be at home. Now, when they find out you’re female, I think we’ll both face a lot worse.”

“Can we get away?”

“How? Look. That woman stands and watches where we’ve gone. If we don’t come back soon, she’ll send someone after us. And when else can we slip away?”

My belly did not like their food, but there was nothing to wipe myself with. I braced myself, took a handful of snow, and cleaned my bottom with that before pulling my leggings back up. Shun watched me dispassionately with no regard for my privacy. “It’s that brown soup,” she said.


“Can you say something besides ‘what’ or ‘who’? The brown soup they give us. It goes right through you. I started pretending to drink it yesterday. Then I didn’t fall asleep right away. It has something in it to make you sleep so they can rest during the day and not have to watch us.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Training,” she said tersely. “Before I came to live with you, I had some training. Lord Chade saw to that. He sent this awful old woman named Quiver to teach me all sorts of things. How to throw a knife. Where to hit someone who grabs you. Chade said she was preparing me to be an assassin. I don’t think she did very well at it, but I do know how to protect myself.” She stopped speaking and her face sagged. “A little,” she amended.

I didn’t point out that she hadn’t done very well at that back at the manor. No sense stinging her pride. I wanted to know more, but I heard Dwalia call to one of her helpers and point toward us.

“Pretend to be sleepy. Droop your eyes and walk slowly behind me. And don’t try to talk to me unless I talk to you first. They can’t know.”

I nodded, folding my lips tight. I wanted to tell her that I could be just as alert and wary as she was, just as clever at knowing when it was safe for us to talk. But Shun had already let her face droop into that unresponsive mask she had been wearing since she was hauled to the sleigh. I wondered if she had been pretending all that time. A wave of panic rose up in me. I wasn’t as perceptive as she was. I’d heard them saying I was a boy, but hadn’t had the will to care that they were wrong. Nor the experience to be afraid they would find out I wasn’t who or what they thought I was. I hadn’t feared what would happen when they found out. Now I did. My heart was leaping and thudding. The brown soup tried to make me sleepy and my fear tried to make me be awake. How could I look sleepy when I could scarcely catch my breath?

Shun stumbled, or pretended to stumble against me. As she caught herself on my shoulder, she pinched me hard. “Sleepy,” she warned me on a breath. Her mouth barely moved.

“Shaysim, are you well? Did your bowels move in a satisfactory way?” Odessa spoke as if chatting about my bowels were as courteous a topic as the weather.

I shook my head at her and put my hands low on my belly. I felt sick with fear. Perhaps I could disguise fear as discomfort. “I just want to sleep,” I told her.

“Yes, that’s a good idea. Yes. I will tell Dwalia of your bowel problem. She will give you an oil for that.”

I didn’t want her to give me anything. I bowed my head and walked slightly bent over so no one could look into my face. The tents were awaiting us. Their roofs were rounded on their half-hoops, the canvas bleached white, and I supposed that from a distance they could have been mistaken for mounds of snow. Yet we had not bothered to move that far from the road, and the horses were hobbled and pawing up the snow, searching for frozen grass. Any passing traveler would surely note them, and the brightly painted sleighs. And the tents of the soldiers were brown and pointed, and their horses a mix of colors. So why bother disguising our tents? Something niggled at me about it, and then as I drew closer, a wave of sleepiness spread over me. I yawned hugely. It would be good to rest. To get into my warm blankets and sleep.

Shun was plodding along beside us. As we drew closer to our tent, I became aware of several soldiers watching us. Hogen, the handsome rapist, still sat his horse. His long golden hair was smoothly braided, his mustache and beard carefully combed. He smiled. He had silver hoops in his ears and a silver clasp to his cloak. Was he keeping watch? He looked down at us, a predator watching prey, and said something in a low voice. Standing near Hogen’s horse was a warrior with half a beard; his cheek and chin on the other side were sliced like a pared potato, and not a whisker grew out of the smooth scar. He smiled at Hogen’s jest but the young soldier with the hair as brown as ripe acorns just followed Shun with dog’s eyes. I hated them all.

A growl bubbled up in my throat. Odessa turned her face sharply toward me and I forced a belch up. “Pardon,” I said, trying to sound sleepy, embarrassed, and uncomfortable.

“Dwalia can help you, Shaysim,” she comforted me.

Shun moved past us and into the tent, trying to move as if she were still dead to all things, but I had seen the tightening in her shoulders when the gawking soldiers had spoken. She was a small cat walking bravely past snuffing hounds. By the time I stood in the entrance, shedding my snowy boots, Shun had burrowed under the blankets and was out of sight.

I was very certain I did not want Dwalia to help me with anything. The woman frightened me. She had an ageless face, round and yet lined. She could have been thirty or even older than my father. I couldn’t tell. She was as plump as a fattened hen; even her hands were soft. If I had met her as a guest in my home, I would have guessed she was someone’s genteel mother or grandmother, a woman who had seldom done physical work. Every word she had spoken to me had been in a kindly voice, and even when she had rebuked her followers in my hearing, she had sounded grieved at their failure rather than angered by it.

Yet I feared her. Everything about her set Wolf-Father to snarling. Not noisy growling but the silent lifting of the lip that made the hair on the back of my neck prickle. Since the night they had taken me, even in my foggiest moments I was aware that Wolf-Father was with me. He could do nothing to help me, but he was with me. He was the one who counseled silence, who bade me conserve strength and watch and wait. I would have to help myself, but he was there. When the only comfort one has is a thin comfort, one still clings to it.

Strange to say, despite Shun’s whispered words, I still felt that I was the one more competent to deal with our situation. What she had said had woken me to a danger I had not considered, but had not given me the sense that she was going to be the one to save us. If anyone could save us. No. Instead her words had sounded to me as if she bragged, not to impress me but to bolster her own hopes. Assassin’s training. I’d seen small sign of that in her during our weeks together at Withywoods. Instead I had seen her as vain and shallow, focused on obtaining as many pretty things and delightful distractions as coin could buy. I’d seen her wailing and weeping in terror at the supposed moaning of a ghost that was actually a trapped cat. And I’d seen her flirting with FitzVigilant and attempting to do the same with Riddle and even, I felt, my father. All in the name of getting what she wanted. Flaunting her beauty to attract attention.

And then men had come and turned her own weapons against her. The beauty and charm and pretty clothes she had deployed to her own ends could not save her from them. Indeed, they had made her a target. I wondered now if beautiful women were not more vulnerable, more likely to be chosen as victims by such men. I turned it over in my mind. Rape, I knew, was injury and pain and insult. I did not know the full mechanics of it, but one does not have to know swordplay to understand a stab wound. Shun had been hurt, and badly. So badly that she was willing to accept me as some sort of ally. I had thought I was helping her when I had claimed her that night. Now I wondered if, indeed, I had dragged her out of the frying pan and down into the flames with me.

I tried to think of skills that might save us. I could fight with a knife. A little bit. If I could get one. And if there was only one person to fight. I knew something they didn’t know. They spoke to me as if I were a much younger child. I had not said anything to correct them. I had not said much to any of them, at all. That might be useful. I could not think how, but it was a secret I knew that they did not. And secrets could be weapons. I had read that, or heard that. Somewhere.

The sleepiness rolled over me again, putting blurred edges on the world. Something in the soup, or the fog man, or both. Don’t struggle, Wolf-Father warned me. Don’t let them know that you know.

I took a deep breath and feigned a yawn that suddenly became real. Odessa was crawling into the tent behind me. I spoke in a sleepy voice. “They look at Shun in a bad way. Those men. They give me dark dreams. Cannot Dwalia make them stay away?”

“Dark dreams,” Odessa said in soft dismay.

I held very still inside myself. Had I gone too far? She said nothing more and I dropped to my knees, crawled across the spread bedding, and burrowed under it adjacent to Shun. Beneath the blankets, I wriggled out of the bulky fur coat, crawling out the bottom instead of unbuttoning it, and bundled it into a pillow. I closed my eyes almost all the way and let my breathing slow. I watched her through my eyelashes. Odessa stood still for a long time, watching me. I felt she was deciding something.

She went away, letting the tent flap drop behind her. That was unusual. Usually when Shun and I settled to sleep, Odessa lay down beside us. We were seldom out of her sight, save when Dwalia was watching over us. Now we were alone. I wondered if that meant it was our chance to escape. It might be. It might be our only chance. But my body was warming, and I felt heavy. My thoughts moved more and more slowly. I raised my hand beneath the covers and reached for Shun. I would wake her, and we would crawl out under the tent side. Into the cold and the snow. I didn’t like cold. I liked warmth and I needed sleep. I was so weary, so sleepy. My hand fell, short of reaching Shun, and I did not have the will to lift it again. I slept.

I woke as if I were a swimmer surfacing from water. No. More like a bit of wood that bobbed to the surface because it had to. My body shed sleep and I sat up, clear-minded. Dwalia was sitting cross-legged at the foot of my bed. Odessa knelt slightly behind her and to one side. I looked over at Shun. She slept on, apparently oblivious to what was going on. What was going on? I blinked my eyes and caught a flash of something at the corner of my eye. I turned to look, but there was nothing there. Dwalia was smiling at me, a kind and reassuring smile. “Everything is fine,” she said comfortingly. By which I knew that it was not.

“I just thought that we should talk, so you understand that you do not have to fear the men who guard us. They will not hurt you.”

I blinked my eyes and in the moment before they focused on Dwalia, I saw him. The fog man was sitting in the corner of the tent. I slowly, slowly shifted my gaze in that direction, moving only my eyes. Yes. He was beaming a fatuous smile at me, and when his eyes met mine, he clapped his hands happily. “Brother!” he exclaimed. He laughed heartily, as if we had just shared a wondrous joke. The way he smiled at me let me know that he wanted me to love him as much as he already loved me. No one had loved me that openly since my mother had died. I did not want his love. I stared at him, but he continued to smile at me.

Dwalia scowled, just for an instant, her buttery face melting into sharp disapproval. When I looked at her directly, her smile was in place. “Well,” she said, as if glad of it, “I see that our little game is finished now. You see him, don’t you, Shaysim? Even though our Vindeliar is doing his best, his very best, to be hidden?”

Praise, a question, and a rebuke were all twisted together in that question. The boy’s moon-face only grew jollier. He wriggled from side to side, a happy dumpling of a boy. “Silly. Silly. My brother looks with a different kind of eyes. He sees me. He’s seen me, oh, since we were in the town. With the music and the sweet food and the people dancing.” He scratched his cheek thoughtfully, and I heard the sound of shorn whiskers against his nails. So he was older than I thought, but still boyish. “I wished we had that festival to keep, with dancing and singing and eating sweet things. Why are we not a festival folk, Lingstra?”

“We are not, my lurik. That is the answer. That we are not, just as we are neither cows nor thistles. We are the Servants. We stay to the path. We are the path. The path we walk is for the good of the world.”

“When we serve the world, we serve ourselves.” Dwalia and Odessa spoke these words in harmony. “The good of the world is the good of the Servants. What is good for the Servants is good for the world. We walk the path.”

Their voices ceased, but they stared at Vindeliar almost accusingly. He lowered his eyes and some of the brightness went out of his face. He spoke in a measured cadence, words I was certain he had learned from his cradle days. “He who leaves the path is not a Servant but an obstacle to the good of the world. An obstacle in the path must be evaded. If it cannot be evaded, it must be removed. If it cannot be removed, it must be destroyed. We must stay to the path, for the good of the world. We must stay to the path for the good of the Servants.” He took a huge breath at the end. His round cheeks puffed as he sighed it out. His lower lip remained pushed out in a baby’s pout and he looked at the mounded blankets, not at Dwalia.

She was relentless. “Vindeliar. Has anyone seen a festival for you on this part of the path?”

“No.” A soft, low denial.

“Has anyone ever seen, in any dream, Vindeliar merrymaking at a festival?”

He drew a short breath and his shoulders slumped as he said, “No.”

Dwalia leaned toward him. Her kind look was back on her face. “Then, my lurik, there is no festival on Vindeliar’s path. For Vindeliar to go to a festival would be for Vindeliar to leave the path, or bend it awry. And then what would Vindeliar be? A Servant?”

He shook his blunt head slowly.

“What then?” She was remorseless.

“An obstacle.” He lifted his head and before she could press him, added, “To be evaded. Or avoided. Removed. Or destroyed.” He dropped his voice and his eyes on that last word. I stared at him. I had never seen a man who believed so completely that someone who apparently loved him would kill him for breaking a rule. With a cold rush up my spine, I discovered that I believed it, too. She would kill him if he veered from the path.

What path?

Did they think I had a path? Was I in danger of veering from it? I shifted my stare to Dwalia. Would she kill me, too, for veering from the path?

Dwalia’s gaze snapped to mine, and I could not look away. She spoke softly, kindly. “It’s why we came, Shaysim. To rescue you and keep you safe. Because if we did not, you would become an obstacle to the path. We will take you home, to a safe place where you cannot leave the path by accident, nor change it. By keeping you safe, we will keep the path safe and keep the world safe. As long as the world is safe, you are safe. You don’t have to be afraid.”

Her words terrified me. “What is the path?” I demanded. “How can I tell if I am staying to the path?”

Her smile stretched. She nodded slowly. “Shaysim, I am pleased. This is the first question we always hope to hear from a Servant.”

A lurch and my belly went cold. A servant? I had seen the lives of servants. I’d never imagined being one, and suddenly knew I never wanted to be one. Did I dare say that? Was that leaving the path?

“So, to hear it from a shaysim of your years is remarkable. Shaysims are often blinded to the idea that there may be a path. They see possibilities, and ways that lead to so many divergent paths. Shaysims born out here in the wide world often have difficulty accepting that there is only one true path, a path that has been seen and charted. A path that we all must strive to bring into the world, so that the world may be a better place for all of us.”

The understanding of what she meant rose in me like a tide. Was it a thing I had always known? I recalled with clarity how the beggar in the marketplace had touched me, and suddenly I had seen an infinity of possible futures, all depending on the decision of a young couple I had glimpsed in passing. I had even thought to nudge the future into a direction that seemed wise to me. It would have involved the young man being murdered by highwaymen, and the woman suffering rape and death, but I had seen her brothers riding to avenge her, and encouraging others to join them, and how they had made the highways safe for travelers for decades after their sister had died. Two lives gone in pain and torment, but so many saved.

I came back to the present. The blankets I had clutched had fallen away from me and the winter cold gripped me.

“I see you understand me,” Dwalia said in a honeyed voice. “You are a shaysim, my dear. In some places, they would call you a White Prophet, even if you are not nearly as pale as one of them should be. Still, I trust Vindeliar when he tells me you are the lost son that we seek. You are a rare creature, Shaysim. Perhaps you have not realized that. Few are the folk who are given the gift of seeing what may be. Even rarer are the ones who can look and see the tipping points, the tiny places where a word or a smile or a swift knife set the world on a different course. Rarest of all are the ones like you. Born, it would seem, almost by chance, to folk who do not know what you are. They cannot protect you from making dangerous mistakes. They cannot save you from leaving the path. And so we came to find you. To keep you, and the path, safe. For you can see the moment when all things change, before it happens. And you see who it is, in any cycle, who will be the Catalyst for that time.”

“Catalyst.” I tried the word on my tongue. It sounded like a spice or a healing herb. Both of those were things that changed other things. A spice that flavored a food or an herb that saved a life. Catalyst. Once it had meant my father, in some of his scrolls that I had read.

Dwalia used the word to pry at me. “The one you might use to set the world on a different path. Your tool. Your weapon in your battle to shape the world. Have you seen him yet? Or her?”

I shook my head. I felt sick. Knowledge was welling up in me like vomit rising in my throat. It burned me with cold. The dreams I’d had. The things I’d known to do. Had I provoked the manor children to attack me? When Taffy had struck me, the web of flesh that had kept my tongue tied to the bottom of my mouth had been torn free. I’d gained speech. I’d gone out that day, knowing it must happen if I was going to be able to speak. I rocked in my wrap, my teeth chattering. “I’m so cold,” I said. “So cold.”

I had been ready to trigger that change. Taffy had been my tool to do that to myself. Because I could see the tumbling consequences of being where the other children would see me. I had placed myself where they could catch me. Because I had known that I had to do that. I had to do that to put myself on my path. The path I’d seen in glimpses since before I was born. Anyone could change the future. Every one of us changed the future constantly. But Dwalia was right. Few could do what I could do. I could see, with absolute certainty, the most likely consequences of a particular action. And then I could release the bowstring and send that consequence arrowing into the future. Or cause someone else to do so.

The knowledge of what I could do dizzied me. I didn’t want it. I felt ill with it, as if it were a sickness inside me. Then I was ill. The world spun around me. If I closed my eyes, it went faster. I clutched at the blankets, willing myself to stillness. The cold gripped me so hard I thought I had already died from it.

“Interesting,” Dwalia said. She made no move to aid me, and when Odessa shifted behind her she flung her hand out and down in a sharp motion. The lurik froze where she was, hunching her head between her shoulders like a scolded dog. Dwalia looked at Vindeliar. He cowered into himself. “Watch him. Both of you. But no more than that. This was not predicted. I will summon the others and we will pool our memories of the predictions. Until we know what has been seen of this, if anything has been seen, it is safest to do nothing.”

“Please,” I said, not knowing what I begged of them. “I’m sick. And I’m so cold.”

“Yes.” Dwalia nodded. “Yes, you are.” She moved an admonishing finger at both her luriks, and then she left the tent.

I sat very still. If I moved the spinning became unbearable. But I was cold, so cold. I wanted to reach for the blankets and furs, to pull them up around me. But any motion woke the vertigo. I braved it, and then, for my bravery, I retched. I vomited on myself and it soaked my shirtfront and made me colder. Neither the fog man nor Odessa moved. She watched me with sour-milk eyes and Vindeliar watched me with tears brimming his eyes. They watched until I was retching a thin yellow fluid that I could not spit clear of my mouth. It clung to my lips and chin, and still the tent spun and I was so cold. I wanted to be away from the wet and the stink of my vomit.

Do it. Move away. The dizziness would be bad no matter if I moved slow or fast. So just move.

I scooted back and dropped over on my side. The vertigo that struck me was so severe I could not tell up from down. I moaned, I think.

Someone lifted a blanket and tucked it around me. It was Shun. I could not bear to look at her for the spinning, but I knew her scent. She put another something over me. A fur, a heavy one. I felt a tiny bit warmer. I drew my body up into a ball. I wondered if I could speak without vomiting. “Thank you.” I said. Then, “Please. Don’t touch me. Don’t move me. It makes the dizziness worse.”

I focused my eyes on a corner of the blanket. I willed it to be still, and for a miracle, it was. I breathed slowly, carefully. I needed to be warm but even more, I needed the spinning to stop. A hand touched me, an icy hand on my neck. I cried out wordlessly.

“Why don’t you help him? He’s sick. He burns with fever.” Her voice sounded sleepy but I knew she was not. Not really. Her anger was too strong for her to be sleepy. Could the others hear that, too?

Odessa spoke. “We are to do nothing until Lingstra Dwalia returns to instruct us. Even now, you may have disrupted the path.”

Another blanket settled over me. “Do nothing, then. Don’t stop me.”

Shun lay down beside me. I wished she wouldn’t. I feared that if she nudged me or moved me, the vertigo would come roaring back.

“We obeyed.” The fear in Vindeliar’s voice was like a bad taste in the air. “Lingstra cannot be angry with us. We obeyed and did nothing.” He lifted his hands to cover his eyes. “I did nothing to help my brother,” he moaned. “I did nothing. She can’t be angry.”

“Oh, she can be angry,” Odessa said bitterly. “She can always be angry.”

Very carefully, I let my eyes close. The spinning slowed. It stopped. I slept.

Chapter Thirteen

Chade’s Secret

This is the dream of the flame horses. It is a winter evening. It’s not night but it’s dark. An early moon is rising over the birch trees. I hear a sad song with no words, and it is like a wind in the trees. It keens and moans. Then the stables burst into flames. Horses scream. And then two horses race out. They are on fire. One is black and one is white, and the flames are orange and red, whipped by the wind of the horses’ own passage. They race out into the night. The black one falls suddenly. The white one races on. Then suddenly the moon opens its mouth and swallows the white horse.

This dream makes no sense to me and no matter how I try, I cannot draw a picture for it. So this dream is recorded only in words.

—Dream Journal of Bee Farseer

I woke on the floor of the study, not far from where the stable boy slept on. I had not wanted to sleep, and I certainly could not have borne sleeping in my own room. But I had taken blankets from my bed, and Bee’s book from her hiding place, and returned to the estate study. I’d fed the fire to sustain it through what was left of the night and then spread my blankets. I’d settled down and held her book in my hands. I thought about reading it. Was that breaching her trust in me? I’d leafed through it, not settling on any section but marveling at her tidy lettering, her precise illustrations, and how many pages she had filled.

In a bizarre hope that she might have had time to leave some account of the attack, I went to the last page of her journal. But it stopped well short of our trip to Oaksbywater. There was a sketch of a barn cat. The black one with the kinked tail. I’d closed the book, pillowed my head on it, and fallen asleep. The sound of footsteps in the corridor had woken me. I sat up, aching, and the weight of my worries fell on me again. Bleak discouragement soaked me. I’d already failed and there was nothing I could do to change that. Bee was dead. Shun was dead. Perhaps they were worse than dead. It was my fault and I could find neither anger nor ambition to do anything about it.

I went to the window and pushed back the drape. The skies were finally clear and blue. It was an effort to gather my thoughts. Chade would be coming today, with Thick. I tried to make plans, to decide to ride to meet him or make preparations for his arrival. I couldn’t find the mental order to do either. On the hearth, Perseverance slept on. I made myself cross the room and add wood to the fire. I welcomed the blue sky but knew it meant the days would be colder.

I left my study and went to my room. I found clean clothing. I went to the kitchen. I dreaded to see who might not be there, but Cook Nutmeg was present, and Tavia, and the two little kitchen maids, Elm and Lea. Tavia had a black eye and a swollen lower lip, but seemed unaware of both. Elm had a peculiar hobble to her gait. I felt sick with dread and refrained from asking any questions. “So good to have you home again, Holder Badgerlock,” Cook Nutmeg greeted me, and promised to serve me breakfast very quickly.

“We should expect company here soon,” I warned them. “Lord Chade and his man Thick will be arriving in the next few hours. Please prepare something for all of us to eat when they get here. I will ask you to let the other servants know that I expect Thick to be treated with the same respect as Lord Chade. His appearance and mannerisms may give you the impression he is a half-wit. But he is an indispensable and loyal servant to the Farseer throne. Treat him as such. For now, if you’d send a tray of food and some hot tea to my study, that would be very welcome. Oh, and please send up enough food for the stable boy Perseverance, too. He will breakfast with me this morning.”

Cook Nutmeg knit her brow but Tavia nodded at me. “It’s kind you are, sir, to take on that poor benighted lad as a stable boy. Having work to do may settle his mind.”

“Let us hope so” was all I could find the will to say to her. I left them there, fetched a cloak, and walked out to where the Withywoods stables had once stood. Cold crisp air, blue sky, white snow, blackened wood. I walked around what remained. I could see at least one horse corpse, half-baked and crow-scavenged, sprawled in the wreckage. The fire appeared to have burned unchecked. A survey of the grounds around the stable showed me nothing more than what I’d seen in the night. The only tracks were of people on foot, most likely Withywoods folk going about their tasks.

I found the remaining horses and the mount I’d stolen the night before housed in one of the sheep shelters. They had feed and water. A dazed-looking girl was taking care of them, and one of the bull-pups had survived. The girl sat on a heap of straw in the corner, the pup in her lap, and stared at nothing. She was probably struggling to make sense of a world in which her masters were gone and she was suddenly in charge of the remaining horses. Could she remember that she’d had masters? Seeing her alone there made me wonder how many of the stable hands had perished alongside their charges. Tallman and Tallerman were gone, I knew. How many others?

“How’s the pup?” I asked her.

“Well enough, sir.” She started to struggle to her feet. A motion of my hand excused her from that. The puppy reached up to lick her chin. His raggedly cut ears were healing.

“You’ve done a good job with his injuries. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir.” She looked up at me. “He misses his mother, sir. He misses her so badly I can almost feel it myself.” Her eyes were very wide. She swayed slightly.

I nodded. I was too great a coward to ask after her own mother. I doubted she would remember if she’d had one. “Take good care of him. Comfort him all you can.”

“I will, sir.”

I found the pigeon-cote as the messenger had warned me I would. Rats or some other scavenger had been at the small, feathered bodies. A single live pigeon with a message tied to its leg was perched on one of the higher ledges. I caught it and opened the message to discover it was from Nettle to FitzVigilant, wishing him a happy Winterfest and asking for news of her sister. I swept the bird bodies out of the coop. I found corn for the lone pigeon, checked that it had water, and left it there.

By the time I reentered the manor, I was chilled to the bone and heartsick. Everything I had seen convinced me of the accuracy of Perseverance’s tale. The men who had seized Bee were ruthless killers. I desperately hoped she was a hostage, one they would value and care for. I made my way back to the study and found the stable boy awake. Someone had brought him wash-water, and he’d attempted to tidy himself. The tray of food rested on my desk, untouched. “Aren’t you hungry?” I asked him.

“Starving, sir,” he admitted. “But I didn’t think it right to eat it without your leave.”

“Lad, if you’re to serve me, the first thing I require of you is that you behave in a practical way. Didn’t the kitchen lass tell you it was for you? Didn’t you see two cups there, and two plates? You’re hungry, the food is there, and you had no idea when I was coming back. You should have eaten.”

“It didn’t seem polite, sir. My family always ate at table together.” He closed his mouth suddenly, his lips tight. For an instant, I hoped Thick would be able to clear his mother’s mind. Then I wondered if the woman deserved to face all that she had lost. I opened my mouth twice before I spoke.

“I see your point. Let’s sit together and eat, then. We have to be ready to face this day. I’ll need your help to put what remains of our horses back into comfortable situations. Lord Chade and Thick will be arriving later, to help us consider what has happened here.”

“The king’s own advisor?”

I was startled that the boy knew of Chade. “Yes. And Thick will be with him. He’s a sort of advisor, too. Don’t be put off by his appearance and ways. His mind may not work exactly as ours do, but he’s an old friend of mine and has helped me more than once.”

“Of course, sir. Any guest in your house must be treated with respect.”

“Excellent. Now let’s stop talking for a bit and get some food down both of us.”

The boy excelled at that. The haunted look had receded a bit from his eyes, but his cheeks were still flushed with fever from his wound. I excused myself from the table, left him eating, and came back with a generous dose of ground willowbark that I added to the rest of his tea. After he had eaten, I told him to go to the steams. I thought of sending someone to his mother’s house to get clean garments for him, but decided it would only cause more distress for everyone.

A tap at the study door was FitzVigilant. He looked little better than he had the night before. “Did you sleep?” I asked him.

“Nightmares,” he replied brusquely.

I didn’t ask questions. “How’s your shoulder?”

“Somewhat better.” He looked at the floor, and then back up at me. His words came slowly. “I can’t make my days fit together. Not just Winterfest eve. That whole day at Oaksbywater is fragmented. And not just that day but many that came before it. Look at this. I remember buying it. But I don’t recall why.” He held up a bracelet of delicate silver links. “I would never choose anything like this for myself. And I feel ashamed and I don’t know why. I did something terrible, didn’t I?”

Yes. You didn’t protect my daughter. You should have died before you let them take her. “I don’t know, Lant. But when Lord Chade is here with Thick, perhaps we can—”

“Sir!” It was Bulen, bursting into the room. For one crooked moment, I wanted to rebuke Revel for not training him better. But Revel was gone.

“What is it?”

“A troop of soldiers, sir, coming up the carriageway! Twenty or more!”

I was on my feet in the instant. My eyes went to the sword over the mantel. Gone. Looted. No time to care about that. I reached under my desk and jerked free the nasty short sword that I’d long ago fastened to the underside of it. I looked at Lant. “Arm yourself and join me. Now.” I went out the door without looking back to see if he or Bulen was following. I had a target and at that moment I was fully convinced that I could slay twenty men with my anger alone.

But the mounted men advancing up the drive were in the livery of the Buckkeep Rousters. They wore black with only a touch of blue, and had a reputation as dark for recklessness and violence. The leader wore a helm that left only his eyes and a great expanse of beard and mustache exposed. I stood in the open door, panting, my bared sword in my hand, and returned their incredulous looks as they pulled their horses to a halt. Belatedly, it came to me. The troop of guards that Chade had dispatched had finally arrived. The messenger, traveling alone, had braved the snow and storms to reach Withywoods before they had. Their captain’s eyes met mine, evaluating me coldly. His eyes flickered to the burnt stable and then back to me. He knew he was too late and was already assembling reasons for why it was not his fault. This was the guard company Chade had chosen to send to Withywoods? The Rousters? What had he expected them to face? Had the men who had taken Bee actually been targeting Shun? Too many new ideas rattled through my head. Slowly I lowered my sword until it pointed at the ground.

“Captain, I am Holder Badgerlock, master of Withywoods. Welcome. I am aware that Lord Chade sent you to supplement my folk here. I am afraid we were all too late to prevent a disaster.” Such bland and formal words for what had happened here. I’d reverted to my former identity, giving a name they might expect to hear.

“Captain Stout is my name. My lieutenant is Crafty.” He gestured at the younger man beside him. His beard and mustache were patchy but ambitious. “Given the weather, we traveled as swiftly as was possible. It is unfortunate that we were not placed here before you left your home unguarded.”

Not his fault, and he was making sure I knew it. He was right, but it was salt in a fresh wound, and his disrespect was unhidden.

A thin, almost-familiar music crept into my thoughts. I lifted my eyes. Thick? From the ranks of the men, he and Chade emerged. Chade pushed his horse forward to demand, “What tidings? Is she here? What happened?”

“It’s hard to say. There was a raid here, on Winterfest eve. Bee was taken. My stables were torched, and some of my folk killed, but something has clouded the minds of everyone who was here. They recall nothing of it. Except for one stable boy.”

“And Lady Shun?” His question was desperate.

“I’m sorry, Chade. I don’t know. She isn’t here. I don’t know if she was taken or is among the dead.”

His face changed. He aged. I swear the flesh sagged on his skull and his eyes dimmed. “And Lant?” His voice was faint with despair.

“I’m fine, Lord Chade. A bit the worse for a new hole in my shoulder, but I’ll live.”

“Thank Eda for that.” The old man dismounted as Lant handed his sword to Bulen and went forward to meet him. Chade embraced him wordlessly, closing his eyes. I think I saw Lant flinch as Chade’s arms enfolded him, but he made no sound.

“Fitz. Hey!” Thick, looking uncomfortable on a very tall horse. He dismounted awkwardly, sliding on his belly down the horse’s shoulder. His round cheeks were red with cold. His music, the harbinger of his incredible Skill-strength, was a muted anthem today. Nonetheless, as it reached my senses more strongly, I felt a slight lift of my heart. He came to me and stared up at me. He reached up and patted my chest as if to make certain I saw him. “Fitz! Look! We met the soldiers and we rode with them. Like an army coming to your door! I’m cold! I’m hungry! Can we go inside?”

“Of course, all of you, please.” I looked up at the mounted men. “You must be cold and hungry. Um, Bulen, can you find some help to take care of the horses?” I had no idea where we would stable the beasts. And I had given Cook no notice that we might have twenty hungry guardsmen dropping in. Thick reached out and took my hand.

And Bee was stolen!

The knowledge hit me like a blow to the head. What was I doing here? Why hadn’t I already set off in pursuit?

“There you are! Why were you hiding in the fog? Now we can feel each other,” Thick told me companionably. He squeezed my hand and smiled up at me.

The cold shock of reality seizing me was like being flung directly from a fever back to health. Everything that had seemed distant and vaguely sad now assaulted me full-force. My child stolen by folk cruel enough to burn horses alive in my stables. My people dulled down to the sensibilities of sheep. A killing rage rose in me, and Thick took a step back from me. “Stop,” he begged me. “Don’t feel that much!”

As soon as he released my hand, the choking miasma of despair sought to fill me. I looked at the ground. Putting up my Skill-walls at that moment was like attempting to lift the real walls of Withywoods. I felt too much to contain: too much anger, frustration, guilt, and fear. My emotions circled one another like savage dogs, tearing at my soul in passing. Block by block, I built my Skill-walls. When I looked up, Thick was nodding at me, his tongue resting on his lower lip. Lant was speaking softly and quickly to Chade, who held him by the shoulders and stared into his face as he spoke. And the Rousters were looking very unhappy at being here at all. I looked at their captain and used my Skill to push my words as well as my voice.

“You didn’t want to come here. You were fine traveling down the road until you got to the carriage lane that leads here. Then you wanted to go anywhere else. Now that you are here, you feel miserable and unsettled. You see the signs, as I do, that this holding was attacked by armed men. They came and they went, and left the signs of their passage but no memory of it with my folk. There is a spell . . . an evil magic has been put over Withywoods, specifically to keep away those who could help us.” I took a steadying breath and straightened my back. “Please, if two of your fellows would find stabling for the horses in the sheep pens and give them whatever fodder you can find, I would be grateful. Then come inside, get warm, have food. Then we will discuss how best to follow people who have left no tracks.”

The captain of the guard regarded me with reservation. His lieutenant rolled his eyes and did not bother to conceal his disdain. Chade lifted his voice. “After you have eaten, go out in pairs and ask of the folk round and about. Look for tracks of a party of mounted soldiers. There will be a reward, in gold, for any who bring me back solid information.”

That motivated them and they were obeying orders before their captain had finished issuing them. Then Chade was beside me hissing, “Inside. Somewhere private. I need to talk to you.” He turned to FitzVigilant. “Take Thick, please, and see he is warmed and fed. Then come and find us.”

Bulen hovered until I pointed at him. “Find Dixon. Tell him to take care of everything, now. Feed those men, see that their horses are treated properly. Tell him I said he should have been at the door. Let him know I am not happy.” In all my days at Withywoods, I’d never spoken that sharply to a servant. Bulen stared at me and then set off at a run.

I led Chade past my splintered doors. His face grew grimmer as we passed a sword-scored wall and a slashed tapestry. We entered my study and I shut the door. For a moment, Chade just looked at me. Then he asked, “How could you have let this happen? I told you I needed her protected. I told you that. I’ve suggested, over and over, that you have a few house-soldiers or at least a Skilled apprentice here who could have summoned help. You’ve always been so stubborn, so insistent that you must have everything your way. Now look what you’ve done. Look what you’ve done.” His voice trailed and broke on the last words. He staggered to my desk and sat down in my chair. He bowed his face into his hands. I was so stunned by his rebuke that it took me a short time to realize he was weeping.

I had no words to offer in my own defense. It was true. Both he and Riddle had urged me to have some sort of guard, but I’d always refused, believing that I’d left violence behind me at Buckkeep Castle. Believing I could always protect my own. Until I’d left them all without a thought to save the Fool.

He lifted his face from his hands. He looked so old. “Say something!” he ordered me harshly. Tears were wet in the lines of his cheeks.

I bit back the first words that came to my mind. I would not utter another useless apology. “The minds of everyone here have been fogged. I don’t know how it was done, nor how a Skill-suggestion lingers to turn folk away and make them discouraged. I don’t know if it is even the Skill or a different magic used against us. But no one here recalls an attack, even though the evidence is plain throughout the house. The only one who seems to have clear memory of Winterfest eve is a stable boy named Perseverance.”

“I need to talk to him,” Chade interrupted me.

“I sent him to the steams. He took an arrow through the shoulder. And he has been rattled badly by days spent with folk who no longer recall him and treat him as if he were mad.”

“I care nothing for that!” he shouted. “I want to know what has become of my daughter!”

“Daughter?” I stared at him. Anger burned in his eyes. I thought of Shun, her Farseer features, even her green eyes. So obvious. How could I not have seen it before?

“Of course, my daughter! Why else would I go to such lengths? Why else would I have sent her here, to you, to the one person who I thought I could trust to keep her safe? Only to have you abandon her. I know who did this! Her damned mother and her brothers, but worst of all her stepfather! They’ve the family feeling of snakes! For years I paid Shun’s family, and paid them well, to care for her. But it was never enough for them. Never. They always wanted more—more money, honors at court, grants of land, more than I could possibly give them. Her mother never had any feelings for the child! And once the grandparents were gone, her mother began to threaten her. Her pig of a husband, trying to put his hands on Shun when she was little more than a girl! Then when I removed Shun, and cut off the money, they tried to kill her!” He sputtered to a halt. There was a tap on the door. He brushed his cuff over his eyes and composed his face.

“Enter,” I called, and Tavia came in to announce that there was hot food and drink waiting for us. Even in her deadened state, she seemed to sense the tension in the room, for she withdrew swiftly after her announcement. Chade stared at her bruised face; after she left, his gaze remained fixed on the door, his thoughts miles away. I spoke into the quiet that followed. “And you never saw fit to share any of that with me?”

He flung his attention back to me. “There was never a good time to talk with you! I no longer trust our Skilling to be private, and that first evening at the inn, when I needed to talk to you, you were in such a damnable hurry to leave—”

“To get home to my daughter, I might point out!” My guilt was giving way to my own anger. “Chade. Listen to me. This was not an attack by Shun’s family. Not unless they are capable of hiring Chalcedeans to do their dirty work. And have a stable full of white horses, and a troop of pale folk to ride them. I believe that whoever came here was actually in pursuit of the Fool. Or the messenger who preceded him.”

“A messenger preceded him?”

“There is much that I have not had a good time to share with you. So listen to me. We both need to drop our anger and contain our fear. We’ll share every scrap of information we have, and then we’ll act. Together.”

“If there is anything for me to act upon. You’ve already told me that my Shine may be dead.”

Shine. Not Shun. Shine Fallstar. It was not a smile but I showed my teeth to him. “We will discover the truth. And face it. And whatever it is, we will go after them. And we will kill them all, like the bastards we are.”

He caught a ragged breath at that, and sat up a bit straighter. I wanted to tell him that I thought perhaps Shun had been taken with Bee. But I did not want to tell him I believed that because a cat had said it might be so. The word of a cat was not to be relied upon. Another tap at the door, and FitzVigilant entered. “I don’t mean to intrude, but I’d like to be included.”

I stared at him. How blind I’d been. And how stupid. Of course that was what was special about him. I looked at Chade and spoke recklessly. “And he’s yours, too, isn’t he?”

Chade stiffened. “And fortunately for you and your careless speech, he knows he is my son.”

“Well, it would have explained a lot to me if I had known!”

“I thought it was obvious.”

“Well, it wasn’t. Not for either of them.”

“Would it have made a difference? I gave them into your care. Would you have taken better care of them if you had known?”

“ ‘Them’?” FitzVigilant broke into our sparring. He looked at his father, and in profile, I saw Chade was right. Obvious. If one were looking for it. “ ‘Them’? Do you have another son? I have a brother?”

“No,” Chade replied shortly, but I was in no mood to harbor his secrets any longer.

“No, you don’t have a brother. You have a sister. And for all I know, perhaps there are other brothers and sisters that I haven’t been informed about.”

“And why would I be required to inform you?” Chade raged at me. “Why is this so surprising to you, that I had lovers, that children were born? For years, I lived in near-isolation, a rat behind the walls of Buckkeep Castle. When finally I could come out, when finally I could eat an elegant meal, dance to music, and, yes, enjoy the company of lovely women, why would I not? Tell me this, Fitz. Is it not purely luck on your part that you don’t have a child or two from your past? Or did you remain chaste all those years?”

After a moment, I closed my mouth.

“I thought not,” Chade said acerbically.

“If I have a sister, where is she?” Lant demanded.

“That is what we are here to discover. She was here, supposedly safe in Fitz’s care. And now she has vanished.” His bitter words stung me.

“As has my own daughter, a much younger and less capable child,” I pointed out angrily. Then wondered if Bee was truly less capable than Shun. Or Shine. I glowered at him.

At that moment, there was yet another knock on the door. Chade and I both composed our faces. It was a reflex. “Enter,” we chorused, and Perseverance opened the door and stood there, confused. He looked somewhat better, despite still wearing a bloodstained shirt. “This is the stable boy I told you about,” I said to Chade. And to Perseverance, “Come in. I know you’ve told me your story, but Lord Chade will want to hear it all again, and with every detail you can summon to mind.”

“As you wish, sir,” he replied in a subdued voice and came into the room. He glanced at FitzVigilant and then at me.

“Are you uncomfortable speaking about him while he is here?” I asked. The boy gave a short nod and dropped his head forward. He stared at the floor.

“What did I do?” FitzVigilant demanded in a voice both agonized and affronted. He crossed over to Perseverance so swiftly that the boy shrank back from him while I took two steps forward. “Please!” he cried in a strained voice. “Just tell me. I need to know.”

“Boy, sit down. I need to talk with you.”

I wondered how Chade felt when Perseverance looked at me to see if he was to obey. In response, I nodded at a chair. He sat and then looked up at Chade with very wide eyes. FitzVigilant hovered, his eyes full of trepidation. Chade looked down at Perseverance. “You needn’t be afraid, as long as you tell me the exact truth. Do you understand that?”

The lad gave a nod and then dredged up a “Yes, sir.”

“Very good.” He looked at FitzVigilant. “This is too important for me to delay. Would you go and arrange to have food brought here to us? And ask Thick to join us if he has finished eating?”

Lant met his father’s eyes. “I’d like to stay and hear what he has to say.”

“I know you would. But your being in the room would color the boy’s tale. As soon as I’ve finished speaking to him, Fitz and Thick and I will be sitting down with you to see if we can clear the cobwebs from your mind. Oh, and I’ve one more errand for you. Lad”—and here he turned back to my stable boy—“tell me what sort of tracks we should be looking for.”

His eyes flickered to me again. I nodded. “They rode horses, sir. Big ones, to carry heavy loads, the soldiers did, the ones who spoke a foreign tongue. Big hooves, shod well. And there were smaller mounts, white horses, very graceful but sturdy, too. The white horses that pulled the sleighs were taller than the ones the pale folk were riding. Matched pairs. The soldier troops led first, and then the sleighs went, with the riders on white horses following, and then only four soldiers at the very end. But it was snowing that night and the wind was blowing. Almost before they were out of sight, the snow was filling in their tracks and the wind was blowing it smooth.”

“Did you follow them? Did you see which direction they took?”

He shook his head and looked down. “I’m sorry, sir. I was bleeding still, and dizzy. And very cold. I went back to the manor house to try to get help. But no one recognized me. I knew Revel was dead, and my dad and granddad. I went to find my ma.” He cleared his throat. “She didn’t know me. She told me to go back up to the manor house and get help there. Finally, when they opened the door, I lied. I said I had a message for Scribe FitzVigilant. So they let me in and took me to him, but he was as bad off as I was. Bulen cleaned up my shoulder and let me sleep by the fire. I tried to talk to them, to get them to go after Bee. But they said they didn’t know her, and that I was a crazy beggar boy. The next morning, when I could walk a bit, I saw her horse had come back, so I took Priss and tried to go after her. But they called me a horse thief! If Bulen hadn’t told them I was crazy, I don’t know what would have happened to me!”

Chade’s voice was calming. “You’ve had a hard time of it, I can tell. I know you told Fitz that you saw Bee in the sleigh. We know they took her. But what of Lady Shun? Did you see aught of her that day?”

“When they were leaving? No, sir. I saw Bee because she looked right at me. I think she saw me looking at her. But she didn’t give me away . . .” A moment later, he continued, “There were other people in the sleigh. A pale man was driving it, and a round-faced woman was sitting in the back holding Bee on her lap like she was a baby. And there was a man, I think, but with a boy’s face . . .” His words ran down. Both Chade and I were silent, waiting. Expressions slowly moved across his face. We waited.

“They were all dressed in pale colors. Even Bee was wrapped in something white. But I saw the edge of something. Something red. Like the dress the lady was wearing earlier.”

Chade dragged in a ragged breath, a sound of dread, or hope. “You saw her earlier?” he pressed the boy.

He gave a single nod. “Bee and I were hiding behind the hedge. The raiders had herded all our folk out of the manor and into the courtyard in front of the house. Bee hid the children in the wall, but when she went to follow them after we hid the tracks, they’d shut the door. So she went with me. And we hid behind the hedge and went to see what was happening. The soldiers were shouting at everyone, telling them to sit down, even though they were in house-clothes and the wind was blowing and the snow was falling on them. When we saw them like that, I thought Scribe Lant was dead. He was facedown in the snow, and it was red all around him. And Lady Shun was there with the others, in a torn red dress, with two of the housemaids. Caution and Scurry.”

I saw those words hit Chade. A torn dress. Deny what it might mean but the knowledge would still burrow into him like a worm. Her dress torn, and then she was carted away like plunder. At the very least, there had been violence. Rape was likely. Damage done. He swallowed audibly. “Are you certain?”

Perseverance paused before he answered. “I saw something red on the sleigh. That’s all I can be certain about.”

Thick entered without knocking, with FitzVigilant behind him. “I don’t like this place,” he announced to us. “They all sing the same song, No, no, no, don’t think about it, don’t think about it.

“Who does?” I asked him, startled.

He stared at me as if I were the half-wit. “Everyone!” He flung his arms wide. Then he looked around the room and pointed at Perseverance. “Everyone except him. He makes no song. Chade says, Don’t make your music loud. Keep your music inside a box. But they are not keeping their song in a box and it makes me sad.”

My gaze met Chade’s. We shared the same suspicion. “Let me listen for a moment,” I said to Thick.

“For a moment?” Thick exclaimed, outraged. “You listened and listened. When I got here, you were listening to it so much you couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t feel you. And you are doing it again, right now.”

I touched my fingers to my lips. He scowled at me, but was still. I listened, not with my ears but with my Skill. I heard Thick’s music, the constant Skill-sending that was so much a part of him that I now blocked it without even thinking about it. I closed my eyes and sank deeper into the Skill-current. And there I found it, the roaring whisper of a hundred minds reminding each other not to think about it, not to remember who had died, not to remember the screams or the flames or the blood on the snow. I pressed on the whispers and behind them I could glimpse what they hid from themselves. I retreated. I opened my eyes and found Chade watching me.

“He’s correct,” Chade confirmed quietly.

I nodded.

The Skill is popularly believed to be the magic of the royal Farseer line. And perhaps it is true that in our bloodlines it runs stronger and more potent. But when a summoning goes out that will reach only those who already possess the Skill to a useful degree, it is answered as often by a shoemaker or a fisherman as it is by a duke’s son. I had long suspected that all people possessed at least a rudimentary level of this magic. Molly was unSkilled, yet how often had I seen her rise and go to Bee’s crib moments before the child woke. The man who “had a bad feeling” at the moment that his soldier son was wounded or the woman who opened the door before her suitor could knock all seemed to be utilizing the Skill, even if they were unaware of it. Now the unspoken agreement that no one would remember the terrible events that had happened at Withywoods hummed like a hive of angry bees once I let myself be aware of it. All the folk of Withywoods, shepherds, arbor- and orchard-folk and house-servants, breathed the same forgetfulness. The fury simmered with their ardent desire that no one come to Withywoods, that no one wake them to what had befallen them. It flooded me with their lost hopes and dreams.

“They have to be made to remember,” Chade said softly. “It is our only hope for recovering our daughters.”

“They don’t want to,” I protested.

“Yah,” Thick agreed morosely. “Someone told them not to, and then made it seem like a good idea. They don’t want to remember. They all keep telling each other, Don’t remember, don’t remember.

Once aware of it, I could not clear it from my senses. It was a ringing in my ears.

“How do we stop it? If we stop it, will they remember? If they remember, can they live with it?”

“I’m living with it,” Perseverance said softly. “I’m living with it alone.” He crossed his arms on his chest. “My ma is strong. I’m her third son and the only one that lived. She wouldn’t want to have turned me away from her door. She wouldn’t want to forget my da and my granddad.” Hope and tears stood in his eyes.

What would deaden the Skill and still that forgetful song for them? I knew. I knew from years of indulging in the herb. “I have elfbark. Or had it. With some other herbs in my private study. I doubt it was taken.”

“What are you doing with elfbark?” Chade was aghast.

I stared at him. “Me? What are you doing with elfbark? And not just Six Duchies elfbark, but that Outislander strain they used on me on Aslevjal? Delvenbark. I saw it on your shelf.”

He stared at me. “Tools of the trade,” he said quietly. “Elliania’s father obtained it for me. Some things I have and hope never to use.”

“Exactly.” I turned back to Perseverance. “Find Bulen. Tell him to go to your mother’s cottage and ask her to come here to the house. To this study. I’ll fetch the herb. After Bulen is on his way, go to the kitchen and tell them I need a teapot, cups, and a kettle of boiling water.”

“Sir,” he said. He halted by the door and turned back to me. “Sir, it won’t hurt her, will it?”

“Elfbark is an herb that has been used for a long time. In Chalced they feed it to their slaves. It gives them a jolt of strength and endurance, but with it comes a bleak spirit. The Chalcedeans claim they can get more work out of their slaves and few have the will to attempt to escape or rise against their masters. It can deaden a severe headache. And Lord Chade and I together discovered that it can dampen a person’s ability to use the Skill. The variety from the Out Islands can completely close a person’s mind to Skill-communication. I do not have that kind. But it may be that what I have will be strong enough to free your mother from the Skill-suggestion that she forget about you and your father. I cannot promise you, but it may.”

FitzVigilant stepped forward suddenly. “Try it on me first. See what it does.”

“Perseverance, go on your errands,” I said firmly. The boy left. Chade and I were left alone with Lant and Thick.

I studied Lant. His resemblance to Chade and his other Farseer forebears was not nearly as clear as Shun’s, but now that I knew of it, it was impossible for me not to see. He also looked terrible. His eyes were sunken but bright with a wound fever, his lips chapped. He moved like a decrepit old man. Not that long ago, he had been given a severe beating in Buckkeep Town. For his own safety, Chade had sent him to me, ostensibly to be my scribe and tutor my daughter. Haven with me had won him a sword-thrust in the shoulder and considerable blood loss. And a memory wiped as bland as blowing snow.

“What do you think?” I asked Chade.

“It may lessen his pain, if nothing else. And I do not think his spirit could sink lower than it is. If he is willing, we should let him try it.”

Thick had been drifting about my study, picking up the few curios I had on display, then lifting the curtain to peer out at the snowy grounds. He found a chair, perched on it, and suddenly said, “Nettle can send you the Aslevjal bark. She says she has a journeyman who could bring it through the stones.”

“You can Skill to Nettle?” I was astounded. The keening of the multitude kept me from hearing Chade’s Skill at all, and we were in the same room.

“Yah. She wanted me to tell her if Bee was okay, and Lant. I told her Bee is stolen and Lant is crazy. She is sad and scared and angry. She wants to help.”

Not how I would have chosen to convey those tidings, but Nettle and Thick had their own relationship. They spoke plainly to each other.

“Tell her yes, please. Tell her to ask Lady Rosemary to pack some of each blend of elfbark, and to send them through with her messenger. Tell her we will send a guide and a mount for her courier to the stone on Gallows Hill.” Chade turned to Lant. “Go to the Rousters’ captain, and ask that he dispatch a man with a mount to Gallows Hill outside Oaksbywater.”

Lant looked directly at him. “Are you sending me out of the room so you can discuss me with Fitz?”

“I am,” Chade replied pleasantly. “Now go.”

When the door had closed behind him, I said evenly, “He has his mother’s forthright way.”

“Huntswoman Laurel. Yes. He has. It was one of the things I loved about her.” He watched me as he said it, challenging me to be surprised.

I was, a little, but I covered it. “If he is yours, why is he not FitzFallstar? Or simply a Fallstar?”

“He should have been Lantern Fallstar. When we discovered Laurel was with child, I was willing to wed. She was not.”

I glanced at Thick. He appeared uninterested in what we were saying. I lowered my voice. “Why?”

There was pain in the lines at the corners of Chade’s mouth and in his eyes. “The obvious reason. She had come to know me too well, and knowing me could not love me. She chose to leave court and go to where she could give birth quietly and out of sight of all.” He made a small sound. “That hurt the worst of all, Fitz. That she did not want anyone to know the child was mine.” He shook his head. “I could not stop her. I made sure she had funds. She had an excellent midwife. But she did not survive his birth for long. The midwife called it a childbed fever. I had left Buckkeep as soon as the messenger bird reached me that the boy was born. I still hoped to persuade her to try having a life with me. But by the time I reached her, she was dead.”

He fell silent. I wondered why he was telling me, and why he was telling me now, but did not ask either question. I got up and put more wood on the fire. “Are there gingercakes in your kitchen?” Thick asked me.

“I don’t know but there is bound to be something sweet there. Why don’t you go and ask for something nice? Bring some back for Lord Chade and me, too.”

“Yah,” he promised, and left with alacrity.

Chade spoke as soon as the door had closed around him. “Lant was a healthy, wailing boy. The midwife had found a wet nurse for him as soon as Laurel began to fail. I gave a great deal of thought to his future, and then I approached Lord Vigilant. He was a man in a great deal of trouble. Debts and stupidity will do that to a man. In exchange for his claiming the boy and raising him as a nobleman, I paid off his debts and found him a clever steward to keep him out of trouble. He had an excellent holding; all it required to prosper was good management. I visited my son as often as I could, and saw that he was taught to ride, to read, swordplay, and archery. All a young aristocrat should master.

“I thought it an ideal arrangement for all of us. Lord Vigilant lived well on a now-prosperous estate, my son was safe and well taught. But I did not allow for that man’s stupidity. I’d made him too attractive. A stupid man with a well-run estate and money to spare. That bitch plucked him like low-hanging fruit. She never even pretended to like the boy, and as soon as her son was born, she proceeded to drive Lant out of the nest. By then, he was old enough for me to have him at Buckkeep Castle as a page. And an apprentice. I did hope he would follow in my footsteps.” He shook his head. “As you saw, he had not the temperament for it. Still, he would have been safe if that woman had not seen him as a threat to her sons’ inheritance. She saw him well liked at court and could not stand it. And she made her move.”

He fell silent. There was more to that tale and I knew it. I could have asked after her health, or the well-being of her sons. I chose not to as I did not want to know. I could accept what Chade would do for his family; doubtless, to avenge his son, he had done the sort of thing that had guaranteed that Laurel could never love him.

“And Shine was bad judgment.” It shocked me to hear him admit that. Perhaps he’d longed to tell someone. I kept silent and let no sign of judgment show on my face.

“A festival. A flirtatious, pretty woman. Wine and song and carris seed cakes. My daughter has been told one version of the incident of her conception. The truth is quite another. Her mother was neither that young nor that innocent. We danced together, we drank together, we spent time at the gaming tables. We took my winnings and went down to Buckkeep Town and spent them on trinkets and trifles for her. We drank some more. For one evening, Fitz, I was the young man I might have been, and we finished the evening in a cheap inn room under the rafters with the noise of revelry coming up through the floor and the sounds of another couple coming through the walls. For me, it was wine and impulse. I am not so sure she did not have more in mind.

“A month and a half later she came to me to tell me she would bear my child. Fitz, I tried to be honorable. But she was a stupid, vain woman, pretty as a picture and vapid as a moth. I could not hold a conversation with her. Ignorance I could have forgiven. We both know it’s a temporary state. But her level of greed and self-indulgence appalled me. My excess on the night of Shine’s conception was festival, wine, and carris seed. But for Shine’s mother, it was how she always was! I knew if I wed her and brought her to court, she would quickly bring scandal down on me and her child. It would only be a matter of time until Shine was used against me. Her parents swiftly saw that. They did not want us to wed, but they did want the child, to hold her over my head and extort money for her. I had to pay to see her, Fitz. They did not make it easy. I could not oversee her upbringing as I had with Lant. I sent tutors, and her mother sent them away as ‘unsuitable.’ I sent money for tutors; I’ve no idea what they spent it on. Her education has been sadly neglected. And when the grandparents finally died, her mother snatched her up, thinking to wring yet more money from me. They held Shine as their hostage. When I heard that the brutish lout her mother had married had begun to mistreat Shine, I stole her. And saw that her stepfather got what he deserved for looking at my daughter in that way.” He paused. I didn’t ask. His face sagged with sadness and weariness. He spoke more slowly.

“I put her somewhere safe and tried to repair some of her lacks. I found a capable bodyguard for her, a woman who could teach her the ways a woman can protect herself. And a few other skills as well.

“But I misjudged her stepfather. Her mother would have swiftly forgotten her: She is as maternal as a snake. But I underestimated the thwarted greed of her husband, and his cleverness. I was certain I had concealed Shine. I still do not know how he found her, but fear I have a rat within my spy-ranks. I did not fully grasp the lengths to which her stepfather would go to repair the blow to his pride, though her mother is not innocent, either. They tried to poison Shine and killed a kitchen boy instead. Did they mean to kill her, or simply make her ill? I don’t know. But the dose was enough to kill a small boy. So again, I had to move her, and again I had to show them that I am not someone to trifle with.” He folded his lips tightly. “I have had him watched. He simmers with hate and dreams of vengeance. I intercepted a letter that bragged he would be avenged upon both Shine and me. So you see why I am convinced this is his hand at work again.”

“And I am almost certain it is linked to those who pursue the Fool. But soon we shall know.” I hesitated, then asked, “Chade. Why do you tell me these things only now?”

He gave me a cold stare. “So you will understand the lengths to which I’ll go to in order to protect my son and regain my daughter.”

I met his gaze angrily. “Do you think I will do less to bring Bee back?”

He looked at me for what seemed a long time. “Perhaps you will. I know you wonder if it is a kindness to force your folk to remember. I tell you this plainly. Kind or unkind, I will open each of their minds and find what they know, down to the youngest child or oldest gaffer. We have to know every detail of what happened that day. And then we must act on it, without delay. We cannot undo whatever has befallen them. But we can make the culprits pay in pain. And we can bring our daughters home.”

I nodded. I had not let my mind go to those dark places. Bee was young and very small. No one could think her a woman. But for some men, that did not matter. I thought of Elm’s tottering gait and was sickened. Must we indeed force the little kitchen girl to remember what had been done to her?

“Go fetch the elfbark,” Chade reminded me. “It will take time to brew.”

Chapter Fourteen


 . . . and worst of all, hemlock is likely to grow next to the useful and pleasant watercress. Mind that the lads and lasses sent to gather watercress are mindful of this.

Carris seed is an evil herb; there is little excuse ever to use it. The practice of sprinkling a bit of it on tops of cakes at festivals is an abomination. The user will experience exhilaration and a sense of physical well-being. While using it, a man or woman may feel the heart beat faster, feel warmth in the cheeks of the face and in the organs of the groin. The urge to dance, to run, to sing loudly, or to rut without regard for the consequences becomes strong. The effects of the seed wear off suddenly, and then the user may drop in exhaustion and sleep a full day through. In the next handful of days, the user will be weary, disgruntled, and sometimes feel pain in the spine.

Of evil herbs, the next culprit is elfbark. It is, as the name implies, bark scraped from the elf tree. The more potent bark will be on the tips of the newest growth. The elf trees that grow in pleasant valleys produce the mildest bark, while those that grow in more rigorous circumstances, such as on sea cliffs or windswept mountainsides, produce a bark that is more dangerous to the user.

The most common use for elfbark is to make a strong tea of it. This gives the user a burst of stamina and can enable the weary traveler or fieldworker to persevere through the most difficult conditions. But stamina is not spirit. While elfbark may mask the pain of an injury or the aching of weary muscles, it brings with it a heavy heart and a discouraged spirit. Those who use it to extend the hours of their work must have a strong will to continue to pursue their tasks, or an overseer who is merciless.

Twelve Unfortunate Herbs, unsigned scroll

I walked through the halls of Withywoods. The Skill-whispering to forget, forget, it didn’t happen, they are not dead or gone, they never were, was like an icy wind in my face. Away from conversation with others, it sapped my will to do anything save the most rudimentary tasks. I desperately longed to take a nap by a warm fire with a soft blanket, and perhaps a glass of mulled cider to ease me into sleep. Shaking off that impulse was like pulling my sleeve free of plucking ghost-fingers.

The doors of my private study sagged slightly, the elegant wood around the latches splintered. I scowled. It hadn’t been locked, simply latched. There had been no need for that destruction, save for the glee of brutes in the grip of battle.

Inside, I looked around as I had not earlier. Dim winter sunlight reached in a single pointing finger where the draperies were not quite closed across the window. It fell in a sword-slash of light across my splintered desk. I walked past the drunken scroll racks that leaned against one another. Verity’s blade that had hung so long above the mantel was gone. Of course. Even the most rudimentary man-at-arms would have recognized the quality of that weapon. I fell into a gulch of pain, but quickly I sealed my heart against that loss. Verity’s sword was not my child. It was only a thing. I retained the memory of the man and the day he had given it to me. The triptych of Nighteyes, the Fool, and me remained in place on the center of the mantel, apparently untouched. The Fool’s gift to me before he left for Clerres, the one that had led to him “betraying” me. I could not bear the Fool’s knowing half-smile.

I did not look to see what else was broken or stolen. I went to my desk, pulled the drawer all the way out, and then reached in to take out the box that fit snugly behind it. I opened it. The second compartment held the corked pot of elfbark. I took it out and started to restore the box to its hiding place in the broken desk. Instead, I tucked it under my arm and dropped the drawer to the floor. I found myself not thinking about anything as I walked back to the estate study. Forget, forget, forget thrummed the song. I summoned the will to set a Skill-block against it. The moment I had it in place, I felt a wave of panic hit me. Bee had been taken, and I had not a clue where to seek her. The drive to do something, do anything, lashed me like a whip. But this drug in my hand was the most I could do right now, and that shamed me. Almost I fled back to the whispering of forget, forget. Like seizing a sharpened blade, I gripped my anger and fear and clutched it hard. Feel the pain and feed the fury. What could my fear be to whatever she was enduring?

In the study, a kettle had been hung over the hearth: I heard the seething of boiling water. Perseverance sat dejectedly beside the fire. The tops of his cheeks were red, but his mouth was pinched white with pain. A teapot and cups were set out on a tray. Someone in the kitchen had sent along little cakes with it. A pleasant touch, I thought savagely. Remember a night of terror, and then, oh, do have a sweet cake to go with it. Chade took the box of herbs from my hands, opened it, and scowled at the contents. I offered no apologies for sometimes indulging myself. He opened the pot of elfbark and shook some into his hand. “It looks old.” He glanced up at me, the displeased teacher.

“It’s not exactly fresh,” I admitted. “But it will have to do.”

“It will.” He put a generous measure into the pot and handed it to me. I pulled the kettle back from the flames and tipped boiling water into the teapot. The once-familiar scent of elfbark tea rose to greet me, and with it a hundred memories of how often I had drunk it. There had been a time when the effort to Skill had given me pounding and nauseating headaches, the sort where spots and lines of light would dance before my eyes and every sound was a new jolt of agony. Only when the coterie had accidentally loosed that spectacular healing upon me had I become able to Skill with little to no pain. I’d never known whether to blame my earlier agonies on the beating that Skillmaster Galen had given me, or on the magical block he had put in my mind, one that fogged me and made me believe I had no talent for the Skill and little personal worth to the world. But until that healing, elfbark tea had been my consolation after serious Skill-sessions.

“Let it brew,” Chade advised me, and my mind leapt back to the present. I set the pot down on the tray. At almost the same moment, FitzVigilant returned. “I’ve sent a man and told him to take an extra mount. I could not give the best directions to Gallows Hill, but I am sure anyone in Oaksbywater can point him on his way.”

“Excellent,” Chade told him and I nodded. I was putting a measure of ground willowbark into one of the cups. I added some valerian. Chade watched me curiously. I flicked a glance at the boy. Chade nodded, and then reached past me to add an additional pinch of valerian. “Your valerian looks stale, too,” he chided me. “You should renew your stock more often.”

I said nothing to that, but nodded as I added hot water to the cup. I knew the old man would not apologize for his earlier remarks; this was his way of trying to put us back to our old foundation. I’d take it. I set the cup on the floor by Perseverance. “Let that brew for a time, and then drink it all. It won’t taste good, but it’s not about taste.”

“Is that elfbark?” he asked anxiously.

“No. It’s willowbark for your fever, and valerian to take some of the pain away. How’s your shoulder?”

“It throbs,” he admitted. “All the way to my back and up my neck.”

“The tea will help.”

He looked up at me. “Will that other tea hurt my mother? When she remembers?”

“I expect it will be hard for her. But the choice is to leave her alone for the rest of her life. She wouldn’t remember your father dying, but she’d never recall she’d had a son.”

“She’d have my aunt, and my cousins. They live down in Withy.”

“Boy?” It was FitzVigilant, cutting into our conversation. “I’ll be drinking it first. We’ll see what it does to me. Then you can decide about giving it to your mother.”

Perseverance stared up at him. “Thank you, sir,” he said doubtfully.

Lant spoke to his father. “Is it brewed enough?”

“We’ll see,” Chade said quietly. He poured some into a cup, looked at it, smelled it, and then filled the cup the rest of the way. He handed the cup to Lant. “Go slowly with it. Let us know if you sense a difference, or start to remember that night.”

Lant sat down. He looked at the tea in the cup. We were all watching him as he raised it and took a sip. He made a face. “It’s a bit too hot. And it tastes bitter.” But almost immediately he took another sip. He lifted his eyes. “Could you not stare?” he said to me. I shifted my eyes. A moment later, he said, “It’s so quiet.”

Chade and I exchanged a glance. I stole a look at Lant. He was staring at the liquid in his cup. He took a breath, as if daring himself, and then drained it down. He made a pained face and then sat still, holding the cup. He closed his eyes. His brow wrinkled and then he hunched in on himself. “Oh, sweet Eda,” he groaned. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no!”

Chade went to him. He set his hands on Lant’s shoulder and, with a tenderness I’d seldom seen in him, leaned down to say softly by his ear, “Let yourself remember. It’s the only way you can help her now. Remember it all.”

Lant bowed his face into his hands, and I suddenly saw how young he was. Not even twenty. Raised far more gently than I had been. The beating from his stepmother’s thugs might well have been the first real violence he’d experienced in his life. He’d never pulled an oar on a war galley, let alone swung an axe through a man’s midsection. Chade had already told me that Lant hadn’t been able to kill. And I’d entrusted him with Bee’s life. And Shun’s.

“Tell me what happened,” Chade said quietly. I leaned back to sit on the edge of my desk and kept perfectly still.

Lant’s voice was tight. “Well. We came back here after Badgerlock and the beggar went into the Skill-pillar. Me, and Shun—” His voice broke on her name. “And Bee. We didn’t understand any of what had happened in Oaksbywater, not why he killed a dog and then bought its puppies, nor why he stabbed the beggar and then took him by magic to Buckkeep. We, that is, Shun and I, were both rather angry about all of it. First he had said I was not competent to teach Bee and then he had gone off and left her completely in my care. And he had insulted Lady Shun as well!” Lant was suddenly just a youngster, pouring out his wrongs to Chade. The old man shot me a questioning look. I met his stare with a flat gaze of my own.

“Get to the next day,” I suggested.

At my tone, Lant straightened his back. “Yes. Well. As you might imagine, the servants, including Steward Revel, were very confused when the master of the house did not return. Shun and I assured them that we were capable of looking after Withywoods for a few days. Despite how tired we were, Shun and I sat up that night, and she undertook to plan the festivities for Winterfest. We were up very late. And so we did not rise early the next morning. I regret to say that I was late joining my students in the schoolroom. Bee was there, looking tired but otherwise fine. And when we parted that morning, Shun had said that she would speak with the staff about decorating the house and talk to the musicians who had come to see if she could not send for more entertainers.” He looked suddenly at Chade. “You said my sister was taken, earlier.” For two breaths, I watched the knowledge spread through him. “Shun is my sister? Truly? By blood?”

“You are both my offspring, both Fallstars,” Chade assured him.

Could Chade ignore the deep dismay that washed over Lant’s features? I wondered what had passed between him and Shun on the evening they had stayed up so late. I decided I never wanted to know.

“Continue,” Chade reminded Lant. The scribe had lifted his hand to cover his mouth. When he took it away, his mouth trembled for a moment before he mastered himself. He tried to sit up straighter, then winced at his wound. Chade looked at me. “Valerian and willowbark,” he requested. I took Lant’s cup and made the requested tea while I listened.

“Well, I had just settled my students when we heard noises. I was not alarmed, but puzzled. I thought it might be some sort of altercation among the servants, with pot-throwing. I told my students to stay and study and went into the hallway. I soon realized the sounds were coming from the front entrance, not the kitchens. I heard Revel’s voice raised, and I ran toward the commotion. When I got to the hall, I saw Revel there and two of the serving boys. They were trying to hold the doors closed, but someone was pounding on them and shouting. I thought perhaps we had drunken tinkers at the door. Then someone shoved a sword through the crack of the door and caught one of the serving boys in the hand. I shouted at Revel to hold the door while I got help. I went to find a sword, calling to the servants to warn Shun and to arm themselves. I took the old sword that used to be there, over the mantel. And I ran back.” He wet his lips. His gaze went distant and his breathing deepened.

“Fitz,” Chade said quietly. “Perhaps some more elfbark in that mix.”

Before I could move, Perseverance was on his feet. He brought the teapot to Lant, took the cup from his hand, and added the elfbark brew. Lant was sitting very still. Chade still stood behind him. He leaned down and said quietly, “Son, take the cup. And drink it.”

A peculiar pang passed through me. It could not have been jealousy.

Lant did as his father told him. This time, his expression scarcely changed as he set the cup back down. “I’ve never been a fighter. You know that. You both know that!” His admission sounded more like an accusation. Then his voice dropped. “I’m just not. A friendly bout, with practice blades, on a summer day with a friend and comparing bruises later is one thing. But when I went running back, the door had already given way. I saw Revel stagger past me, holding his gut. And one of the lads was on the floor in a pool of blood. The other youngster was trying to hold them off with his belt-knife. The first man through the door laughed, and cut his head off. And then it was only me in the hall, facing first one, then three, and then at least six of them. I tried to fight. I did. I was shouting for help and I tried to fight, but this wasn’t fencing, man against man. There were no rules! I engaged with one man, and a second stepped forward. I managed to hold my own but the entry hall is wide. The invaders just went around us, and I heard them running down the halls behind me. And I heard screams, and things breaking. And the man in front of me suddenly laughed.”

He looked down suddenly.

I hazarded a guess. “A man behind you attacked you? He knocked you unconscious?”

“No. No one touched me. I dropped my sword to the ground. And the two men I’d been fighting just stood and laughed at me. One gave me a hard push as I walked by him, and I didn’t care. And I walked outside and stood in the snow in front of the manor. And I still don’t know why.”

Skill-suggestion? Chade’s thought brushed lightly against mine.

I nodded, unwilling to make the effort to do more. To Skill to him, I’d have to drop my walls and let in that fog of forget, forget, forget. I would not forget. “Don’t worry about what you don’t know,” I suggested gently. “It’s obvious magic was at work. You had no way to resist it. Just tell us what you do know.”

“Yes,” he said unwillingly. But he was shaking his head no.

“Do you want more of the elfbark?” Chade asked.

“No. I remember what happened that day, and on the days since. I don’t understand it, but I recall it. I’m just ashamed to speak it aloud.”

“Lant, Fitz and I have both known our share of defeats. We’ve been burned, poisoned, beaten. And yes, we’ve been buffeted by Skill, made fools of, and done things we’re ashamed to admit. No matter what you did or didn’t do, we won’t think less of you. Your hands were bound, even if there was no rope you could see. If we are to rescue your sister and little Bee, you have to set your pride aside and just tell us what you know.”

Chade’s voice was comforting. A father’s voice. Something cynical inside me wondered if he would have been that forgiving of me, but I quenched it.

It took Lant a little time. He rocked in his chair once or twice, cleared his throat, and then said nothing. When he spoke again, his voice was higher and tighter. “I stood with the others out in the snow. People walked out of the manor and came and stood near me. There were a few men on horseback but I didn’t feel that they were keeping me there. I was afraid of them but mostly I was afraid to do anything except stay there with the others. No. Not afraid, not even reluctant. It just seemed that what I was doing was the only possible thing I could do. Everyone was there, milling about. Lots of people were weeping and agitated, but no one was talking to anyone else. No one resisted. Even the injured just stood and bled.” He paused again, his mind going back.

Bulen tapped on the door. “Sir? I am so sorry to disappoint you. I have been down to the cottages where the stableworkers live. No one there has any recollection of a lad named Perseverance or admits to being his family.”

I felt like a ninny. I looked at the boy. His eyes were dark with sorrow. He spoke softly. “It’s the third cottage. There is a hedge-witch charm over the door for good luck. And my grandfather made a doorknocker out of a cart horse’s shoe. My mother’s name is Diligent.”

Bulen was nodding. I amended his orders. “Do not make mention of her son at all. Tell her we wish to speak to her to see if she will take on some extra tasks in the kitchen.”

“Oh, she’d like that,” Perseverance said quietly. “She’s always after Da to build her an oven behind the cottage so she could bake whenever she wanted.”

“Very well, sir. And Steward Dixon sends to tell you that the guardsmen are eating everything within sight. As our larders were not well stocked this fall . . .”

Our larders had been overflowing before the raid. “Tell him to send a man and wagon to Withy and stock whatever he thinks we need for now. Next market day, he can make a trip to Oaksbywater. I will settle with the merchants later. They know we are good for it.”

“Very good, sir.” Bulen cast a worried look at FitzVigilant. He had only served him for a short time, but there was already a bond between the young men. “Is there anything I can bring for Scribe Lant?”

Lant did not even shift his eyes toward Bulen. Chade shook his head silently and the man withdrew. “Lant?” he said softly.

FitzVigilant drew a deep breath and took up his tale as if it were a heavy burden. “We were all there. And they brought out Shun and her maid. I remember I noticed that Shun was fighting them, because no one else was. She was kicking and screaming at the man who dragged her. Then from somewhere, she had a knife and she stabbed his hand. She almost broke free. He grabbed her by the shoulder and slapped her so hard that she fell. He still had to throttle the knife out of her hand. He pushed her toward us and walked away. Then she looked all around and when she saw me, she came running to me. She was screaming, ‘Do something! Why isn’t anyone doing anything?’ She threw her arms around me, but I just stood there. Then she asked me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I couldn’t think of anything wrong at all. I said we should just stand with the others. It was what I wanted to do. And she asked, ‘If it’s what they want to do, why are they moaning?’ ” He stopped and swallowed. “I listened, then. And they were. Moaning and weeping but in a disconnected way. And I realized I’d been doing it, too.”

Only Shun had fought back. Why? Had the training Chade had provided for her made her bolder than the others? I’d hired no servants for their skill with arms, but I was sure my stablefolk had seen a brawl or three. Yet no one had fought back. Except Shun. I looked at Chade. He didn’t meet my eyes, and I was forced to set the question aside for later.

“The guards on horseback started shouting at us to ‘sit down, sit down.’ Some yelled in Chalcedean, some in our tongue. I didn’t sit, because I was already too cold and there was snow on the ground. And I felt that as long as I stayed with the others in the carriage turnaround, I was doing what I should be doing. One of the men started making threats. He was looking for someone, a pale boy, and said he would kill us all if we did not turn him over to them. I knew of no such lad, and apparently no one else did. There was Oak, who you had hired as a serving man. He was blond, but scarcely a boy. But someone said to one of the men that he was the only towhead working at Withywoods. He was standing not far from me. And the man who was asking rode his horse over to Oak, looked down on him, and then pointed. ‘Him?’ he shouted at this other man. He was dressed all in white, and though he looked like a prosperous merchant, his face was a boy’s. He shook his head and the man on the horse was suddenly very angry. ‘Not him!’ he shouted and then he leaned down and slashed Oak’s throat with his sword. And he fell into the snow, with the blood leaping from the wound. He lifted his hand to his throat, as if he could hold it back. But he couldn’t. He looked right at me until he died. Blood steams when the day is that cold. I never knew that. And I just watched.

“But Shun didn’t. She screamed, and cursed the man on the horse, saying she would kill him. She started to run at him. And I didn’t know why, but I caught hold of her arm and tried to hold her back. I struggled with her. And a man on a horse rode over and kicked me hard in the head, so I let go of her. Then he leaned down and thrust his sword through me. And he laughed as I fell right onto Oak’s body. His blood was still warm. I remember that.”

Oak. A young man hired to help serve the dinners. A smiling young man, unlearned at serving in a house, but always smiling, and so proud of his new livery. Oak, a lifeless body, seeping red into white snow. He had come to us from Withy. Did his parents wonder yet why he had not come home to visit?

There was a noise at the door. It was Thick, coming back with a platter of little raisin cakes. He was smiling as he offered them to us. He looked puzzled when Chade and Lant and I shook our heads. Perseverance took one, but held it in his hand. Thick smiled and sat down on the hearth with the plate on his lap. He made a great show of choosing one. His simple enjoyment of a little cake rang sharply against my heart. Why could not it be my little girl, my Bee, sitting there with a whole plate of cakes to herself and no worries?

Lant had paused, his brow furrowed. He looked up at Chade, as if to find what the old man thought of his words. Chade’s face was expressionless. “Go on,” he said in a voice both quiet and wooden.

“I don’t remember anything after that. Not until I woke very late at night. I was alone in the carriageway. Oak’s body was gone, and it was fully dark, except for the light from the stables. They were burning. But no one was paying any attention to the fire. I didn’t think about any of that, then. I didn’t notice Oak’s body was gone or that the stables were burning. I got up. I felt very dizzy and the pain in my arm and shoulder was terrible, and I was so cold I was shaking all over. I staggered inside and went to my room. Bulen was there, and he said he was glad to see me. And I told him I’d been hurt. And he bandaged me and helped me to bed, and said Old Rosie the shepherd’s granny was in the manor doing some healing. And she came and saw to my shoulder.”

“Bulen didn’t ride to Withy to get a real healer? Or to Oaksbywater?” Chade was obviously appalled that someone’s granny had tended to his son’s sword wound.

Lant knit his brows. “No one wanted to leave the house and grounds. And no one wanted any strangers to come in. We all agreed on that. Just as we agreed that someone must have been drunk and careless to burn the stables. But none of us really cared. I could not recall how I had been injured. Some said there had been a drunken brawl, others that there were injuries from the stable fire. But no one was clear about what had happened. And we didn’t care, really. It wasn’t something to dwell on.” He looked up at Chade suddenly, a piercing, pleading look. “What did they do to me? How did they do that?”

“We think they imposed a strong Skill-suggestion on you and the others. And then suggested that you keep reinforcing it with one another. You were all to refuse to remember, to not think about it, to be unwelcoming to outsiders, and to have no desire to leave the estate. It was the perfect way to cover up what had happened here.”

“Was it my fault? Was I weak, that they could do that to me?” There was agony in that question.

“No.” Chade was very certain. “It was not your fault. A person with great Skill-talent can impose his will on another and make him believe almost anything. It was one of King Verity’s best weapons against the Red Ships during the war.” More softly he added, “I never thought to see it used like this, within Buck’s boundaries. It took tremendous strength and Skill to do this. Who has that sort of knowledge of the magic? And that sort of talent for it?”

“I could do that,” Thick announced. “I know how to do it now. Make a music to forget, forget, and make them all sing the same song, over and over. Probably not hard. I just never thought of doing that before. I could do that if you want?”

I don’t think I have ever heard more chilling words. Thick and I were friends now, but in the past, we had had our differences. For the most part, the simple man had a generous heart. But crossed, he had proved he was capable of making me so clumsy that I constantly barked my shins or bumped my head in doorways. His magical strength was far beyond my own. Should he ever decide that I should forget something, would I even know he had done it? I lifted my eyes and met Chade’s gaze. I saw the same thought in his eyes.

“Didn’t say I would do it,” Thick reminded us. “Just said I could do it.”

“I think taking someone’s memories is wrong and bad,” I said. “Like taking someone’s coins or their sweets.”

Thick’s tongue had curled over his upper lip. It was his thinking expression. “Yah,” he replied gravely. “Probably bad.”

Chade had picked up my teapot and was weighing it thoughtfully in his hand. “Thick. Could you make a song that let people remember? Not one that forced people to remember, but one that told them they could remember if they wanted to.”

“Don’t do it yet!” I intervened. “Think about it, and tell us if you think it can be done. But maybe we shouldn’t do that, either.”

“Do you think we have enough elfbark to make tea for all of Withywoods? Even if a courier brings my supply also? Fitz, with every minute, every hour, Bee and Shun may be in greater danger. At the very least, they are moving away from us. At worst, well, I refuse to consider the worst. But we need to know what happened after Lant was knocked unconscious. We both know that their tracks are totally obscured by now, with all the snow and wind we’ve had. And if the raiders can make Withywoods folk forget what happened here, can they make folk forget they’ve seen them passing? As we’ve had no news of strangers in this part of Buck, I consider that likely. So our only hope is to find out who they were and what their plans were. They came a long way and apparently made very elaborate plans to get something. What?”

“Who,” Lant corrected him. “They wanted a pale boy.”

“The Unexpected Son,” I said quietly. “From the White Prophecies. Chade, the Fool told me that was why he was tortured. The Servants are looking for the next White Prophet, and they thought the Fool would know where to find him.”

A tap at the door turned my gaze that way. Bulen poked his head in. “Sir, I’ve brought her.”

“Please bring her in,” I invited him. As Bulen opened the door and the woman entered, Perseverance came to his feet. He stared at her with dog’s eyes. I saw his lip quiver and then he clenched his jaws.

I had possibly met his mother when I first came to Withywoods, but I doubted our paths had crossed much since then. She was a typical Buck woman, with curly black hair bundled into a lace net at the back of her head and soft brown eyes. She was slender for a woman of her years, and her clothing was well cared for. She bobbed a curtsy to us and politely but eagerly asked about the position in the kitchen. I let Chade reply.

“This lad who has worked in the stables says you have a reputation as an excellent baker.”

Diligent turned a polite smile on Perseverance but showed no sign of recognition. Chade continued, “I understand that you live in the cottages used by the stable hands. We are looking into the stable fire that happened on Winterfest eve. Lives were lost in that fire, and we are trying to get an accurate accounting of how it may have started. Did you know any of the stable hands?”

Such a direct question. It was as if someone had flapped a black rag behind her eyes. There was a moment when she did not seem to see us or be in the room with us. Then she was back. She shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t believe I do.”

“I see. And I’ve forgotten my manners, asking you here on such a cold day and offering you no comfort. Please. Do sit down. We’ve some cakes here. And may I pour a cup of tea for you? It’s a special brew from Buckkeep Castle itself.”

“Why, thank you, sir. That would be kind.” Bulen brought her a chair and she sat carefully, arranging her skirts so they fell smoothly. As Chade poured tea and brought it to her, she offered, “You know, you might ask Hawthorn at the end of the lane. Her boy works in the stables; they might know.”

Chade brought her the cup himself. “It can be a bit strong. Let us know if you’d care for some honey,” he said as he gave it to her.

She smiled as she accepted the pretty china cup. “Thank you,” she said, and took a sip. She puckered her mouth in surprise at the bitterness, but she smiled. “It is a bit strong,” she said politely.

“It’s something of a tonic,” Chade told her. “I enjoy the vigor it seems to give me, especially on chill winter days.” He gave her his most charming smile.

“Indeed, does it?” she asked. “At my age, I could use a bit of that!” She smiled back at him and took a second, polite sip. As she lowered the cup to the saucer, her face changed. The cup chattered on the saucer as her hand began to tremble. Chade rescued it from her failing grip. Her hands rose first to cover her mouth, and then to picket her whole face. She bowed forward from the waist. She began to shake badly and the first sound that came out of her was not a woman weeping but an animal’s low cry of agony.

Perseverance flew across the room. He knelt before her and put his good arm around her. He did not tell her that it would be all right. He said nothing, but put his cheek beside hers. No one in the room spoke as she continued to grieve. After a time, she lifted her head, put her arms around her son, and said, “I sent you away. How can you ever forgive me? You were all I had left, and I sent you away.”

“I’m here now. Oh, Ma, I thank Eda you know me.” He lifted his head and looked at me. “Thank you, sir. I’ve got my ma back. Thank you.”

“What happened to me?” The query was a shaking moan.

“A bad magic,” the stable boy comforted her. “The same bad magic that happened to everyone else here. It made everyone forget what happened on Winterfest eve. Everyone but me.” He knit his brows. “Why not me?”

Chade and I conferred with a look. Neither of us had an answer. Thick spoke in a soft voice. “’Cause they didn’t have you with the others. When they told them to sing the forgetting song. So they couldn’t make you forget. And you don’t hear the song at all. Not any songs.” He looked sad for the boy.

Bulen startled us all when he strode forward. I’d almost forgotten he was in the room. Without a word, he lifted the cup from the saucer Chade still held. He drained off the cup of tea, stood like a statue, and then, unbidden, sank into a nearby chair. For a time, he simply sat. When he looked up, his face was pale. “I was there,” he said. He rolled a glance at Lant. “I saw them kick you in the head, after they stabbed you, and I stood there. I saw that same horseman knock Lady Shun to the ground. He called her filthy names and said if she dared to get up, he would—” He paused, obviously sickened. “He threatened her. Then they herded us into a tighter group, as if we were sheep being bunched. And other people came to join us, the folk from the cottages. A lot of the children had been hiding somewhere, but they came out in a group. And the soldiers began to shout at us about a pale boy.

“Then a woman came out of the manor. I’d never seen her before. She was dressed all in white, very warmly. At first she scolded the old man in charge. He was cruel and seemed to care little about what she said. She was angry that people had been killed. The bodies would have to be dealt with, and it would make everything harder to conceal. She said he had done it badly, that it was not the path she had wanted. And he told her to leave him to the business of war, that she had no idea how territory was captured. And that when they had finished, they could set fire to the stables and get rid of the bodies that way. I could tell she was not happy with him.

“But when she turned to us, she was calm and smiling. She didn’t yell. She spoke so kindly that all I wanted was to find whatever would please her. She was seeking a boy or a young man who had come recently to stay with us. She promised they were not there to hurt him, only to take him back to where he belonged. Someone, Tavia, I think, shouted that they’d killed the only young man who had recently joined us. But the woman began to walk among us, looking each of us in the face. I think someone was with her . . .” Bulen’s voice and expression went bland. I sensed he pushed against a barrier he could not pass. There was yet another layer to all this.

“You!” Bulen said suddenly. He pointed a finger at Perseverance. “It was you on the brown horse, and Lady Bee on the gray, wasn’t it? Everything changed in the instant. The woman was urging and urging us to think of a boy who had come recently, and then one of the soldiers shouted and pointed, and we all looked. And you were running the horses dead-out, and then three of the soldiers wheeled their horses about and went after you. Including that cruel old man. And one was drawing his bow and shooting as he rode. I remember seeing him do that, guiding the horse with his knees.”

“He got me, too,” Perseverance said quietly. He lifted his good hand to his bandaged shoulder. His mother gave a gasp and pulled him closer.

“For a short time, while they were chasing you, there were just a few soldiers guarding us. And I remember that we started talking, asking one another what was going on, how had this happened? It was like waking from sleepwalking . . .” His gaze was unfocused. “But then we all calmed down. And there were other people there, younger and, well, softer people in the pale clothing. They were walking among us, telling us to be calm, be calm. They looked worried, but were trying to reassure us. For a time, though, I think I knew how wrong everything was. I knelt down by Lant because Shun was there, crying over him. And I told her he wasn’t dead. Then the round-faced woman came back and she had Bee with her. But Bee looked as if she were asleep with her eyes open. She was calling to everyone that they had found him, they’d found an unexpected son. I remember now, I thought they meant the stable boy. But she had Bee with her and . . . someone else. Someone . . .”

Again he floundered, reaching after something buried beyond his ability to recall it. I heard his words with a rising chill in my heart. They’d captured Bee. And spoken of the Unexpected Son, the child from the White Prophecies. The boy upon whom the fate of the world turned. Once, the Fool had believed that was me. And now he thought it was a son he’d left behind, a child he had fathered without knowing he’d done it. However he meant those peculiar words. I could not imagine why anyone might think it was my daughter. The drive to do something, to do anything, was rising in me, an irrational storm that insisted I could not simply wait and gather information.

Bulen was speaking again. “They wrapped her in white robes and put her on their sleigh, as if she were a princess. By then the soldiers were back, circling us. And I couldn’t think of anything else to do but wait and see what would happen. It just seemed the only proper thing to do was to be in that huddle of people.”

I asked the question. “You think they believed Bee was the boy they were looking for? The Unexpected Son?”

Bulen hesitated. “So they behaved, sir. After they had her, they stopped seeking for him.”

“I remember all that,” Diligent said as I was still trying to picture Bee as a boy. “I was in the cottage, putting a mend in Tallerman’s good jacket and thinking about the fun we’d have at Midwinterfest. He was such a dancer!” Her voice caught on a sob, but she went on, “I was fretting that Perseverance had outgrown his good shirt and wondering if I could let it out any more for one more wearing. Then, suddenly, for no reason I can think of now, I decided I wanted to go up to the manor. I didn’t wait, I left the cottage just as I was and walked up to the manor. Everyone from the cottages was going, just as if it were time for Winterfest, but no one was laughing or talking. We just all wanted to go to the manor. On the way, I walked right past the stables. They were on fire but I didn’t think that was terrible. I didn’t stop or call out to anyone . . .” Her voice faltered and I saw her wonder if her husband and father-in-law had still been alive; if she could have had one last word with them.

“Everyone was already dead, Ma.” Perseverance spoke the words aloud, and the woman gave a sudden sob. She clutched her son as if he were the last bit of floating wreckage in a stormy sea. Her grief strangled her into silence.

Bulen spoke into that gulf. “Yes. The cottage folk came, and the children. The children were coming willingly, but some of the soldiers were mocking them. I saw one of the men seize a little kitchen girl . . .”

The color left his face and his mouth fell ajar. For a time, none of us spoke. “They were brutes,” Diligent said at last. “And we were like sheep. I watched the stables burn, and we heard the screams of the horses left inside. Some of the beasts must have broken loose, for a few fled. I just watched the flames and I didn’t even wonder where my husband was, or my son. It was just a thing that was happening.”

“Did they take Lady Shun?” Chade’s voice was heavy with fear. It was unlike him to interrupt anyone giving such a complete telling of events, but I knew he could not stand the suspense. He had to know. I didn’t blame him.

“Yes. They did.” Bulen spoke with certainty. “It happened later. It was evening. They had placed Bee on the sleigh. I seem to remember the woman urging the soldiers to leave as soon as possible. But the soldiers were looting and feasting on food from the kitchens and . . . taking the young women. The women were . . . empty. As if they did not care or notice, and one man complained it was not . . . satisfactory. The kind woman finally talked them into leaving, but the angry soldier dragged Shun away from the others. She was resisting, when no one else was. He threw her down in the snow. And he, he began to, he intended to rape her.”

Lant made a sound in the back of his throat. I glanced at him. His face was in his hands. Chade was as pale as chalk but silent.

“She was fighting back, but not with any hope of winning. And I, I was just watching it happen. As you watch snow fall or wind move in the trees. I am so ashamed to say that. Not a man of Withywoods objected or raised a hand to stop him. But suddenly Bee came running and threw herself on the man. He flung her aside, but Bee was shouting that she would die if they hurt Shun. And a whole swarm of the pale people attacked the soldier then and dragged him off Lady Shun.”

“Then she was not violated?” Chade barely had breath to push the words out.

Bulen looked at him. He flushed a deep scarlet and lowered his eyes in shame. “Then? No. But before then, or after they took her, I cannot say.” He lifted his gaze and met Chade’s eyes with honest pain. “I consider it likely.”

Lant groaned aloud.

Chade rose abruptly. “A moment,” he said in a voice I did not recognize, and hurried out of the room.

“Lad.” Bulen spoke quietly. “Please forgive me for doubting you.”

Before Perseverance could speak, his mother let out a loud wail. “All I had left, and I turned you from my door! What would your father have said to me? Oh, son, son, whatever shall we do now? How shall we earn our bread?” She clutched at Perseverance and sobbed against him. The boy had gone pale. He gave me a look and then spoke to her bowed head.

“I’ve sworn myself to Badgerlock, Mother. I’ll earn our keep. Only he’s not Badgerlock. Grandfather was right. He is truly FitzChivalry Farseer and he’s accepted me into his service. I will take care of you.”

“Truly?” It was Bulen who spoke. “He is truly FitzChivalry, the Witted . . . Farseer?” He near fell over his tongue dodging the word bastard.

“He is,” Perseverance said proudly before I could think of a sufficient lie.

“He is,” Lant echoed. “But I thought it was to be kept always a secret.” He stared at me in consternation.

“It was an interesting Winterfest at Buckkeep Castle,” I said, and his eyes grew rounder.

“Then everyone knows?”

“Not in full.” But now they would. The woven lies of decades were suddenly unraveling. How much of the truth could I bear?

Before anyone could speak again, Chade walked back into the room. He looked cadaverous. His voice was hoarse and thick. “They seem to have struck first at the stables and then destroyed the messenger birds. We must now speak with anyone who may have survived that first part of the attack.” He cleared his throat. “Eventually, we will speak with everyone who endured this. But we must start at the beginning.”

Chapter Fifteen


Let there be made a great record of every dream that has been recorded. Even more important, as the shaysims share dreams with us, let each dream be recorded, not once, but for each element of the dream. Let there be a record of dreams of horses, of trees, of acorns or apples, and so on. So that when there is a mustering of cavalry, or a fire sweeps through the forests, we can look and see if this event was foretold. And soon, as the Servants study well the dreams, I foretell that we shall see the patterns for ourselves, and then make ourselves the judgments as to what must be enabled and what must be hindered.

—Servant Cetchua of the 41st Line

Chade was true to his word. Long after I thought we had every bit of information that we could use, he continued to summon my folk to the study and offer them elfbark tea. In a soft conversation, we had decided against Thick’s “remembering song.” The tea was working and we needed results more than we needed to experiment with the Skill. We took the safe road. Nettle’s courier from Buckkeep arrived with the supply of the Outislander elfbark known as delvenbark from Chade’s hoard. When my older and less potent stock gave out, Chade began to brew tea with the more virulent form of the herb. Even the smell of it made me giddy, and Thick left the study and would not return. Dixon returned with supplies from Withy and demanded to know how many folk the kitchen should expect for dinner. I was less patient with him than I might have been. Pragmatically, Chade and I decided that neither Dixon nor any of the kitchen staff were to be restored until after the evening meal was prepared and served.

The captain of the Rousters returned to report to us that no one they encountered on any of the main roads or even the lesser trails had any recollection of a troop of soldiers and several large sleighs. He was obviously disappointed that no one would claim Chade’s reward but by that time, neither Chade nor I was surprised at his news. With every piece of evidence of how well they had planned their attack and escape, my heart sank. I was virtually certain the raiders were the Servants that the Fool had described. He had said they would stop for nothing in their quest for the Unexpected Son.

“So why take our daughters?” Chade demanded in an almost-quiet moment between victims of our tea.

I spoke aloud my best theory. “As hostages. They think we know where this other child is, and so they take our daughters to hold hostage. If I am correct, they will soon send some sort of a message, offering to exchange our children for the boy they seek.”

Chade shook his head. “They should have sent the message already, then. Or left it here for us to find. Why cover their tracks so well if they only wanted to frighten us? And why brutalize Shine, if they hope to sell her back to me? Why treat Bee like a princess and drag Shine off as if she were plunder?”

I had one other possible theory. “Bulen said they seemed to think Bee was the boy they sought. The Unexpected Son.”

He frowned at me in consternation. “You think that is possible? Does your daughter look like a boy?”

“Not to me,” I said tersely. Then I had to add, “But she is not fond of ruffles or lace. Nor is she the most feminine of little girls.” I thought of her in her tunic and leggings, with dirt on her knees. Her hair chopped short for mourning. “I’m going back to Buckkeep,” I announced, surprising even myself.

“Why?” Chade demanded.

“Because I need to talk to the Fool. I need to tell him what has happened here, describe the people involved, and see if he has any insights into what they might want and where they might take our daughters. I doubt you will wring much more from my folk.” I did not admit that I dreaded hearing what my kitchen servants would recall, especially little Elm. Several of the stablefolk had been reduced to incoherency when given the tea and allowed to recall what they had experienced. Families had been decimated by the silent slaughter in the stables. With each retainer re-woken to that horror, the susurrus of forget, forget, forget lessened. Even those who had not yet been dosed appeared uneasy now, and as each person who entered my study emerged weeping or silent or drained, the atmosphere of dread in the manor increased. When I left my study, I noticed servants staring at the damaged doors or slashed tapestries as they came to terms with what they had experienced, forgotten, and now recalled.

Chade cleared his throat, drawing my wandering attention back. “We will both return to Buckkeep. I suggest that after the evening meal we summon all the remaining servants and offer them the tea together. We can ask then for specific information about the appearance of the invaders and the fate of Shine and Bee. I doubt that we shall discover much that is new, but we would be foolish to ignore the chance that any one of them might hold one more hint of what we are up against.”

I resented that he was right. I longed to do something more than sit and listen to my people recount how they had been brutalized. I excused myself from the remainder of his tea parties, knowing that if he discovered anything of great significance, he would summon me. I checked on Thick to be sure he was occupied and comfortable, and found him with FitzVigilant. No. Lant, I reminded myself. A bastard, but never Vigilant’s. The two were well known to each other from their time together at Buckkeep and I was pleased that Lant seemed genuinely fond of Thick. A somewhat subdued Lant was allowing Thick to draw on the wax tablets we had acquired for his students, and he was fascinated that he could scribe onto the surface and then watch it smoothed away.

I left them and moved slowly through Withywoods. Nowhere could I hide from the disaster that had befallen me. The faces of the servants I encountered were pale and troubled. The raiders had wantonly destroyed items too large to carry off with them. Blinded by forgetfulness, my people had not cleaned or repaired any of the damage. An arc of blood droplets on one wall spoke of someone’s death; I did not even know whose.

My people and my home, I would have said at one time. I’d been proud of how I’d taken care of the folk here, paid them well, and treated them well. Now that illusion was as broken as a smashed egg. I’d failed to protect them. The pretty rainbow of rooms that we had restored for Bee and Shun seemed a useless vanity. The heart of my home had been stolen; I could not even bring myself to visit the mounded snow on Molly’s grave. As a holder and as a father, I had failed miserably. I’d grown slovenly and careless, let my guard down so far that it had protected nothing at all. I could not distinguish the shame I felt from the fear that coiled and writhed in my guts. Was Bee alive and abused and terrified? Or dead and discarded in the snow at the edge of some seldom-used road? If they believed her the son and discovered she was a girl, how would they react? None of my answers to that question pleased me. Would they torment her before they killed her? Did they torture her even now, as they had tortured the Fool? I could not stand to consider those questions and I could not afford to focus on them.

I put people to work. It was the only exercise I knew that might occupy their minds as they absorbed what had been done to them. I visited the temporary quarters for what horses remained to us and found my stableworkers already mustering there. I spoke briefly of our losses, and listened longer to what they had to tell me. None of them faulted me, and somehow that woke the coals of my shame and guilt to a hotter fire. I told Cinch to step up to being stablemaster for Withywoods. He’d served under Tallerman, and I valued Perseverance’s tight nod to my decision. I gave him the authority to send for carpenters and lumber, and to order the cleanup of the burnt building.

“We’ll set a fire and burn what remains, then,” he informed me. “There are bodies of men in there, alongside the remains of creatures they cared for. We’ll let them go to smoke and ash together, and this time as they burn, we’ll remember well who they were.”

I thanked him. My hair had not grown much in the months since I’d sheared it for Molly’s death; I could not even band it into a warrior’s tail. But with my knife I cut as long a lock as I could from my scalp and gave it to Cinch, asking that he be sure it was burned when they torched the stable again. He took my emblem of mourning from me gravely and promised me it would burn alongside his own.

I asked for a keeper for the messenger birds, and a woman of perhaps fourteen years presented herself, saying it had been her parents’ task and now it would be her own. A shy young man from the stables said he’d be certain to help her tidy the dovecote and she accepted his offer gratefully.

And so it went. Dixon was blithely forgetful still, but many of my household staff had begun to get back to work. By the time I returned to the manor, I found that several damaged tapestries had been removed, and the front entry doors temporarily repaired so that they could fully close.

The evening meal was a gloomy affair. The captain of the Rousters joined us at table with his lieutenant. Captain Stout was a match for me in years and had belatedly connected that Tom Badgerlock and FitzChivalry Farseer were one and the same. He surprised me by recalling my duties against the Forged during the Red-Ship Wars. “That was dirty, bloody work. Dangerous, too. I admired you then. Not always in the years that followed, but I always knew you had grit.” Plainspoken he was, and direct. He’d been commander of the Rousters for two years now and was well on the way to making something of them other than a band of brigands and horse thieves.

His lieutenant, Crafty, however, was a different sort of fellow. He seemed quite satisfied with himself and smiled and winked at every serving maid who ventured into the hall. For their part, they were either horrified or terrified at his flagrant flirtation, a reaction that at first seemed to puzzle and then insult him. The food set out was plain and simple, products of a greatly reduced larder, and the captain looked pained when Crafty observed that they were accustomed to better fare at Buckkeep Castle. I refrained from replying that we were accustomed to better manners at Withywoods. The serving staff moved awkwardly through their duties, scarcely able to keep their minds on their tasks, and I was quietly incensed to see Crafty’s barely masked disdain for our rural hospitality.

But what followed was worse. We summoned everyone who served in Withywoods, tall or small, to gather in the Great Hall. There we brewed the elfbark tea in a great cauldron in the hearth. Those who had already imbibed stood grim-faced and silent, ready to offer comfort to those who would soon share what they knew. Tattered remnants of the Winterfest decorations, hung for a celebration that never had been, still dangled on the walls. I ordered spirits and ale and wine, not judging any who might wish to find courage in those. Chade, Thick, and I took seats at the high table. Lant and Bulen were placed in charge of ladling tiny servings of the potent tea into cups. Together they gravely bore the hard task of watching folk, one by one, transform from confused to grieved or shattered. Of each they asked two questions: Do you recall anything that might identify the raiders? And, Did you see aught of Lady Shun or small Lady Bee?

Most of what we sieved from them was useless, or information we already had. One avaricious rapist was described to us in detail four times. So handsome, and so cruel. Golden hair worn in two long braids, blue eyes, and a finely trimmed mustache and beard. But it was an older man with dirty hands who stank that my kitchen maid remembered vividly. Little Elm became hysterical and the healer carried her off to a warmed bed and valerian tea laced with brandy, her mother tottering along beside her.

The Rousters and their officers withdrew to one end of the hall, with a keg of ale. Chade requested that the captain keep order among their men. Captain Stout seemed to grasp the situation, and sternly ordered his men not to mingle with the Withywoods folk. They obeyed, but even from a distance I was aware of their coarse humor and callous attitude toward my shattered people. War and hardship had hardened them; I understood that, but it did not mean that I wished to see my own folk mocked or disdained that they were not likewise hardened.

Was it only yesterday that I had stood in Buckkeep Castle and been hailed as Prince FitzChivalry, crowned with steel and welcomed home? And now, here in my own home, I listened to wailing and shrieks, or saw men struck dumb by the memory of what they had witnessed and done. Shepherd Lin stood before me and begged my forgiveness for how, at the bidding of the pleasant woman, he had helped to gather bodies and throw them into the flames. It shamed me to see the man so broken by what he had done under a magical influence. Chade confirmed with him that Shun had not been among those he had burned.

And so that long evening went. As the undercurrent of tiny Skill-voices muttering forget, forget faded, I was able to reach for Nettle. She locked her mind to mine, looked through my eyes, and heard with my ears the full tale of the woes of Withywoods. It was not long before I felt Riddle lending her strength, and soon Dutiful joined us, with Steady supporting the coterie. There was a thin comfort in opening my mind to theirs and letting them know all I had gleaned. I felt Nettle’s agony at the uncertainty of Bee’s fate, and Dutiful’s fury that such a thing could happen within Buck, and no one the wiser. I felt a deep and agonized sorrow for the death of Revel and was surprised to sense it was Riddle’s. I offered them no excuses for my failure. I had none. Like a travesty of Winterfest, the gathering was a dance of sorrow and horror, a feast of bitter tea and tears.

But all fires, of wood or grief, burn down to ashes eventually. The Great Hall emptied slowly. Folk returned to cottages or bedchambers, some emptier than they should have been. Some went drunk, some coldly sober. Even the Rousters eventually trundled drunkenly from my hall to their beds in the servants’ wing. Lant sent Bulen to get what rest he could, and I firmly insisted that Perseverance return to his mother’s cottage. “But I’m sworn to you now,” he insisted, and I had to tell him, “And I tell you where your duty is this night. Go.” At last only Chade and Lant and I remained. Thick had been long abed. The little man tired easily these days, and I had seen no reason to expose him to such pain. Chade and I sat together on a cushioned bench before the last of the fire. Lant sat morosely alone, staring into the dying flames.

So. What is the plan? This from King Dutiful.

Tomorrow, early, I return to Buckkeep. I intend to share all this with the Fool and see if he can make sense of it.

Is it wise, to use the stones again so soon? This from Nettle.

Need demands it, I responded.

And I, also. Chade surprised me.

I started to object and then silenced myself. His daughter was at as great a risk as my own. Who was I to warn him to avoid using the stones again?

Lord Golden, Dutiful began, and then halted the thought.

What of him? I demanded, my heart sinking.

He was extremely upset that you were gone. Dutiful’s dismay was plain. There was no reasoning with him. He shouted and ranted like a spoiled child.

Like a terrified child, I thought to myself.

He said that he must go with you, that you must not leave him. We did our best to calm him, but to no avail. At last he became exhausted and went back to his bed. We thought he would sleep long, and we left him alone. But he must have arisen shortly after we left him. And somehow, he tottered from Chade’s old lair out into the main corridors of Buckkeep and almost to the stables. He was found in the morning, facedown in the snow there. Fitz, he is worse, much worse, than when you left here. I’m sorry. Dutiful’s apology betrayed what he expected. The Fool was dying.

I’d lost everything. Not just my friend, but any clues to what the kidnappers would do with my daughter. A terrible weariness engulfed me, followed by numbness. I could think of no response.

Inform Ash that he is to keep a constant watch on the Fool, and do all he can for his comfort and well-being. We will come in the morning, Chade replied decisively.

I felt their confusion and despair, but could make no reply. Enough for tonight, Chade added, and I felt our connections ebb and fail.

I drew breath but Chade spoke before I could. He took my forearm in a grip that still retained a great deal of iron. “I know what you are thinking. No. Tonight we will sleep, tomorrow we will eat, and then we will set forth for the stone on Gallows Hill. We both know we dare danger. We will do it, but together and not in a stupid fashion. You can do nothing for the Fool that is not already being done. Our daughters depend on us. We go as competent assassins, not as panicked fathers.”

I hated his words because they made sense. Delaying was the last thing I wanted to do, but he had not released my arm. “Doing something stupid and reckless is not a better proof of your love than doing something measured and powerful. You are no longer the boy who chased Regal’s coterie through the halls of Buckkeep Castle with a bared blade. You are Prince FitzChivalry Farseer. And we will make them pay with every drop of their blood.”

Isn’t it strange how wise counsel can cool the hottest head? He made sense but my heart screamed protest. I nodded slowly.

“I’m off to bed,” Chade said. He tilted his head and looked at his son. “Lant? You mustn’t blame yourself.”

Lant nodded but did not look away from the flames. I left them there and went to my bedchamber.

But that does not mean that I slept well that night. The damage in my room snagged my eyes, and I imagined the men who had ransacked my home. I rose in the hours before dawn and went to Bee’s room. Someone had been in there. Her new wardrobe had been righted, and the vandalized room tidied as much as was possible. I sat down on her bed and then sprawled there, hugging the pillow that had cradled her head. No scent of her remained to comfort me. I did not sleep again. Before dawn, I returned to my room and packed a handful of items. A change of clothing, the tools of my trade, Bee’s journal. Then I went to her room and selected clothing for her, including her new cloak. When I found her, perhaps these things would be a comfort to her, a promise of normality again.

Chade and I were joined at our early breakfast by Captain Stout and Lieutenant Crafty. They would accompany us to Gallows Hill while Sergeant Goodhand would be left in charge of the Rousters. They would return our mounts to Withywoods. We had decided to leave Thick behind. Chade wished to have easy contact with Lant, and we did not wish to risk Thick in another trip through the stones so soon. It was agreed that when we judged enough time had passed, Thick would return through the stones with Nettle’s journeyman Skill-user and Sildwell. Chade had arranged it all, including mounts to meet us when we emerged at the Witness Stones near Buckkeep.

I gave Dixon instructions to summon back the carpenters and joiners and have them begin repairs immediately. Lant begged to go with us, but we both judged him too weakened and commended him to Bulen’s care. Privately, I knew that we wanted to go alone, men on a mission. As we waited for our horses to be brought round, I looked at the old man, so bravely trussed into his girdle that he might stand straight, and knew that there was no one else I would rather have at my side. We would not judge each other in what we intended to do to those who had taken our daughters. I was not sure if his health would stand up to our task—and I knew there was no way to persuade him to stay behind. I clung firmly to the belief that the Fool would have some clue that would put us on the trail of the kidnappers. And when we found them, we would kill them.

Perseverance brought the horses. Chade looked at Lord Derrick’s roan mare and an almost-smile twitched his mouth. “A fine mount,” he observed.

“I only steal the best,” I admitted.

To my surprise, Perseverance was mounted and leading Bee’s gray. His arm was bound across his chest, but he sat his horse firmly. “We don’t need Bee’s horse,” I told him.

“I should bring her, sir. Bee will want to ride her home.”

I gave the boy a look. “You aren’t coming with me, lad. You’re hurt and your mother needs you.”

“I told her I was sworn to you. She understood.” He sat a little straighter. “And Lady Bee will expect it of me.”

That choked me. I spoke past the tightness in my throat. “We are not going by a road where anyone can follow. We are not even going to take the horses we are riding. You can’t go with us, Perseverance, though I admire your courage. When it is time for Bee to ride again, I promise you will be with her.”

Just the slightest tremble of his lower lip betrayed him. “Sir,” he said, not agreeing but obeying. I nodded to him, then Chade and I mounted and joined the waiting officers. Once I had loved the carriageway in winter, the white-barked birches burdened with snow arching over it. But today, in the dim morning light, I felt we traveled through a tunnel of gloom. The two Rousters were happy to precede us. They rode side by side, conversing sporadically. Chade and I rode stirrup-to-stirrup, not speaking as the cold stiffened our faces.

By the time we entered the main road, the sun had summoned a bit more strength. The day warmed, but not appreciably. At any other time, the roan mare would have been a pleasure to ride. I wondered idly how many people knew that Prince FitzChivalry had stolen a horse, or if Dutiful had somehow smoothed it over. I tried to feel shame, but could not. I had needed her and I took her. I would do it again. I sensed agreement from my mount but chose to ignore it.

I glanced over at Chade. Once my teacher had been a faded old man, the burn-pocks obvious on his pale face. When he had finally emerged into Buckkeep society after years in the spy-warren he had seemed to drop more than a score of years. He had laughed, eaten elaborate meals, ridden to the hunt, and danced as lively as a youth. For a short time, he had recaptured a few of the years denied to him. Now he was truly old, aged by years rather than circumstance. But he sat his horse well and held his head high. He would display no weakness to the world. No stranger would have suspected he was a man agonizing over a missing daughter. He had dressed precisely, in fine Buck-blue garments and gleaming black boots. He had a classic profile, his beard trimmed neatly, his leather-gloved hands holding his reins easily.

“What?” he demanded in a soft voice.

I’d been staring at him as I mused. “I’m glad of you. That’s all. In this hard time, I’m glad of you. That we’ll ride together.”

He gave me an unreadable glance. Even more softly, he said, “Thank you, my boy.”

“A question?”

“Why bother asking me that when you know you’ll ask it anyway?”

“The boy Ash. Your apprentice. Is he yours, too?”

“My son, you mean? No. I’ve only the two, Lant and Shine.” In a lowered voice, he added, “I hope I still have two.”

“He’s a fine apprentice.”

“I know. He’ll stay with me, that one. He’s got the edge.” He glanced at me. “Your boy. That Perseverance. He’s a good one. Keep him. When you were out of the room, I asked him, ‘If all the others were summoned to come to the front of the manor and assembled, why weren’t you?’ And he said, ‘I felt that I wanted to go there and be with the others, but I knew my duty was to guard Bee. So I didn’t go.’ He resisted what I suspect was a strong Skill-suggestion to do his best to protect your daughter.”

I nodded, and wondered if a stable boy had known his duty better than I had known mine.

A silence fell between us. Oh, Bee, where are you? Do you know I’m coming after you? How could she? Why would she think I’d bother coming for her when I’d abandoned her before? I fenced the question with stone. Focus on finding her and bringing her home. Don’t let your agony cloud your thoughts.

We heard hoofbeats behind us, and I turned in my saddle. Four of the Rousters were catching up with us. “A message from Withywoods?” I hazarded.

But they came on at a gallop, and then pulled their horses in hard when they were alongside their captain. One of them, a youngster with orange hair and freckles, greeted his captain with a grin. “Sir, it’s boring as old maids at tea back there. Mind if we ride along?”

Lieutenant Crafty laughed aloud and leaned over to clasp wrists with his man as he shot a glance at his captain. “I told you we had a lively one when we found him, sir! And you’ve brought a few like-minded friends, I see. Excellent.”

Their captain was not as merry about it. “Well. If you must ride along, form up and try to look like you’ve a bit of discipline.”

“Sir!” the redhead agreed with a shout, and in a moment Chade and I were in the center of an honor guard. I sat straighter on the roan, suddenly uncomfortable with such a status. I felt a tendril of Wit-quest from the mare. Were we safe? We were fine, I assured her, and scowled to myself. She was becoming too attuned to me. Chade glanced over at me and misinterpreted my expression.

Become accustomed to it, Prince FitzChivalry. The tone of his Skilling was wry.

They know me only as Badgerlock, I objected.

I doubt that. Gossip flies swiftly. But even if they name you Badgerlock now, that will change when they return to Buckkeep Castle. So conduct yourself as a prince.

It was good advice and hard to follow. I was not accustomed to being at the center of anything. Assassins lurk at the edges, looking like no one in particular.

And you will learn now to do that while being at the center of scrutiny, Chade suggested.

We rode on, not speaking aloud. Out of the forest and on the open road, the day was blue and white. Farmsteads set in their fields plumed smoke from their chimneys. The road was little-traveled on this fine cold day, and when we reached the turn for Gallows Hill, the only tracks were the soft dimples from Chade, Thick, and Nettle’s journeyman when they had arrived the day before. We followed them.

“What’s up this trail?” the redhead asked curiously. He looked to me for an answer.

“Not much of anything. The old gallows for Withy and Oaksbywater. And a standing stone.”

“Then no one comes up here much?”

“True,” I affirmed. “And I am glad of it.”

We rode a bit farther in silence.

“As good a place as any, then,” the lad said.

Amateur. The betrayal was in his arrogant tone, his confidence allowing him to bait us. The bit of braggadocio cost them their surprise. Chade was pulling his sword even as the boy tried to wheel his horse into Chade’s. I felt the flash of Chade’s Skill as he arrowed a message to Dutiful. We are attacked! I sensed a startled response from the king but had no time to pay attention to it. In front of us, the lieutenant thrust his sword deep into his captain’s side below the ribs, and then pulled his foot from his stirrup to kick the dying man off his horse. I saw it as I urged the roan so that she surged forward and carried me out of the jaws of danger as my two “guards” tried to trap me between them. One shouted, “Witted Bastard!” The roan chested the lieutenant’s horse hard. His foot had not returned to the stirrup and she caught him off balance. I shoved him hard, he fell sideways, and his startled horse dragged him a short way before his foot came free and he fell. Down but not dead.


I wheeled the roan tightly and was in time to see Chade and the redhead exchange sword-thrusts. The tip of Red’s sword skittered across Chade’s belly before slicing into his side. Chade’s thrust was surer. He gave a low cry and bared his teeth as his blade sank into the youngster’s belly. I echoed it with a horrified shout of my own. As Red fell away from Chade, another guard closed with him from the other side.

I had no time to see more. The banked rage I had felt at Bee’s kidnapping and the rape of Withywoods roared to life in me, and I let it. I had two adversaries of my own. I wore the nondescript sword Chade had armed me with before I left Buckkeep. I’ve never been an excellent swordsman, but as there was no axe handy and since the situation did not seem suited to poison or garrotes, I began to draw the blade. Then I leaned far back in my saddle to allow one sword to pass through the air that occupied the place where my midsection had been a moment before. Snapping myself upright again was far harder than it should have been but it enabled me to slam the pommel of my sword into one opponent’s mouth. There was a satisfying crunch of teeth.

Kicking. The roan’s warning was instantaneous with her action. I had no time to prepare for her sudden motion, but I did manage to stay in the saddle. Resourceful man, that Lord Derrick, and I suddenly knew he was very unlikely to forgive me the theft of such a horse. I’d seen warhorses trained for battle, but the roan was a palfrey that looked built more for running than fighting. She wheeled under me and kicked out powerfully with her hind legs. I held on and felt the blow impact solidly with the other horse. I gave less than a heartbeat’s thought to the realization that I had not signaled her to do this: She had undertaken it herself. As her hind legs came down under her again, she gave a great leap forward. She’d carried me out of range of the swords. I scarcely needed to guide her as she swung tightly to face our attackers. I had a moment to see that Red was down and unmoving, and Chade’s other opponent was draped forward on his mount with his blood running freely down his horse’s neck, as his mount paced in a confused circle. Chade was off his horse, locked tight with Lieutenant Crafty. I was dimly aware of the captain sitting up in the snow, cursing at them.

The roan crashed chest-to-chest with one of the Rousters’ mounts. I leaned in time and his sword sliced only the good wool of my cloak and glanced off the point of my shoulder. I was more accurate. This time I used the pointed end of my weapon, pushing it deep into the chest of the very young and very surprised guardsman. So satisfying to finally shed blood, to let the anger rage! My Wit shared his agony with me. I blocked it even as I took satisfaction in it. The attack had brought me close to him. As I seized his throat to push him off my blade, I smelled on his breath the breakfast he’d eaten at my table. His two front teeth overlapped slightly. Probably younger than Lant. And much deader as he fell from his horse.

“You bastard!” his partner shouted.

“Yes!” I responded. I turned in the saddle, ducked, and the tip of his blade etched fire across my brow instead of beheading me. The pain was shockingly sharp. We were knee-to-knee. Blood from my earlier blow ran over his chin, but I knew that in a moment the flowing blood from my brow would blind me and my sword would be useless. I nudged the roan. She responded. I kicked free of my stirrups as she wheeled into the other horse. I needed to get my hands on him while I could see. I dropped my sword and shook my hands out of my gloves, then launched myself at him.

It was possibly the last thing he’d expected me to do. I was inside the range of his sword. He kept hold of his weapon and hit me with the hilt, with little impact. He had stayed in his saddle but my sudden extra weight sent his horse staggering sideways. The Rouster fought to keep his balance. He had a fine beard and mustache and I seized two great handfuls of hair and let myself fall. He came after me, shouting curses and delivering several solid punches to my chest. He lost his sword as we went down. As we fell together from his horse into the deep snow, I twisted, hoping to land on top of him. I didn’t. I heard a muffled shout and knew Chade’s voice. “Wait!” I shouted stupidly, as if Chade and his enemy would delay their fight for me, and the man on top of me hit me in the jaw. Even as we fell, I had not released his beard and now I did my best to pull out as big a handful as I could. He roared with the pain, a very satisfactory sound. I let go of his beard and boxed both his ears as hard as I could with the heels of my hands.

Then I fastened my hands to his throat. Strangling a man with a heavy beard and a high collar is difficult. I worked my fingers through the beard, slid them under his collar. The warm column of his throat was mine, and I sank my fingers into it. Doing this while the man was on top of me, pummeling me while blood ran into my eyes, meant that it took much longer for me to kill the man than I care to recall. When he stopped hitting me and seized my wrists, I darted my head in and bit his hand as hard as I could. He roared and then screamed with pain and outrage. Assassins take no pride in fighting fairly. We take pride in winning. As I spat out a piece of finger, I told myself Nighteyes would have been proud. I’d kept my grip and I felt the flesh of his throat standing in ridges between my fingers. “BEE!” I gasped and squeezed harder. Throttling someone while being struck requires focus. I knew that as long as I had his throat and kept squeezing, there was a limit to how long he could do whatever painful things he could think of as I inexorably cut off his breath. I jerked him close enough to me that he couldn’t make a large swing, while keeping his broken teeth away from my face. He tried to find my throat, but I locked my chin to my chest and hung on. It had been a long time since I’d had to fight this way, but some things a man does not forget. His blows began to lose force. He gripped my wrists. Hold tight, I reminded myself. All I had to do was keep squeezing. When he collapsed on me the first time, I knew he was feigning death. He did not fake it for long. He stirred enough to lift his hands and pry at mine. It was a feeble effort. The second time he collapsed, I knew he was truly unconscious. I squeezed. When I knew he was dead, I let go and pushed him off me.

I rolled away, my ribs aching, my jaw burning where I’d clenched it against his blows. I staggered to my knees and dragged my cuff across my bloodied vision. When I could see, I got to my feet and looked for Chade. The horses had scattered. The captain was curled on his side, calling faintly for help. The four guardsmen were down, three dead and one dying. Chade was still on his feet. Blood from his side had darkened his coat and dripped red on the snow. The tough old bastard was behind the lieutenant, his arm locked around the man’s throat. The lieutenant was wasting time clawing at Chade’s arm. I brought out my knife to make a quick end to him.

“No!” Chade forbade me breathlessly. “My kill.” Never before had my old mentor sounded so much like my wolf. I took a respectful two steps back and without remorse dispatched the fourth guardsman and then went to the captain’s aid.

He was dying and he knew it. I didn’t try to move him. I went down on my knees and leaned on my hand to look in his face. He could barely focus on me. He tried to lick his lips, then said, “Not traitor. Not me. Not the rest of my boys. My Rousters.”

I thought he was finished. “I’ll tell Lord Chade,” I assured him.

“That son of a mangy bitch,” he said, anger lending him strength. “Leave their bodies . . . on the gibbet. That dung-eating bastard Crafty. Led them astray. My boys. Mine.”

“The others won’t be punished,” I promised him, but knew I lied. The reputation of the Rousters, never sterling, would be dirtied. No one would want to join that guard company, and the other guardsmen would avoid them at table. But it was what I could say, and he closed his eyes and let go of life.

I went back to Chade. He knelt by Crafty. The man was not dead. He was unconscious from being choked, and Chade was hamstringing him. He’d pushed the man facedown, pulled up the legs of his trousers, and cut the big tendons behind his knees. As I watched, he trussed the man’s wrists behind his back with a length of cord he materialized from his sleeve. Then with a grunt, he rolled Crafty onto his back. With those tendons cut, Crafty wasn’t going to stand, run, or fight. Chade was pale and breathing hard as he settled back on his haunches. I didn’t tell him to finish the man or ask him his intent. Assassins have a code of their own. Bee was at stake as well as Shun, and if this man’s attempt on us had to do with her abduction, then whatever we had to do to extract his information was acceptable.

Crafty was drawing deeper breaths, a scratchy sound. His eyelids fluttered, then opened. He gasped loudly and then looked up at us, me standing and Chade kneeling beside him with a bloody knife. Chade didn’t wait for him to speak. He set his knife to the hollow of the man’s throat.

“Who paid you? How much? What was your mission?” Chade spoke the words as if he were counting aloud.

Crafty didn’t answer immediately. I observed the standing stone. My roan stood at a distance, watching me closely. The other horses had bunched together, confused and taking comfort in her company. I suspect Chade did something with his knife because Crafty gasped high. I muffled my Wit so as not to share what he felt. I heard him struggle and then demand, “What did you do to my legs, you bastard?”

Chade spoke again. “Who paid you? How much? What was your mission?”

“Don’t know his name! He wouldn’t say!” The man was breathless with pain. “What did you do to my legs?” He tried to sit up, but Chade pushed him roughly back. I eyed the old man critically. He was still bleeding, the red melting the snow beside him. Soon, I’d have to intervene, if only to bandage him.

“What did he tell you to do? How much did he offer you to do it?”

“Kill you. Five gold for me, and two for any man who helped. He came to us in a tavern in Buckkeep. Actually, he came to the captain, but he cursed him and said no. Is he dead? Captain Stout?”

I couldn’t tell if it was fear or regret in his voice.

“Only me?” Chade asked him.

“Kill you. Kill you slow if we could, but kill you and bring back your hand. To prove it.”

“When?” I interrupted Chade’s questioning. “When did you get this job?”

He rolled his eyes to look at me. “In Buckkeep. Before we left. Right after we got word that we were leaving, that we would miss Winterfest to come out here. No one was happy about that.”

I spoke. “It’s not connected, Chade. Whoever bribed them had no way of knowing you’d be here: He’d have been hoping they could somehow kill you at Buckkeep. Bee and Shun were taken the same day they were bribed. And why send these traitors if they already had a force on its way here? It’s two different things. Kill him and let me see to your side.”

Chade shot me a look that silenced me. “What did he look like, the man who offered the money?”

“My legs hurt so bad, I can’t think. I want a healer before I talk any more. Sweet Eda!” He lifted his head a short way and then let it fall back in the snow. “You killed everyone? All four of them?”

“What did he look like?” Chade was relentless. The man was bleeding to death. Chade and I knew it, but Crafty seemed unaware of it.

“A tall man, but not thin. Tall, but with a stomach like a barrel. Just a Buckman, like any other. I don’t know. It was an easy deal. Bring the hand with your ring on it, the innkeeper at the Bawdy Trout gives us the money. When you showed up, it was like the gods handed you to us. So damned easy. If the captain had said yes, you’d be a dead man, and him, too.”

“Tell me about his teeth.”

“I’m not saying nothing more until you take me to a healer. I’m getting cold, so cold. What did you do to my legs?”

Chade set the tip of his knife to the man’s nostril. “Talk to me, or I cut your nose,” he said coldly. He inserted the blade up the man’s nostril until he felt the edge of it.

Crafty’s eyes went very wide. “His tooth, one of the front ones, was gray. Is that what you meant?

Chade nodded to himself. “Did he mention a girl?”

“The girl you stole. Yah. Said if we found her with you, we could have her. Or if we could make you tell us where she was. Said she’d make a good whore. Aaaaah!”

The nose is sensitive. Very sensitive. Chade had always maintained it was as good a target for torment as a man’s genitals—or better. Not only is there pain, but disfiguring a man’s face will affect him for the rest of his life. Crafty was writhing in the snow, one of his nostrils sliced open and bleeding profusely. He began to weep. Abruptly, I wanted this to be over.

“He said it.” The blood and the pain of his sliced nose thickened his voice. “Not me. And no one even saw the girl, so no one did her. Eda, help me!” He called on the goddess, as I doubted he’d ever done before, and snorted wildly, spraying blood.

I was fairly certain this was all about Shun, and Chade’s vendetta with her stepfather, but I would be certain. “Did he mention a little girl?” I demanded of him. “A child?”

He halted his thrashing and stared up at me. “A little girl? No. Gods, we’re not monsters!”

“Liar,” Chade said. Crafty had thrashed away from him. Chade hitched himself closer, and very slowly, almost gently, drew his blade across the man’s throat. Crafty’s eyes flew wide open in the sudden knowledge that he was dead. His mouth worked but the sounds were not words. Cutting a man’s throat isn’t an instant death for him, but it’s a certain one. Chade knew that. So did Crafty. He was still moving when Chade said to me, “Give me a hand up.”

I held my hand out to him. “All of that to confirm what you already knew?”

“I got a bit extra. The name of the inn.” He took my hand. His was slippery with blood. I stooped, slid my arm around him, and pulled him upright. He grunted with pain as he came to his feet. “It wasn’t about information, Fitz. It was payback. For Captain Stout. Treachery deserves great pain.” He made a bad sound. I stood very still until he could catch his breath. “And daring to think he could try to kill me.”

My bared hand felt the warmth of the blood on his clothing. “I’ll sit you down and catch a horse. There’s a healer in—”

“The stone,” Chade said decisively. “Better healers in Buckkeep.”

Nettle once compared having the Skill to having a sense of smell. One does not mean to intrude on people any more than one wants to sniff someone, but in proximity, you sense the smell of someone. Or Skill tells you of his pain. In this case, the Wit that told me Chade was a creature in desperate need of healing. And he was right. The best healers would be in Buckkeep. I reached out to Nettle. We were attacked. Chade is injured. Coming through the stones in a few moments. Please have a healer ready to tend him. He’s taken a sword wound to his side.

We knew of the attack. And then you both blocked us out! What is going on? Were they Bee’s kidnappers? Have you found her, is she safe? Anger and frantic questions that I had no time for.

No Bee. We are coming through the stones. Our attackers are dead. I’ll explain when I get there.

This time the block I threw up against the Skill was deliberate. King Verity had always complained that whenever I became fully engaged in battle or any dangerous activity, I blocked my Skill. Evidently Chade did the same. Interesting. But not as compelling as the blood that had now soaked my hand and sleeve, nor my own blood that was still dripping down my brow and gumming up my eyes.


Go back to where you had oats today. Get the others to follow you if you can. But go back and be safe there.

Go with you.


I closed my Wit to her. The roan was a beautiful horse, shimmering with spirit and intelligence. She was reaching for me strongly, seeking a bond I could not allow. I had no time to be that important to any creature, not until I had regained my little girl. And perhaps not then. I sensed the horse’s confusion and disappointment. I could not let it touch my heart. Nothing could touch my heart until Bee was safe again.

“The stone,” I told Chade. He nodded, saving his breath. The snow was deep and the path to the stone only partially broken. I waded side-on in the deep snow, letting Chade benefit from the path I made. He moved his legs, but I was taking most of his weight. My shoulder reminded me of the slice on the tip of it. We reached the stone with Chade leaning heavily on me. “Catch your breath for a minute,” I suggested. He managed to shake his head.

“No.” He barely breathed the word. “Going to faint. Get through while I’m conscious.”

“Too dangerous,” I objected, but he lifted the bloody hand that had been clutching his side. I couldn’t stop him, and I barely had time to focus my Skill before he slapped the stone and we were snatched inside.

It was wrong. For an instant, I was clutching Chade as we entered the stone. But as he dragged me in behind him, my Skill-sense of him winked out. I gripped naught but deadweight. I could not sense him and I fell through the sea of stars, plummeting in a place that had no bottom.

Chapter Sixteen

The Journey

When a shaysim appears, the Servants must be ready to welcome the child. Often the parents will be filled with sadness at having to give up the child they have nourished and sheltered for years. When parents bring a shaysim to the gates, let them be welcomed and offered rest and refreshment. Gifts, too, should be offered but it must never appear that the gifts are given in exchange for the child. No shaysim should be purchased nor taken by force. If the parents are reluctant to surrender the child, allow them as much time as they need. If the child is an infant, gently remind them that such a child can require years of intense care. If the child be older, speak of the needs of the child to be raised where he can be accepted, taught, and cherished.

If they cannot bear to immediately surrender the child, be patient. Offer them lodgings for the night, let them walk in the gardens and see the libraries. Allow them to see that no matter how long the child’s infancy or childhood, she will be cherished here, educated, and, yes, loved by those Servants who tend her. Do not forget that every White child is a gift given by the family to the world. Be grateful.

Above all, be patient. Remember that it is the child’s destiny to come to us, and that destiny is never denied. It may happen in a way none of us has foreseen, but happen it will. To interfere too much may set the child’s life on a path unforeseen and unfortunate. Once the child is with us, it is important to let the shaysim’s life unfold as it will. The future cannot be rushed. Allow time to work its will upon us all.

—Buffeni, Servant of the 3rd Line

I do not know how long I was ill. It was like a terrible vertigo from which no one could rescue me. I was sick upon myself, and soiled myself, more than once. Shun tended me fiercely, without gentleness and certainly not because she wished to do so. She battled relentlessly for privacy in which she washed me with cold snowmelt water. She gave my dirtied garments over to the pale people for them to wash and attempt to dry. She was uncompromising in insisting that only she could tend me. It was not devotion to me, although she claimed that. It was fear, plain and simple. She thought that if they discovered I was a girl, they would have no further use for me. Or her.

And so she took care of me, as best she could. They gave her no help. There was no willowbark tea brewed for my fever, no rest from our relentless traveling. They simply allowed me to be ill while they continued their journey. Every evening, Shun carried me from the tent to the sleigh. We traveled all night. As dawn approached, they made camp and she moved me from the sleigh to the tent. They prepared no special food for me, no broth or gruel. Shun increased my misery by insisting that I eat and drink, sometimes forcing the spoon into my mouth. My lips were chapped and sore from the fever. Her ministrations made them bleed.

But I didn’t die, and one night I felt slightly better. I kept my eyes open and watched the stars as they appeared and then vanished again behind the wind-driven clouds. Dwalia no longer held me on her lap. None of the luriks seemed to want to touch me. So Shun held me, and I heard her little gasp when we crested a hill and saw the lights of a small town below us. We followed the road down the hill, directly toward the town. The fog boy sat beside the driver and I could feel how hard he strove to keep anyone from seeing us. Commander Ellik and the handsome rapist led the way. The other soldiers rode close beside the sleighs, and the luriks on their white horses were bunched close behind us. A dog barked and barked at us, hackles raised, until his owner came out and shouted at him to be quiet.

I felt Shun tighten her grip on me. “Could you run?” she breathed by my ear, and I knew what she was thinking.

So did Dwalia. She did not whisper but spoke in a normal voice. “If you leapt from the sleigh and ran to any of those houses, the soldiers with us would kill everyone you spoke to. The rest we would bind to forgetfulness. Then we would burn the house down around the bodies, and on you would go with us. Much simpler for all if you simply stay where you are and enjoy this picturesque little town.” She gave a sideways glance, and Reppin and Soula both shifted to sit between us and the edge of the sleigh.

Shun did not loosen her grip on me, but I felt the spirit go out of her. We drove right past a team and waiting wagon outside an inn. The horses whickered a greeting to us, but on we went. We passed through the town as if we were the wind, and we continued past the outlying farmsteads and up another hill and back into woodlands again. We left the road and followed a dimpled cart-trail into the forest. And on until dawn.

That morning, I could eat a little food on my own, and follow Shun when she went aside from the others to piss. I remembered what she had told me, and mimed standing to piss as if I were a boy before crouching to relieve myself. When we went back in the tent, the luriks whispered to one another behind their hands. “I told you he would live, if he was meant to live. And we knew he was. That was why we did not interfere.” Dwalia spoke those words to her underlings, and once more she held a kindly smile on her face whenever she looked at me. She was pleased that I hadn’t died, but even more pleased, I thought, that she hadn’t helped me to stay alive.

We camped well off the road that dawn. The fog boy stumbled when he clambered down from the sleigh. Then he held on to the side of the sleigh and stood there with his head bent. Dwalia frowned but as soon as she realized I’d seen her expression, she changed it to a look of motherly concern. “Come, Vindeliar. It was not that hard, was it? And we have spared you that work as much as we can. But traveling cross-country is taking far too much time. You must be strong and determined. We need to return to the ship as swiftly as we can, lest the work you did there begin to weaken and fade. Come. I will see if we cannot get a bit of meat for you tonight.”

He nodded, his head a heavy stone on a reed neck. She held out her arm with a sigh, and he took it. She escorted him to a place where others were building the fire and commanded that a fur be folded for him to sit upon. That dawn he did no chores but only sat by the fire and went early to his bed.

Shun and I slept more closely together than ever we had that day. I was too weak still to stay awake for long, but I could tell that she had not eaten enough of the brown soup to make her sleep. She feigned sleep with one arm flung over me, as if she feared they might take me from her.

I woke toward nightfall, itching everywhere. I scratched myself but it brought only slight relief. When the others stirred and we went out by the fires, Shun flinched back at the sight of me. “What is wrong with you?” she demanded. I had been scratching my cheek. I lowered my hand, startled, and saw tendrils and flaps of dry white skin clinging to my fingers.

“I don’t know!” I exclaimed and, still weak from being ill so long, I began to weep. Shun sighed over my uselessness. But Dwalia came quickly to my side.

“Silly,” said Dwalia. “You shed your old skin. That is all. You’ve taken a step forward in your path. Let me look at you!” She seized me by the sleeve and pulled me closer to the fire. She pushed back the cuff of the fur coat, and then my shirt. Her nails were rounded and clean. She matter-of-factly scratched at my arm, and then shook the threads of dangling skin from her fingertips. She leaned in to look closer at my new skin.

“That is not right!” she exclaimed, and then clapped a hand over her own mouth.

“What isn’t right?” I asked anxiously.

“I didn’t hear you, dear? Does something worry you?” Her voice was warm with concern for me.

“You said something wasn’t right. What’s wrong?”

Her brows drew together and her voice radiated warmth. “Why, dear, I said nothing. Do you think something’s wrong?”

I looked at the patch of skin her nails had cleared. “I’m turning white. Like a dead person.” I had nearly said like the messenger. I shut my lips tightly and tried not to sob. I’d said too many words. I wasn’t good at this pretending to be younger and stupider than I was.

“Did he dream in his change time?” a thin-faced lurik lad asked, and Dwalia shot him a look far sharper than a slap. He hung his head and I saw him take a quick, anxious breath. Alaria had been sitting next to him. She hitched herself away from him.

They were all watching me to see if I would answer. Even Dwalia. “No dreams,” I said quietly, and I saw a puzzled look wash through her eyes. “None that made sense,” I amended. “Silly dreams.” I hoped I sounded childish. I gave a small sigh and seated myself on the fallen log that was serving us as a bench. Odessa immediately came to sit close beside me.

For a short time I listened to the crackling of the fire. No one else spoke, but I could almost feel them wishing for me to go on. I didn’t. Dwalia made a little sound in her throat and left the fireside. I was suddenly tired. I leaned my head forward, my elbows on my knees and my face in my hands, and looked into the darkness there. I wanted Revel to come and pick me up and carry me in to where it was warm.

But Revel was dead.

I thought about my father. Did he care that I’d been stolen? Would he come after me?

I’m right here, Wolf-Father said. I’ve never left you.

My other father.

We are one.


I felt queasy. I lifted my head slowly. Dwalia crouched before me. I said nothing.

“Look what I have for you, Shaysim.” She held out to me something rectangular and covered in bright fabric. I looked at it without comprehension. She opened it, and inside were pages of thick, creamy paper. It was a book, not a simple ledger such as my father had given me, but a book bound in rich cloth. I itched to touch it.

Danger! Wolf-Father’s warning brushed against my mind. I kept perfectly still.

“And this.” It was like a quill, but made of silver. “The ink I have for this is as blue as a summer sky.” She waited. “Don’t you want to try them?” she asked me.

I tried to restore childishness to my voice. “Try them how? What do they do?”

Dismay crept over her face. “You write with the pen on the paper. You write down your dreams. Your important dreams.”

“I don’t know how to write.” I held my breath, hoping my lie would protect me.

“You don’t . . .” She let her words trail away. Then she smiled her warmest smile. “That doesn’t matter, Shaysim. When we get to Clerres, you will be taught. Until then, you can tell me about your dreams, and I will write—”

Temptation surged in me. Tell her I had dreamed of a wolf tearing white rabbits into bloody shreds. Tell her of a man with a battle-axe chopping the heads of squirming white snakes.

NO. Wolf-Father was adamant. In a breath of awareness, he added, Do not provoke another predator until your pack is ready to tear it apart. Be small and still, cub.

“I don’t remember any dreams now.” I scratched my face, looked at the bits of dangling skin, wiped them on my shirt, and then pretended to pick my nose until she made a small sound of dismay. She moved away from me, taking book and quill with her. I looked carefully at my finger and then put it in my mouth. Odessa moved away from me. I did not let myself smile.

Chapter Seventeen


There are seventy-seven known medicinal uses for dragon parts, and fifty-two unsubstantiated ones. The seventy-seven are listed in the scrolls called Trifton Dragon-killer’s Remedies. Of great antiquity, this scroll has been translated many times, to the extent that seventeen of the remedies make no sense. For instance, we are told that “ground dragon scales applied to the apple with brighten coal a maiden’s eyes.” Yet, mistranslated as these remedies may be, for each one the original scribe provided the name and apparently the attestation from someone who had used the remedy to good effect.

The fifty-two unsubstantiated remedies are those with no attestations, and ones that seem unlikely to be real. As they are at the end of the translation I have, I suspect they are a later addition by someone seeking to present the medical properties of dragon parts as having more wondrous uses. There are potions made from various bits of dragons that are said to render a man invisible, to give a woman the gift of flight, ones guaranteed to bring twins to term, healthy and strong, in three months, and one startling remedy that assures the user of being able to see anyone whose name he speaks aloud, regardless of the distance or if that person is still alive.

With the reappearance of dragons in our corner of the world, perhaps these remedies may again become available, but I hypothesize that they will remain exceedingly rare and expensive. Thus the opportunity to test the beneficial effects of Trifton’s remedies may evade us still.

—Unfinished manuscript, Chade Fallstar

When one misses a stair in the dark and begins to fall, one feels that terrible lurch of wrongness combined with fear of the impact that will surely follow. I fell with the same horrid sensation of moving in the wrong direction, but my fear was that there would never be any impact. Only endless falling. The points of light were like dust. Bodiless, I flailed at them. Never before had I retained such a sense of self, such a sense of mortality inside a Skill-pillar.

And when I recognized that I had a self, I suddenly sensed I was not alone. He was beside me, streaking endlessly down like a comet as his being unraveled in brightness behind him. That was wrong. That was very wrong.

Between knowing it was wrong and wanting to do something about it, an indeterminate amount of time passed. Then I struggled to know what to do. Limit him. Define him. How? Name him. One of the oldest magics known to men. Chade. Chade. But I was tongueless, voiceless. I wrapped him in my self, containing him with all I knew of him. Chade. Chade Fallstar.

I held him. Not his body, but his awareness. We fell together. I held my awareness of my separate self and hoped without reason that there was an end, somewhere, sometime, to this endless falling. Despite my efforts, Chade was leaking away from me. Like a basket of meal in a high wind, he seemed to waft away, carried off by the Skill. Worse, I had no sense of him resisting it. I held him, gathered back what I could of him, but I also felt myself shredding in the constant blast of that place that was neither a place nor a time. The very timelessness of it was terrifying. The journey through the star-studded vastness of the stone passage seemed to slow. “Please,” I breathed, terrified that we might never emerge, that no one would ever know what became of us, that Bee would live or die believing that her father had never attempted to rescue her. But that agony was fleeting.

Merge, whispered something that was Chade but both more and less than he was. Let go. It doesn’t matter. And he surrendered to that glittering attraction of the spaces between, to the darkness that was neither a distance nor a location. Like a seedhead that, at the whisper of the wind, launches itself into a thousand pieces, so was Chade. And I, I was not a sack to hold him, but a net. With the least part of the will that remained to me, I strove to hold him together within myself, even as the lure of the sparkling darkness sought to disperse us into bits of light.

Chade. Chade Fallstar.

His name was not enough to bind him. He had hidden himself from it for too long.

Chade Fallstar. Brother to Shrewd Farseer. Father to Lant Fallstar. Father to Shine Fallstar. Chade! Shaper of FitzChivalry Farseer. I settled loop after loop of identity around him as if I were wrapping line to tie up a storm-tugged ship. But I could not enclose him without opening myself to the pull of the current.

I have them!

I did not wish anyone to have me, but then I was clutching at Dutiful and felt myself drawn from the stone that sucked at me like thick mud. Chade came with me whether he would or not, and suddenly we were both shaking with cold on the snowy hillside above Buckkeep as dawn was breaking.


King Dutiful grasped me by the wrist, and Kettricken gazed at me, swathed from head to foot in a purple wool cloak edged in white fox fur. Six of her guards in purple and white stood by. Near them was a wagon, made comfortable with blankets and cushions. Steady was slouched on the seat, holding his face in his hands. Nettle sat in the wagon, swaddled in blankets like an old tinker. Riddle was beside her, haggard, his face red with cold. Lending her his strength with no thought of the cost. They both looked worn, as if aged by years.


I turned my head and looked at Dutiful. His beard was gray and his shoulders bowed.

How long? I asked, and then remembered that speech came from my mouth. “How long?” I asked again, croaking the words from my dry throat.

Every Skilled person there startled. Dutiful spoke. “Easy, Fitz. Gently. Half a day and all the night.” He lifted a hand and rubbed his cheek. Frost. His dark beard was hoared gray with frost. Days. Not years. But still, days.

He put his hand on my shoulder, waking me to him. “Fitz. What happened?” He added, “You need not Skill so powerfully. We are right here to hear your words.”

“But you are all still here?” I was astounded.

“Where else would we be?” Nettle demanded angrily. “You Skilled to us that you were attacked and then we heard nothing. You both blocked us. Then you suddenly Skilled that you’d be coming through the stone. But you didn’t! What happened?”

There was too much to explain. I moved my mouth but could not find words intricate enough to explain anything. I had told him we were attacked. How could that encompass the betrayal, the swords, the cuts, pain, gasping for breath, the many motions our bodies had made? My thoughts slid and slipped like cartwheels in mud. As Dutiful put an arm around Chade to lift him, two guardsmen joined him, carrying him drooping between them to the wagon. Kettricken took my arm. I felt her so strongly. Such a brave woman, so true and intelligent. Nighteyes had loved her so much.

“Oh, Fitz,” she said softly and her cold-reddened cheeks flushed hot. I leaned on her unabashedly. She would help me. She’d always helped me, never failed me. They all had. I simply opened my mind to Nettle and Dutiful and let my tale flow from my thoughts to theirs. I was too weary and it was all too complex to hold anything back. I gave it all to them, everything that had happened since I had left Buckkeep. Skilling was so much easier than talking. I finished with the most awful truth I knew. “You were right, you and Riddle. I’m a terrible father. I should have given her to you. This would never have happened if I’d listened to you and given you Bee.”

I saw Nettle recoil from me. She lifted her hands to cover her ears and then it was suddenly harder to reach her. I groped for her, but she tried to wall me out. She could not. I seeped through. I turned my slow glance to Dutiful. Another wall. Why?

“You’re still bleeding.” Kettricken shook out her handkerchief and pressed the silky thing to my brow.

“It only happened a few moments ago,” I told her, knowing she had not been a party to our shared thoughts.

“A day, at least,” she reminded me. I stared at her. Wit or Skill? What was the difference, I abruptly wondered. Were not we all animals in some sense of that foolish word?

“I am not sure that time is the same for us,” I said aloud, and then was glad of Riddle’s strong hand gripping my wrist and pulling me up into the wagon. He leaned close to me. “Let go of Kettricken. Walls up, Fitz,” he said quietly. “I’ve not the Skill, but even I can sense you spilling.” Then he left me to help Dutiful arrange Chade. The old man lay on his side, clutching at his wound and groaning. The driver spoke, the horses started the wagon with a lurch, and I passed out.

I came back to awareness somewhat on the stairs inside Buckkeep Castle. A serving man was helping me walk up the stairs. I didn’t know him. I felt alarm, and then a wash of Skill from Dutiful assured me that all was well. I should just keep climbing the stairs. Do not try to Skill back to me, please. Or to anyone. Please put up your walls and try not to spill. I could feel Dutiful’s weariness. I seemed to recall that he had asked me to look to my walls several times. He was not with me. I wondered why.

In my room, a different serving man, one I had never seen before, offended me by insisting on helping me remove my bloody clothes and put on a clean nightshirt. I did not wish to be further bothered, but a healer came into my room and asserted that he must clean both the wound on my shoulder and the slash on my brow and then suture my brow closed with many a “Beg your indulgence, Prince FitzChivalry,” and “If my prince would be pleased to turn his face toward the light,” and “It grieves me to ask you to endure this pain, Prince FitzChivalry,” until I could scarcely stand the man’s unctuousness. When all was done, he offered me tea. At the first sip, I knew it was too strong with valerian, but I had little will to resist his insistence that I drink it. And then I must have slept again.

I woke to the fire burned low and the room full of darkness. I yawned, stretched against the ache of my muscles, and gazed dully at the short flames that licked lazily across the surface of the last log in my hearth. Slowly, slowly, I found myself in place and time. And then my heart jumped in my chest and began to hammer. Chade, injured. Bee, stolen. The Fool, possibly dying. The disasters vied to dominate my fear as being the most terrifying. I groped out with the Skill and touched Nettle and Dutiful simultaneously. Chade?

Softly, Fitz. Softly. Hold yourself in. It isn’t good, Dutiful responded glumly. The stays of his girdle deflected the sword but it still penetrated his side. He lost a great deal of blood and seems disoriented from his experience within the Skill-pillar. The only sense we have had from him is that he is angry with you for divulging that he, too, has a daughter who has been stolen. I am still trying to settle that bit of news in my mind!

I pushed my weary thoughts back. Had I divulged Chade’s secret? Probably when I had spilled myself, it had cascaded out. I was appalled that I had been so careless, but could not dwell on that. It had been when I had given Nettle and Dutiful access to my mind to explain the situation. Even now, I felt too weary for detailed conversation. Is Nettle all right? She looked so worn.

I am better, now that you and Chade are here. I am coming to your room. Now. Try to be very still until I get there.

I had forgotten that our minds were touching. Am I that addled still? I asked myself, and felt my question echo off into the Skill-current.

I am coming also. And, yes, you are that addled, so please, if you can, put up your walls. Be still. You are alarming the other coteries. You seem to have gained strength and lost control of your thoughts during your passage. You are battering our apprentices. And you seem to not be entirely within yourself, if you can conceive what I mean. As if you are still caught in the Skill-current.

Barricading my thoughts back into my own mind was like building a drystone wall. Fit each piece into place. Hold back the cascading thoughts, stop the chaining thoughts of worry, fear, desperation, and guilt. Stop them, hold them, guard them.

When I thought I was safe once more behind my walls, I became aware of my body’s complaints.

Several of my stitches were too tight. The slightest change in my facial expression made them pull. The rest of my body ached, and I was suddenly, horribly hungry in a way I could not control.

There was a tap on my door but before I could rise from my bed, Nettle entered. “You’re still spilling,” she whispered. “Half of Buckkeep Castle will be having nightmares tonight. And eating like ravenous dogs. Oh, Da.” Sudden tears stood in her eyes. “Out there by the stones. I could not even speak to you afterward . . . our poor folk at Withywoods. That fight! And how much agony you feel about Bee. How hurt you were that I asked for her, and how guilty . . . How you love her! And how you torment yourself. Here. Let me help you.”

She sat down on the edge of my bed and took my hand. As if I were a child being taught to wield a spoon, or an old man leaning on a youngster’s shoulder, her Skill flowed into me, mingled with mine, and she set my walls. It was good to be contained again, as if someone had buttoned a warm coat securely around me. But even after I found that the clamor of the lesser Skill-stream of strangers had been sealed out of me and my own thoughts fenced in, Nettle kept hold of my hand. I turned my head slowly to look at her.

For a time, she just looked at me silently. Then she said, “I’ve never really known you, have I? All these years. The things you kept hidden from me, lest I think less of Burrich or my mother. The reserve you held because you felt you did not deserve to intrude into my life . . . Has anyone ever really known you? Known what you felt and thought?”

“Your mother did, I think,” I said, and then I had to wonder. The Fool, I nearly said, and then Nighteyes. That last answer, I knew, would have been the truest truth. But I did not say it.

She sighed a small sigh. “A wolf,” she said. “A wolf best knew your heart.” I was certain I had not shared that thought with her. I wondered if, after I had been so vulnerable to her, she now could tell when I held things back. I was trying to summon words to say to her when there was a second tap on the door and Riddle entered, bearing a tray. King Dutiful, looking less than regal, was behind him.

“I brought food,” Riddle announced even as the scent of it dizzied me with longing.

“Just let him eat first,” Dutiful advised as if I were an ill-mannered dog or perhaps a very small child. “He’s sharing his hunger with the whole castle.” And again, I could think of no words. Thoughts were too fast for words and too complex. There was too much to say, more than anyone could ever say in a lifetime about even the simplest things. But before I could despair about that, Riddle put the food in front of me. I recognized it as having come from the guard’s mess, the simple hearty food one could find there at any hour of the day or night. A thick brown soup, lumpy with vegetables and chunks of meat, good brown bread with a chewy crust. Riddle had not skimped when he had buttered two slabs of that, nor on the wedges of orange cheese beside them. The flagon of ale on the tray had spilled over a bit, wetting the edge of the bread. I didn’t care.

“He’s going to choke,” someone said, but I didn’t.

“Fitz?” said Dutiful.

I turned to look at him. It was strange to remember that there were people in the room. Devouring the meal had been such a consuming experience, it was startling to discover the world could hold more sensory information than that. My eyes wandered over his face, finding my features in his, and then Kettricken’s.

“Are you feeling a bit more yourself?” he asked. I wondered how much time had passed. I found I was breathing hard. Eating that fast was hard work. No one else had spoken since his last words. Was that how time was truly measured? In how many people spoke, in how much information was shared? Perhaps it was measured in how much food one ate. I tried to pare my thoughts down to something that might fit in words.

“I think I feel better,” I said. No. That wasn’t true. I thought nothing of the kind. Better than what? My thoughts raced away from me again. Someone was touching me. Nettle. She had moved behind me and set her hands on my shoulders. She was making my walls stronger. Making me one thing, one separate person instead of the taste of the bread and the sound of the fire crackling. Separating me out from everything else.

“I’m going to talk,” Dutiful said. “And I’m going to hope you are listening, and that you can find the sense of my words better than Chade can. Fitz. Fitz, look at me. You were almost a day in the stones. You told us you were coming, and we waited for you, and you didn’t emerge. Nettle reached out to try and find you, and with Steady’s strength and Riddle helping her she found you and held you together until I could reach into the stone and draw you out. Eda and El, that was strange! I felt I found your hand and pulled you out of the earth itself!

“Chade was still bleeding, and so were you, but not as badly. If you are concerned for the bodies you left behind, well, that has been tended to. Chade’s emissary was still at Withy, and we gave him the mission of conveying to the rest of the Rousters that unknown persons had attacked you, and that their fellows had given their lives to win you safe passage to the stones. For now, they need hear nothing of treachery, though I’ll wager that some of them will know or suspect there were traitors in their band. I required them all to take an oath of silence on the topic of what happened at Withywoods, witnessed by FitzVigilant in my stead. There is no sense panicking folk over the idea that invisible raiders may attack anywhere. And after brief thought, I have directed Lady Rosemary to undertake whatever quiet work she feels is needed to bring justice to Shun’s stepfather. Shun! Such a name!

“I have put out a notice to all our patrols to be looking for sleighs bearing a small girl and a young woman, and folk on white horses, and also to ask at every ferry crossing and ice bridge if anyone like that has been seen. They cannot simply vanish, and I think it unlikely they can have passed our borders yet. We will find and recover both Bee and Lady Shun.”

The words he spoke made pictures in my mind. I looked at all of them carefully. They were things we wished to be so, and perhaps might never be. Nonetheless, they were pictures that pleased me greatly. “Thank you,” I said at last. The words were thin, insubstantial as wind. They didn’t convey what I felt. I took a breath. “Thank you.”

Riddle slapped his hand over his heart and gawked at me. Nettle lowered her face and breathed deeply for several breaths. Dutiful sank down slowly to sit on the floor.

“Is that what it feels like? The Skill?” Riddle spoke.

Nettle shook her head. “No. I don’t know what to call that. Well, yes, it is the Skill, but it is the Skill as a hammer’s blow rather than as a finger tap. Dutiful, what can we do? He’s more dangerous than Thick. If he goes on like this, he may damage some of the newer Skill-apprentices who cannot wall him out.”

Even with my walls raised, I sensed their agitation. “It’s coming clearer,” I offered them. “I’m coming back to myself. I will be better by morning, I think.” I used only the words, sliced thin as paper. They all looked relieved.

I attempted a question. “How is Chade?”

Nettle shook her head. “He is caught in fascination. With everything. The weave of the blanket. The shape of his spoon. His wound is bad. We would like to do a Skill-healing on him once he has rested a bit, but Thick is still at Withywoods, and we are reluctant to let anyone use the stones to travel now. We were hoping you would feel well enough to help, but . . .”

“Tomorrow,” I said, and hoped it would be true. I was remembering how to do this. Package a tiny bit of thought in a word and let it out of my mouth. Strange. I had never known that when I spoke I Skilled a tiny bit with the words, to make the meaning more clear. But only the tiniest bit. I’d opened my heart and let them feel the rush of gratitude I felt that they would try to help me. I should not do that. I could not recall when I had learned that. Had I ever learned it, or had it just always been so? They were all staring at me. Words. Use words.

“I hope to have recovered more by tomorrow. And perhaps be able to tell you what I experienced inside the stones. And help to heal Chade.”

An urgent thought bubbled up in me. How could I have forgotten him? “The Fool. Does he live still?”

A glance between Dutiful and Nettle. A secret fear. “What’s happened? He’s dead, isn’t he?” It was a terrible thing for me to even imagine. A tremor of sorrow rose bubbling in me. I tried to catch it, to hold it in.

Dutiful paled. “No, Fitz. He’s not dead. Please, don’t feel that! Such sorrow. No, he’s not dead. But he’s . . . changed.”

“He’s weak? Dying?” I thought of the secret Skill-healings I’d practiced on him. Had they gone wrong, come undone somehow?

Dutiful spoke quickly, as if to stem my emotions by giving me information. “Ash was tending to him. Lord Chade had told him to do whatever the Fool needed, to give the Fool whatever might do him good. Or so the lad took his command. You know that in his zeal to follow you, Lord Golden escaped his room and somehow managed to get as far as the stables. How, I cannot imagine. When he was found the next morning, he was nearly dead of the cold and his injuries.”

“I knew that,” I affirmed.

Dutiful looked relieved at my swift response. “You are coming back to us, aren’t you? You sound clearer in your words. More alert. Thank Eda you are better. I feared that neither one of you would completely return to us.”

“Yes. Better.” It was a lie. I wasn’t better. I was becoming duller. Slower. The complexities of the world that had danced and blossomed all around me but a few moments before were fading to dim simplicity. The chair was just a chair, all echoes of the tree and the forest that had produced it muted to insignificance. Nettle sat on the chair, and she was only Nettle, not a tributary of the rivers that Molly and I had been, or the quiet water where her unborn child turned and formed. I was not better. I was simpler, slower, duller. Human again. As to what I had been in the previous hours, I had no name for it.

I lifted my eyes to Dutiful. He was watching me expectantly. “The Fool,” I prompted him.

“He was near dead. When first he was found, he was mistaken for a beggar or wandering madman. He was taken to the infirmary and given a clean bed to die in. But a young apprentice there recognized him from the night you brought him in. She raised quite a fuss before her master would listen to her, but finally a runner was sent to me.

“By then, Ash had raised the alarm that Lord Golden was missing. We had servants searching the guest wings, but no one had expected him to have gotten as far as the stables. My mother and her personal healer reached the infirmary before I did. She collected him and had him brought to her private parlor. There, her healer attempted to tend to him. At the woman’s touch, he woke shrieking and found enough strength to object strenuously to her efforts. My mother acceded to his wishes and dismissed her healer. Before he lapsed into unconsciousness, he asked to be brought back to Chade’s old den. This was done. And my mother settled herself beside him to keep his death-watch. She left him only when she heard that you and Chade had been attacked, and then lost. She is back with him now.”

“I wish to go to him.” I didn’t need to hear any more. I tried to keep the despair from my voice. I was losing my friend, and possibly my last link to my Bee. If anyone had any clue as to why the Servants of the White Prophets would come to Withywoods and take my daughter, and what their intentions for her were, it was the Fool.

“Not yet,” Nettle asserted. “You need to know what happened before you see him.”

I had not thought my fear could deepen, but it did. “What happened?” I imagined treachery.

“I went to see him, of course.” Dutiful took up his tale. “Whatever strength and life he’d had left he’d expended battling my mother’s healer. He was unresponsive. I tried to reach him with the Skill, and could not. And to my Wit, he remains invisible. My mother was at his side, tending him. And Chade’s lad, Ash. And a crow?”

There was the slightest inflection of a question on his last words. I ignored it. Later, perhaps, there would be time to explain the crow. For now she did not matter.

“The lad was grieved beyond telling. Nearly prostrate with remorse, I thought. I tried to comfort him, telling him that no one blamed him and that I would intercede with Lord Chade to be sure he was not held responsible. But I was mistaken. It was not fear that he had failed in his duty but genuine mourning. My mother told him that we had done all that could be done, and that the Fool himself had decided to let go of this life. The lad kept saying that the Fool was a hero and should not die in such an ignoble way. He wept. We agreed with him but I could tell he was heartsick and our agreement brought him no comfort.

“I knew they would keep a good watch on him, and that I would be summoned if needed. My mother told me that all we could do was comfort his body, and this she was doing, with cool damp cloths to ease the burning of his fever. There was nothing I could do for him. And so I left them there.”

The Fool with a fever. Serious indeed for a man who was usually chill to the touch. Dutiful’s words were an apology. I could not imagine why. He paused in his telling and exchanged a look with Nettle.

“What?” I demanded.

Riddle lifted his head and spoke. “To make it short, Lady Kettricken left to come to the Skill-pillar. And while we were gone, Ash took it upon himself to give Lord Golden something. Evidently it was an elixir or potion or some rare healing draught. He won’t reveal what it was, but only repeats that Lord Chade told him to give the man whatever he might need, and so he did. Whatever he gave him . . . it changed him.”

Now they were all staring at me as if they expected me to understand something they did not. “It revived him? It killed him?” I was sick of useless words, such thin slices of meaning. “I’m going to him.”

Dutiful opened his mouth, but Riddle was bold enough to shake his head at his king. “Let him go. Words won’t explain it. What a man doesn’t understand, he cannot tell. Let him see.”

I stood, staggered sideways a few steps, and was glad to catch myself before Dutiful could seize my arm. When a man’s pride is all he has left, he holds it closely. I did not care that they watched as I went to the drapes and triggered the hidden door. I was sick of secrets. Let them all spill out into the daylight. But it wasn’t daylight now. It was night. Let the secrets spill into the night? I shook my head. I had been doing something. Going to the Fool. I clutched my thoughts tightly.

I ascended the stairs. I knew they followed. The room above was yellow with candlelight and hearth fire. I smelled the resinous fragrance of the Mountain forests and suspected that Kettricken burned incense from her home. It cleared my mind and as I entered the chamber, it struck me that I had never seen it so warm and welcoming. My eyes swept over the changes. The crow perched on one of the chairbacks, dozing in the warmth from the fire. “Fitz—Chivalry!” she greeted me. Ash sat on the floor by the hearth at Kettricken’s feet. He gave me a doleful look and then turned his gaze back to the fire. My former queen was ensconced in Chade’s old chair. She had draped a colorful Mountain coverlet over it. On the table beside her, a fat blue teapot painted with leaping hares steamed. Her braided hair was pinned high on her head, and the cuffs of her simple blue gown were folded back as if she were ready to do the day’s scrubbing. She turned to me, a mug of aromatic tea in her hands. Her eyes were concerned but her mouth smiled. “Fitz! I am so relieved you have returned to us, and so worried for little Bee! And for Chade’s daughter!”

I made no answer to her greeting. My gaze was snagged on the man who sat beside her. He was slender and upright, but his posture was still uncertain. An invalid still, he was robed in soft gray wool; a loose hood covered his head. I could not tell if he could see me or not. The eyes he turned on me were no longer clouded and gray; they gleamed a faint gold as if the firelight reflected in them. He extended a hand toward me. The knuckles were still swollen and his hands were bone-gaunt, but his fingers moved with a shadow of their old grace. He turned his hand palm up and reached toward me. “Fitz?” he asked, and I knew then he could not see me. Yet I had the uncanny feeling he could sense me.

I crossed the room and seized his hand in both of mine. It was slightly cool, as the Fool’s flesh had ever been. “You are better!” I exclaimed, full of relief at the sight of him upright and moving. I had expected to see him gray and failing in the bed. I turned his hand over in mine; the flesh of the back of it was strangely puckered. It reminded me of an unfledged squab.

“I am alive,” he rejoined. “And more vital. Better? I do not know. I feel so different that I cannot say if I am better or not.”

I stared at him. Chade had an apothecary supply that would rival any shop in Buck, and possibly even Bingtown. I knew most of what he had, and I’d had the use of some of it. Carryme. Elfbark. Nightshade. Cardomean. Valerian. Willowbark. Carris seed. Poppy. On more than one occasion, I’d had recourse to those supplies. During my training Chade had occasionally deliberately exposed me to the effects of some of the lesser poisons, soporifics, and a wide array of stimulants. Yet I knew of nothing in his arcane array that could call a man back from death’s gate and put a golden glint in his blinded eyes.

Ash’s gaze had been flickering between the two of us. His eyes were dog-dark, his shoulders hunched as if expecting the snap of a switch. I regarded him severely. “Ash. What did you give him?”

“The lad believed he was following Chade’s orders. And it seems to have worked,” Kettricken said mildly.

I did not speak aloud what I feared. Many treatments were temporary. Carris seed might lift a man’s vigor to unusual heights for a day or even two, but it would be followed by a devastating drop to total exhaustion as the body demanded the debt be repaid. Elfbark gave energy, quickly followed by deep despair. I had to know if Ash had saved the Fool’s life or merely given him a false lease on it.

Chade’s apprentice had not answered my question. I put a growl of command into my voice. “What did you give him, Ash? Answer me.”

“Sir.” The boy rose awkwardly to his feet and bowed to me gravely. His gaze roved uneasily past Kettricken, glided over Nettle and Riddle, and then faltered before King Dutiful’s severe expression. He looked back at me. “May I speak to you alone?”

Dutiful’s voice was deceptively mild as he asked him, “And what is it that you can tell Lord FitzChivalry but not your rightful king?”

The boy looked down, abashed but determined. “Sire, Lord Chade has made me his apprentice. When he asked if I wished to learn his skills, he warned me that in our trade, there might be times when my king would have to deny me. And times when my silence must protect the honor of the Farseer reign. He said that there are secrets that those who practice our trade do not inflict on the nobility.”

I well recalled the same lecture. It had not come early in my training. Evidently the boy was deeper in Chade’s confidence than I had thought.

Dutiful pinned him with a stare. “Yet Lord FitzChivalry can be a party to your secret?”

Ash stood his ground though the blood flushed his cheeks. “If it please my king, I have been told that he was one of my kind for many years before he was elevated to being one of yours.” He gave me an apologetic look. “I had to act on my own judgment. Lady Rosemary was called away. So I had to do as I thought Lord Chade would have wanted.”

I did not hold the power here. I waited for Dutiful to free the boy from his dilemma. After a long pause, Dutiful sighed. I saw Lady Kettricken give a small nod of approval, while the crow made several courting bows and announced, “Spark! Spark!” That made no sense to me, but I had no time to pursue a bird’s thought. Dutiful spoke. “I permit this. This once. My honor should not be preserved by those who serve me doing dishonorable things.”

Ash started to speak. I put a hand on his shoulder to silence him. There would always be dishonorable things done to preserve the honor of any power. Silence now, as Dutiful never needed his nose rubbed in that dirt. Something like a shadow of a smile bent the Fool’s lips. Riddle and Nettle remained silent, acceding to Dutiful. The relief on the boy’s face was evident. It took courage for him to make a low bow to Dutiful and add, “It is respect for the Farseer line that bids me take this course, my king.”

“Be it so.” Dutiful was resigned.

I gestured to Ash and he followed me. We moved away from the light and warmth of the fire, to the dark and shadowy end of the room. Back to the shadows where assassins belonged, I thought. Back to where the old worktable still bore the scorches and scars of my own apprenticeship.

As I moved, I thought about the task Lady Rosemary had been dispatched to carry out. The man who had hired killers to assassinate the royal assassins would soon experience the king’s quiet justice. Would it be subtle: a fall down the stairs, or poisoning from a bit of bad meat? Or would she choose to be sure he knew who was killing him and take her time about it? Would his body be left in such a way as to warn others, or would no corpse ever be found? I suspected the Bawdy Trout might catch fire. Or possibly experience a very destructive brawl. Cod oil in their wine casks? I reined my thoughts away. It was her task, and her assignment came from the king himself. Professional courtesy demanded that I not interfere or judge her decisions. As Ash would learn, some secrets we held back, even from those who shared our trade.

The boy was standing silent near the darkest end of the table. “Well?” I demanded.

“I was waiting for you to be seated, sir.”

I felt a moment’s exasperation. Then I sat, looked at him, and chose Chade’s tone as I ordered him quietly, “Report.”

He licked his lips. “Lord Chade told me that I should do all in my power to keep your friend comfortable. Anything he might need, I was to furnish him. And I was told that he had Skilled that directive to me from Withywoods, as well. Any desire he expressed, I was to fulfill as best as I might. But, sir, it was not just my master’s order that made me do as I did. I did it for that man—I scarcely know what name to call him by! But he spoke me kind, even when I first frightened him. Even when I continued to fear and almost loathe his appearance, if I am honest!

“And when he became accustomed to me, he talked to me. As if he were full of words and they must pour out! And the stories he told! At first I thought he was making up such things. Then I went to the scrolls you had written from those times and there I found the tales told again, almost exactly as he had said.”

He paused expectantly, but his words had snatched the speech from my lips. He’d been reading the accounts I’d written and entrusted to Chade, my reports on the hidden history of the Red-Ship Wars, and how Dutiful had been won back from the Old Blood faction and the dragon Icefyre released from the glacier on Aslevjal. The fall of the Pale Woman. It astonished me, even as I felt a bit foolish. Of course he was reading them. Why did I imagine that Chade had asked me to record them, if not to use in the education of his new apprentices? Had I not read scroll after scroll in Verity’s hand, and King Shrewd’s, and even those from my father’s pen?

“But, if you don’t mind my saying, his tellings were more exciting than your writing. Hero tales, told by one of the heroes himself. Not that he didn’t tell your part in all he did, but . . .”

I nodded, wondering if the Fool had indulged in a bit of embroidery or if the true tales of our exploits had been enough to fire the boy’s imagination.

“I took the best care of him that I knew how, preparing his food, keeping his linens clean, changing the dressings on his injuries, the few times he would allow it. I thought he was getting better. But when he received the news that you had gone off to Withywoods, he became a different creature. He ranted and wept. He said that he should have gone with you, that only you and he could protect each other. I could not calm him. He got up from his bed and stumbled about, demanding that I find garments and boots for him, that he must follow you however he could. And so I obeyed him, but very slowly, for I knew this was not what was best for him. And I am ashamed to say I brought him a tea, one of those that taste of sweet spices and milk but hide a sleeping draught. He drank it down and calmed somewhat. He asked for toasted cheese and bread and perhaps some pickles and a glass of white wine.

“I was so relieved to see him calm and so sure of my tea that I promised to fetch it right away. I left him sitting on the edge of the bed. I took my time in preparing the food and putting it on a tray, and when I returned, my hopes were rewarded. I saw him well bundled in the bed and sleeping soundly. So I did not disturb him.”

“But he wasn’t there at all.”

The boy looked only mildly surprised that I had guessed the Fool’s ruse. “No. He wasn’t. But it was quite a time before I discovered that. When he did not wake when I thought he should, I thought to see if his fever had come back. But he was only bunched bedding and a pillow stuffed into the hooded cloak I had brought him.”

“I know the rest. What did you give him to revive him?”

“An unproven elixir. I knew that it was all my fault, that my sleeping tea had overcome him as he neared the stables. If he died from the cold and exposure, it would be my fault. Lord Chade had obtained the potion some time ago, at great expense. He did not say directly, but I believe it was stolen from a courier who was bearing it to the Duke of Chalced.”

“That would have been years ago!” I objected.

“Yes, sir. I took that into account. The potion was old and often things like that lose their potency. So I doubled the dosage in the scroll. I gave him two full spoons of it.”

“Two spoons full of what?”

He left me then and went to Chade’s cupboard. When he came back, he bore the small glass vial I had seen there earlier. Half its contents were gone, but what remained of the dark-red potion had silvery threads that crawled and squirmed through it in a way that made me queasy.

“What is it?”

Ash looked astonished that I did not know at a glance. “Dragon’s blood, sir. It’s dragon’s blood.”

Chapter Eighteen

The Changer

Given that dragons have speech, as men have, and trade their thoughts with us, how can we even consider commerce in their body parts? Would you ask us to sell you babies’ fingers or the livers of slaves? The tongues of women or perhaps men’s flesh? It is the considered decision of the Bingtown Traders’ Council that to traffic in the parts of dragons is an immoral trade, and one that we as Traders cannot countenance.

It seems unnecessary to add that it is a dangerous trade as well, one that only the foolish would seek to engage in. To slay a dragon for its body parts would be to invite the full wrath of all dragons upon any Trader so reckless as to do it. And doubtless that wrath would include any who indulged in secondhand commerce of such parts. In the course of defending Bingtown from the Chalcedean invaders, our fair city took extreme damage from a single dragon defender. This body refuses to consider what the concerted wrath of the Kelsingra dragons might do to our city.

Hence it is decided and declared that no Bingtown Trader may legally engage in any aspect of trade or commerce that involves the harvesting or marketing of goods sourced from dragons.

—Resolution 7431, Bingtown Traders’ Council

“He gave you dragon’s blood.”

I had persuaded the others there that, while I had concerns over the medicine that Ash had administered to the Fool, there was little to be done save wait and see. I had not told them precisely what that potion was. There was nothing to be gained by involving the king in the knowledge of Chade’s illegal trade. I was already appalled on his behalf. When Ash had first spoken of it, I had felt astonished. And then almost immediately I had known that, yes, if Chade were curious about the properties of dragon’s blood, he would obtain it, however he could. I only wished that Chade were not incapacitated right now. I had no idea if the suggested dosage Ash had located in Chade’s scroll was correct, let alone what side effects we should beware. And unfortunately for me, my best course was to keep all those worries to myself.

Fortunately for me, Dutiful had a kingdom to rule. Nettle needed rest, and seeing that she got it would occupy Riddle. And Kettricken had excused herself from the Fool’s bedside to go to Chade’s. I’d promised her that I would join her there soon, sent Ash off to fetch food for the Fool and me, and seated myself in the chair Kettricken had vacated. Then I had told him.

“What will it do to me?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Not for certain. I’ll have Ash sort out the scrolls that relate to cures from dragon parts. I’ll have him read through them, and set aside for me any that seem relevant.” I didn’t tell him that Chade regarded most of what was written in such scrolls as chicanery. We were in unknown territory, groping our way through the dark. “Do you feel well enough to talk to me?”

He smiled. “At the moment, I feel I could walk to the Mountains with you. But a little while ago, my guts were burning inside me and I wept on Kettricken’s shoulder as if I were a dying child.” He blinked his golden eyes. “I see more light than I could before. I slept for a long time after he gave it to me. Or so he says. I do not really believe I was fully awake when he poured it in my mouth. And such dreams I woke from! Not the dreams of a White Prophet, but dreams full of power and glory. I flew, Fitz. Not as when I rode on the back of Girl-on-a-Dragon. I flew. Me.” For a time he sat, silently staring. Then he came back to me. “My hands ache horribly, but I can move them. Every finger! My skin itches so badly I wish I could tear it off. And my foot, my bad foot?” He lifted the hem of his nightrobe and displayed it to me. “I can walk on it. There is pain, great pain in it all the time. But it’s not the pain that I had before.”

I realized then that his smile was gritted teeth as well as amusement. I rose to see what herbs I might have to ease the deep ache of healing bones. I spoke over my shoulder as I moved about the room. “I need to talk to you about the people who attacked Withywoods. They took my little girl, my Bee. And they took Chade’s daughter, a grown woman named Shun.”



The panicky expression was back on his face. “Chade does not have a daughter. She, too, would count as a Farseer heir. I would have seen her. Fitz, none of the things you tell me can be so. I would have known. It would have revealed other paths to me.”

“Fool. Please. Be calm. Listen to me. You and I, we changed the world, as you said we would. And when you . . . came back, I think we changed all the paths. Chade came out from behind the walls of Buckkeep Castle because of what we did. And he fathered not one, but two, offspring. Shun and Lant. And I had a daughter you had not foreseen. We changed things, Fool. As you said we would. Please, for now, accept that. Because you are the only one who may know why the Servants would take my daughter. And where they would take her and what they intend.”

I turned back to him. I had selected a mixture of valerian, banwurt, willowbark, and some shaved ginger to make it a bit more palatable. I found a mortar and pestle on a different shelf and brought them to the table by his chair. As I ground them together, their fragrances mingled. I wrinkled my nose and went back for more ginger and a bit of dried lemon peel.

He spoke in a low voice. “You left me here. Alone.”

Arguing with him that he had not been alone would have been useless. “I had to,” I admitted. “Have you heard what I found when I reached my home?”

He was looking away from me. “Some of it,” he admitted in a thick voice.

“Well.” I put my thoughts in order. Sometimes to receive information, you must first share all you know. I did not want to think about it or relive any of it. Coward. It was other people’s agony I would speak of, and I wished to hide from my shame? I took a breath and began. Part of me spoke the toneless words, relating the facts. Another part of me carefully composed the herbal tea that might ease his pain. Fresh water in a small kettle, put it to boil, warm the teapot with boiling water so the heat would not be lost when I poured the water over the herbs. Let them steep. Set out the cup and pour in the amber liquid without too much sediment. I found honey and added a fine stream of it.

“And here is a tea that might ease the pain in your foot.” I finished my account.

He did not speak. I stirred the tea with a spoon, tapping it on the edge of the cup to give him its location. His trembling fingers walked to the cup, touched it, and were pulled back. “It was them. The Servants.” His voice was shaking. His blind eyes flickered a gold glance at me. “They’ve found you. So they’ve found me.” He folded his arms and hugged himself tight. He was visibly shaking. It hurt me to see it. A cold cell, a distant fire that meant only pain, never warmth for you. Men that would smile and shout with joy as they hurt you. I remembered. I could barely breathe. He leaned his crossed arms on the table and put his face down on them. He collapsed into himself. I stood where I was. He was my last hope and if I leaned on him too heavily, he would break.

Wings flapped. Motley had been perched on a chair, dozing near the fire’s warmth. She skidded to a landing on the tabletop and walked over to the Fool. “Fool. Fool!” she said in her crow’s voice. She leaned forward and took a lock of his hair in her beak. She groomed it as if it were his plumage. He took in a small breath. She scissored the tip of her beak against his scalp, selected another lock, and groomed it. She made small concerned sounds as she did it. “I know,” he replied. He sighed. He sat up slowly. He held out his fingers and Motley went to him. With one ruined fingertip, he stroked the top of her head. She had calmed him. A bird had done what I could not.

“I’ll protect you,” I lied to him. He knew it was a lie. I had not protected my people at Withywoods, not Lant or Shun or even my precious Bee. The thought of my failures soaked me and sank me.

Then fury. Red fury suddenly blazed up in me.


It’s nothing, I lied to Dutiful. I bottled and corked my anger. Private. So private. They’d hurt my Fool, possibly killed my friend Prilkop, and stolen my daughter. And I had done nothing to them, and could do nothing until I knew more. But when I knew more . . . “I’ll protect you and we will kill them all,” I promised him savagely. I spoke my oath tightly, only to him. I leaned in close to whisper the words. “They will bleed and die and we will take back our own from them.” I heard him draw a trembling breath. Tears, tinged gold rather than yellow, were creeping down his scarred cheeks.

“We will kill them all?” he asked in a small and shaky voice.

I walked my hand across the table, tapping my nails so he heard it coming. I took his bony hand in mine. I claimed a silent moment to gather my courage and chill my anger to edged cold. Was this right? Was I exploiting his fears for my own ends? Making promises I could not fulfill? But what else could I do? It was for Bee. “Fool. Beloved. You have to help me now. We will kill them all, but only if you can help me. Why did they come to Withywoods? Why did they take Bee and Shun? What do they intend? Why were Chalcedeans there? And most of all, where would they take them? Where? The other questions matter, but even if all you can tell me is where, it will be enough for me to find them and kill them and take back my child.”

I saw him compose himself. I watched him think. I waited for him. He found the cup, lifted it, and took a cautious sip. “It’s my fault,” he said. I wanted to contradict him, to interrupt him and assure him it was not his fault. But his words had begun to flow and I did not want to divert them.

“Once they knew what you meant to me, they were bound to seek you out. To see if you held the secret that they had not been able to drag out of me. The Servants had your name; I’ve told you how that came about. They knew of FitzChivalry and they knew of Buckkeep. But of Tom Badgerlock and Withywoods they could not know. The messengers I sent to you—I did not tell them your name. I gave them pieces of information they could use as they traveled to find the next place and ask the next question that might bring them to you. Fitz, I did my best to protect you, even as I sent you my request and my warning. I can only suppose that they captured one of my messengers and tortured it out of him.” He took a noisy sip of his tea, sucking in air with the scalding brew.

“Or perhaps they just followed me. Perhaps they could see what I could not, that it was inevitable that I would make my way back to my Catalyst. Perhaps they even were counting on you to kill me. How sweet they must have found that!

“But now I fear a thing even darker. If they knew I had asked you to find the Unexpected Son and keep him safe, they might have suspected you had already done so. And perhaps they descended on Withywoods hoping to find him. You heard that they were asking for him.

“But here is the darkest thing of all. What if they know more than we can possibly know? What if they have generated new prophecies since you brought me back from the dead and rendered so much of the old future impossible? What if they knew that if you found me in the marketplace, you would kill me? Or what if they knew that if you nearly killed me, you would try to save me? That you would take me and leave your own home unguarded, so they might go in to rape and plunder and search for the Unexpected Son with nothing to fear?”

His words filled me with uneasiness even before he said, “What if we are still dancing to their tune? And we do not hear it, so we cannot change the step of how we prance and turn to their wills?”

I was silent, trying to conceive of such an enemy. An enemy who would know what I would do before I decided to do it.

“It is no use fearing that,” he said sadly into my silence. “If it is so, we are helpless against them. And the only logical response to that would be to stop struggling. And thus they would win. At least, if we fight, we can be a nuisance to them.”

My anger, briefly banked, flared again. “I intend to be more than a nuisance, Fool.”

He had not withdrawn his hand from my grip. Now he turned it and grasped my hand firmly. “I have no courage of my own left, Fitz. They beat and twisted and burned it out of me. So I shall have to borrow yours. Let me think, for just a moment longer, on all you have told me.”

He released my hand and took another slow sip of his tea. His eyes stared past me. I had forgotten the crow, so still and silent had she been. Abruptly, she opened her wings and leapt from her perch to land on the small table, nearly oversetting the teapot. “Food,” she demanded raucously. “Food, food, food!”

“There is food left on the tray beside my bed, I think,” the Fool told me, and I fetched it for her. There was a bread roll, and the carcass of a small fowl with meat still clinging to its bones. I carried it to the worktable, and she followed me there. I tore the bread for her, poured water into a bowl, and left it for her. Once it was in the circle of our lamplight, she found it easily.

The Fool spoke before I had seated myself. “There are things in your tale I do not understand. And only a few things on which I can enlighten you beyond what you already know. But let us take our bits of facts and see what we can build. First, the kindly woman with the round face. I know her. She is Dwalia, and she will have her luriks with her. She is a Lingstra, that is to say, one who has advanced solidly within the ranks of the Servants, but not so high that she remains in the school interpreting the prophecies. She is useful and clever enough that she has been given luriks to teach and to serve her, but not so precious that the Servants will not risk her out in the greater world. She seems kindly; it is a knack she has, and one she uses well. People assume that she likes them, and in turn they want to curry favor with her.”

“Did you know her, then? In Clerres?”

“I knew of her.” He paused for a moment and for just that instant I wondered if he lied to me. “She can so easily make others desire to please her, and make almost anyone feel important and cherished by her.” He cleared his throat. “Several other things you say puzzle me greatly. Chalcedean mercenaries. Are they just her hired tools or do they have an additional interest? The currency of the Servants is seldom gold. Will they trade a prophecy for what the mercenaries do? Give them a tipping point where they can seize power or glory? The Servants’ mission seems clear to us. They were seeking the Unexpected Son. But when they discover Bee, it is she they carry off, after garbing her as if she were a shaysim, an untrained prophet. But they take Shun as well! Shun! Such a dreadful name.”

“I gather she took it to herself. It is not what Chade named her. But Fool, are you saying they took Bee because she is a prophet?” Uneasiness was a cold coiling of worms inside me.

“Is she?” he asked me quietly. “Tell me about her, Fitz. And hide nothing.”

When I was silent, gathering my thoughts, he spoke again. The most peculiar smile trembled on his lips, and tears glimmered in his eyes. “But perhaps you have already told me as much as I needed to know, even if I did not put the sense in your words. She is small and blond and pale-eyed. And clever. Tell me. Was she long in the womb?”

My mouth went dry. Where was this leading? “Yes. So long that I thought Molly’s mind had turned. For more than a year, almost two, she insisted she was pregnant. And when finally the child came, she was so tiny. And so very slow to grow. For years, we thought she would never do more than lie in her crib and stare. Then, slowly, she began to be able to do things. To roll over, and then to sit without support. Even after she could walk, however, she did not speak. Not for years. I despaired of her, Fool. I thought her mindless or very slow, and wondered what would become of her after Molly and I were dead. Then, when she first began to speak, it was only to Molly. She seemed . . . wary of me. It was only after Molly died that she talked freely to me. But even before that, she proved her cleverness. Molly taught her to read, and she taught herself to write and to paint. And, Fool, I suspect she will be able to Skill, eventually. For she was aware of me. ‘Like a boiling pot, with your thoughts spilling over,’ she said. And that was why she avoided my touch and being close to me. But we were getting to know each other, she was starting to trust me as a child should trust her father . . .” I suddenly choked and could not go on. It was sweet release to speak aloud of my child, to trust someone with the full truth of her, and sharpest pain that I described a child stolen from me.

“Does she dream?” he demanded suddenly.

And then it poured from me, the full story of her desire to have paper on which to write her dreams down, and how she had so frightened me by foretelling the death of the “pale man” and then the messenger in her butterfly cloak. I hated to tell him how the messenger had died, but by then the sharing of that barbed secret seemed a necessity.

“She helped you burn the body?” the Fool asked incredulously. “Your little girl?”

I nodded silently, then forced myself to admit it aloud. “Yes. She did.”

“Oh, Fitz,” he rebuked me. But I had more to confess to him, and I did, with the tale of our aborted holiday in Oaksbywater, and how I had killed the dog and longed to kill her master, and how I had carelessly allowed Bee to slip away from me. And then, I had to admit the worst. I told how I had come to stab him thinking he was a danger to her.

“What? That was your child who came to me? The boy who touched me and opened me to all the futures? I didn’t dream it, did I! He was there. The Unexpected Son!”

“No, Fool. There was no lad anywhere near you. Only my daughter, my little Bee.”

“Then it was her? It was Bee I held in my arms for that one moment? Oh, Fitz! Why did not you tell me instantly!” He stood abruptly, swayed, and sank down. He grasped the arms of the chair and gripped them as if a storm blew around him. He stared at the fire as if he could see through the walls of the keep and into some other world. “Of course,” he whispered at last. “It would have to be so. I understand it all now. Who else’s could she be? In that moment, when she touched me, ah, it was no dream, no illusion or delusion. I saw with her. My mind was opened once again to all possible futures. Because, yes, she is Shaysa, even as I once was. And I did not see her in the futures I glimpsed for you because, without me, you would never have had her. She is my daughter, too, Fitz. Yours and mine and Molly’s. As is the way of my kind. Ours. Our Bee.”

I was torn between utter confusion and deepest insult. I had a faint memory of him telling me once that he’d had two fathers—brothers or cousins—in a place where folk accepted that arrangement. I’d assumed that it meant that in that place no one would care whose seed had actually ripened in the wife the husbands shared. I forced myself to calmness and looked at him carefully. His golden gaze seemed to meet mine. His eyes were more unnerving now than when they had been colorless. The metallic gleam in them seemed to shift and flow and swirl as if they were liquid while the black dots of his pupils seemed too small for the dim light. I drew a deep steadying breath. Don’t be distracted. Stay on the trail. “Fool. Bee is not your child. You were never with Molly.”

He smiled at me. “No, Beloved. Of course I was never with Molly.” His fingertip tapped the table, once, twice, thrice. He smiled gently. Then he said, “I was with you.”

I opened my mouth and stood in gaping silence. It took a long time for coherent words to find their way out. “No.” I said it firmly. “No, you were not! And even if . . .” And then I ran out of words and logic.

He laughed aloud. Of all the reactions he could have had, that was the last I expected. He laughed as I had rarely heard him laugh, for while the jester makes others laugh, he seldom betrays his own amusement. But now he laughed unabashedly and without restraint, until he was breathless and had to wipe tears from his sightless eyes. I stared at him. “Oh, Fitz,” he gasped at last. “Oh, my friend. What a thing for me to miss! Such a terrible time to be deprived of my sight. Still, all I could not see on your face, I heard in your voice. Oh, Fitz. Oh, my Fitz.” He had to stop speaking to take in air.

“Of all your jests upon me, that was the least funny.” I tried not to sound as hurt as I felt. In the midst of my fears for Bee, he would do this?

“No, Fitz. No. It was the best, for it was no jest. Oh, my friend. You’ve no idea what you’ve just told me, even though I have done my best to explain it to you before.” He drew breath again.

I found a bit of dignity. “I should go see Chade.” I’d had my fill of the Fool’s peculiar humor for now.

“Yes. You should. But not just yet.” He reached out and unerringly seized my hand. “Stay here, Fitz. For I think I know at least part of the answer to your most important question. And I have answers to the other questions that you do not even know to ask. That last one is the one I answer first. Fitz. You can deny it. But I have been with you, in every way that matters. As you have been with me. We’ve shared our thoughts and our food, bound each other’s wounds, slept close when the warmth of our bodies was all we had left to share. Your tears have fallen on my face, and my blood has been on your hands. You’ve carried me when I was dead, and I carried you when I did not even recognize you. You’ve breathed my breath for me, sheltered me inside your own body. So, yes, Fitz, in every way that matters, I’ve been with you. We’ve shared the stuff of our beings. Just as a captain does with her liveship. Just as a dragon does with his Elderling. We’ve been together in so many ways that we have mingled. So close have we been that when you made love to your Molly, she begat our child. Yours. Mine. Molly’s. A little Buck girl with a wild streak of White in her.

“Oh, gods. Such a jest and such a joy. A jest I played upon you? Hardly! A joy you have given me. Tell me. Does she look like me at all?”

“No.” Yes. The twin peaks of her upper lip. Her long pale lashes against her cheeks. Her blond hair, curly as mine, wild as his had been. Her round chin, not the Fool’s as he was now but twin to him as a child.

“Oh, how you lie!” the Fool rejoiced. “She does! I know it in your affronted silence. Bee looks like me! Yours and mine, and doubtless the most beautiful and clever child that ever existed!”

“She is that.” Don’t think of his ridiculous claim. Of all the people I could lie to, I’d always been best at lying to myself. Bee was mine. Only mine. Her paleness came from my Mountain mother. I could believe that. It was easier to believe that than to agree that the Fool had shared in her making. Wasn’t it?

“And now the most important of your questions I answer.” His voice went deadly solemn. He sat straighter at the table. His shoulders were squared and his peculiar gaze distant. “At this instant, I do not know where they are. But I know where they must take her. Back to Clerres and the school. Back to the den of the Servants. She will be a precious prize to them. Not an Unexpected Son, no, but a trueborn shaysa, unseen and unpredicted. And not created by them. How astonished they will be by that.” He paused and thought for a short time. “And how determined to use her. Fitz, I do not think you need to fear for her life, yet. But all the same, we must fear for her and recover her as quickly as possible.”

“Can we intercept them?” Hope flared in me at the first possibility of actually doing something rather than simply floundering and agonizing. I pushed all else he had said aside. All those thoughts could wait until I held Bee in my arms again.

“Only if we are very clever. Exceedingly clever. It will be like that guessing game they play in the market, the one with the pea under one of three walnut shells. We must decide which route they will be smartest to take, and then that they will certainly not take the route as we will have deduced it. And then we must think of the route they would choose as the one we would think most unlikely, and discard that as well. We must thwart the future as they know it. It’s a puzzle, Fitz, and they have far more information than we do. But there is one piece of information they may have but do not understand. They may know she is our child, but they have no idea to what lengths we will go to recover her.”

He stopped speaking. Cradling his chin in one hand, he turned his face toward the firelight. He pulled at his lips as if his mouth pained him. I stared at him. The scars on his cheeks were fading but his silhouette looked wrong to me. He turned his face back to me. The shifting gold in his eyes was like molten metal seething in a pot. “I will need to ponder this, Fitz. I must try to dredge from my memory every prophecy or dream about the Unexpected Son that I ever memorized. And I do not know if any of them will be useful. Do any of them truly apply to Bee? Or is she a chance find for them, a treasure discovered when they were seeking something very different? Will they split their group, and send some home with Bee while others continue to seek the Unexpected Son?

“And since my Catalyst and I changed the world, have they harvested new prophecies from their stables of Whites and part-Whites? I think it likely. How can we outwit something like that? How do we outfox a fox who knows every path and den, when they seem able to fog every witness who might be able to help us?”

A shadow of an idea flitted through my brain. Before I could grasp it, the Fool broke the flimsy thought. “Go on!” With the back of his fingers he shooed me away. “Take some rest or visit Chade. I need to think alone.”

I shook my head, marveling at him. In the space of a conversation, he had gone from a quivering, fearful wreck to dismissing me as if he were my king. I wondered if the dragon blood was affecting his mood as well as his body.

The Fool nodded a farewell, already lost in thought. I rose, stiff from sitting, and descended to my room. Ash had been there. It had been meticulously tidied with a precision I could never have achieved. A merry little fire on the hearth waited to be fed. I gave it a log and sat down in the chair before it. I stared into the flames.

The Fool was Bee’s father. The thought pushed itself into my mind. Ridiculous. A wild claim by a desperate man. She did look like him. Sometimes. Not that much. But more like him than she looked like me. No. It was impossible and I would not consider it. I knew I was Bee’s father. I knew that with complete certainty. A child could not have two fathers. Could she? Bitches could have split litters, with pups born that came from different males. But Bee was a lone child! No. A child could not have two fathers. An unwelcome memory intruded. Dutiful had been conceived by Verity’s use of my body. Did Dutiful have two fathers? Was he as much my son as Verity’s? I refused to think any longer about it tonight.

I considered my bed. I ached all over. My head was throbbing. My brow was puckered, and not with thought. I found the looking-glass in Lord Feldspar’s traveling trunk. The slash on my brow was a wrinkled seam in my skin. The healer had botched his stitches. Picking them out myself would be long and painful. Later. Think about something else. Something that didn’t hurt.

I would, I thought, go and find some food. No. Prince FitzChivalry would not wander down to the kitchens looking for cold roast or a dollop of soup from the cauldron kept for the guardsmen. I sat down on the edge of the bed. Or would he? Who could predict what Prince FitzChivalry would do? I leaned back and stared up at the ceiling. Patience, I thought to myself, had not changed to suit Buckkeep Castle but had remained her adorable, eccentric self. A regretful smile bent my mouth. No wonder my father had loved her so. I’d never considered how she had managed to remain herself despite the constraints of court life. Could I be as free as she had been? Set my own rules within the court? I closed my eyes to think about it.

Chapter Nineteen

The Strategy

 . . . but the island is surrounded by a magic, so that only those who have been there can return there. No stranger can find his way. Yet, rarely, pale children are born, and without ever having been there, they recall the path, and so they importune their parents until they are taken there, to grow slowly old and wise.

On that island, in a castle built of giants’ bones, lives a white seer, surrounded by her servants. She has predicted every possible end of the world, and her servants write down every word she utters, scribing it with bird’s-blood ink onto parchment made from sea-serpent hide. It is said that her servants are fed on the flesh and blood of sea serpents, so that they may remember pasts far beyond their own births, and these, too, they record.

If a stranger wishes to go there, he must find for a guide one born there, and he must be sure to take with him four gifts: one of copper, one of silver, one of gold, and one made from the bone of a man. And those of copper and gold cannot be simple coins, but must be rare jewelry, made by the cleverest of smiths. With these tokens, each in a pouch of black silk tied with a white ribbon, the traveler must approach the guide and speak the following charm: “With copper I buy your speaking, with silver I buy your thoughts, with gold I buy your memories, and with a bone I bind your body so that you must accompany me on a journey to the land of your birth.” Then that one will take from the seeker the four pouches and speak to him and remember true and guide him to his birth-home.

But even then, the traveler’s way may not be easy, for while the guide is bound to take him to Clerrestry, nothing can bind him to take him by the straightest road, nor to speak to him in plain talk.

—An Outislander minstrel’s tale, recorded by Chade

I twitched awake to a soft tapping. I was dressed, on the bed. Light through the shutters on my window told me it was day. I rubbed my face, trying to wake myself, and then wished I hadn’t. The puckering seam on my brow was sore now. The tapping came again.

“Ash?” I called softly, and then realized it was coming from the hidden door rather than the one that gave onto the corridor. “Fool?” I queried, and in response heard “Motley, Motley, Motley.” Ah. The crow. I triggered the door and, as it swung open, she hopped out into my room.

“Food, food, food?” she asked.

“I’m sorry. I’ve nothing here for you.”

“Fly. Fly, fly, fly!”

“Let me look at you first.”

She hopped closer to me and I went down on one knee to inspect her. The ink seemed to be lasting. I could not see any white on her. “I’ll let you out, for I know you must ache to fly. But if you are wise you will avoid your own kind.”

She said nothing to that but watched me as I went to the window and opened it. It was a blue-sky day. I looked out over castle walls topped with an extra rampart of snow. I had expected it to be dawn. It wasn’t. I had slept all the night and part of the morning away. She hopped to the sill and launched without a backward glance. I closed the window and then secured the secret door. The cold air on my face had tightened the faulty stitches. They had to come out. The Fool was blind, and taking them out myself would require holding a mirror with one hand and picking at them with the other. I certainly did not want to call back the healer who had done this to me.

Without thinking, I reached for Chade. Could you help me remove the stitches in my brow? My body is trying to heal and the stitches are puckering the flesh.

I felt him there, at the end of my Skill-thread. He drifted like a gull riding the breeze. Then he said softly, I can see the warmth of the flames through the spy-hole. It’s cold here but I must stay for the whole watch. I hate him so. I want to go home. I just want to go home.

Chade? Are you dreaming? You’re safe home, in Buckkeep Castle.

I want to go back to our little farm. I should have inherited it, not him. He had no right to send me away like this. I miss my mother. Why did she have to die?

Chade. Wake up! It’s a bad dream!

Fitz. Stop, please. Nettle shushed me. Her Skilling to me was tight and private. None of her apprentices or journeymen would hear us. We are trying to keep him calm. I’m looking for a dream that might soothe him and give him a road back to us. But I seem to find only his nightmares. Come to his room, and I’ll see to your stitches.

Remember to come as Prince FitzChivalry! Dutiful cut in, riding her stream of thought. You caused enough talk when you stole that horse. I’ve bought it for you, at twice what any horse should be worth! I’ve tried to explain it was a mistake, that you’d ordered up a horse and thought the roan was for you. But be circumspect with any you meet and try to avoid conversation. We are still trying to construct a plausible history for you. If anyone comments on your youthful appearance, imply that it’s an effect from your years among the Elderlings. And please be suitably mysterious about that!

I affirmed that in a tight Skill-sending to Dutiful. Then I considered myself carefully in the looking-glass. I was seething with impatience to go after Bee, but riding out randomly was as likely to take me farther away from her as to put me on her trail. I tamped down my frustration. I had to wait. Stand and wait. The Fool’s suggestion that we dash off to Clerres, a journey of months, seemed premature to me. Every day that I traveled south was another day of Bee held captive by Chalcedeans. Better by far to recapture Bee and Shun sooner rather than later, before they could be carried out of the Six Duchies. Now that we knew who and what they were, it seemed unlikely to me that they could elude our search efforts. The reports would come back here, to Buckkeep. Surely somewhere, someone had seen a sign of them.

And in the meanwhile, I resolved to be as tractable as I could. I’d already created enough difficulties for Dutiful and Nettle. And I had a feeling I was going to be asking for a great deal of help from them and the royal treasury. They would do it for love of me and Bee, regardless of the cost. But it was going to be difficult for the king to lend me the men-at-arms I would require without anyone making a firm connection between Tom Badgerlock’s stolen child, the raid on Withywoods, and the long-missing FitzChivalry. It would be even more difficult with Chade wandering in a wound fever and unable to apply his cleverness to the problem. The least I could do was not make their political puppetry any more difficult.

Political puppetry. While brutes held my child captive. Rage swelled in me. I felt my heart surge and my muscles swell with it. I wanted to fight, to kill those Chalcedeans as I’d stabbed and bitten and throttled Chade’s attackers.

Fitz? Is there a threat?

Nothing, Dutiful. Nothing. Nothing I had a target for. Yet.

When I emerged from my room, I was shaved and my hair groomed back into as much of a warrior’s tail as I could boast. My clothing was the least colorful of the garb that Ash had set aside as fitting for Prince FitzChivalry. I wore the simple sword at my hip, a privilege of my rank within Buckkeep. Ash had polished my boots to a gloss, and the earring I wore had what appeared to be a real sapphire in it. The frilly half-cloak with the lace edges was an annoyance, but I had decided I must trust Ash and hope such foolish garb was not a boy’s prank.

The halls of the castle, which had been thronged with folk for Winterfest, were quieter now. I strode along them confidently, giving a smile to any servant I encountered. I’d reached the stair that would take me to the level of the royal apartments and Chade’s elaborate rooms when a tall woman suddenly pushed off the wall she had been leaning on. Her gray hair was pulled back in a warrior’s tail and her easy stance told me she was perfectly balanced on her feet. She could attack or flee in an instant. I was suddenly very alert. She smiled at me and I wondered if I’d have to kill her to get past her. She spoke softly. “Hey, Fitz. Are you hungry? Or are you too proud now to join me in the guards’ mess?”

Her eyes met mine and she waited. It took a time for my memory to travel back that many years. “Captain Foxglove?” I managed to guess.

The smile on her face warmed and her eyes gleamed. “I wondered if you’d know me, after all these years. We’re a long way from Neat Bay in distance and time. But I’ve made a bet, and a large one, that a Farseer doesn’t forget who had his back.”

I immediately extended a hand and we clasped wrists. Her grip was almost as firm as it had once been, and I was immensely glad she wasn’t there to kill me.

“And it’s many a year since anyone called me captain. But you, what have you been up to? That slash looks no more than a week old.”

I touched it self-consciously. “It’s a humiliating tale, of a very foolish encounter with the corner of a stone wall.”

She shook her head at that. “Odd that it looks like a sword-slash. I can see that what I have to tell you would have been better told a month ago. Come with me, please.”

Delayed, I Skilled small and tight to Dutiful and Nettle. Captain Foxglove wishes a word with me.

Who? Dutiful demanded worriedly.

She guarded your mother at the Battle of Neat Bay. Kettricken will recall her, I think.


I wondered how much he knew of that tale, and as my recollection of that bloody day trickled through my mind, I strode along beside the old woman. She still had the upright bearing of a guardsman and the long stride of one who can quick-march for miles. But as we walked, she said, “I haven’t been a captain in the guards for many years, my prince. When the Red-Ship War was finally over I married, and we managed to have three children before I was too old to bear. And in their time, they gave Red Ross and me a dozen grandchildren. You?”

“No grandchildren yet,” I said.

“So Lady Nettle’s child will be your first, then?”

“My first grandchild,” I confirmed. The words were strange in my mouth.

We clattered down the stairs side by side and I was strangely glad of the envious looks other servants bestowed on her as we passed them. Time was when friendship with the Bastard had not been something to prize, but she had given it to me. Down we went, to the level of the castle where the real work was done, threading past the laundry folk with their baskets of linens both clean and dirty, past pages balancing trays of food, and a carpenter and his journeyman, and three apprentices off to repair something in the castle. Past the kitchens where once Cook had reigned and made me her favorite despite the political ramifications. And to the arched doorway that led to the guards’ mess, where the clamor of hungry folk eating seldom ceased.

Foxglove flung up a hand to my chest and halted me there. She met my gaze, looking straight into my eyes. Her hair was gray and lines framed her mouth but her dark eyes snapped bright as ever. “You’re a Farseer, and I know a true Farseer remembers his debts. I’m here on behalf of my granddaughter and a grandson. I know you’ll remember the days when a few words from you made me and Whistle and a handful of other good soldiers leave King Verity’s guard to put on the purple and white and the fox badge for our foreign queen. You remember that, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Then ready a smile, sir. Your time has come.”

She gestured for me to precede her. I entered the room, braced with dread and ready for anything. Except for someone to shout, “Hep!” and have every guard at the table suddenly surge to his feet. Benches scraped loudly against the floor as they were pushed back. One mug teetered precariously as the table gave a bounce. Then it settled and silence filled the room of men and women standing tall and formally alert to greet me. I caught my breath.

Many years ago, King-in-Waiting Verity had fashioned a sigil for me. I’d been the only one to wear it. It had been the Farseer buck, but with his head lowered to charge rather than the lofty pose that a king’s son would wear. And across it there had been the red bend that marked me as a bastard even as the buck acknowledged my bloodlines.

Now I faced a room of standing guards, and half a dozen of them wore the slashed buck on their chests. Their jerkins were Buck blue, with a stripe of red down the breast. I stared, speechless.

“Sit down, you idiots. It’s still just the Fitz,” Foxglove announced. Oh, she was enjoying this, and when a few of the youngsters in the room gasped at her temerity, she compounded it by taking my arm and tugging me to a place at one of the long benches at the table. “Push the ale pitcher down this way, and some of the black bread and the white cheese. He may sit at the high table now, but he was raised on guardroom rations.”

And so I sat, and someone poured a mug for me, and I wondered how this could feel so good and so strange and so terrible all at once. My daughter was missing and in danger, and here I sat, grinning foolishly as an old woman explained that it was time I had my own guard, and although her other grandchildren were all members of Kettricken’s guard, her two youngest hadn’t given an oath yet. As the rest of the guards settled at the table, smirking at one another to see a Farseer “prince” sharing their common fare, they could not know that food had seldom tasted better to me. This dark bread and sharp cheese and the ale that foamed over the top of the tankard were the foods that had sustained me through many a dark hour. It was the best feast I could imagine for this peculiarly triumphal moment.

Foxglove herded two youngsters toward me, a hand on each of their shoulders. Neither could have been over twenty, and the girl visibly straightened herself to try to be taller. “They are cousins, but as alike as two kits from the same litter. This is Sharp and here is Ready. They’re already wearing your badge. Will you take their oaths now?”

“Does King Dutiful know of all this?” I spoke the words aloud as I Skilled them tightly to Dutiful. Thought is fast. He witnessed my dilemma instantly and I felt his amusement at it.

“If he doesn’t, he should,” Foxglove responded tartly, and mugs thumped the table in agreement. “I don’t recall your asking permission before the white fox badge marked a guard troop.”

“Oh, that was you and Whistle, not I!” I rejoined, and she laughed.

“Perhaps. But I recall it differently.” Then her face grew sober. “Ah, Whistle. She went too fast, didn’t she?” She cleared her throat. “My infants, draw your knives and present them to Fitz . . . to Prince FitzChivalry. We’ll do this the old way.”

Old it was, so old I did not know it, but she walked us through it, and five others followed. She nicked the back of my left hand, and as the tip of her knife moved my blood onto the outstretched palm of the boy, she told him, “The blood of the Farseers rests in your hands, for you to protect. You hold his life in your hands, now and whenever you draw blade in his name. Do not dishonor it, nor put your life ahead of his.”

There was more and I became aware of first Dutiful and then Nettle joining me as the guards wearing my badge came to me one at a time. They swore their blades to me and took my blood into their hands and I tried to breathe and keep some measure of royal poise as I did so. As the last one rose, taking back from me his sworn blade, I felt a breath of Skill from Nettle. That was beautiful.

I’ll wager Fitz is weeping like a maiden. This from Dutiful, wryly, but I could feel that he was as moved as Nettle had been.

Or weeping like a man who is finally welcomed home, Nettle responded tartly.

What do I do with them now? I was a bit dazed.

Quarter them. Clothe them. Pay them. Make sure they keep discipline and practice daily. Isn’t being royal fun? You’re going to need staff, Fitz. The people who do all the things that need doing.

I don’t have time for this! I have to go after Bee!

With them at your heels, Fitz. You’ll need them. But most of them look as green as grass. Do you want me to choose one of my captains and send him to you?

I think I’ve a better idea. I hope.

My silence during my conversation with Dutiful had been taken for gravitas. I turned my gaze on Foxglove. “Captain Foxglove, I’d like your blade now.”

She stared at me. “I’m an old woman, Fitz. I left the guard many years ago, after our king drove the Red Ships from our shores. I liked peace. I wed, I had children, and I saw them every day. Now I’m old. I’ve a bad elbow, and my knees are stiff, and my eyesight is not what it was.”

“But your mind is. You can refuse me if you wish. I imagine you’ve a home and a husband and . . .”

“Red Ross is gone for many a year now.” She stood very still. I watched memories flicker through her eyes. Then she spoke in a whisper as she drew a humble hip-knife from her belt. “If you still wish to have my blade, I’ll swear it to you, Fitz.”

“I do. I’ll need someone to keep these puppies in order.”

And so I opened the small wound on my hand afresh, and put my blood into the palm of one who had already held the lives of Farseers in her hands. I would not allow her to go down on her knees to me, but took her promise from her standing. “Face-to-face, as we once stood back-to-back,” I told her. She smiled and every guardsman in the room cheered her.

“And my orders, sir?” she asked.

“To do what you think best. You know far better than I how to captain them. Quarter them, clothe them, see they don’t break discipline, and take them to the practice yards. And pay them when their pay is due.” I tried not to betray that I had no idea where those funds would be coming from.

Guards are paid from the treasury. I’ll let Lady Lightfoot know that we’ve a new troop. Right now Chade is awake and almost sensible. My mother is with him. Nettle and I will meet you there.

On my way.

But it took me some little time to pry myself loose from the guards’ mess. I had to lift a toast to my new captain of the guard, and confirm several tales she had told of the battle of Neat Bay. Thankfully none of them touched on my legendary ability to change myself into a wolf and rip out throats. Finally I was able to leave Foxglove at the head of the table with her two grandchildren beaming with pride as I slipped away.

I lowered my head as if in deep thought and strode hastily through the corridors and up the stairs of Buckkeep Castle, everything about me saying I was a man who had no time to stop for words. My concern for Bee vied with my concern for Chade. I needed him to help me sort through all the Fool had told me about the Servants. Chade, if anyone, would know how to outfox them. I needed him for every aspect of my return to life at Buckkeep. It was unmanning to realize how much I depended on him. I tried to imagine the court at Buckkeep without him. Or my life without him manipulating all sorts of events from behind the curtains like a very clever puppeteer. I’d been counting on him to manufacture and release plausible explanations for where I had been and my connection to Tom Badgerlock, if there was to be one. How quickly would the news flow from Withywoods to Withy and then to Oaksbywater? I would deal with it. Once I had Bee back, I would deal with everything else, I vowed to myself, and took the last flight of steps two at a time.

A page with a tray of emptied dishes was just leaving Chade’s room, and behind her came a cavalcade of healers with basins and soiled bandages and baskets of supplies for treating wounds. They bobbed greetings to me as they passed, and I returned them. As the last one left, I slipped in the open door.

Chade rested in grand fashion in the midst of his emerald-green bedding and cushions. The heavy curtains around his bed had been pulled back. A large, cheery fire burned on the hearth, and the room was warmly lit with candles. Kettricken was there, gowned simply in white and purple. She sat in a chair near the head of Chade’s bed, some bit of needlework in her hands. King Dutiful stood at the foot of his bed, formally attired in heavy robes. His crown dangled from his fingertips. I suspected he had just come from the Judgment Chambers. Nettle was gazing out the window, her back toward me. As she turned, I fancied I could see a slight swell in her belly. A growing child. A baby for her and Riddle to cherish.

I turned back to Chade. Pillows propped him all around. He was looking at me. The rims of his eyes were pink as if recently cleansed of a crust, and the flesh looked loose on his face. His long-fingered hands rested on the edges of the coverlet, still as I had seldom seen them still. But his gaze met mine and recognized me. “You look terrible,” I greeted him.

“I feel terrible. That bit of scum’s sword did more damage than I thought it had.”

“But you still made an end of him.”

“I did.”

There we stopped. I had not told anyone there how Chade had ended the traitor. Or had I? Oh. I recalled what Dutiful had told me of the Rousters and I wondered what they would make of cut hamstrings, a notched nose, and a slashed throat. Later. Deal with it later.

I wanted to ask if Shun’s stepfather had already paid the price for his treachery. But that, too, was not a question to ask in front of others. I spoke to all of them. “I may have a bit of good news for us. It’s thin soup but better than nothing to feed our hopes upon. The Fool confirms what I’ve suspected. The attack on Withywoods came from Servants of the White Prophet. The Chalcedeans there were most likely mercenaries hired to wield swords, with the Servants directing the attack. The Fool has listened to all the Withywoods folk told us about that terrible evening. He is convinced from the way they dressed Bee in white and bundled her into their sleigh that they believe she is a, uh, a shaysa—that is, a White Prophet candidate. Or something like that. They will value her and will attempt to take her back to their home in Clerres.”

“And Shun?” Chade demanded.

“You heard what the folk of Withywoods said. Bee did her best to protect her. If the Servants value Bee as the Fool believes they do, I hope that means Bee can continue to extend some protection to Shun.”

There was a silence. “So we can hope,” Kettricken offered us quietly.

“Thin soup indeed.” Chade was slowly shaking his head. “You should never have left them alone there, Fitz.”

“I know,” I said simply. Little else I could say to that.

Nettle cleared her throat. “Chade’s messenger has proven his usefulness. I had believed his level of Skill-talent too low for him to belong to a formal coterie, but in this he has functioned well, and we will now train Sildwell as a Solo.”

“You’ve word from Withywoods?”

“Yes. Once the Skill-fog was cleared, Chade’s messenger was able to reach us clearly, as did my journeyman Grand. But little of it is cheery. FitzVigilant is on his way back to Buckkeep, accompanied by the remaining Rousters. I am leaving Grand in place there. They are bringing the bodies of those who attacked you on Gallows Hill. We have led them to believe you and Chade were attacked by unknown assailants, who fled after the Rousters had loyally protected your entry into the stones.”

“That galls me,” Chade said bitterly from his bed.

“But it best protects FitzVigilant and Thick as they journey with the Rousters back to Buckkeep. At least one of the dead men deserves a hero’s funeral, Chade. When they are here in Buckkeep we will sort the sheep from the goats, and we are already digging to see how such treachery could occur within their ranks. The Rousters has always been a ‘final chance’ troop among the guards. Perhaps it is time we disband them altogether.” Dutiful’s voice fell on those last words.

Chade had a slight smile on his face. He pointed a finger at the king and said to me, “He learns. An excellent trait in a king.” He gave a small sigh and added, “When I feel a bit stronger, I will help in that digging. But don’t disband my Rousters. I have a man . . .” His words trickled away. His mouth was slightly ajar as he stared into the flames. I turned my gaze to Nettle. She shook her head at me and lifted a finger to her lips.

Dutiful turned back to me and spoke almost in a whisper. “Thick rides with them, of course. He and Lant will look after each other. And we have Sildwell with them, to keep us informed. Still, it will be good to have both of them safely home again. Lant will stay at court, and this time he will be safe here. As he should have been all along. The sons of Lord Vigilant will not be presented at court for five years.” There seemed some small rebuke for Chade there. Had he never informed Dutiful that Lant’s “stepmother” harbored hatred for him? Well, it meant that the boys had survived. I wondered about the stepmother’s health but did not ask.

Dutiful drew a breath and informed me, “We have had no reports of the raiders after they left Withywoods. It is as if they vanished completely. We think it is that fogging they can do. I’ve asked several of the Skill-journeymen to look through the scrolls for any mention of such a use of it and how it can be detected. But we will continue to search for them and to watch key locations. Grand is in place at Withywoods, with directions that he continue queries and report back daily.”

“How are my people there?”

“Our folk are as well as could be expected,” Nettle replied quietly.

A silence fell in the room. I pondered the full import of those words. Nothing I could do about what had been done.

Chade spoke suddenly. “Ah, Fitz! There you are.”

I turned to Chade and forced a smile to my face. “How are you?” I asked him.

“I am . . . not good.” He looked around at the others as if he wished them gone. No one moved to leave. When he spoke again, I knew he was not telling the full truth. “I feel as if I have been away for a long time. A very long time. Dutiful and Nettle tell me we were less than the full turn of a day in the stones. But I feel as if we were there much longer. Much longer.” His eyes held mine, asking.

“It was almost a full day, Chade. Things can seem very strange in a Skill-passage.” I glanced at Dutiful. He was nodding, his gaze distant. “I think they are more dangerous to use than we know. There is more to them than we understand. When we travel through them, we traverse something much more than distance. We should not use them as if they were simple doors that go from here to there.”

“There, we agree,” Nettle said softly. She glanced at Dutiful, deferring to him.

He cleared his throat. “And how do you feel, Fitz?”

“I think I am almost myself.”

“I fear I have to disagree with you. And Nettle shares that opinion with me. Even now, both of you ring oddly against my Skill-sense, and you have ever since you returned from the stones. We believe your journey changed something in you both. And that perhaps both of you ought to refrain from using the Skill for a time.”

“Perhaps,” Chade agreed. He sighed heavily and then flinched.

I knew I would discuss the Skill-prohibition privately with Chade. I changed the subject. “How bad is your wound?”

“We think the blade sliced into his liver. The bleeding has stopped. The healer says we are wisest to leave well enough alone, that searching the injury may do more damage than simply letting him rest.” Dutiful spoke. Chade rolled his eyes.

“It seems a good plan to me.”

“It is,” Nettle asserted. “And we need another plan as well.” She came away from the window to stand directly in front of Dutiful. She cleared her throat. “My king, invaders have dared to bring Chalcedean mercenaries into the heart of your kingdom. They have attacked my home, killing and injuring my servants. And they have stolen my sister, a child of the Farseer lineage, even if as yet unacknowledged!” Dutiful listened to her gravely. “Such an invasion is not to be tolerated, not by me or by you. The Fool has told us that they will attempt to take them to Clerres. That is a place I have never heard of, but surely it must be on some map, somewhere in Buckkeep. And whether it be north, south, east, or west of us, we can block their path! I beg you, as your subject and your cousin, send out our troops now. If we cannot find them on their road, at least we can put a watch on every kingsway, on every ferry crossing, and in every harbor. Block them, stop them, and bring my sister and Lord Chade’s daughter home safe to us.”

I spoke the little I knew. “Clerres is a city far, far to the south of us. Past Chalced, past the Pirate Isles, past Jamaillia, past the Spice Isles. It requires a journey by ship. The question is, will their mercenaries take them to Chalced first, and set sail from there? Or will they make for the coast and hope to find a southbound ship?”

“Chalced.” Dutiful and Chade spoke together.

“No band of Chalcedean mercenaries would try to take ship from a Six Duchies port. They’d be singled out and questioned immediately, and once it was discovered Bee and Shun were with them against their will, they’d be arrested.” Dutiful was absolutely certain.

I was silent, applying the Fool’s backward logic. So. The Servants would not make for Chalced. Where and how would they go, then?

Dutiful was still expounding. “They’ve a lot of territory to cross. And long before they reach Chalced they’ll have to replace the sleighs with carriages or wagons. Or carts, I suppose. Or all go on horseback . . . How did they come? How is it possible for them to have penetrated so deeply into the Six Duchies, without alerting us at all? Do you think they came from Chalced? Crossing all that territory?”

“Where else would they hire Chalcedean mercenaries?” Chade asked of no one.

Dutiful stood abruptly. “I need to speak with my generals immediately. Nettle, gather your Skilled ones and send out word to every outpost where they are placed. Explain as best you can the ‘fogging’ and ask them to be alert for any strange Skilling—if, indeed, they are using the Skill as we know it. We’ll send messenger birds to the lesser border outposts. Mother, you know our libraries almost as well as our scribes do. Can you direct them to search out any maps or charts we may possess of the far southern lands and look for this city Clerres? No matter the age of the map. The legend of the White Prophet is very old. I doubt the city of its origin has moved. I want to know their most likely routes, ports they may visit, any information you can find.”

“Elliania will help me. She knows our libraries as well as I do.”

The wisp of an idea that had drifted through my mind earlier suddenly manifested. “Web!” I said abruptly.

They all turned to look at me.

“What fogs a man’s mind may leave an animal’s untouched. Let us ask Web to send word to the Old Blood settlements, to ask if any of the partnered beasts have noticed a troop of soldiers and folk riding white horses. Those bonded to birds of prey or carrion birds might be our best hope. Such birds see for a great distance, and carrion birds often mark soldiers. Too well have they learned that soldiers on the move can mean battles, and battles mean dead flesh.”

Kettricken lifted her brows at me. “Clever,” she said softly. “Yes. Web departed a day ago, traveling to Bearns. The crow had visited him and conveyed that she had found a companion. He wished to stay and say farewell to you, but could not. A dragon has been seen regularly over Bearns and perhaps has taken up residence there. Web goes to take counsel with the Duchess and Duke of Bearns about how best to deal with it. The folk of Bearns are not happy to think of donating tribute animals to slake a dragon’s hunger, but it may be their wisest course. It is hoped Web can have words with the dragon and persuade it to take what is offered rather than preying on their best breeding stock.” She sighed. “Such a time we live in. I am reluctant to call him back but I suppose we must. This is too delicate a matter to entrust to anyone else.”

I nodded to Kettricken. Another delay, with Bee and Shine moving farther and farther away. Another idea burst into my mind. “Civil Bresinga. He was here at court, for Winterfest. He sent me a note, offering to be of service to me in any way he could.”

“That he was!” Dutiful smiled and I could see he was pleased that I had remembered his friend. “Civil has many friends among the Old Blood. He can put out the word more swiftly than a messenger can seek out Web.”

“Even for my daughter, I still must wonder: Do we want to spread the news far and wide that we have had unseen invaders in Buck?” Chade spoke from his bed, his voice full of reluctance.

Kettricken spoke into the quiet. “I have come to know Civil well. I’ve never forgotten that as a boy he led Dutiful into danger, even danger of losing his life, but we all recall, too, the threat Civil was under. In the years since then he has proven himself a true friend to my son, and an honorable bearer of the Old Blood. I trust his intelligence. Let me speak to him. I shall tell him to be circumspect in to whom the messages go. And we need tell them only that we are looking for a troop of men on horseback, sleighs, and folk dressed in white furs. But my own tendency is to shout it from the rooftops. The more eyes looking, the better chance that someone will see something.”

“And sometimes people see what they are told they might see. Circumspect is my choice for now.” The king’s word was final. My heart sank a little even as I saw the wisdom of his words.

Dutiful was already at the door. Nettle was on his heels and I sensed a stream of Skill-commands flowing as she moved to her task. Obedient to her request, I did not try to expand my Skill-sense to be aware of what she did. I did not wish to distract her by annoying her. Kettricken was last to the door. She paused and shook her head sadly at Chade. “You should have trusted us more.” Then she closed the door softly behind her, leaving us two assassins alone.

Old habits. Left alone in the room, both of us reverted. Lord Chade and Prince FitzChivalry vanished, and two men who had long done the quiet work for the king’s justice exchanged a glance. Neither of us spoke a word until no echo of footsteps reached us from the corridor. I stepped to the door and listened a moment longer. Then I nodded.

“What else?” Chade demanded of me after a long silence.

I saw no point in mincing my words. “Ash revived the Fool by giving him dragon’s blood.”

“What?” Chade demanded.

I said nothing. He had heard me.

After a time, he made a small noise in the back of his throat. “Ash presumes a bit too much sometimes. Well, what has it done to him?”

I wanted to ask him what he had expected it to do. Instead, I said, “The lad said the Fool was near death. He trickled it into his mouth. It revived him. It more than revived him. He is better by far than when I first brought him here, more recovered than when I left him to race to Withywoods. It seems to be healing him, but it is also changing him. Bones that were broken and then badly healed in his hands and feet appear to be straightening themselves. It’s painful for him, of course, but he can now move all of his fingers, and stand on that crumpled foot. And his eyes have turned gold.”

“As they were before? Can he see now?”

“No, not as they were before. Not a very pale brown. Gold. Like molten metal and as shifting.” It came to me suddenly. I’d seen Tintaglia’s eyes. So had Chade. “Like dragon eyes. And he still cannot see. But he claims to be having peculiar dreams.”

Chade tugged at his chin. “Have Ash speak to him about how he feels, and record everything he says. Tell him he may use pages of the good parchment.”

“I can do that.”

“His dreams, too. Sometimes a man’s dreams tell him things he doesn’t admit to himself. Ash should write down everything the Fool dreams.”

“He may not wish to share what he dreams, but we can ask.”

He gave me a narrowed look. “And what else is biting you?”

“The Fool fears that our enemies may already know our every move.”

“Spies among us? Here in Buckkeep Castle?” He sat up too suddenly, clutched his side, and gasped for a few breaths.

“No. Not spies. He fears they have harvested prophecies gleaned from enslaved White and half-White children.” He listened intently as I explained what the Fool had shared with me.

When I finished, he mused, “Extraordinary. Breeding humans for prophetic powers . . . Such a concept. Study the possible futures and select the chain of events that will most profit your order. It would demand extreme dedication, for you would be acting for the good of those Servants who came long after you, rather than for immediate gain. And they send out into the world the White Prophet they choose, the one who will do their will in shaping the future. Then along comes the Fool, a trueborn prophet, outside their controlled breeding . . . Have you written all this down for me?”

“I haven’t had much time for scribing.”

“Well, make time, if you can.” He folded his lips tightly, thinking. His eyes were very bright. I knew his thoughts were outstripping mine, racing up ladders of logic. “Years ago, when the Fool isolated himself after getting Kettricken home to the Mountain Kingdom, when he thought you were dead and his plans all come to naught, folk came seeking him. Pilgrims. Seeking a White Prophet in the Mountains. How did they know where to find him?”

“I suppose from the prophecies . . .”

He spoke very rapidly. “Or were the so-called Servants seeking him even then? It’s fairly obvious to me that they disliked him being out of their control. Put it together, Fitz. They made the Pale Woman. She was their game-piece. They set her loose on the gaming cloth to shape the world as they wished. They kept him there intending that no one could compete with her, but he got away from them. Rolling and tumbling across their gaming cloth like a bad throw of the dice. They needed him back. What better way to find someone than to seed a search by releasing prophecies and letting others be your pack of hounds seeking him?”

I was silent. Chade’s mind often made those sorts of leaps. He made a small sound, not quite a cough. Was the brightness of his eyes the light of fever? I could hear him breathing through his nose as his mind raced.

He held up another finger. “When they started to arrive, he refused to see any of them. Denied he was a prophet and claimed to be just a toy maker.”

I nodded to that.

“And when you left Jhaampe, you left very quietly.”

“We did.”

“So they might have lost track of him there. He vanishes. He follows his vision of the future and helps you wake the dragons. He ensures that the queen returns to Buck, with a Farseer heir growing in her belly. He vanishes again, to Jamaillia, I suspect, and Bingtown.

“And years later, he reappears as Lord Golden at Buckkeep, just in time to help you assure the survival of the Farseer heir yet again. He is determined to return dragons to this world. He manages to outmaneuver both of us and get himself to Aslevjal Island. And there, at last, the Servants capture him. And they torture him nearly to death. They think they’ve killed him.”

“They did kill him, Chade. He told me they would.” His gaze met mine. He didn’t quite believe me, but I decided it didn’t matter if he did or not. “He went to Aslevjal believing that had to happen for Icefyre to be set free from the glacier and mate with Tintaglia. To bring dragons back to our world.”

“Yes, and how we’ve all enjoyed that!” Chade observed sourly.

For no reason I could explain, that stung. “You’ve enjoyed it enough to obtain dragon’s blood,” I retorted.

He narrowed his eyes slightly. “It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” he observed.

I teetered on a decision. Conversations about morality were rare among assassins. We did as we were told to do. But Chade had undertaken obtaining the blood himself, not as a mission ordained by the king. I dared to question it.

“You don’t feel a bit . . . uncomfortable buying the blood of a creature that obviously thinks and speaks? A creature that was possibly murdered for the harvest of that blood?”

He stared at me. His green eyes narrowed and glittered like glacial ice. “That’s an odd line for you to draw, Fitz. Witted as you are, you ran with a wolf. Did not you bring down deer and rabbits and eat them? Yet those of Old Blood who bond to such creatures would tell you that they think and feel even as we do.”

But they are prey and we are predator. It is how we are meant to be to each other. I shook my mind clear of wolfish thoughts. “That’s true. A man bonded to a buck would agree with you. But it’s how the world is structured. Wolves eat meat. We took only what we needed. My wolf needed meat and we took it. Without it, he would have died.”

“Apparently, without the dragon’s blood, your Fool would have died.” His tone had become acerbic. I wished I had not begun the conversation. Despite all our years together, despite how he had trained me, we had diverged in our thinking. Burrich and Verity, I thought to myself, were perhaps not the best influences for a young assassin. Like a curtain parting to reveal daylight, it came to me that perhaps neither of them had ever truly seen me as a royal assassin. King Shrewd had. But Burrich had done his best to raise me as Chivalry’s son. And perhaps Verity had always seen me as his potential heir.

It did not lessen Chade in my sight. Assassins, I believed, were different from but not inferior to gently raised men. They had their place in the world. Like wolves. But I regretted beginning a conversation that could only show us both how far we had diverged. A silence had fallen between us and it seemed a gulf. I thought of saying, I do not judge you, but it would have been a lie and only made things worse. Instead, I tried to resume an old role and asked him, “I am in awe that you were able to obtain it at all. What did you procure it for? Did you have plans for it?”

He raised his brows. “Several sources imply it’s a powerful restorative. Word came to me that the Duke of Chalced was employing every means at his command to obtain that vial. He believed it would restore him to health and vitality. And for many years, I’d taken a keen interest in the duke’s health.” A very slight but very triumphant smile twitched at his mouth. “That vial of blood was on its way to Chalced when it was . . . diverted. Instead, it came to me.” He waited a moment to allow that thought to penetrate my mind and then added, “The dragon was already dead. Refusing to buy the blood would not have brought it back to life. Diverting it from the Duke of Chalced perhaps saved lives.” The smile flickered over his face again. “Or perhaps not having it ended the duke’s life.”

“I had heard that he died when dragons tumbled his castle onto him. If it’s so, there’s some irony to it, isn’t there? The creatures he was hunting to preserve his life sought him out and killed him.”

“Irony. Or fate. But you’d have to ask your White Prophet about fate.”

He wasn’t serious. Perhaps. I answered as if he were. “After I brought him back from the dead, he lost his ability to see all the futures. He lives day-to-day now, just as we do, fumbling forward down the path to the future.”

Chade shook his head. “There is no path to the future, Fitz. The path is now. Now is all there is, or ever will be. You can change perhaps the next ten breaths in your life. But after that, random chance seizes you in its jaws again. A tree falls on you, a spider bites your ankle, and all your grand plans for winning a battle are for naught. Now is what we have, Fitz, and now is where we act to stay alive.”

The wolfness of the thought jolted me to quiet.

He took a breath, sighed it out fiercely, and gave me a look that was almost a glare. I waited. “There is something else you should know. I doubt it can help us regain our daughters, but you should know, in case it can.” He sounded almost angry at having to share his secret, whatever it was. I waited.

“Shine has the Skill. And strongly.”

“What?” My incredulous reaction pleased him.

He smiled. “Yes. Strange to say, the talent that is so thin in me, I still must fight to use it, blossomed in her at a young age. The Farseer blood runs strong in her veins.”

“How did you discover that?”

“When she was very small, she reached out for me. I had a dream of a little girl tugging at my sleeve. Calling me Papa and begging me to pick her up.” The proud smile grew stronger. “She is strong with it, Fitz. Strong enough to find me.”

“I thought she didn’t know you were her father.”

“She doesn’t. Her mother left her to be raised by her grandparents. Good enough people in their own way. I can recognize that, even if they bled me for money. Obviously they were not fond of me, but they were loyal to their own blood. She was undeniably their granddaughter, and they raised her as such. With the same haphazard raising they had bestowed upon her mother, I am sad to say. Benign but not intelligent. Keeping a child from harm is not the same as rearing one.” He shook his head, his mouth sour. “Her mother disdained her from the beginning, and even as a small child Shine knew that. But she also knew that she had a father, somewhere, and she yearned for him. And in her dreams, she followed that yearning. And our minds touched.”

The uncharacteristically tender smile on his face told me that was his real secret. His daughter had reached out and touched minds with him. And he was proud of her, so proud of her Skill. He regretted not being able to have her near him and shape the innate cleverness he sensed in her. Perhaps if he had had her from her beginnings, she could have inherited his role. Too late for that now, I thought. Those thoughts flashed like lightning through my mind, but my own concerns immediately overwhelmed them.

“Chade, I consider it very likely that you had actually touched her with Skill first. As I did with both Nettle and Dutiful, not even realizing what I was doing. And she then reached back to you. So you can reach her and she can tell us where she is and we can reclaim them! Chade, why didn’t you do that immediately?”

The smile vanished as if it had never been. “You’ll judge me harshly for this,” he warned me. “I sealed her. To everyone but me. While she was still small. Long before I brought her to you, I sealed her against the Skill. To protect her.”

I felt sick with disappointment, but the orderly part of my mind tidied my facts into a neatly dovetailed stack. “Sealed to the Skill. Which was why she alone was still capable of fighting the Servants when everyone else was as passive as cattle awaiting slaughter.”

He bowed his head in a slow nod.

“Can’t you reach out and unseal her? Skill the keyword to her and open her mind?”

“I’ve tried. I can’t.”

“Why not?” Panic, anger at a lost opportunity. My voice cracked on the words.

“My Skill is not strong enough, perhaps.”

“Let me help you then. Or Thick. I’ll wager Thick could batter down any wall.”

He shot a look at me. “Battering. Not the best word to tempt me to try the experiment. But I suppose we shall when Thick gets here. Yet I doubt it will work. I think she has put up her own walls and that they may be stout ones.”

“Did you teach her to do that?

“I didn’t have to. She’s like you. Some things she does by instinct. Do you not recall what Verity said of you? That he could often reach you easily, but the moment you went into any sort of a battle-frenzy, you were lost to him.”

That had been true and was apparently still true. “But she’s not in a battle. They were taken days ago . . .”

“She’s a lovely young woman in the hands of Chalcedean brutes.” His voice grew thick. “I’m a coward, Fitz. I refuse to imagine what her life has been since she was taken. She may very well be in an embattled state of mind at every moment of every day.”

Don’t think about it, I warned myself. The dread was as engulfing as the fog had been at Withywoods. I scrabbled back and away from barbed speculation as to how our daughters might be treated. But they treated Bee as a prize. Surely that will protect her! Such a grimy comfort to offer myself, that my little girl might be safe from all that threatened Chade’s daughter. Burning sickness rose in the back of my throat.

Chade’s voice was low. “Stop feeling and think. Think and plan.” He lifted a hand, grimacing at the pain of the motion, and rubbed his forehead. “Shine was able to resist the magic because she was sealed from the Skill. That may be an armor to use when we go against them.”

“But she was not the only one who resisted. Revel fought back. And Lant.”

Chade’s voice was deep. “Until they didn’t. Recall what Lant said. That he was trying to hold the door and then suddenly the invaders were laughing at him and walking past him. However they netted that magic over Withywoods, it was not in place when they first began their attack. Why? Did they need to be closer to their victims for it to work? That Shine, sealed against all Skill-influence, was the sole person capable of continuing resistance hints to me that if they are not using the Skill itself, their magic is closely related to it.” He paused and pointed a bony finger at me. “So. This tells us what, Fitz?”

I felt as if I were his student again. I tried to find the path his thoughts had already traveled. “Perhaps their Skill-users are not as strong—”

He was already wagging the finger at me. “No. The door-breakers and swordsmen came first. If they had multiple Skill-users, surely they would be the front ranks. Nullifying resistance is better than breaking doors and killing, especially if they were actually looking for this Unexpected Son. Why take a chance that your mercenaries will slaughter the very boy you are seeking? But none of that is what matters here. Think.”

I thought, and then shook my head at him.

He gave a small sigh. “Similar tools often have similar weaknesses. How did we defeat their magic at Withywoods?”

“Elfbark tea. But I cannot see how we can deploy that resistance against them when we do not even know where they are.”

“Right now we do not know where they are. So, despite our desire to dash up and down every highway between here and Chalced with drawn swords, we muster our weapons and ready them as best we can.”

“We prepare packets of elfbark tea?” I tried not to sound sarcastic. Was his mind wandering?

“Yes,” he said sharply, as if he had heard my thought. “Among other supplies. My explosive powders are much improved since the last time you experienced them. When Lady Rosemary returns from . . . her errand, I will have her package some of them for us. I would do it myself, if this wound were not troubling me so.” He touched it again, lightly with his fingertips, wincing.

I did not ask his permission for I was certain I would not get it. I leaned forward and set the back of my hand to his brow. “Fever,” I confirmed. “You should be resting, not plotting with me. Shall I fetch a healer?”

He had been sitting up. Now I understood that it was because he could not lean back due to the pain. He gritted his teeth in a smile. “A prince does not run and fetch the healer. You ring the bell and send a servant. But here we are not princes or lords, but assassins. And fathers. We do not rest while beasts hold our daughters captive. So help me lean back. And bring no healers here, but go and find for me the remedies you think best. They will want me to sleep, when I well know that the fires of a fever can make my thoughts burn brighter.”

“I will. But then you will tell me Shine’s keyword and together we will try to reach her.” On that I was determined. This was a secret he could not be allowed to keep.

He folded his lips. I stood firm. It was only when he nodded that I set my arm around his shoulders and supported him as he lay back on the bed. Even so he gasped and set his hand to his wound. “Oh, the blood flows again,” he complained. Then he was quiet, his lips puffing in and out as he breathed against the pain.

“I think a healer should look at you. Poisons I know, and the sort of medicines that have kept me alive when no one else was near to help me. But I am no healer.”

I saw him almost give way. Then he bartered, “Bring me something for the pain. Then we will try to reach Shine. And after that, you may summon a healer.”

“Agreed!” I said, and hastened out the door before he could tie any strings to our bargain.

Back to my room I went, locking the door behind me and opening the secret stair. A tap, tap, tap startled me. I pushed back the curtain to find the crow clinging to the stone sill of my window. The moment I opened it, she was in. She hopped to the floor of my room, looked around, then spread her wings and flew up the stairs. Up I went, two steps at a time.

There a curious sight met my eyes. The Fool was at table with a young girl of about fourteen. Her hair was gathered back and pinned neatly under a ruffled cap. Humble as it was, it still boasted three buttons. Her neat servant’s tunic of Buckkeep blue covered her modest bust. She was watching intently as the Fool moved a small, sharp knife against a piece of wood.

“. . . more difficult without my sight, but it was always my fingers that read the wood for me when I was carving. I’m afraid that I’d grown more dependent on my fingertips than I realized. I can still feel the wood, but it’s not the same as when . . .”

“Who are you, and who let you into this chamber?” I demanded. I moved immediately to put myself between the Fool and the girl. She looked up at me with a woebegone expression. Then Ash spoke from her lips.

“I’ve been careless. Lord Chade will not be pleased with me.”

“What is it? What has alarmed you so?” The Fool was breathless with anxiety, his golden eyes wide. The carving tool in his hand he now gripped as a weapon.

“It’s nothing. Just more of Chade’s mummery! I’ve walked in on Ash dressed as a serving girl. I didn’t recognize him at first, and it gave me a turn. It’s all right, Fool. You are safe.”

“What?” he asked in a flustered voice, and then managed a nervous laugh. “Oh. If that’s all, then . . .” But when he set the tool to the wood, his hand trembled. Wordlessly, he set it down. Then, swift as a snake striking, his hand shot across the table to grip Ash’s arm. The boy cried out but the Fool held fast as he seized his other wrist as well. “Why would you disguise yourself so? Who pays you?” Then, as his hand traveled farther down the boy’s arm to his wrist and then hand, he sat back suddenly in his chair. He did not release Ash’s arm but said in a shaking voice, “Not Ash in a serving girl’s dress, but a serving girl who has masqueraded as Chade’s young apprentice. What goes on here, Fitz? How could we have been so stupid as to have trusted so quickly!”

“Your trust was not misplaced, sir. Possibly I would have shared my secret sooner if Lord Chade had not forbidden it.” In a lower voice she added, “You are hurting me. Please loosen your grip.”

The flesh of the girl’s forearm stood up in white ridges between the Fool’s fingers. I spoke. “Fool. I have her. You can let her go.”

He did, but reluctantly, a slow opening of his hands. He sat back on his chair. His golden eyes whirled and gleamed angrily in the low light. “And what have I done to deserve this deception from Lord Chade?”

She looked at me as she spoke, rubbing her arm. Her cheeks were very pink and now that the Fool had announced her as a girl, I wondered how I could have seen her as anything else, even in her lad’s guise. When she spoke, her voice was a notch higher. “Sirs, I beg you. There was no wish to deceive you, but only to remain as you had first seen me. As the boy, Ash. So I was when Lord Chade first met me, though he saw through my guise in less than an evening. He said it was in my throat and in the fineness of my hands. He has given me much scrubbing of floors to roughen them, which helps, but he says the bones give me away. Is that how you knew, Lord Golden? By the bones of my hands?”

“Don’t call me by that name. Don’t speak to me at all!” the Fool declared childishly. I wondered if he would have regretted his words if he had seen how they devastated her. I cleared my throat, and she turned her stricken gaze to me.

“Do speak to me, and give me the tale from the beginning. From the time you first met Lord Chade.”

She composed herself, folding her betraying hands on the table before her. I had forgotten the crow, and when Motley hopped closer, I startled. The crow bobbed and touched his beak to her hand, as if to reassure her. Ash-girl almost smiled. But when she spoke, I could hear how rattled she still was. “My tale goes back quite a bit before I met Lord Chade, sir. You know that my mother was prostituted. That is where my tale of deception begins. I was born a girl, but my mother made me a boy within minutes of my birth. She birthed me alone, biting a folded handkerchief to keep her cries from betraying her. When I was discovered, I was already swaddled, and she declared to the mistress of the establishment that she had borne a son. So I grew up in that house of women, believing myself a boy. My mother was fastidious in her insistence that only she might care for me, and enforcing on me privacy for any moment when my body might be bared. I had no playmates, left the house only in my mother’s company, and was severely schooled that when I was not with my mother, I must remain in her small and private dressing chamber and keep myself quiet. This I learned so long ago that I do not even remember how it was taught to me.

“I was nearly seven when she revealed the truth to me. Having never seen anyone naked but a woman, I knew nothing of how a man’s parts differed. I had believed myself a boy, all that time. I was shocked and distressed. And afraid. For in our house, there were girls not much older than me who toiled at my mother’s trade sadly, though they must always pretend to be merry and giddy. That, my mother told me, was why she had made me a boy and why I must remain a boy. My true name, she told me, is Spark. Ash is what covers a coal and hides its light, and so she made my names.”

Despite himself, the Fool was rapt in her tale, his mouth slightly ajar in either wonder or horror. I felt a deep sadness for her.

“How is it that women work that trade as if they were slaves? Slavery is not permitted in the Six Duchies.”

She shook her head at my ignorance. “No. But when you incur a debt you cannot pay, often the judgment is that you must labor to pay it off. When my mother was young and new to Buckkeep Town, she learned to love the gaming tables. She was pretty and clever, but not clever enough to see that the owner of the gaming establishment gave her credits too easily. And when she was deeply enmeshed, he closed his trap.” She cocked her head at me. “She is not, by far, the first woman or man to be so coerced. It is well known that there is a judge, Lord Sensible, who presides over many debtors’ judgments, and often sends comely men and women into the flesh trade. Discreet houses, such as the one where my mother worked, pay off the gambling debts and claim the new debt. If anyone complains, the owners threaten to sell the debt to the ones who put debtors on the docks and streets, to service their trade in the alleys. But once my mother was in the house, she was charged for the food she ate and her clothing and her bed and clean bedding. The whores can never emerge from their debts. When I was born and my mother kept me, I became an additional expense for her.”

“Lord Sensible.” I committed the name to my memory and vowed coldly that Dutiful would hear it from my lips. How had I lived so long in Buck and never known of such a thing?

Spark resumed her tale. “The women of the house began to use me as their little errand boy. I was allowed out and about, to run notes to their gentlemen or bring special items from the markets. Our lives went on. I met Lord Chade one evening when he asked for a lad to take a message from him to a ship at the river docks. I took it from him and did as he bade. When I returned, I gave him the written reply. I had turned to leave when he called me back, holding up a silver penny. But when I went to take it from him, he seized my hand, even as you did, and then in a whisper asked what my game was. I told him I had no game, that I was my mother’s errand boy and if he had questions, he should ask them of her. And that night he sought her out instead of his favorite, and spent the whole evening with her. He was very impressed with how well she had taught me. And after that, whenever he came for his visit, he always made excuse to see me, to send me on an errand and always to pay me a silver penny. He began to teach me more things. To push my chin out to have more of a jaw, and to roughen my hand with cold water, and to pad out my shoes to make my feet look bigger.

“My mother was very good at her trade, but it was not what she had wanted for herself, and still less for me. Lord Chade promised that when I turned fifteen he would take me as his servant and teach me a different trade.” She paused, sighing. “Fate intervened. He took me when I was eleven.”

“Wait. How old are you?”

“As a girl? Thirteen. When I am Ash, I tell people I am eleven. I’m a rather spindly boy, even though I’m strong for a girl.”

“What happened when you were eleven?” the Fool demanded.

Spark’s face lost all expression. Her eyes were unreadable. But she kept her voice steady. “A gentleman thought it would amuse him to share a bed with a mother and her son. He had already paid the lady of our house a substantial sum for such a night when he came to our quarters. No one asked our permission. When my mother objected, the owner of the house said that the debt to her was mine as well as my mother’s. And that if my mother and I did not comply, she would turn me out of the house that very minute.” Her face went paler, her nostrils pinched with distaste. “The gentleman came to our rooms. He told me that first I would watch as he did his business with my mother. And then she would watch as he taught me ‘a new little amusement.’ I refused and he laughed. ‘You’ve raised him to have spirit. I’ve always wanted a spirited little mount.’

“My mother said, ‘You will not have him, now or ever.’ I thought he would be angry but it only seemed to make him excited. My mother was wearing a pretty wrap, as the women of the house often did. He seized the neck of it, tore it open, and pushed my mother down on the bed, but instead of fighting back, she wrapped her arms and legs about him and told me to run away, to leave the house and never come back.” She paused, her mind going back. Her upper lip twitched up twice: If she had been a cat, she would have spat out a hiss.

“Spark?” the Fool prompted her quietly.

Her voice was flat. “I ran. I obeyed her as I always had and I ran. I hid. For two days, I lived on the streets of Dingyton. I did not do very well at it. One day a man caught me. I thought he was going to kill me or rape me, but he told me Lord Chade wished to see me. It was a different name, of course, from the name I knew him by when he patronized my mother’s house. But he had a token I recognized, so even though I feared a trap, I went with him. Two days of hunger and cold had made me wonder if I had been a fool to refuse my mother’s gentleman.” She sighed out a breath. “The man took me to an inn, gave me a meal, and locked me in a room. I waited for hours, fearing what would happen next. The Lord Chade came. He said that my mother had been murdered and he had feared for me . . .”

That was the point at which life and pain came back into her voice. She gasped her way through the rest of her tale. “I thought I had left her to face a beating. Or to having the lady of the house dock her earnings. Not to be raped and strangled and left like a dirtied handkerchief on the floor of her chamber.”

Her words stopped and for a time she breathed like a bellows. Neither the Fool nor I spoke. Finally she said, “Lord Chade asked me who had done it. The lady of the house had refused to say who had bought my mother’s time that evening. I did not know his name but I knew everything else about him. I knew the name of the scent he wore and the pattern of the lace on his cuffs, and that he had a birthmark below his left ear. I do not think I will ever be able to forget exactly how he looked as my mother clutched him to herself so that I could escape.”

Her words dwindled away and a long silence followed. She hiccuped, a strangely normal sound at the end of such a dark tale. “So I came here. To work for Lord Chade. I came here as a boy and I live here mostly as a boy, but sometimes he bids me dress as a maidservant. To learn how to be a girl, I suppose. Because as I become a woman, I suspect that it will not be as easy for me to wear my boy’s disguise. But also to hear the sort of thing that folk do not say in front of a serving lad. To witness the sorts of things a lord or a lady does in front of a simple maidservant that they would not do before anyone else. And to bring such observations back to Chade.”

Chade. And with that speaking of his name, my errand flew back into my mind. “Chade! He has a wound fever, and that was why I came here. To fetch something for his pain. And to send for a healer to come to him later to cleanse the wound again.”

Spark leapt to her feet. The concern on her face was not feigned. “I’ll fetch a healer for him now. I know the old man he prefers. He is not swift, but he is good. He talks to Lord Chade and offers him this or that treatment, and listens to what Lord Chade thinks would be best. I’ll go for him now, though he will be slow to rouse, and then I’ll come immediately to Lord Chade’s room.”

“Go,” I agreed, and she hurried to the tapestry door and vanished from the den. For a short time we sat in silence.

Then, “Poppy,” I said, and rose to go to the shelves. Chade had it stored in several forms. I chose a potent tincture that I could dilute with a tea.

“She was a very convincing boy,” the Fool observed. I could not identify the emotion in his voice.

I was looking for a smaller container to carry some of the tincture in. “Well, you would know better about that than I would,” I said without thinking.

He laughed. “Ah, Fitz, I would indeed.”

He drummed his fingertips on the tabletop. I turned in surprise to watch that. “Your hands seem much better.”

“They are. But they are still painful. Any poppy for me?”

“We need to be careful with how much pain medicine we give you.”

“So. No is what you are saying. Ah, well.” I watched him try to steeple his fingers. They were still too stiff. “I want to apologize. No. Not apologize exactly but . . . I get those surges of terror. Panic. And I become someone else. Someone I don’t want to be. I wanted to hurt Ash. That was my first impulse. To hurt him for frightening me.”

“I know that impulse.”


I had given up my search. I’d have to take the little bottle to Chade’s room and then bring it back. “Ash is the one you should apologize to. Or Spark. And for that rush of fury? Time. Time passing with no one trying to hurt you or kill you will lessen that reaction. But in my experience, it never goes away completely. I still have dreams. I still feel flashes of rage.” The face of the man who had stabbed the dog in the market came to my mind. Anger surged in me again. I should have hurt him more, I thought. Stop, I told myself. Stop remembering that.

The Fool’s fingers pattered lightly on the wood he had been carving. “Ash, Spark. She’s good company, Fitz. I like him. I suspect I’ll like her as well. Chade is often wiser than I give him credit for. Allowing her to dress and live in both her roles is brilliant of him.”

I was silent. I had just recalled how casually I had stripped to the skin before Ash. A girl. A girl not that many years older than my own daughter, handing me fresh smallclothes. I do not think I had blushed so hotly in years. I would not mention that to the Fool. He’d had enough merriment at my expense lately.

“I should hurry this down to Chade. Fool, is there anything you need or want before I go?”

He smiled bitterly. He held up a hand and began to tick off items on his fingers. “My sight. My strength. Some courage.” He stopped. “No, Fitz, nothing you can give me now. I regret how I reacted to Ash being Spark. I feel oddly ashamed. Perhaps because, as you mentioned, I have played both those roles. Perhaps I understand a bit more of what you felt the first time you knew of Amber. I hope he will forgive me and come back.” He took up his wood and felt about for his carving tool. The crow hopped closer and cocked her head to see what he was doing. Somehow he sensed her. He extended his finger toward her and she hopped closer to have her head stroked. “My time here would have been far lonelier without Ash. And Motley. Much harder to bear. And she was the one to give me the dragon’s blood that has done so much for me. I hope I haven’t driven her away.”

“Perhaps I can come back and share a meal with you this evening.”

“The duties of Prince FitzChivalry Farseer will most likely prevent that. But some good brandy, late tonight, would be very welcome.”

“Late tonight, then.” I left them there and threaded my way back to Chade’s bedchamber, arriving as two young men were leaving. They halted where they were and regarded me with wide eyes. Prosper and Integrity. Dutiful’s sons. I had held them when they were babies, and as small boys they had sometimes visited Withywoods with their father. I had rolled them about in autumn leaves, and watched them chase frogs in a stream. And then, as they began to get older, their times on the Out Islands had taken them out of my world.

Prosper elbowed his brother and said smugly, “I told you that was him.”

King-in-Waiting Integrity had a bit more dignity. “Cousin,” he said gravely and held out a hand.

We clasped wrists while Prosper rolled his eyes. “I seem to recall him rinsing you off in the horse trough after you fell in the manure,” he observed to no one in particular.

Integrity strove to maintain his dignity as I lied carefully, “I don’t remember that at all.”

“I do,” Prosper asserted. “Grandma Patience scolded you for fouling the horses’ water.”

That brought a smile to my lips. I had forgotten that they had considered Patience a grandmother. Abruptly I wanted those days back. I wanted my little girl home, and I wanted that childhood for her. Not burning bodies in the night, nor being kidnapped by Chalcedean mercenaries. I pushed it all down and found my voice. “How is Lord Chade?”

“Our grandmother asked us to visit him and keep his mind busy. He just told us his mind was busy enough and asked us to take ourselves elsewhere. I think his wound is bothering him more than he wants anyone to know. But we are doing as he bade and taking ourselves elsewhere. Would you like to come with us? Lord Cheery is hosting cards today.”

“I—no, thank you. I think I’ll take my watch at keeping Lord Chade’s mind busy.” Cards. I knew a vague disapproval, then wondered what I thought they should be occupying themselves with. They stood a moment longer, looking at me, and I suddenly realized that we had next to nothing to say to one another. I had stepped back from their lives and now I scarcely knew them.

Integrity recovered before I did. “Well. We shall certainly see you at dinner tonight. Perhaps we can talk more then.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, but I doubted it. I did not want to tell them grandfatherly tales of how things had been. People I’d killed, how their great-uncle had tortured me. I felt suddenly old, and hastily entered Chade’s chambers to remind myself that he was much older than I was.

“Fitz,” he greeted me. “You were gone so long.”

I shut the door behind me. “How bad is the pain?” I took the vial out of my pocket as I spoke. His mouth was pinched white and I could smell the distress in his sweat.

“It’s bad.” He was breathing through his open mouth.

“Ash has gone for the healer. Or rather, I should say Spark has.”

His brief smile was a grimace. “Ah. Well, better that you know. Did you bring the poppy?”

“Yes. But perhaps we should wait for the healer?”

He gave his head a quick shake. “No. I need it, boy. I can’t think. And I can’t keep them out.”

“Keep who out?” I looked around his room hastily. Nothing here to mix with the poppy to make it go down more easily.

“You know,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “The ones from the stones.”

That froze me where I stood. In two strides I was beside his bed. I touched his brow. Hot and dry. “Chade, I don’t know what you mean. You have a fever. I think you might be hallucinating.”

He stared at me. His eyes were glittery green. “No one spoke to you during our passage? No one tries to speak to you now?” They weren’t questions. They were accusations.

“No, Chade.” I feared for him.

He chewed on his lower lip. “I recognized his voice. All these years gone, but I knew my brother’s voice.”

I waited.

His fingers beckoned me closer. He flicked them toward the portrait on the wall. He whispered, “Shrewd spoke to me, in the stones. He asked if I were coming to join him now.”

“Chade, your wound has gone foul and your fever has gone up. Your mind is wandering.” Why did I bother speaking the words? I knew he would not accept them. Just as I knew with plummeting despair that he could not Skill with me just now.

“You could come with us, Fitz. Whisper away with us. You’d find it a kinder awareness.” He spoke in a tone so like old King Shrewd’s that a chill ran down my spine. It was too late. If I helped him reach out with the Skill right now, would he open Shine? Or willfully tatter us both away to nothing?

“Chade. Please.” I did not even know what I was asking him for. I took a breath. “Let me look at that wound.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s not the wound, Fitz. It’s not the infection. At least, not that one. It’s the Skill. That’s what festers in me now.” He paused. He stared at the wall, taking long, slow breaths. I could not resist the impulse. I turned to look at the portrait. Nothing there. Only paint on canvas. Then he asked me, “Do you remember August Farseer?”

“Of course I do.” He’d been nephew to King Shrewd, and nephew to Chade, too, I supposed. Son of their younger sister, who had died giving birth to him. Not much older than me when we had both been sent off to the Mountain Kingdom. He was supposed to be the intermediary for Verity to speak his vows to the Mountain princess Kettricken. But even at that early stage, Regal’s treachery had been at work. Verity had not meant to burn out August’s mind when he had Skilled through him to assure Kettricken that he was an honorable man, and had had nothing to do with her brother’s assassination. But he had. After that, August had come and gone like a flame dancing above a guttering wick. Some days he had seemed sensible. On others his mind had wandered like an old man succumbing to dotage. The Farseer throne had quietly moved him away from the court. I recalled now that he had died at Withywoods in the early days of the Red-Ship War. By then his passing had scarcely been noticed, for his mind had long since departed.

“So do I. Fitz, I should have listened to you. Maybe Shrewd was right when he said no. All those years ago. Envy cut me like a knife when he said you might have the Skill-training. They’d denied it to me, you know. And I’d wanted it so. So much.” He gave me a sickly smile. “And then . . . I got what I wanted. Or perhaps it got me.”

There was a brisk tap at the door. The healer. I felt a burst of relief that ebbed as rapidly as it had risen when Nettle swept into the room. I felt her Skill come with her as if it were a strong perfume. It flavored the air in the room, and I could not step back from it. She looked at me in dismay. “Not you, too,” she begged. She drew a sharp breath. “I could feel him spilling out into the Skill. I’ve summoned the others. I didn’t expect to find you here, spilling with him.”

I stared at her. “No. I’m fine. But Chade has a high fever. I think his wound has become toxic. He’s hallucinating.” I spoke quickly.

She looked at me pityingly. “No,” she said quietly. “It’s worse than that. And I think you know that. It’s the Skill. Once, you told me that it was like a great river, and that if a Skill-user wasn’t careful, she could be swept away in it. You warned me of the danger of that pull.” She met my eyes and lifted her chin. “Not that long ago, I caught you at it. Tempting yourself with it. Letting yourself unravel into that flow of threads.”

It was true. Allowing oneself to flow into the Skill-current was intoxicating. The sense of merging and belonging beckoned as pain and worries flowed away. It felt powerful and right. I’d been tempted, and more than once. I would have felt ashamed if I had not been so frightened. And so desperate. “We have to pull him back,” I told her. I teetered on the edge of telling her why it was so important. Then feared that even if she knew, she would not let us try.

“No. Not we. You have to stay well back from this, Da. Because I’ve sensed it in you since you came back from Withywoods. The current tugs at you both.” She took in a breath, her hand set on the barely visible rise of her belly. “Oh, that Thick were here now. But even if the weather holds fine, he is still two days away.” She put her attention back on me. “It would probably be best if you left. And set your walls as tightly as you can.”

I couldn’t go. Chade had clutched the blankets to his throat and was watching her as if he were a small boy and she had a switch behind her back. “I brought him poppy. For the pain. If we dull the pain, he might have more control.”

She shook her head. “He can’t have it. We think that right now, the pain is what is keeping him here, in his body. It’s reminding him he has a body.”

“He seemed fine when we spoke earlier. Well, in pain from his wound, but he made sense. We took counsel together . . .”

She was shaking her head at me. There was another tap at the door and Steady entered. He nodded to me and actually smiled. “Fitz! I’m glad that at last you can be yourself here at Buckkeep Castle.”

“Thank you,” I said inanely. My gaze was on Chade. He was staring up at the portrait of his brother, his mouth moving soundlessly as if he spoke to him. But Steady’s full attention was on his sister as he asked Nettle, “Should you be trying this? Shouldn’t you be resting?”

She smiled at him wearily. “Steady, I’m pregnant, not ill. Where are the others?”

He tipped his head toward me as if we were sharing a joke. “When she snaps her fingers, she expects the king to come at a trot. He’ll be here soon, Nettle.”

“It will be only the three of you? That’s not much of a Skill-coterie. You’ll need me here.” I tried not to sound as desperate as I felt. I reached my hand toward Chade, thinking that if we touched, I could reach him. Nettle sharply slapped it aside.

“No. We have two Solos we can summon if we think that we need their help. Amethyst and Hardy are not very sociable but both are strong in the Skill. For now, I think those most familiar with Lord Chade can best call him back and bind him up. But not you.” Nettle answered my question and then pointed at the door. I opened my mouth to object and she told me, “You can’t help us. You will only distract us, and that includes distracting Chade. And you may make yourself more vulnerable than you already are. Chade is hemorrhaging into the Skill-stream. And he’s actively trying to draw you with him, whether you realize it or not.”

“I have to stay. You have to bring him back to his senses. Then, wise or not, he and I must attempt to Skill together.”

Nettle narrowed her eyes at me. “No. The very fact that you are asking this shows me that you are strongly drawn to it.”

I met her gaze. Oh, Molly, would that you could look at me with that same stubborn look your daughter wears. I steeled my heart. Loyalty to the Farseer reign Chade had always taught me. Above all things, even loyalty to Chade. Right now, my judgment was clearer than his. “That’s not it at all. It’s not the Skill-yearning. It’s Bee. A short time ago, when we were talking, Chade revealed to me that his daughter Shun—Shine—has the Skill. She is untrained. And worse, he sealed her to the Skill lest she be vulnerable.” The anger on Nettle’s face was building to fury. More frightening was Chade’s lack of reaction to my betrayal. He was watching the wall again, his mouth hanging ajar. “He has been unable to reach her, to Skill the unlocking word to her so she can help us find her. He did not know if it was because he was weak or because the danger all around her has made her put up her Skill-walls. Together, we were going to try to break through to her.”

“After I’d told both of you to refrain from Skilling?”

“I’d forgotten that,” I said honestly.

“You expect me to believe that?” She bit off the words one by one.

“It’s true! The chance to find Bee was all I thought of.”

Her look softened slightly. No, I had imagined that, for her next words were, “And knowing that, you did not think to immediately come to me, the Skillmistress, to seek my advice and expertise in this matter?” She folded her lips tightly, then, as if against her will, asked me, “Do you have any respect for me at all?”

“Of course I do!”

“You love me as your daughter. I don’t doubt that. But respecting my knowledge and ability, I doubt that—” She stopped herself suddenly. She was still for a moment and then asked me calmly, “What was the word to open Shine?”

“He didn’t tell me.”

She nodded gravely. “Perfect.” She pointed to the door. “Now go. I have work to do here.”

“I can help. He trusts me. I know the shape of him, I can find him and bring him back.”

“No. You can’t. Even now, you are spilling and you don’t even know it. You are tangled with him somehow. And he is holding on to you, trying to pull you with him.”

I opened myself, trying to feel if what she said was true. Was there a tugging? Pulling me in or . . .?

“Stop that!” Nettle hissed at me, and I snapped my walls back into place.

“Pull me back,” Chade said quietly. Every hair on my body stood erect.

“Verity?” I whispered. I took an inadvertent step toward him, looking into his green eyes, seeking the dark-brown gaze of the king I had served. My mind darted back to a Skill-dream, of my weary king crouched by a river of pure and shining magic, plunging his hands and arms into the silvery burning flow. And then begging me to help him, to pull him back from the draw of that liquid magic.

“Stay back, boy!” he cautioned me as my daughter stepped between Chade and me. She put both her hands on my chest.

“Da. Look at me!” she commanded, and when my gaze met hers, she promised, “If I must, I will call the guard and have you removed from this room. If I must, I will force elfbark tea down your throat until you cannot muster even a thread of Skill. I will not lose you. I need you and my sister needs you.”

“Bee,” I said quietly, and as a wave retreats from the beach, all desire for the Skill ebbed from me. I looked at Chade’s glittering eyes and felt ill.

“Save him,” I begged her. “Please. Save him.”

Then I turned on my heel and left them there.

Chapter Twenty

Marking Time

Taking an unSkilled person through a portal can be accomplished, if it is absolutely necessary. But the dangers to both the Skilled escort and those being transported cannot be exaggerated. The focus of the Skilled one must be divided between the destination and those he escorts. Close physical contact can make the transition easier. Simply holding hands may be sufficient for two who know each other well, and is the recommended method.

On very rare occasions, it may be necessary for an escort to take more than one unSkilled person through one of the corridors. The hazard to both Skilled one and those who accompany him will increase with each additional person or creature. An apprentice should never attempt this. A journeyman, no more than two beings, and only in dire circumstance. The limit for a master is not set, but no more than five living beings are advised.

The dangers are several: That the journey will not be completed, and all will be lost within the passage. That the Skilled one will emerge exhausted, even to the point of dying shortly afterward (recall the account, by Skill-journeyman Bells, of the death of Skillmaster Elmund). That those accompanying the Skilled one will emerge deranged in mind. Or not emerge at all.

There are several ways to make a successful transition more likely. It is best if the Skilled one has used that particular portal and passage before and is familiar with it. It often seems that if the Skilled one and those with him are well known to one another, the passage is safer.

On no account should a pregnant woman make any passage. She will emerge with her womb empty. Transporting an unconscious person is to be avoided, and very small children are little better. Curiously, animals seem to fare better in passages than humans do.

Skill-Pillars and Passages, Skillmaster Arc

The best way I know to stop thinking is to pick up an axe and attempt to kill someone with it. I had no potential targets in the vicinity, but I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I took myself down to the practice yards and looked for Foxglove.

The day was clear and cold. She was well bundled, but had her charges already steaming as they went through drill after drill. She carried a wooden practice sword and employed it without restraint as she wandered down the rows of her combatants. “This arm is unguarded, flopping about and begging to be cut off,” she told one as I arrived and gave him a sound thwack to remind him of it. I stood at the edge of her territory and waited for her to notice me.

I think she was aware of me for some time but let me watch what she was doing before she approached me. It seemed to me that she had already added five new recruits to my Bastard’s badge. She gave all of them permission to breathe and crossed the practice yard to me. “Well. I can’t exactly be proud of my work yet, but they’re coming along. I immediately put out the word that we’d be willing to take on some experienced guardsmen. We’ve attracted some who were put out of their units as being a bit too old or too damaged by old wounds. I’ll give them a chance and we’ll see who we will keep.”

“Any axemen?” I asked her.

She lifted one brow. “Lily there told me she used an axe. I’ve not seen her with one yet, so I can’t say. Vital looks as if he might be one. Someday. Why? Do you feel as if we’ll have need for that sort of guardsman in your company?”

“I thought I might find a practice partner.”

She stared at me for a moment. Then she took in a breath through her nose, stepped forward, and with no hesitation felt my upper right arm and then my forearm. Her backhand to my belly took me by surprise but I didn’t lose my wind. “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not very princely.” I looked at her and after a moment, she nodded. “Very well. Lily!”

The woman she summoned was my height and well muscled. Foxglove sent her off for practice axes with weighted wooden bits. Then she asked me, “In those garments?”

I didn’t want to go back up to my chambers and change. Too much time, too many thoughts nagging to explode in my brain. “It will be fine,” I said.

“No. It won’t. I think there are some leather jerkins in the equipment storage. Go now so you don’t keep Lily waiting.” As I turned to go, she added, “Here’s something to think about. Your mind will remember how to do something and you will think you can still do it. Your body will try. And fail. Don’t hurt yourself today. It will come back to you. Not quickly, and not all of it, but enough.”

I didn’t believe her. But long before the end of her practice drills with her recruits, I did. Lily thrashed me. Even when I imagined her as one of the Chalcedean mercenaries who had taken my little girl, I could not defeat her. The wooden practice axe, weighted with lead to give it heft, weighed as much as a horse. I was not sure if it was mercy or pity that made Foxglove summon Lily to work with Vital. As soon as Lily left, she suggested I go to the steams and then rest. I tried not to slink as I left the scene of my defeat. The work had done its task of keeping me unaware of whatever Skill-cure they were working on Chade, but left me in a pit of bleakness that made my elfbark darkness look like a merry sleigh ride. I’d just proved to myself that even if I had the opportunity this moment to reclaim my daughter, she’d probably watch me die in the attempt. I think my morose expression kept anyone from speaking to me in the steams. I might appear to be the midst of my fourth decade of life to others, but it had been more than thirty years since I’d been the muscled oarsman and warrior I’d been in my twenties. My body reflected the life I’d lived for the past twenty years as a gentleman farmer.

When I stumped up to the door of my chamber, I found Steady leaning against the door. I unlocked it and without a word he followed me inside. When I closed the door behind us, he spoke. “That’s going to be an amazing black eye by tomorrow.”

“Probably.” I looked at Burrich and Molly’s son. The bottom of my despair opened and I fell through it. Burrich’s eyes, Molly’s mouth . . . “I don’t know how to save your little sister. Today, for one moment, we had that chance with Chade. And it’s gone now. I don’t know where Bee is and even if I did, I doubt I can win her back. My Skill is tattering, I can’t wield a blade like I used to. Just when she needs me most, I can’t help her.” The useless, stupid words tumbled from my mouth. His face went almost blank. Then he took two short steps toward me, seized me by my upper arms, and put his face close to mine. “Stop it,” he snarled. “You’re drowning us all in hopelessness when we need to be strong. Fitz, after my father died, you came to us. And you were the one who taught me to be a man. In El’s name, live up to that! Get your walls up! And hold them.”

I felt like a man who suddenly realizes his purse has been cut. That sudden surprise and moment of checking to see if I could be mistaken. No. My walls were down and indeed I’d been letting my emotions overflow like a river in flood. I slammed them up and then realized that I’d drawn on Steady’s strength to do so. True to his name, he stood before me like a rock, clutching my arms. “Have you got them?” he asked me gruffly, and I nodded. “Hold them, then,” he ordered, and released me, stepping back. I thought he staggered a little, but at my concerned look he smiled. “I caught my heel on your rug. That’s all.”

I sat down on the edge of my bed and checked my walls again. “Are they tight enough?” I asked him and he nodded slowly. “I’m not myself,” I said, hating the feeble excuse.

“No. You’re not, Tom . . . Fitz. We all hate that we have to wait and hope for word, but it’s all we can do. No one blames you for what happened. How could anyone have foreseen it? We are up against a magic as unstoppable as when the Red Ships were Forging our towns.” He smiled small. “Or so I suspect. That was before my time.”

I nodded at him, unconsoled.

He sat down beside me. “Do you remember anything unusual about your passage through the stones?”

“I think Chade fainted just as he pulled me into the stone, so he was not using his Skill to help us make the passage.” I didn’t like to remember it. “I was aware that we were in a passage. Aware of my identity in a way I hadn’t been before when traveling through the stones. I was trying to hold on to Chade and keep him together. But to do that, I had to let down my own walls. If you know what I mean.”

He nodded, his brow furrowed. He spoke slowly. “You know that I’m not talented in the Skill. I sense it. I have a lot of strength that I can lend, but I can’t do much in the way of directing it. I can help someone else, but not really initiate it.”

I nodded.

“I’m not really sure that I’m Skilled at all. I think I’m just a person who can give strength. Like my father.”

I nodded again. “Burrich excelled at that.”

He swallowed. “I scarcely knew my little sister. Withywoods was far away, and she seemed to not really be a part of my life. I saw her a few times, but she seemed, well, too simple. As if she’d never really be a person. And so I didn’t get to know her. I regret that now. I want you to know that if you need my strength in any way, you’ve but to ask me for it.”

I knew he was sincere. And I knew there was precious little he could do for me. “Then look after your older sister and protect her in any way you can. I do not know what lies ahead for me. Be here for her and protect her.”

“Of course.” He looked at me as if I were slightly daft. “She’s my sister. And I’m part of the King’s Own Coterie. What else would I do?”

What else indeed? I felt a bit foolish. “When you left Chade, was he better?”

His face grew grave. He looked down and then lifted his eyes to meet my gaze squarely. “No. He’s not.” He ran his fingers back through his hair, then took a deep breath and asked me, “How much do you know of his activities with the pillars and stones?”

My heart sank. “Next to nothing, I imagine.”

“Well, he has always had a very keen interest in Aslevjal. He was convinced that the Elderlings had left a great amount of knowledge behind in those little blocks of memory stone and in the carvings on the walls. And so he would go there. At first, he would let the coterie know where he was going and how long he expected to be gone. But as his visits became more frequent, Nettle endeavored to restrict him, saying that as Skillmistress she had the right to do so. He countered that the knowledge he was gaining was well worth the risk to ‘one old man’ as he put it. It took King Dutiful stepping in to stop his travels.

“Or so we thought. He was no longer leaving Buckkeep and going up to the Witness Stones. No. He had discovered from his studies of the markings that there was another passage-stone, one that apparently been incorporated into the building of Buckkeep Castle itself. Or perhaps it was originally there. We have hints that sometimes portal-stones were actually inside strongholds. There is some information that leads us to believe there was a circle of passage-stones built into the Great Hall of the Duke of Chalced’s throne room. Long since toppled, our spies say . . . Oh. Sorry. Down in the dungeons of the keep, in one wall, there is a stone and on it is carved the rune for Aslevjal. He had been using it, and often. To conceal his use of it, he would leave Buckkeep late at night, and return by morning.”

My nails were sinking into my palms. It was the worst and most dangerous way to use the stones, according to Prilkop. Years ago, he had cautioned me against making such a passage twice in the space of less than two days. I had not listened, and I had been lost in the stones for weeks as a result. Chade had been taking very grave risks indeed.

“We only discovered it when he went missing. For a day and a half we could not find him, and then he came staggering up out of the dungeons, half out of his mind, with a sack of memory stones slung over his shoulder.”

I knew a jolt of anger. “And no one thought to tell me this?”

He looked surprised. “That would not have been my decision. I know nothing of why you were not told. Perhaps he begged them not to. Nettle, Dutiful, and Kettricken were extremely angry and frightened by the incident. That, I think, was when he truly stopped his experiments.” He shook his head. “Except for the amount of time he was spending delving into the cubes of memory stone he had brought back. He had them in his apartments, and we think he was using them in lieu of sleep. When Nettle confronted him about his absentmindedness, he explained what he was doing. When she ordered them removed to the library, and limited his access to them, he was furious. But not as a man is furious: more like a child deprived of a favorite toy. That was over a year ago. We thought he had mastered his thirst for the Skill. Perhaps he had, but maybe these last two trips, too close together, woke it again.”

I thought of the times Chade had come to see me. Of how he had brought Riddle through. Nettle, I decided, had known of those visits if Riddle had gone with him. Hadn’t she?

“Does he know what is happening to him? Is he aware he’s doing it?”

“We can’t tell. He isn’t making a lot of sense. He talks. He laughs and speaks of things from the past. Nettle feels he is experiencing his old memories, and then releasing them to the Skill-stream.

“I was sent to you for two reasons. The first was to help you set your walls more tightly; Nettle is afraid that Chade will cling to you and pull your awareness with him as he goes. The second reason is to ask you for delvenbark. The strong stuff from the Out Islands. The kind that completely quenched your Skill when it was fed to you.”

“I don’t have very much left. We used most of it at Withywoods.”

He looked concerned but said, “Well, whatever remains is what we’ll have to use.”

It was still in my traveling bag. It had not been unpacked since they’d all but carried Chade and me to our rooms. I found it, and Bee’s dream book, in the bottom of my pack. I rummaged carefully and took out all but two packets. I looked at the herb packets then reluctantly surrendered them. It was hard to come by. Would the dose save Chade? What if it destroyed the precious ability with the Skill that he had so painstakingly built up over the years? If he could not Skill, how could he help me find Shine in the Skill-stream and use her keyword to unlock her? I clenched my jaw. It was time to trust Nettle. Time to cede respect for her hard-won knowledge. Still, I could not keep from saying to him, “Be careful. It’s very strong.”

He hefted the little pouches. “That’s what we are hoping. Nettle thinks that if we can cut him off from the Skill, he may be able to find his center again. That perhaps we can keep whatever is left of him. Thank you.”

He left me there, staring at the door he closed behind him. Whatever was left of him . . . I rose, Bee’s book in my hands, and then sat down slowly. As Chade was, he certainly could not help me find Shine. The first step had to be to stabilize him and persuade him to share Shine’s word with us. And I could not help with that. Until then I had to wait.

I was sick with waiting. Waiting had scraped me raw. I could not think about Bee. It was agonizing to imagine what she might be going through. I had told myself, over and over, that it was a useless torment to dwell on thoughts of her in pain, terrified, cold, or hungry. In the hands of ruthless men. Useless. Put my mind to what I might do to get her back. And how I would kill those who had put hands on her.

I was gripping her book savagely. I looked at it. My gift to her, a bound set of good paper between sturdy leather covers with images of daisies pressed in. I sat down with it on my lap and opened the first page. Did I break confidence with her to look at her private writings? Well I knew how often she had spied upon mine!

Each page contained a brief description of a dream. Some were almost poems. Often she had illustrated them. There was the image of a woman sleeping in a flower garden, with bees buzzing around her. On the next page was a drawing of a wolf. I had to smile. It was obviously based on the carving of Nighteyes that had occupied the center of the mantel in my study for years. Under it was a poem-story about the Wolf of the West, who would race to the aid of any of his subjects who called upon him. The next page was plainer. There was a simple border of circles and wheels and a couplet about a man’s fate: “All he could dream, all he could fear, given to him in the space of a year.” A few more pages, poems about flowers and acorns. And then, on a page that was a riot of color, her dream of the Butterfly Man. In her illustration, he was truly a Butterfly Man, pale of face, transcendently calm, with the wings of a butterfly protruding from his back.

I closed the book. That dream had come true. Just as the Fool had when he was a lad, she had written down a dream and it became a prophecy. I had buried the Fool’s wild talk that Bee was his daughter, born to be a White Prophet. Yet here was the evidence I could scarcely deny.

Then I shook my head. How many times had I accused the Fool of warping one of his prophecies to make it fit the events that followed? Surely this was more of the same. It had not been a “butterfly man” but a woman and a cloak with a pattern that suggested butterflies. I tamped my uneasiness down firmly with a mallet of disbelief. Bee was mine, my little girl, and I would bring her home and she would grow up to be a little Farseer princess. But that thought sent my stomach lurching into a different gulch. I sat for a moment, finding my breath and hugging her book as if it were my child herself. “I will find you, Bee. I will bring you home.” My promise was as empty as the air I breathed it to.

I lived in a space between times. There was the time when Bee was safe. There was the time when she would be safe again. I lived in a terrible abyss of doubt and ignorance. I plummeted from hope to despair, and found no bottom to that dive. Any clatter of boots in the corridor might be a messenger with news of my child. My heart would lift and then it would be only a courier delivering someone’s new jacket, and again I’d drop to despair. Uncertainty chewed me and helplessness manacled me raw. And I could let none of it show.

The next three days were as long as any I had ever known. I paced through them like a sentry making endless rounds on the same parapet. As Prince FitzChivalry, I ate meals with my family, but exposed to the eyes of everyone else in the Great Hall. I had never paused to think how little privacy the Farseer royals enjoyed. I received numerous invitations. Ash still tended my room and sorted the missives into piles. Bereft of Chade’s guidance, I presented the ones Ash considered important to Kettricken for her guidance. Just as I had once advised her on how to navigate the tricky currents of Buckkeep politics, so she now advised me as to which invitations I must accept, which I should politely decline, and which ones I could postpone.

And so, after an early-morning axe session with my guard, I went out riding with two lesser lords from minor keeps in Buck and accepted the invitation to play a game of cards that evening. All that day, I remembered names and interests and made conversation with words that conveyed almost nothing. I smiled politely and dodged questions with generalities and did my best to be more of an asset than a liability to the Farseer throne. And all the while the thought of my little daughter boiled in the back of my mind.

So far, we had been successful in tamping down rumors and keeping word of what had happened at Withywoods to less than a whisper. I was not sure how we would contain it when the Rousters returned to Buckkeep. It was, I felt, only a matter of time before the connection between Tom Badgerlock and FitzChivalry Farseer became common knowledge. And once that happened, what then?

No one knew that a Farseer daughter had been stolen, and precious few knew that Nettle’s younger sister had been kidnapped. We had kept it within the family. To release news of Chalcedean mercenaries able to infiltrate Buck and travel our roads unseen would release panic and outrage that the king was not protecting his folk. Keeping my tragedy unspoken was like swallowing back acid vomit. I despised the man who put a pleasant expression on his face, who held a hand of cards or nodded to a noble lady’s discussion of the price of a blooded horse. This was Prince FitzChivalry, as I’d hoped never to be. I recalled Kettricken, head held high and demeanor calm in the days when her rebellious son Dutiful had vanished. I thought of Elliania and her uncle Peottre, keeping the secret of their kin held hostage as they trod the careful dance of betrothing her to Dutiful. Bitter to think that the same folk who had directed the kidnapping of Elliania’s mother and small sister were behind the raid on Withywoods. So I was not the first to have to conceal such pain; it could be done, and every morning I looked into the mirror and set my face to stillness. I cut the whiskers from my face instead of my own throat and vowed I would do it well.

Daily, I visited Chade. It was rather like visiting a favorite tree. The delvenbark had quenched his Skill. He no longer dwindled, but it remained to be seen how much of himself he could regain. Steady kept watch over him. I spoke banalities to him. He listened, it seemed, but spoke little in response. A servant brought food for all three of us. Chade fed himself, but would sometimes pause and seem to forget what he had been doing. When I spoke of Shine he seemed to take no more than a polite interest. When I asked directly if he could recall the words with which he had sealed her from the Skill, he looked more puzzled than troubled by the question. When I tried to press him, to insist that he at least remember his daughter, Steady intervened. “You have to let him come back. He has to find the pieces of himself and put them back together.”

“How do you know such things?” I demanded.

“The tiny blocks of memory stone that Chade brought back offered us all sorts of knowledge. Nettle thinks they were cut into small pieces to be safer to use. We do not let anyone experience many of them, and no one explores them alone. As each one is studied, an account is given of what is learned. I was entrusted with one that dealt with those who lost themselves in pursuing knowledge too deeply. I wrote my account of what I learned. And Nettle and I believe it is similar to what has befallen Lord Chade. We hope that if we give him time and rest and keep any more of him from leaking away, he will come back to himself.”

He paused. “Fitz, I can only guess what he is to you. When I lost my father, you did not try to step into his place. But you sheltered my mother and brothers and Nettle to the best of your ability. I do not think it was solely because of your love for my mother. I think you understood all we had lost. I’ll always feel indebted to you. And I promise you that I will do all in my power to bring Chade back to us. I know you think he holds the key to regaining Bee. We all hate that we must stand by and do nothing as we wait for word of her. Please trust that what I do now, I do because I believe it is the fastest way to see Chade regain his senses and be able to help us.”

And that comfort, thin as it was, was the best I could gain from those visits.

That night, when I could not sleep, I tried to occupy myself. I read several scrolls on the Skill, and the accounts of what had been learned from the memory blocks. Kettricken and Elliania had put their scribes to scouring the libraries of Buckkeep for any mention of Clerres or White Prophets. Four scrolls awaited me. I skimmed them. Hearsay and legend, with a dollop of superstition. I set them aside for Ash to read to the Fool, and comforted myself by imagining that I could poison all the wells in Clerres. The required amount of toxin would depend on the flow of the water. I fell asleep to my calculations.

The next day slowly ticked by. I passed that day as I had the one before. And another day came, with a storm of wind and snow that would delay the Rousters’ return. There had been no word from any of the Witted of soldiers on the road, and nothing from the patrols that Dutiful had dispatched. It was hard to cling to that hope, and harder to let go of it. I told myself that if the storms let up, Thick would get home and we might pry Shine’s word from Chade and Skill it to her. I busied myself as best I could, but each moment seemed a day to me.

I went to see the Fool at least twice every day. The dragon’s blood continued to affect him, with changes that overtook his body so rapidly they were frightening. The scarring on his face, the deliberate tracks of the torturer across the planes of his cheeks and brow, began to fade. His fingers became straighter, and although he still limped, he did not wince with pain at every step. His appetite was the equal of a guardsman’s, and Ash saw to it that he could indulge it.

Spark was most often Ash when I saw her in what had become the Fool’s chambers, though now I caught glimpses of her as Spark about the keep. I marveled at what I saw. It was not merely a change of clothing and a frilled cap with buttons. She was an entirely different creature. She was industrious and thoughtful as Ash, but the occasional smile that came and went on her face was all Spark. A sidelong glance from her was not flirtatious but mysterious. Several times I encountered her in Chade’s rooms doing minor tidying or bringing cool water to replenish his ewer. Her eyes slid by me at such encounters so I never betrayed that I knew her in any other guise. I wondered if anyone other than Chade, the Fool, and me knew of her duality.

It was Ash I spoke with one morning when I had climbed the stairs after what had become a daily practice bout with my guardsmen. I had come to see how the Fool was doing. I found the Fool garbed in a dressing-gown of black and white, sitting at Chade’s worktable as Ash tried valiantly to tame the Fool’s growing hair. To see him garbed so woke my memories of his days as Shrewd’s jester. The new growth on his scalp stood up like the fuzz on a newly hatched chick’s pate, while the hanks that remained of his longer hair hung lank and coarse. As I climbed the final step, I heard Ash say, “It’s hopeless. I’m cutting it all to the same length.”

“I suppose that’s the best solution,” the Fool agreed.

Ash snipped each lock and set it on the table, where the crow immediately investigated it. I had come near silently, but the Fool greeted me with, “What color is my new hair?”

“Like wheat ready for the harvest,” Ash said before I could respond. “But more like dandelion fluff.”

“So it was when we were boys, always floating in a cloud about his face. I think you will look like a dandelion gone to seed until it is long enough for you to bind.”

The Fool put his hand up to touch it, and Ash pushed it away with an annoyed grunt. “So many changes, so fast. Still, each time I wake I am surprised to find myself clean and warm and fed. The pain is still a constant, but the pain of healing is a bearable thing. I almost welcome the deep aches and even the sharp twinges, for each one tells me that I am getting better.”

“And your vision?” I dared to ask.

He fixed his whirling dragon eyes on me. “I see light and darkness. Little more than that. Yesterday, when Ash walked between me and the hearth fire, I perceived his passing shadow. It is not enough, but it is something. I am trying to be patient. How is Chade?”

I shook my head and then recalled he could not see me do that. “Little change that I can see. The sword cut he took is healing, but slowly. The delvenbark has cut him off from his Skill. I know he was using it to maintain his body. I suspect he was consuming other herbs as well. And now he is not. I do not know if I am imagining that the lines in his face are deeper and the flesh fallen from his cheeks, but—”

“You are not imagining it,” Ash said quietly. “Every time I venture into his room, he seems to have aged. As if every change he did with his magic is falling away, and his true age catching up with him.” He set his scissors down, his task finished. Motley pecked at the shining shears, and then decided to groom her feathers instead. “What good have they done if they save him from dying of the Skill only to let him die of his years?”

I had no answer to that. I had not considered it.

Ash followed it with another question. “And what will become of me if he dies? I know it is a selfish thing to wonder, but wonder I do. He has been my teacher and protector here at Buckkeep Castle. What will become of me if he dies?”

I did not want to think of such an eventuality but I answered as best I could. “Lady Rosemary would assume his mantle. And you would remain an apprentice to her.”

Ash shook his head. “I am not sure she would keep me. I think she dislikes me in direct proportion to how much Lord Chade favors me. I know that she believes he is lenient with me. I think if he were gone, she would dismiss me and take on apprentices more dutiful to her.” In a softer voice, he added, “And then I would be left with the only other profession I have ever studied.”

“No.” The Fool forbade it before I could.

“Would you take me on as your servant, then?” Ash asked in the most wistful tone I had ever heard.

“I cannot,” the Fool said regretfully. “But I am sure Fitz would see you well placed before we go.”

“Go where?” Ash asked, echoing my own thoughts.

“Back to where I came from. On a dire mission of our own.” He looked blindly toward me. “I do not think we should wait, Fitz, for your Skill or my eyesight. A few more days, and I believe I shall be fit to travel. And we must set out as soon as we possibly can.”

“Did Ash read you the scrolls I left? Or Spark perhaps?” The girl grinned. But my foray did not distract the Fool.

“They were worthless, as you well know, Fitz. You don’t need old scrolls or a map. You have me. Heal me. Restore my sight, and we can go. I can get you there, to Clerres. You took me through a stone to bring me here; we can get to Clerres the same way that Prilkop took me.”

I made myself pause and draw a deep breath. Patience. His heart was fixed on destroying Clerres. As was I, but both logic and love anchored me where I was and doomed me to the suffocation of waiting. I was not sure if rationality could move him, but I would try. “Fool. Do you not understand at all what has befallen Chade, and how it affects me? I dare not attempt to Skill, not to try to heal you nor to enter a stone alone. Taking you with me? No. Neither of us would ever emerge.”

He opened his mouth to speak and I raised my voice.

“Nor will I leave Buckkeep until my hope of finding Bee within the Six Duchies is exhausted. Those of the Wit search for her now. And there is a chance that Chade will recover enough to help us reach for Shun. Shall I race off to Clerres, a journey of months by ship, leaving Bee to her captors’ whims for all those days, when word of her here in Buck or in Rippon may reach us any moment? I know you are impatient to go. Standing still and waiting for word feels like being slowly burned alive. But I will endure it rather than rush off and abandon her here. And when we do go to Clerres, when we take our vengeance to them, it had best be on a ship with troops. Or do you truly believe I can journey to a distant city, beat down their walls, kill those you hate, and emerge with my life and their captives intact?”

He smiled and it was frightening when he said softly, “Yes. Yes, I do believe we can. Moreover, I believe we must. Because I know that where an army would fail, an assassin and one who knows their ways will succeed.”

“So let me be an assassin! Fool, I have said that you and I will take our vengeance on them. And we will. My hatred for all they are burns just as hot as yours. But mine is not a raging forest fire, but a bed of tended coals in a smithy. If you wish me to do this as an assassin, then you must allow me to do it as I was trained to do it. Effectively. Efficiently. With ice in my blood.”


“No. Listen. I’ve said their blood will run. It will. But not at Bee’s expense. I will find her, I will take her home, and I will stay with her until she is recovered enough to be without me for a time. Bee must come first. So become accustomed to delay and use it wisely. Rebuild your body and your health, just as I spend my waiting days honing my old skills.”

The fire crackled. Ash stood silent as a sentry, breathing raggedly. His eyes darted from the Fool to me and back again.

“No,” the Fool said at last. He was adamant.

“Have you not heard a word I’ve said?” I demanded.

It was his turn to raise his voice. “I have heard them all. And some of what you say makes sense. We will wait, for a time, and though I think that wait will be fruitless, how sweet it would be for both of us if it were not. For all of us. I held her in my arms for but the briefest moments, but in that time, the connection was made. I do not know that I can describe it to you. I could see again. Not the sight of eyes, but my sight of what might be. All the possible futures and the most crucial turning points. And for the first time, I held in my arms someone who shared that with me. Someone to whom I could pass on all I had learned. Someone to come after me, a true White Prophet uncorrupted by the Servants.”

I said not a word. Guilt was choking me. I had broken that embrace, had torn Bee from his arms and punched my knife blade into his belly, over and over.

“But if tonight a message about her whereabouts reaches you, and if you recover Bee tomorrow, then we should leave the day after.”

“I will not abandon her again!”

“Of course not. Neither will I. She will be where she is safest. She goes with us.”

I gawked at him. “Are you insane?”

“Of course I am! As well you know! Torture does that to a man!” He laughed without humor. “Listen to me. If Bee is truly your daughter, if she has your fire at all, then she will want to go with us, to bring down that hive of cruelty.”

“If?” I sputtered in outrage.

A horrible smile lit his face. His voice sank. “And if she is my child, as I am certain she is, then when you find her you will discover that she already knows she must go there and aid us. She will have seen it on her path.”

“No. I don’t care what she has ‘seen’ or what you advise. I would never take my child into slaughter!”

His smile only grew wider. “You will not have to. She will take you.”

“You are mad! And I am past weariness.”

I walked away from him, to the far end of the room. This was as close to a real quarrel as we had come since the Fool had returned. He, of all people, should be able to understand my anguish. I did not want to be at odds with him right now. And I had so little faith left in myself or my judgment that when he questioned it, it felt like an attack.

I heard Ash’s whisper to him. “You know he is right. First, you must rebuild your strength and endurance. I can help with that.”

I did not hear the Fool’s muffled response. But I heard Ash say, “And I can help with that as well. When the time comes, all will be ready.”

I spoke when I knew I had control of my voice. No anger, no hurt rode my words. “Tell me of those who follow the woman. Not the mercenaries she hired, but the pale folk. They puzzle me. They are Whites or part-White. If the Servants treat the Whites so badly, why do they follow her and do her bidding? Why must we kill them? Surely they would welcome being free of her?”

He shook his head slowly. His voice was calm and informative. Did he wish to smooth things over as badly as I did? “Children believe what they are told. They are on ‘a path,’ Fitz. They know nothing except obeying her. If they are not useful to her, then they are useless. And the useless are discarded. Euthanized when they are small, gently if they are fortunate. They will have seen some of their fellows given a night draught of poison. The ones who were intractable or did not manifest any talent become as slaves. Those who have a little talent are kept if they are obedient. Some come to believe everything they are told. They will be ruthless in following her orders. They will obey her even to giving up their lives. Or taking any life that opposes them. They are fanatics, Fitz. Show them any mercy and they will find a way to kill you.”

I pondered silently for a time. Ash had gone very still, and was listening as if he were absorbing every word. I cleared my throat. “So. There will be no hope of them rising against Dwalia. No hope of converting them to our cause.”

“If you find the ones who took her . . . not just the mercenaries they’ve hired. I mean the ones who made this plan. The luriks. Dwalia. They may seem kindly to you. Or young. Misguided. Or as if they were simply servants, obeying orders. Don’t trust them. Don’t believe them. Have no mercy, feel no pity. Every one of them dreams of rising to power. Every one of them has witnessed what the Servants have done to their fellows. And each has chosen to serve them rather than defy them. Every one of them is more treacherous than you can imagine.”

I fell silent. And they were the ones who held Bee captive? I could pit my new guard against them, or ask Dutiful for seasoned troops. But my fury went cold as I imagined Bee, small as she was, scuttling for shelter in the midst of such a melee. Trampling hooves, swinging blades. Would Dwalia and her luriks kill my child rather than allow us to win her back? I could not bring myself to phrase that question.

“They will never turn against Dwalia,” the Fool admitted reluctantly. “Even if you could engage them while they are within the Six Duchies, which I consider very unlikely, they will fight to the last death. They have been told so many tales of the outside world that they will fear capture much more than death.”

He fell silent for a time, pondering. Ash had put away his scissors and was sweeping up fallen hair. “So. Enough of badgering each other. We have agreed that we will go to Clerres. Let us set aside for now when we will go. And even how we will travel there. Let us lay what plans we may. Once we reach Clerres the school has its own fortifications we must win past. Even once we are inside, there is such a nest of evil spiders that it will take cleverness to root them all out. I think we must rely on stealth and cunning more than force of arms.”

“I am cunning,” Ash said quietly. “I think I might be of great use to you on such a mission.”

The Fool turned a speculative glance toward him, but “No,” I said firmly. “Despite all you have known in your short life, I do not take someone as young as you into a situation like that. We are not speaking of a knife in the dark, or a dose of poison in the soup. Dozens, the Fool has said. Perhaps scores. It’s no place for a youngster.”

I dropped into a chair beside him at the table. “Fool, this is not a light undertaking you are asking of me. Even if I can accept that every one of the Servants must die, I still must wonder if I can do it. I am as rusty at assassination as I am at axework! I will do all I can. You know that. Those who have taken Bee and Shun, yes. They ended their lives when they came to my home. They must die, but not in a way that endangers my daughter or Shun. And those who hurt you. Yes. But beyond that? You are speaking of slaughter. I think you imagine my abilities to be far greater than they are.” My voice dropped as I had to add, “Especially my ability to deal death and not feel the cost. And when we reach Clerres? Do all of them truly merit death?”

I could not read the cascade of emotions that flickered over his face. Fear. Despair. Incredulity that I would doubt his judgment. But it ended with him shaking his head sorrowfully. “Fitz, do you think I would ask for this were there any other way? Perhaps you think I seek this purely for my own survival. Or vengeance. But it’s not. For every one we must kill, there are ten, a dozen, twenty held there in an ignorant slavery. Those, possibly, we can free, to go about whatever lives they can build for themselves. Children bred to one another like cattle, cousin to cousin, sister to brother. The malformed children they create, the ones born with no sign of their White bloodlines, are destroyed as carelessly as you might pull a weed from a summer garden.” His voice shook and his hands trembled against the table. Ash reached toward him. I shook my head at him. I did not think the Fool wished to be touched just then.

His words halted. He clasped his hands together tightly, and I watched him try to find calmness. Motley left off grooming herself and hopped closer to him. “Fool? Fool?”

“I’m here, Motley,” he said as if she were his child. He extended his hand toward the sound of her voice. She hopped to his wrist and he did not flinch. She climbed up his sleeve, beak over claw, until she reached his shoulder. She began to preen his hair. I saw his clenched jaw relax. Still, his voice was flat and dead as he spoke. “Fitz. Do you understand that is what they intend for Bee? For our child? She is a valuable addition to their breeding stock, a strain of White blood they have not yet been able to add. If they have not already deduced she is mine, they soon will.”

Ash’s eyes flew wide open. He started to speak. A sharp gesture from me stopped him. I moved my hand to my heart and tried to calm it. I drew a deep breath. Ask the questions. “So. How long will this journey to Clerres take us?”

“In truth, I can’t say with surety. When first I traveled from the school to Buckkeep, it was by a very roundabout route. I was young. More than once I lost my way, or had to take ship to a port other than the one I desired in the hope of finding a ship there that would take me closer to Buck. Sometimes I was months in one location before I had the wherewithal to travel on. Twice I was held against my wishes. Back then, my resources were very limited, and the Six Duchies little more than a legend to me. And when I returned to Clerres with Prilkop, we traveled part of the way by the stones. It still took us quite a time to get there.” He paused. Was he hoping that I would offer to take him by that route again? If so, he would wait for a long time, even when my control of the Skill was restored. Chade’s current state had only increased my reluctance ever to enter them again.

“But however we go, we had best start as soon as we are able. The dragon’s blood Ash gave me has had a remarkable effect on my health. If I continue to improve, if you can help me regain my eyesight . . . Oh, even if neither happens. We will wait for the messenger you hope for. But how long? Ten days?”

There was no reasoning with him. I would not give him false promises. “Let us wait until the Rousters return with Thick and FitzVigilant. It will not be many days. And perhaps by then your eyes will have improved as much as the rest of you. And if not, we will ask Thick and the rest of Nettle’s coterie to see if they can restore your vision.”

“Not you?”

“Until Nettle judges my Skill to be controlled again, no. I will be in the room but I will not be able to help.” I repeated aloud the promise I’d made to myself. “It’s time for me to cede to her true authority as Skillmistress. And respect her knowledge. She has warned me not to Skill. So I will not. But the others can help you.”

“But I . . . No, then. No.” He suddenly lifted one scarred hand to cover his mouth. Both his fingers and his voice shook as he spoke. “I cannot. I just can’t let them . . . Not until you are recovered. Fitz. You know me. But those others . . . They could lend you their strength but you must be the one to touch me. Until then . . . No. I will have to wait.” He snapped his mouth shut suddenly and abruptly crossed his arms on his chest. I could almost see hope depart from his body as his shoulders rounded in. He closed his blind eyes and I looked away from him, trying to give him space to compose himself. So quickly he had lost his dragon-blood courage. I almost wished he were quarreling with me still. To see him suddenly shaking in fear again was like a bellows blowing on the coals of my anger. I would kill them. All of them.

Motley muttered to him. I stood and walked away from the table. I did not speak again until he could hear that I was not sitting and staring at him.

“Ash. You have a deft hand with those scissors. Do you think you could take the stitches out of my brow? They are too tight.”

“They look like a puckered seam in a badly made dress,” Ash told me. “Come. Sit down here near the fire where the light is better.”

Ash and I talked while he worked, mostly his small warnings that he would now tug out a stitch or requests that I blot away the blood welling where the threads had been. We both pretended not to notice when the Fool gently set his crow down on the table and carefully groped his way to his bed. By the time Ash was finished with me, he was either truly asleep or feigning it well.

The slow days ground by. Whenever I found myself pacing, I took myself down to the practice yards. I had one chance encounter with Blade’s grandson. He barely concealed his satisfaction at the drubbing he gave me. The second time I accepted his invitation to try our skills with staves against each other, he very nearly laid me out. Afterward, Foxglove drew me aside and asked me sarcastically if I enjoyed the beatings I was taking. I told her that of course I didn’t, I was simply trying to regain some of my old physical skills. But as I limped away to the steams, I knew I had lied. My guilt demanded pain, and pain was one of the few things that could drive Bee’s predicament from my thoughts. I knew it for an unhealthy tendency, but excused myself on the grounds that when finally I had a chance to use a blade against her kidnappers, I might have regained some of my ability.

So it was that I was in the practice yards when the shout went up that the Rousters had returned. I touched the tip of my wooden blade to the earth to signify my surrender to my partner and went to meet them. Their formation was ragged and they rode as defeated and angry men do. They had their comrades’ horses, but were bearing no bodies home. Most likely they had burned them where they fell. I wondered what they had made of finding one man hamstrung, with his throat cut. Perhaps in all the blood, no one would have noticed his specific injuries.

They ignored me as they led their horses to the stables. FitzVigilant had already dismounted and stood holding the reins of his mount, waiting for someone to take the horse. Thick, looking old and weary and cold, sat slumped on his sturdy beast. I went to his stirrup. “Come down, old friend. Put your hand on my shoulder.”

He lifted his face to regard me. I had not seen him look so miserable in a very long time. “They’re mean. They made fun of me all the way home. They bumped me from behind when I was trying to drink my tea and I spilled it all down my front. And at the inn, they sent two girls to tease me. They dared me to touch their breasts and then slapped me when I did.” Tears came into his little eyes.

He told me his troubles so earnestly. I pushed down my wrath to speak gently to him. “You are home and no one will hurt you anymore,” I promised him. “You are back with your friends. Come down.”

“I did my best to protect him,” Lant said behind my shoulder. “But he could not seem to stay clear of his tormentors, or ignore them.”

Having had the care of Thick more than once, I understood well enough. The little man did seem to have the knack for putting himself into the most trouble he could find: Despite his years, he still had difficulty telling mockery from good-natured joking. Until it was too late. And like a cat, he was inevitably most attracted to those who had the least tolerance for him. Those most likely to torment him.

But once he had been able to evade actual physical damage.

I spoke very softly. “Could not you Skill them, Don’t see me, don’t see me?”

He scowled. “They tricked me. One would say, ‘Oh, I like you, be my friend.’ But they would be mean. Those girls, they said they would like me to touch them. That it would be fun. Then they slapped me.”

I winced for the hurt in his eyes and drooping mouth. He coughed, and it was a wet cough. Not good.

“Every one of them deserves a good thrashing, is what I think. Sir.” I turned to find Perseverance approaching. He led three horses. The roan, Priss, and a dappled gelding from my stables. Speckle. That was his name.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded and then took in the boy’s appearance. His right eye was blacked and that cheek well bruised. I recognized that someone had backhanded him. I knew that type of injury well. “And what happened to you?” I demanded before he could answer my first question.

“They hit Per, too,” Thick volunteered.

Lant looked flustered. “He tried to intervene that night at the inn. I told him it would only make things worse and it did.”

I was confronted by incompetence, inexperience, and stupidity. Then I looked at Thick’s woeful face and mentally changed stupidity to naïveté. Thick had never outgrown his innocence. I was silent as I helped him dismount. Thick coughed again and could not seem to stop. “Lant will take you to the kitchens and see that you get a hot, sweet drink. Per and I will take the horses. Then, Lant, I suggest you present yourself to King Dutiful to give your report. Thick will give his at the same time.”

Lant looked alarmed. “Not Lord Chade?”

“He’s very ill right now.” Thick was still coughing. He finally caught a wheezing breath. I relented a little. “Be sure Thick eats well and then take him through the steams. Then I will hear your report at the same time as the king does.”

“Badgerlock, I rather think . . .”

“Prince FitzChivalry,” I corrected him. I looked him up and down. “And do not make that mistake again.”

“Prince FitzChivalry,” he said, accepting the correction. He opened his mouth and then shut it again.

I turned away from him, holding his horse’s reins and Thick’s. “That wasn’t the mistake,” I said without looking back. “I meant your trying to think. But do not call me by that name again. Not here. We are not ready for it to be common knowledge that Badgerlock and FitzChivalry are one and the same.”

Per made a small choking sound. I did not look at him. “Bring those horses, Perseverance. You’ll have time to explain yourself to me while you settle them.”

The Rousters had gone into what I still thought of as the “new” stables, the ones built since the Red-Ship Wars. I did not want to see them just now. I wanted to be calm when I dealt with them, not merely appear calm. Per followed and I led him and the horses behind the new stables to Burrich’s stables, where I had grown up. They were not used as much as they once had been, but I was pleased to see they were kept clean and that there were empty stalls ready for the horses we brought. The stable boys were in awe of me and scampered so swiftly to the needs of the beasts that Per found very little to do. The other stable boys seemed to recognize him as one of their own, and perhaps thought the bruises on his face were my doing, for they were very deferential to me.

“Isn’t this Lord Derrick’s roan?” one of them dared to ask of me.

“Not anymore,” I told him, and was taken aback by the warm confirmation I received from the mare. My rider.

“She likes you,” Per told me from the next stall. He was brushing Priss. He’d let one of the other boys take Speckle but Priss he was doing himself.

I didn’t ask him how he knew. “What are you doing here?”

“She’s muddy, sir. We were crossing an iced-over stream and she broke through and got her legs muddy. So I’m grooming her.”

Technically, a truthful answer. This boy. I admired him grudgingly. “Perseverance. Why did you come to Buckkeep?”

He straightened to look over the stall wall at me. If he was not genuinely surprised at my question, he was very good at dissembling. “Sir, I am sworn to you. Where else should I be? I knew you would want your horse, and I did not trust those . . . guardsmen to bring her. And I knew that you would need Priss. When we go after those bastards and take Bee back, she will want to ride her own horse home. Your pardon, sir. Lady Bee, I meant to say. Lady Bee.” He caught his lower lip between his teeth and bit down on it hard.

I had intended to rebuke him and send him home. But when a youngster speaks as a man it’s not right to reply to him as a child. A stable girl had just arrived with a bucket of water. I turned to her. “Your name?”

“Patience, sir.”

That jolted me for an instant. “Well, Patience, when Per is finished, would you show him where to get some hot food and where the steams are. Find him a bed in the . . .”

“I’d rather stay near the horses, sir. If no one minds.”

I understood that, too. “Help him find some bedding, then. You can sleep in one of the empty stalls, if that’s what you wish.”

“Thank you, sir. It is.”

“Should I make him a poultice for that cheek? I know one that can draw the swelling down by morning.” Patience looked very pleased to be put in charge of Perseverance.

“Do you? Well, then, you should do that also, and I’ll be pleased to see how well it works by the morning.” I started to leave and then remembered the pride of a boy. I turned back. “Perseverance. You are to stay well away from any of the Rousters. Am I understood?”

He looked down. “Sir,” he acknowledged me unhappily.

“They will be dealt with. But not by you.”

“They’re a bad lot,” Patience said quietly.

“Stay clear,” I warned them both, and left the stables.

Chapter Twenty-One


So let us speak of forgetfulness. We all recall episodes of forgetfulness. We have missed a meeting with a friend, burned the bread, or set down an object and forgotten where we put it. That is the forgetting we are aware of.

There is another kind, one we seldom think about. Until I mention the phase of the moon, chances are that it is not in your thoughts. It is pushed aside by the food you are eating, or the path you are walking upon. Your mind is not fixed upon the moon, and so for that moment you have forgotten it. Or, perhaps it is better to say, you are not remembering that bit of information at this time.

If I enter the room as you are fastening your shoe, I can say, “There will be a lovely moon tonight,” and then you will call it to mind. But before I call it forth for you, you have forgotten the moon.

One can swiftly understand that for most moments of our lives, we have forgotten almost all of the world around us, except for what currently claims our interest.

The talent of the part-Whites is most often to be able to glimpse the future in dreams. There are a rare few who can find a future that is but a breath away, a future in which a chosen person will not be remembering that which we wish to hide from him. Those rare few can persuade this person to remain in that non-remembering state. And thus one with that rare talent can render an event or person almost invisible, almost forgotten. We have records of part-Whites who could do this and hold it for a single person. We have records of some few who could cause up to six persons to continue forgetting something. But in the young student Vindeliar, I believe we have found a truly extraordinary talent. Even at seven years old, he can master the minds of twelve of my students and cause them to forget hunger. And so I ask that he be given over to me, to train specifically in that capacity.

— From the Servants’ Archives, Lingstra Dwalia

I was better. Everyone told me so, even Shun. I was not sure they were right, but it was too much trouble to argue with them. My skin had finished peeling and I no longer had a fever. I did not tremble and I could walk without staggering. But it was harder to listen to people, especially if more than one person was talking at once.

The traveling had become harder. And there was more tension between Dwalia and Ellik. We had to cross a river and they wasted most of an evening arguing about where. It was the first time I’d seen conflict between them. They had a map, and they stood not at our fire nor at the Chalcedeans’ but between the two and pointed and argued. There was a ferry at one village. Dwalia argued it would be too hard for Vindeliar. “Not only must he keep anyone else waiting to cross from recalling us, he must fog the ferrymen. Not once, but three times before we have all the sleighs and horses across.”

There was a bridge that Dwalia favored, but to reach it we would have to travel through a large town. “It is the perfect place for an ambush,” Ellik objected. “And if he cannot fog the ferry workers, how can he fog a city?”

“We travel in the dead of night. Swiftly through the city, across the bridge, and then swiftly away from the trading town on the other side.”

I leaned against Shun. Her whole body was tense, she was so focused on eavesdropping. I was tired of them talking and longed for quiet. Quiet and real food. The hunting had been bad and all we had had for two days was porridge and the brown soup. The sleighs were loaded, the horses harnessed. The Chalcedeans were mounted and waited in formation. The luriks stood by their mounts. All were waiting for Ellik and Dwalia to find an agreement. The bridge tonight or the ferry tomorrow? I didn’t care. “How did they get to this side of the river in the first place?” I asked Shun quietly.

“Shut up,” she said in such a snip of voice that only I heard it. That had made me struggle to be alert and hear more.

Dwalia was speaking. I could tell she was nervous. Her hands were fists, clasped to her bosom. “The ferry is too close to Buckkeep. We need to cross soon and then be away. Once we are across the river, we can go through the hills . . .”

“The hills again. Unless you are willing to travel on the roads, the sleighs will bog down in the unpacked snow,” Ellik spat. “Abandon the sleighs. They have only slowed us down since you stole them.”

“We no longer have the cart. We’d have to abandon the tents.”

“Then leave them.” Ellik shrugged. “We will travel more swiftly without them. Your female insistence on these comforts is what slows us down.”

“Don’t look at them,” Shun hissed by my ear. I’d been staring. They did not usually quarrel for long. Usually Vindeliar came, and smiled and bobbed, and then we did as Dwalia wished. I slitted my eyes and pretended to be dozing. I could see Dwalia’s frustration. She glanced over at us and Shun leaned forward and poked at the dying fire.

Then Vindeliar came wandering over. He was smiling as he always was. He paused by our fire and looked around, puzzled. “Why aren’t you on the sleigh? Shouldn’t we leave soon?” The night was darkening around us. Usually by that time we were well away from the day’s campsite.

Dwalia lifted her voice to respond to him. “Yes. We should be leaving very soon. Be patient, Vindeliar. Come wait with me while Ellik decides what we must do.”

Then, for the first time, I watched and saw clearly what Vindeliar did. He smiled and almost wriggled like a chubby little boy as he sidled up to Dwalia. He looked at Ellik, tilting his head. The man scowled at him. Dwalia spoke softly. “So, as the duke has said, he considers the ferry crossing too dangerous for us. It is much too close to Buckkeep. But if we make haste, he says we could reach the bridge tonight. And perhaps cross and even be in the foothills before the sun is very high. And thence to Salter’s Deep and the ship.”

Ellik scowled. “That is not what I said,” he growled.

Dwalia was suddenly and immediately apologetic. She clasped her hands under her chin and bowed her head. “I am so sorry. What was it you had decided?”

He looked well pleased at her chastened demeanor. “I decided we would take the bridge. Tonight. If you can muster your lazy folk and get them mounted and on the road, we may well be in the foothills before the sun is too high.”

“Of course,” Dwalia said. “When you put it like that, it’s the only sensible thing to do. Luriks! Mount! Commander Ellik has made his decision. Odessa! Get the shaysim into the sleigh right away. Soula and Reppin, get to the final loading! He wishes us to depart immediately.”

And Ellik had stood, smiling with satisfaction to see us all scramble to his orders. Snow was kicked over the dying fires, and I was hurried into the sleigh. I feigned weakness and the luriks quickly gave me over to Shun’s care. Vindeliar and Dwalia were the last to climb on board. I had never seen anyone look more satisfied than the two of them.

Ellik barked his commands and our company began to move. When we had gone a little way, I breathed to Shun, “Did you see that?”

She misheard me. “I did. We are not far from Buckkeep. Be quiet.”

And I was.

We made the crossing that night. As we drew closer to the river town, Vindeliar left the sleigh. He mounted a horse and rode at the head of our procession beside Ellik. And later that morning, when we finally reached a forested area of the foothills and made a camp, Ellik bragged to all about how simple it had been. “And now we are on the northern side of the Buck River, with little between us and our goal but a few small towns and the hills. As I told you. The bridge was our best choice.”

And Dwalia smiled and agreed.

But if she and Vindeliar had tricked him into choosing the bridge instead of the ferry, it still did not make our journey through the hills any easier. He had been right about the sleighs. Dwalia insisted we must do our best to avoid roads, and so the soldiers and their horses broke trail for the heavier beasts that pulled the sleigh. Our passage was not easy and I could tell that Ellik chafed at how little we moved forward each night.

Shun and I had little time to speak privately. “They mentioned a ship,” she said to me once as we crouched in the bushes, relieving ourselves. “That may give us a chance of escape, even if we must leap into the water. Whatever happens, we must not let them take us out to sea.”

And I agreed with that, but wondered if we would have any opportunity to flee our captors.

I was slowly recovering, but the poor food and the constant travel and sleeping cold made me feel as if they created an illness of their own. One evening as we rose to commence our route, I felt almost dizzy with hunger for something more sustaining than porridge. As I followed Shun from the tent to the fireside, I spoke carelessly to her. “I’m going to die soon if I don’t get a real meal.”

Several of the others halted and turned to stare at me. Alaria lifted a hand to cover her mouth. I ignored the gawkers. As always, the luriks had built two campfires, one for us and one for the soldiers. The luriks did all the cooking, but there was no shared meal at the end of the day’s rest. Always two of them carried a steaming pot of the porridge they cooked and left it with the soldiers. We always ate separately. Tonight the soldiers had killed something and were roasting it over the fire. Their fire was closer to ours than it usually was, for the clearing we were in was small. The meat smelled very good, and I snuffed at the hearty scent on the cold night air.

Careful of that, too, Wolf-Father warned me. I looked around our fireside and then frowned to myself. “Where is Vindeliar?” I asked.

“He goes ahead of us. We must travel on the roads tonight. We will pass through a little town and he goes to smooth the way for us,” Dwalia told me.

I decided that she only spoke to me in the hope of having me say something back to her. I took a chance. I sniffed, loudly. “The meat smells good,” I said and gave a small sigh.

Dwalia folded her lips. “A serving of that meat would cost more than any here are willing to pay,” she said sourly.

I had not realized that the soldiers had been listening in. One brayed a boorish laugh. “For a piece of meat from the Buck woman we’ll give you a piece of this rabbit!” Then they all laughed. Shun had taken a seat beside me on the log. She huddled into herself, going smaller. Panic grew in me. She was the adult whom my father had bade look after me. I could not tell if the look on her face was anger or fear. But if she was afraid, how much more terrified should I be? It made me more frightened than I’d ever been, and somehow angrier, too. I stood up.

“No!” I shouted the word at the leering men. “That never happens in any future I see. Not even the one in which her hidden father leaves every one of you in bloody shreds!” I swayed, sat down suddenly, and would have fallen if Shun had not caught me as I collapsed toward her. I felt sick. I had given away a piece of my power. I had not meant to share that dream. It still made no sense to me. They had not been men in the dream but pennants, hung in tattered shreds from a laundry line, dripping blood. A dream that made no sense. I could not have said why I mentioned a hidden father.


There was shock in Dwalia’s tone. I turned my face toward her. I looked into her disapproving eyes and tried to appear like a younger child surprised in mischief.

“Shaysim, it is not our way to speak dreams to any who might be listening. Dreams are precious and private things, our guideposts to the many paths that exist. Choosing among the paths requires great knowledge. When we reach Clerres you will learn many things. One of the most important things will be to record your dreams privately or only with a scribe chosen for you.”

“Clerres?” The old soldier, Ellik, had come to stand behind Dwalia. He stood straight but his belly still pushed out from his vest. In the light of the fire, his eyes were pale like shadowed snow. “After we board the ship, we are bound directly for Chalced, and Botter’s Bay. That was our agreement.”

“Of course,” Dwalia agreed smoothly. Despite her bulk, she lifted herself gracefully from her crouch to stand beside him. Did she avoid having him stand over her?

“And I won’t have bad luck wished on me and my men. Certainly not by a moon-eyed pup like him.”

“The boy meant nothing. You need not be concerned.”

He smiled at her, an evil old man’s confident smile. “I’m not concerned at all.” Then, without warning, he kicked me in the chest. I flew backward off the log, landing on my back in the snow. It knocked the air out of me. I lay gasping. Shun leapt up—to flee, I think—but he backhanded her across the face, knocking her sideways into a flock of luriks who had risen like birds to flutter to our aid. I expected them to fling themselves on the leader of the soldiers, to swarm over him and pin him down as they had the handsome rapist. Instead they seized Shun and dragged her away.

I felt Dwalia’s fear soar. In a flash of insight, I realized that fog boy was away from the camp, telling people that they would not notice when we moved through their village tonight. Vindeliar was not here to exert his strength over Commander Ellik, so she stood alone against him. Odessa circled the log and seized me under the arms. She dragged me backward through the snow as Dwalia spoke. She seemed calm. Could no one else sense the fear that stormed inside her?

“He’s just a boy, with a boy’s way of shouting when he is angry. Or frightened. Were not you once a boy yourself?”

He looked at her flatly, not taken in by her effort at all. “I was a boy once. I was a boy who saw my father strangle my older brother for failing to show him respect. I was a smart boy. I needed only one lesson to learn my place.”

Odessa had dragged me to my feet. She stood behind me, her arms crossed over me to hold me up. I still didn’t have my breath back. When Commander Ellik pointed his thick-nailed finger at me, I gave up any thought of taking a breath. “Learn. Or die. I don’t care what name they call you by, boy, or what value they place on you. Still that tongue, or you and your whore-tender will be thrown to my men.” He turned and stalked away.

At last, I drew air into my lungs. I desperately needed to piss out my fear.

Then Dwalia spoke, boldly calling her words after the man. “That is not our agreement, Commander Ellik. If this boy is harmed in any way, we will not be obliged to pay you when we reach Botter’s Bay. The one who holds the gold will not release it to you unless I am alive to tell him to do so. And unless the boy is unharmed when we arrive there, I will not tell him to pay you.”

Her tone was firm but reasonable. On another man, perhaps it might have worked. But as Ellik turned back to her with a snarl on his face, I suddenly knew that she should not have mentioned money, as if money could rule him. Money was not what he lusted for.

“There is more than one way to turn you and your pale servants and your precious boy into gold. I need not even wait until we reach Botter’s Bay. There are slavers still in every port in Chalced.” He glanced about him at the staring luriks and spoke with disdain. “Your pretty white horses might fetch me a better price than your bloodless serving girls and flimsy men.”

Dwalia had gone pale and still.

He lifted his voice to fill our night. “I am a Chalcedean, and a commander and a lord, not by birth but by virtue of my own good sword-arm. I am not ruled by whining women or cowed by whispering priestesses. I do as I think best for myself and the men who have sworn to me.”

Dwalia pulled herself straighter. Her followers had bunched like sheep, each striving to be behind someone else. Odessa still held me in front of her. Was she bravely protecting me or using me as a shield? Shun had recovered herself. She stood alone and apart from the luriks and stared fiercely at the Chalcedeans. I had breath in my body now. I readied myself to run.

Stillness. Be still as the hunter and listen.

I settled myself into my motionless body. Dwalia mastered her fear and spoke back to Ellik. Was she insane? Or so used to being in command that she did not see the weakness of her position? “Your men are sworn to you. Promised to you, then? And you believe in their promises when you do not honor your own? Promised to you, just as you gave your word to me when we set our bargain? A generous advance on the payment was given to you, that you need not loot. But loot you did, in defiance of my order. You promised there would be no violence beyond what must be. Yet there was. Foolish destruction, breaking doors and slashing tapestries. Leaving signs of our passage that need not have been left. Killing beyond what was needed. Rapes that served no useful purpose.”

Ellik stared at her. Then he threw back his head and laughed, and for a moment I saw him as he might have been in his youth, wild and reckless. “No useful purpose?” he repeated. He roared with laughter again. His men were appearing, by twos and threes, to stand in witness. They shared his mirth. I knew that his display was actually for them. “There speaks a woman who knows nothing of her true purpose in the world. But let me tell you, I am certain that my men found those women useful enough.”

“You broke your word to me!” Dwalia tried to put certainty and accusation in her voice. Instead she sounded like a whining child.

He cocked his head to look at her, and I saw on his face that she had become even less powerful in his eyes. So insignificant that he bothered to explain the world to her. “A man has his word. And he can give his word to another man, for both of them know what that means. For a man has honor, and to break his word to another man defiles his honor. The breaking of a man’s word merits death. But all know that a woman cannot give her word to anyone, for women cannot possess honor. Women promise, and later they say, ‘I did not understand, I did not mean it that way, I thought those words meant something else.’ So a woman’s word is without worth. She can break it, and always she does, for she has no honor to defile.” He gave a snort of derision. “It is not even worth killing a woman who breaks her word, for it is what women do.”

Dwalia stared at him, her mouth ajar. I pitied her and feared for the rest of us. Even I, a child, knew that was the Chalcedean way. Every scroll I’d read of them, every time my father mentioned them, they were the ones who always found a way to break their word. They fathered children on their slaves, and then sold their own offspring. How could she not have known the sort of folk she bargained with? Her luriks were gathering behind us, a pale mirror of the soldiers behind Ellik. But his men stood, legs wide and braced, hands on their hips or arms crossed on their chests. Our luriks huddled and leaned against one another, whispering like a wind shivering through aspens. Dwalia seemed drained of words.

“How could I exchange a promise with you? I would give you my man’s word, my word of honor in exchange for what? The thought you held in your silly little head for that moment?” He barked in disdain. “Have you any idea how foolish you sound?” He shook his head. “You bring us all this way, deeper and deeper into danger, and for what? Not treasure or coin or fine goods. A boy, and his serving woman. My men follow me and in return they take a share of all I take. And what could we take from there? A bit of wenching for my soldiers. A few blades of good quality. Some smoked meat and cured fish. A few horses. My men make mock of your raid! That is not good, for they must doubt why they came so far through such dangerous territory, for so little plunder. They must doubt me. And now what must we do when we are so deep in an enemy’s territory? We dawdle and avoid the roads and villages, until a journey that should have been a few days stretches toward a month.

“Now the boy we have stolen dares to mock me. Why? Why has he no respect? Perhaps he thinks me as foolish as you make me seem. But I am not a fool. I have been thinking and thinking. I am not a man to be ruled by a woman. Not a man to be bought with gold, and then commanded like a sell-sword. I am a man who commands, who will undertake a task and do it as seems best to him. Yet, as I look back, time after time, I have bowed to your will. I look back and each time, it makes no sense to me. Always, I give way to your will. Why? I think I have discerned it.”

He pointed an accusing finger at her. “I know your spell, woman. It is that pale boy you keep at your side, the one who speaks as if he were a girl. He does something, doesn’t he? You send him ahead through the town, and we pass through and no one turns to watch us go. It’s a good trick, a very good trick. I admired it. Until I came to see that he has been playing a similar trick upon me. Hasn’t he?”

I would have lied. I would have looked at him in consternation and then demanded that he explain. She gaped like a fish. Then, “This does not happen,” she said faintly.

“Really?” he asked her coldly.

A sound. All heads, even mine, turned toward it. Horses coming. Vindeliar returning with his escorts. Dwalia made her second mistake. Hope lit in her eyes.

Ellik read it as clearly as I did. He smiled the cruelest smile that I had ever seen. “No. That is what does not happen.” He turned to his men. They had packed behind him, their eagerness straining like hounds on a huntsman’s lead. “Go meet them. Stop them. Take Vindeliar. Tell him we know his tricks. Tell him we are amazed and think him wonderful. Pump his vanity like you’d stroke yourself!” Ellik barked a crude laugh the others echoed. “Tell him this woman has bid you command him not to use his tricks on us anymore, for his path now lies with ours. Take him to our tents and keep him there. Give him every good thing we have there. Praise him. Slap him on the shoulder, make him feel he is a man now. But be wary of him. If you feel your resolve weakening at all, kill him.

“Yet try not to. He is very useful, that one. Worth more than any gold this old whore can offer us. He is the true prize we will take home.” He turned his attention back to Dwalia. “He is even more useful than a woman ready to be raped.”

Chapter Twenty-Two


The princess may confront, or the king may make demands. The queen or prince may even threaten or issue ultimatums. The diplomat or emissary will mediate, cooperate, or negotiate. But the royal assassin, the one who wreaks the king’s justice, has none of those tools at his disposal. She is the ruler’s weapon, deployed as the Farseer king or queen sees fit. When the assassin is called into play by the one who rules her, her own will shall be suspended. She is both as powerful and as powerless as a game-piece deployed upon the gaming cloth. She goes and she acts and then she is done with it. She makes no judgment and takes no vengeance.

Only in that way can she maintain his virtue and his innocence of true crime. She never kills of her own volition. What is done by the royal assassin’s hand is not murder but execution. The sword never bears any guilt.

—Instructions to an assassin, unsigned

“I did not know how to stop them.” FitzVigilant stood very straight before an odd court of judgment. We had convened in Verity’s tower, where once my king had defended the Six Duchies coast from Red Ships, and where later Chade and Dutiful and I had done our best to master the Skill-magic with the limited information we had. How it had changed over the years! When first Verity had used it as a lookout over the water to help him focus his search for the Red Ships attacking us, it had been dusty and disused, a refuge for retired bits of furniture. The dark circular table in the center of the room now was warmly polished, and the chairs that surrounded it had high backs with carvings of bucks on them. I pitied whichever servants had carried the heavy furniture up all those spiraling stairs. Lant stood, and seated at the table were the king and queen, Lady Kettricken, Nettle, and myself.

Lady Rosemary and Ash were also there, dressed entirely in blue so dark it was almost black. They stood, motionless and silent, their backs to the wall. Waiting. Like sheathed blades.

Dutiful sighed. “I had hoped for better from them. I had hoped that when the conspirators were cut out of their ranks, something worthy of duty might remain among the Rousters. But it appears not.” He had been looking at his hands. Now he looked at Lant. “Did any of them threaten you in any way? Or give any sign that they had been aware of the plot to kill Lord Chade?”

Lant stood straighter. “When I rode with them, I was only partially aware of what had happened to Lord Chade and Prince FitzChivalry. If I had been better informed, I might have taken a different tack. And been more watchful and wary of all they did and said.”

“That’s valid,” King Dutiful concurred, and once again I thought it almost seemed as if Lant were on trial here rather than giving testimony that would decide the fate of the Rousters. Thick had been entrusted to a healer. He had already given a long and wandering account of his ill treatment at the hands of the men who were supposed to protect him. Then he had wanted his own bed. The steams had warmed him through but he was still coughing when he left us. Perseverance, very pale and nervous at being called to speak before such an august board, had corroborated all that Thick had recounted.

Queen Elliania spoke. She did not raise her voice but her clear words carried. “Sir, did you at any time outright forbid their ill behavior? Did you remind them that Thick was entrusted to their care?”

Lant paused to think, and my heart sank for him. He hadn’t. “I remonstrated with them. I pointed out that they should behave as befitted a guard company, especially when in a public place such as a tavern. It did little good. Shorn of their officers, they seemed to have no self-discipline.”

Dutiful’s brow furrowed. “But you never ordered them directly to cease their ill treatment of Thick?”

“I . . . did not.” He cleared his throat. “I was not sure I had that authority, sire.”

“If not you, then who?” the king said heavily. Lant did not reply. Dutiful sighed again. “You may go.”

Lant went, walking stiffly. Before he reached the door, I spoke. “If I may offer some words, my king?”

“You may.”

“I would point out that FitzVigilant arrived at Withywoods in poor condition owing to a severe beating he had taken in Buckkeep Town. And that he had been battered again, in both mind and body, when Withywoods was attacked.”

“His behavior is not being judged here, Prince FitzChivalry,” the king said, but as Lant reached the door, he shot me a look that was both ashamed and grateful. The guard on the door allowed him out. At a gesture from Dutiful, the guard followed Lant out the door and shut it behind him.

“Well. What shall we do with them?”

“Disband them. Flog those who mistreated Thick. Send them away in shame from Buck forever.” Elliania spoke dispassionately, and I had no doubt that in the Out Islands such would have been their fate.

“Not every man of them mistreated Thick. Find the ones who should bear the blame, and judge them individually.” Kettricken spoke quietly.

“But those who did not directly injure him did not oppose those who did!” Elliania objected.

The king shook his head. “There was no clear chain of command. Part of the fault must be borne by me. I should have directed FitzVigilant to take command of them and conveyed that to all.”

I spoke. “I doubt they would have accepted his authority. He has never soldiered. These men are the barrel-scrapings of the guard. Discarded by other guard units, they are the ones with the least self-discipline, ruled by the most ruthless and least honorable officers. At the least, disband them. Some will perhaps find places with other guard units. But keeping them as a company will only invite the worst from them.” I spoke for mercy in a calm voice. But privately, I planned to work a bit of the prince’s justice on the ones Thick had named to me.

Dutiful looked at me as if he could hear my thoughts. I hastily checked my walls. No, I was alone in my mind. He had simply come to know me too well. “Perhaps you would like to speak with each of them and see if any meet the standard to be included in your new guard company?”

“And then he smiled at me.” The irritation I felt with my king was not ameliorated by the smile that bloomed on the Fool’s face.

“He does know you well, to set you to this task. I’ll wager that in that barrel of rotten apples, you’ll find a few sound ones. And that when you give them a final chance, you’ll win their loyalty forever.”

“Not the sort of men I’d want at my back,” I objected. “Nor the sort of troops I want to hand to Foxglove and expect her to manage. I’d like my honor guard to actually be honorable men.”

“What of the ones who taunted Thick and backhanded your stable lad?”

I took breath to speak and then gasped in surprise as an arrow of Skill from Nettle penetrated my walls effortlessly. The Queen’s Garden. Tidings of Bee and Shine. Come now. Do not try to Skill back to me.

Hope flared in my heart. “I am summoned by Nettle to the Queen’s Garden,” I told him and stood. “They may have word of Bee’s whereabouts.” I was shocked to find that the sudden hope cut me as sharply as fear.

“Light! Air!” the crow demanded as I stood.

“I’ll return as soon as I can,” I offered. I ignored the Fool’s disappointed look, and did not even object as Motley hopped from the table and with a single flap of her wings gained my shoulder. In my chamber, I paused only to release the crow from my window before I hastened to find Nettle in the Queen’s Garden.

The Queen’s Garden was no traditional garden, but a tower top. I was panting when I reached it, having run through half of Buckkeep Castle to get there. In summer the pots there overflowed with greenery and fragrant blossoms. Some even held small fruit trees. Simple statuary and isolated benches completed Kettricken’s retreat from the petty annoyances of life at court. But as I emerged onto the tower top, winter greeted me. Snow mounded the planters, and the small trees had been swaddled against winter’s cruelest bite. I had thought to find only Nettle waiting for me. But Kettricken, warmly cloaked against winter’s chill, was present, as well as Dutiful, and Queen Elliania. It took me a moment to recognize Civil Bresinga. The boy had grown to a man. When he saw I recognized him, he bowed to me gravely but kept silent. I had wondered why they had chosen the Queen’s Garden as a meeting place. As Dutiful’s hound rolled a young lynx around in the snow, I understood. The two Wit-companions, obviously well acquainted with each other, suddenly raced off between the planters. I knew a moment of sharp envy.

“We’ve had word,” Dutiful greeted me.

He seemed so solemn that I wondered if bodies had been found. I left formality behind as I demanded of him, “What news?”

“It’s not certain,” Dutiful cautioned me, but Civil did not wait to speak.

“As my king requested, I sent out discreet queries, particularly to those of Old Blood who are bonded to birds of prey. I am sure you understand that even Witted partners pay small attention to things that don’t concern them. But two reports came back to me.

“Yesterday a messenger pigeon brought me a message from Carter Wick, an Old Blood bonded to a raven. The raven had found a company of folk camped in the forest. When she tried to pick over the bones of some rabbits they’d eaten, they threw sticks at her. She said that there were white horses there.”


He held up a cautioning finger. “Today, Rampion, a youngster whose Wit-bird is a merlin, sent word to us. The merlin complained of people ruining her hunting by stopping for the day in a clearing where she can usually take mice. The white horses had trampled the snow, giving the mice much better hiding places when they emerged from their burrows to seek seedheads still sticking up out of the snow.”

“Where?” I demanded again, my temper rising to match my urgency. Finally, finally, I could take some action. Why were all of them just standing about?

“Fitz!” Dutiful spoke sharply, as my king rather than my cousin. “Calm yourself. Wait until you have heard all. The Wit-beasts have given us two possible sightings, a day apart. Both were in Buck. One on this side of Chancy Bridge, and the other approaching the Yellow Hills. It puzzled me greatly, for they were moving slowly.”

I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from demanding why I had not heard those reports as soon as they had come in. Dutiful was still speaking. “Now, I have reason to suspect that we know where they are bound. They can only be headed for the coast, and there are only three close ports where a ship of any size could dock. If there are forty of them, with horse, they will need a substantial vessel to depart.

“We have Skilled journeymen stationed at all the old lookout towers along the coast. I ordered two to ride together, one of them well dosed with elfbark, looking for anything unusual in Forge, Notquite Cove, and Salter’s Deep. At Salter’s Deep, we found what we were looking for. There is a ship tied up at the docks there, one that everyone overlooked except for my Skill-deadened emissary. Her partner could not see it at all. No one knew when it had arrived, what cargo it brought, or what it waited for. Some professed to know nothing of a ship tied up in full view; others could not be stirred to interest. Unfortunately, the local forces cannot capture what they cannot see. But I’ve already sent orders for the king’s guard stationed at Ringhill Tower to procure elfbark, dose the troop, travel to Salter’s Deep, and seize the ship.” He grinned triumphantly. “We have them. We’ve cut them off from escaping!”

My guts tightened. I have always preferred stealth to confrontation. What would happen when the kidnappers arrived at Salter’s Deep and found their escape route cut off? What would I do? “The Chalcedean mercenaries will be desperate. They may kill their captives, or threaten to, when they find they are discovered.”

“They may,” Dutiful conceded. “But look here.” He unrolled the map he’d carried tucked under his arm. Without words, Civil held it while Dutiful pointed at it. “The Ringhill Guard will be at Salter’s Deep in less than two days. The Chalcedeans are traveling slowly and stealthily. We think it will take them three or perhaps four days to reach Salter’s Deep. The outlying areas around Salter’s Deep are thickly forested. Mounted men might ride through, but the sleighs will not go there. They will have to take to the roads or abandon their sleighs. Once the Ringhill Guard has secured the ship, they will split their men. Some will block the road down to the harbor. The others will circle through the hills and come at them from behind.” His finger pinned a point where the road descended from the hills to the rocky shores of Salter’s Deep. “They’ll capture them and rescue Bee and Shine.”

I was already shaking my head. “No. I have to be there. It has to be me.” I could hear how foolish I sounded as I desperately added, “I lost them. I have to get them back.”

Dutiful and Kettricken exchanged a look. “I expected you would say that,” Dutiful said quietly, “as irrational as we all know it to be. And yet I understand it. What would I not do if one of my lads were taken? If you ride out tomorrow morning with your guard, you should arrive shortly after the Ringhill Guard does. You will be there to escort her home.”

“Are there no Skill-stones near Ringhill or Salter’s Deep?”

“That goes beyond irrational to plain stupidity. You cannot use the Skill safely for your own ends right now, let alone take troops through with you. The Ringhill Guard is a substantial force, and we have a Skilled journeyman among them. She will report to us everything that happens. Fitz, you know this is the best tactic. What could one man do against twenty Chalcedean mercenaries?” He paused, giving me an opportunity to agree with him. I could not. He sighed. “And looking at your face, I am glad to tell you that no, we know of no Skill-pillars that would shorten that journey.”

I stared at the map a moment longer. Then I looked out the window, over the vista where Verity had once scanned for his enemies. Salter’s Deep. I had to get there. Dutiful spoke behind me. “Fitz, you well know that a military campaign must be carried out with precision. Everyone follows orders. If each soldier did as he thought best, well. Then it’s a brawl. Not a battle plan.” He cleared his throat. “In this, I am in command. I have set it in motion. It needs to go as I have planned.”

“You are right,” I admitted. I didn’t look at him.

“Fitz. Must I remind you that I am your king?” Dutiful spoke the words gravely.

I met his eyes and spoke truthfully. “I am ever aware of that, my king.”

I had been outnumbered. Outmaneuvered. They’d withheld information from me. Worse, logic and rationality were on their side. They’d told no one who did not need to know. Their plan was good. I knew that they were right, if one considered only logic and rationality. Yet in my father’s heart, I knew they were wrong. It felt awful to stand before them and be lectured by my king and my daughter, to be told that the plan was already made and that my only real option was to fall in with it. I felt suddenly old, and stupid, and useless. The bruises I’d taken in my efforts to once more feel like a warrior, my muscles that screamed at me when I moved, all confirmed my incompetence. My softness. My age. I’d lost my daughter and Shine both by my failed ability to think three steps ahead. I could look back and see a dozen simple things I could have done that would have prevented the kidnapping. For days, I had been burning inside to make it right, to correct my mistakes and go forward and never, never again allow my little girl to fall into such danger.

And today, with the possibility of action dangled like fresh meat before me, I was instead told that others would rescue her and return her to me. Someone else would pick her up and hold her tight and tell her she was safe. Days later, she’d be returned to me, like a lost purse. I could sit home by the fire and wait for her. Or ride out with my guard to meet her rescuers.

I left them there on the tower top, dismissed to inform my small troop of new recruits and salvaged oldsters that we would be riding out on the morrow. I was allowed to tell them that we might actually encounter an enemy, but Dutiful and Elliania, Kettricken, and Nettle had decided that it would be best if alarm was kept at a low level in Buck Duchy until the matter had been settled. The Ringhill Guard was well trained and very experienced at dealing with the robber bands that sometimes plagued the king’s highway. They were the best men for the job. And if any escaped them, my guard would shortly arrive to tidy up any loose ends. The Chalcedeans would have to yield or fall as the jaws of the split force closed around them.

And my Bee would be caught there with them, in the teeth of those jaws.

I went to Chade. Had there ever been a time when I did not flee to him for advice? I tapped on his door, received no answer, and slipped quietly inside. To my disappointment, Steady was there, seated in a chair by the fireside, whittling at something and throwing the bits into the fire as he worked. He did not seem surprised to see me. Nettle had probably warned him I might be coming. “He’s asleep,” he said before I could ask.

“Has anyone told him that we think we know where Bee and Shine are? That we are going to try to recover them?”

He frowned. He was a member of the King’s Own Coterie. My news was no surprise to him, but perhaps he was surprised to discover that I now knew of it. He spoke softly. “I was told that all of it was to be kept secret. Surprising them is of the essence. As for Lord Chade, I am not sure he could mind his tongue. I do not think we should raise either hope or anxiety in him. We are trying to keep him peaceful and calm. Letting him gather himself.”

I shook my head and did not lower my voice. “Do you truly think he can feel any peace while his daughter is in the hands of Chalcedean mercenaries? When all is quiet around me, my fears for your small sister still run rampant in my mind. I have not known a moment of peace since I knew she was taken.”

Steady stared at me, stricken. From his bed, Chade gave the groan of an old man waking. I went to him and took his hand. He stirred very slightly. After a moment, he rolled his head toward me. His eyes were half-open.

“We’ve had news, Chade. The kidnappers were spotted. We believe they are on their way to Salter’s Deep. Dutiful has dispatched troops and we’ll seize the ship that is waiting for them, and then close in on them from behind.”

Chade blinked slowly. I felt a brush of Skill against my mind, softer than a butterfly’s wing. Go now. “Lant,” he said, his voice a bit rusty. “Take Lant. He feels so guilty. That they took her. Left him alive.” He paused and swallowed. “Save his pride. It’s taken a beating.”

“I’ll share the news,” I promised. For a moment, our gazes held. His look mirrored what I felt. He lay there, an old, aching man in his bed, while his daughter was in danger. And no one had even told him that she might be rescued, lest such news alarm him. Or prompt him to rash action. “I have to go,” I apologized but he knew it was a promise. “I need to give orders for my guard to prepare for tomorrow.”

For a moment, his gaze brightened. “Roust them out,” he told me. One of his eyelids sagged shut, then he opened both eyes wide. “We’re not done yet, boy. You and I, we’re not done yet.”

Then his eyes closed, he heaved a great sigh, and his breathing became regular again. I lingered a bit longer, his hand in mine. I glanced at Steady. “I doubt he’s a threat to our secrecy.” Then I tucked his hand back under his covers and left the room quietly.

I had not seen much of Lant since he had returned from Buckkeep. He had not really crossed my mind at all. And when he did, he left an unpleasant scent in my thoughts. He was a stony reminder of all the ways I had failed. I hadn’t protected him, or Shine, or my little girl. And in a dark corner of my heart, despite knowing he could not have done so, anger burned in me that he had not given up his own life before allowing Bee to be taken.

A page passed me, carrying someone’s laundry. “Lass, I’ve a task for you, when you’ve finished that one.”

She very nearly rolled her eyes, and then recognized me. “Of course, Prince FitzChivalry.” It’s difficult to bob a curtsy with both arms full of laundry, but she managed.

“Thank you. Find Lord FitzVigilant. Tell him I’ve urgent news to share with him. And remind him to visit Lord Chade today.”

“Of course, my prince.”

My prince. I wasn’t anyone’s prince today. I was a father.

I went directly to the practice grounds. I found Foxglove sitting on a bench outside the weapons sheds, rubbing liniment into her hand and wrist. She’d changed since I’d made her the captain of my guard. Her graying hair was severely braided into a warrior’s tail and her garb more leather than fabric now. She rubbed the ointment into her ropy, veiny wrist and hand. I cleared my throat and she looked up at me. Before she could rise, I sat down on the bench beside her. “I have to ask you to have my guard ready to ride beside me at dawn,” I said.

Her eyes flew wide. I held up a hand. As quickly and simply as I could, I told her all. She was my captain, my right hand. It would not have been right to ask her to ride blindly beside me. I doubted we were going into a confrontation. We’d simply be there in time to take charge of Bee after she had been rescued. But if by any chance we did have to cross swords with anyone, I wanted her to know why. And to know what was at stake.

She was the perfect second-in-command. She listened to me and accepted what I told her. Then she glanced at her boots and said, “Were it my operation, I would not go about it that way.”

“I’m listening.”

“Stealth. Get up on them while they are resting or asleep. Find out where the captives are and worry first about protecting them. Or employ simple bargaining. They’re mercenaries. Mercenaries can be bought. Whatever they’re being paid, we offer them more and safe passage. Later, after the girls are safe, we can decide if we are bound by our words. We can always poison the stores on board that ship and then let them go their merry way.”

I stared at her dumbly for a moment. Then I said in honest admiration, “I like how you think.”

She gave a brief snort of laughter. “Do you? I’m a bit surprised. I know when you asked me to take this duty that you meant it as an honor to me. And as a way to keep yourself from being bothered with it. But I’ve seen war and I’ve seen peace and I know well that there is never truly one or the other. And being ready for war is better than being ready for peace, if peace is what you truly hope for. So. I’ve only had them a few days, but I started with quality, and I’ve seen a lot of improvements since then. Still, if we are riding into real fighting, then the first thing I’ll tell you is, we don’t have enough soldiers and what we do have are not ready. They’ll die.”

She spoke as if she were talking about seeds that would fail to sprout, not as if she were speaking of her grandchildren.

“I can get more,” I said unwillingly. “King Dutiful put the fate of the Rousters into my hands. If there’s anyone there worth having, you can take them.”

She made a face. “As men, they’re worth nothing. As swords, we’ll take them all. They won’t respect me, and in all honesty I’m not sure I can win their respect without killing one of them. I’ve never killed anyone wearing the blue, and I don’t want to start at this stage in my life.”

I stood up. I knew what she was asking me. I didn’t wait for her to put it in words. “I’ll put them on notice to be ready to ride tomorrow. And I’ll see that they respect us.”

She gave a tight nod.

The delay chafed. I’d already delegated my task from Chade. This was one I had to do myself. So do it swiftly, even if it has to be done dirty. Get clear of it and go. Failure to do it might result in losses for my guard. Do it. I owed this to Foxglove.

A pang of guilt. Dutiful was my king. Did not I owe him obedience? The prince did, I decided. Bee’s father did not.

As I walked away from her, I wondered if I were truly up to this anymore. Foxglove’s puppies were still battering me when I took up an axe, and I was just holding my own with a sword. Sixty years sat on my shoulders. I was many years out of practice at real fighting. All the discouragement I had felt earlier in the day came to whisper in my ears. Maybe Dutiful and Nettle were right to tell me that the best I could do was to comfort my child. I knew how far it was to Salter’s Deep. One man alone on a good horse, pushing himself and his animal and going cross-country instead of by the roads, could make it there in a day and a half. The younger Fitz would have been in the saddle as soon as he heard the name of the place.

And I, I calculated men and odds and knew with an old man’s experience that I’d likely be dead before I got near Bee. She would watch me die and then who would there be for her? Don’t be stupid, I counseled myself. At the head of my guard, leaving at dawn tomorrow, there was still a chance that we would be in time to at least lend our strength to the Ringhill Guard. Dutiful was giving me that.

Wisdom tasted as bad as rancid meat. I’d need the Rousters. I didn’t want them, but Foxglove would need them. I made a brief stop in my room and then went in search of them.

I did not find them on the practice yards or in the steams or even in the guards’ mess. I hated the wasted time so much that I took a horse from the stables and rode down the hill. I did not have to go all the way to Buckkeep Town. On the edge of the sprawling growth from the town, I entered the tavern called the Lusty Buck, just past the blackened ruins of the Bawdy Trout. It was exactly the sort of place I had expected it to be. The door did not fit tight in the jamb; a door can only be knocked off its hinges so many times before it always hangs askew. Inside, the candles were few and dark corners many. The air was ripe with cheap, coarse Smoke and the vinegary smell of spilled wine never completely mopped up. A woman smiled wearily at me as I came in; one of her eyes was swollen near shut and I could feel only pity for her. I wondered if debt had put her here. I shook my head at her and stood just within the door, letting my eyes adjust to the dimness.

The Rousters were scattered round the room. They were a small troop, and the losses Chade and I had inflicted on them had reduced them even more. There were perhaps twenty-seven troops in the dark-blue livery. There were a few sodden regulars mixed in with them, a handful of soldiers from other guard companies, and a scattering of weary whores, but the Rousters dominated with their dark jerkins and darker expressions. One or two had turned to look at me as I ran my eyes over them, trying to appraise them.

“Rousters. To me!”

The command should at least have brought them to their feet. Heads turned toward me and many who stared were blearily the worse for drink. Only a few lurched unsteadily upright. I suspected they had been here since they’d stabled their horses on their return from Withywoods. I didn’t repeat my order. Instead I asked of the air, “Who’s in charge, Rousters? I know some of your officers went down near Oaksbywater. Where is Sergeant Goodhand?”

I had expected one of the older guards to stand. Instead it was a youngster with a patchy beard who spoke without rising. The heels of his boots rested on the corner of his table. “I’m here.”

I waited for someone to laugh or contradict him. No one did. Very well. “Sergeant Goodhand, muster your troop and bring them up to the practice fields. I need to speak to them.” I turned to go.

“Not today,” he told my back. “We’re just home from a long ride. And we’re in mourning. Maybe a couple days from now.”

That brought a mutter of suppressed laughter.

There were a hundred ways to deal with that level of insubordination. I sorted through all of them as I turned and made my unhurried way through the tables to him, stripping my left glove from my hand as I came. I smiled at him, sharing his amusement. He did not move.

“Ah. I think I’ve heard of you,” I said as I slowly walked toward him. “My stable boy. Perseverance. I believe you backhanded him when he came to the defense of Thick. The king’s companion.”

He gave a single guffaw. “The king’s half-wit!”

“That’s the one.” I did not lose my smile but I suddenly moved faster. I reached him as he was just moving his feet from the table to the floor. He was sneering at me as I hit him so hard I felt his cheekbones crunch under my fist. He’d already been off balance. As he teetered in his chair, I kicked the legs out from under it. He went all the way to the floor. I added a solid boot to his midsection where his ribs did not protect him. He curled up tightly.

“And now I’m in charge,” I told him.

The silence that fell was not a good one. It simmered with anger. I spoke into it.

“King Dutiful gave you to me to keep or discard. Right now, I have a use for your swords. If you want to continue to be members of any guard company, form up on the practice grounds. Report to Captain Foxglove. Respect her. She’ll be selecting which of you we keep. Now. Anyone who chooses not to form up is dismissed from the Buckkeep Guard. Forever.”

I stood still one breath longer. Then I walked unhurriedly toward the door, every sense prickling in case someone attacked me from behind. As I stepped back into the snowy street, I heard one of the women say, “That was the Witted Bastard, that was. What he did was mild compared with what he could’ve done. You’re lucky he didn’t turn into a wolf and rip your throats out.”

I smiled as I drew my left glove on, mounted the horse, and rode away. Inside the weighted gauntlet, my right fist still ached, but not as much as it would have if my fist had been bare. Chade had taught me always to protect my knuckles.

Go now, my heart urged me. Prepare, said my head.

For a change, I took the wiser advice.

I did not think about what I was doing as I carefully measured the elfbark and made my tea. It was not the Outislander stuff, but the weaker herb we harvested in the Six Duchies. And this was freshly harvested by me, from an elf tree near the old well outside the walls. Winter-harvested, so I was making it strong. But not too strong, or I’d disappear from the coterie’s awareness entirely. Strong enough that I could stop thinking about my walls constantly. Strong enough to deaden my Skill but leave my Wit completely unaffected.

I drank it and went up to visit the Fool. I found him stretched out on the floor flat on his back. “I’m fine,” he said before I could express alarm. As I watched, he lifted both his feet off the floor and, legs straight, raised them as high as he could. It was not high. I winced for him as he held them, breathing stiffly. I did not speak to him until he lowered his feet to the floor again.

“I’m feeling restless. I think I’m going to go for a long ride. Want to come with me?”

He turned his head toward me. “Not yet. But thank you for thinking I might. I’m feeling stronger. And . . . braver. The dreams help.”


“I have dragon dreams, Fitz. I battle for a mate I desire. And I win.” A very strange smile suffused his face. “I win,” he said again, softly. He lifted his feet off the floor. He held them off the floor, toes pointed. They began to tremble and he lowered them again. He bent his knees and tried to curl to meet them. Limbering himself. Even I was more flexible than that. But he would fight his way back. I heard him groan.

“Don’t push yourself too hard.”

He lowered his feet. “I must. When I think it is too hard, I think of our daughter. And I find determination.”

I had been moving about my task. Those words halted me in place.

“What are you doing?” he asked me.

“Chade’s shelf of herbs and elixirs is a bit untidy. I need to remind Ash to be more careful.” A very unfair lie. I was able to find everything I needed immediately. Distract him. “I’m glad of your dreams. I just wanted you to know that you might not see me tonight.”

The smile twisted. “Even if you were here, I wouldn’t see you,” he reminded me.

I groaned, he laughed at me, and I left.

My saddle-pack was not heavy. Carris seed and elfbark weigh little. Some carryme, willowbark, valerian. I prayed Bee would not need it. I chose a warmer cloak. I exchanged the weighted gloves for warmer ones. A good wool scarf around my throat. The change of clothing for Bee. Only the most basic supplies. Done.

I shut my door and turned as Lant reached the top of the stairs and bolted toward me. Damn my luck.

“Fitz!” he cried and halted a few steps from me, clutching at his half-healed wound.

“Catch your breath,” I suggested to him. In a lower voice, I added, “And speak softly.”

He was panting. “Yes,” he agreed. He put his hand out and leaned his weight on the wall. “I went to Chade. There were two healers in his room. He told me to come to you.”

I had no time to be oblique. I spoke quietly. “We’ve had word of where we might find the mercenaries who took Shine and Bee. The Ringhill Guard will ambush and surround them. Tomorrow at first light my guard rides out to Salter’s Deep. They will probably miss the Ringhill Guard recapturing them, but at least they can be there to lend some comfort.”

“Shine,” he said and a conflict of emotions trampled his face. “I thought . . . But of course that is her name. And of course I want to ride with you.”

“Lord Chade thought you might. But are you sure you’re ready for a long ride like that? If you cannot keep up—”

“You’ll leave me. I know. Of course you must! No, I’ll be ready to ride with you at first light.”

“Fine. I’ll see you then. I’ve things to prepare.” I walked away, hoping he would cling to the wall a bit longer. Instead he gave a groan and a grunt as he stood almost straight and then followed me. He walked beside me in silence for a time. Just as it began to grow awkward, he spoke.

“I didn’t know she was my sister.”

Sweet Eda, please don’t let him confide in me! “Neither did I, Lant. I had not even realized you were my cousin.”

“Cousin,” he said softly as if that had never occurred to him. Then he said slowly, “It will be awkward for us when first we meet again . . .”

The least of my worries. “I will speak to her first, if there is privacy to do so. But if not, you will have to handle it discreetly. Especially if there are others within earshot.”

“I have no wish to hurt her.”

I sighed. “Lant, I know this is foremost in your thoughts. But in mine is the fear that she may already be grievously hurt. Or that the Ringhill Guard will not prevail, or that the mercenaries will either harm, kill, or use their captives as bargaining chips. Those are the things I must give my thoughts to.”

As I spoke his face grew paler. So gently reared was this young man. I knew with sudden certainty that I should not let him go with me into any kind of an armed encounter, let alone what might be the end of a pitched battle between the Ringhill Guard and the Chalcedean mercenaries. I needed all my attention on Bee, not worrying that I might have to protect Lant. I stopped walking and he was grateful. “Are you sure you are well enough recovered from your injuries to ride with us? Or swing a sword?”

“I must go,” he said. He knew my thoughts. Pride stiffened his spine. “I must go, and if I fail, then you must leave me. But I must try. I didn’t protect Shun—I mean, Shine—at Withywoods. I cannot fail her now.”

I gritted my teeth together and nodded. He hadn’t even mentioned Bee. My anger was pointless: He was blind where my child was concerned. I reminded myself that he was Chade’s son and Nettle thought well of him. I forced myself to recall how stupid Hap had been at his age. Then I admitted to myself that I’d been even more obstinate and foolish than either of them. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Lant. Perhaps for her sake, and yours, you should not be there. Go to the healer and get a fresh dressing on that shoulder. Rest. Look after Chade for me.”

I patted his shoulder and walked away. As I went, I heard him say to the air, “Because that is what you would do? I doubt it.”

The Rousters had assembled in the practice yard. It was on my way to the stables. When I went to meet them, Foxglove walked at my side. Sergeant Goodhand hadn’t come. I doubted we’d see him again. Twenty-one of the Rousters had seen fit to form up. I recognized some of them from the Withywoods contingent; others were new to me. I introduced Foxglove as their new commander, and summoned the three most senior in their ranks to come forward. Their length of service had possibly contributed to their battered appearance, but the missing teeth and crumpled ears spoke to me more of brawling than combat. It did not matter. They were what I had. Foxglove took their names and assigned them rank. None of them looked pleased but they did not argue with her. They followed her as she walked down the line of Rousters and immediately dismissed four of them. I did not challenge her decision.

After that, I let Foxglove give them their orders. They were to be mounted and ready at dawn, with four days’ dry rations. They were to be sober enough to ride and dressed for winter travel, with weapons for close-quarters combat. At that, I saw interest kindle in their eyes, but we gave them no more information. I delivered my own message to them. “King Dutiful gave you into my hands. Those of you who acquit yourselves well in the next ten days will remain as part of my guard, but not in the Rouster colors. The Rousters are to be disbanded. Those of you who prove cowardly, lazy, or simply stupid will be dismissed. That’s all I have to say to you.” Foxglove released them and we watched them slouch away.

“They hate you right now,” she observed.

“I don’t care.”

“You’ll care if you get an arrow in the back.”

A sour smile twisted my mouth. “You think I’d be leading the charge?” I considered my next words carefully. “Leave at dawn. I’ll catch up with you. And don’t put anyone wearing my Bastard’s badge in the way of an arrow in the back. Let the Rousters go in first.”

“The Charging Bucks Guard will be ready,” she promised, and I nodded at her correction. She squinted at me, the lines in her brow getting deeper. “What are you planning, Fitz?”

“I’m planning to take my daughter back.”

I turned and left her scowling after me.

In the stables, I saddled the roan. I secured my saddle-pack. I found I was humming, exhilarated. So good to be doing something, to have stopped waiting. I filled a grain bag for the roan and added it to my supplies. I was just finishing when Perseverance came around the corner.

“I’m supposed to do that for you!” he exclaimed indignantly.

I smiled at him. “Would you like it if another man saddled your horse for you?”

His indignation deepened. “Of course not!”

“There you have it,” I said, and laughed. He looked startled. I suppose he’d never heard me laugh before.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Going out for a long ride. I grew up here, but it has been a long time since I rode through these hills. I might be late coming back. There’s an inn down near the river that I used to frequent when I was a young man. I’ve a mind to dine there tonight.”

“With a battle-axe?”

“Oh. That. I’m dropping it off for Foxglove with a smith she likes. She wants a longer haft put on it.”

There was a heartbeat of silence. I lifted one brow at him. He quailed.

“Very well, sir. Do you wish me to ride along?”

“No, no. There’s no need for that.”

In a much softer voice he asked me, “Has there been any news of Bee, sir? Lady Bee?”

I took a breath. Not a lie. “We’ve had all manner of folk out looking.” He nodded then opened the stall door for me, and I led the roan out. Excitement shivered over her as if she shook a fly from her withers.

Me, too, I told her. Me, too.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Bonds and Ties

I believe this is the oldest scroll in the Skill-library and I have subjected it to twelve different translations by my students and scholars. Two of the scholars were Jamaillian priests of Sa. Two others were Outislander sages. Of the twelve translators, two suggested the scroll was a clever forgery, created to be sold.

If we accept the original scroll as authentic, then it is most likely a translation from a much older source, possibly one that was perhaps written by the creators of the Skill-pillars.

I believe this scroll was intact before Regal the Pretender sold it away during the Red-Ship Wars. The loss of this information is both insurmountable and infuriating, even at this late date. What follows is my best interpretation of what remains of the scroll. I discovered it, scorched and rotting, on the floors of a hall in Aslevjal. The burning meant that only the beginning and end of the loosely rolled scroll remained readable. From the account of FitzChivalry Farseer, the burning may have been the last vengeful act of the Pale Woman. This was a tremendous loss for us. What little remains is enough to tell us that.


The construction of a new portal should not be undertaken without extreme caution and a consensus of the Elders. Never lose sight of the fact that all magic is an exchange, a bargain, and a purchase. From the cutting of the stone to the selection of the site to the final inscribing of the runes, the process of creating a portal is dangerous and expensive to the spirits and physical health of those who do the work. Let those who labor in this process be rewarded appropriately, for they are surrendering years of health to provide for those who come after them. In their youthful dotage, let them still be cared for and honored. Let their families be spared any burden, for the care of those who give their bodies and minds to this work should be the welcome task of those who enjoy the yield of that labor.”

The main portion of this scroll is heavily damaged. Words that can be reliably translated on the charred fragments:

“Being toll corporeal language emphasis “deliberate alignment” accompany sibling blood rune dragon bond relationship hands touch “paid in blood” repository willing perpetuity “physical contact” first entry concealed.”

Those of the translators who chose to guess at the information loss believe it related to how to construct and safely use a portal-stone. Some speculated that the sequence of the readable words can be interpreted that one can more safely escort people who are close to the one who goes first, by blood relationship or emotional ties. But this interpretation of the scattered words may be completely incorrect.

“One uses a portal and pays the price. The price for every portal will be different. The one who opens it pays the greatest price, and should be full of health and capable of sustaining that price, especially if one is escorting others less able to pay the price of passage. Before and after the use of the portal, those who benefit from it should pause to reflect on the sacrifice made by those who created these passages. Speak them well when within and without their corridors.”

—Chade Fallstar

The roan was a pleasure to bestride.

I did not leave the stables at a gallop, though I had that desire in my heart. No. I rode like a man on a pleasant and casual errand, a bemused look on my face. I nodded graciously to the guards who bade Prince FitzChivalry a good day as he rode out of the gates. I took the road that led away from Buckkeep Town toward the River Road. Even there, I set an easy pace. I could feel my horse’s impatience. She sensed my desire for speed and was very willing to deliver it to me.

Soon, I promised her.

We will run and then we will fight! As one!

My heart smote me. Unfaithful.

Unfaithful to whom?

Horse. I am sorry. I did not mean to start this. This is not a good bond for me.

I am not “horse.” I am Fleeter.

I held stillness. She did not.

I have waited for you for a long time. Five humans have claimed to own me, but none did. And all of them, I think, knew that. Why else would they sell me for money, as perfect a mount as I am? They could not buy my heart and so they sold me again and again. And then you saw me and in that moment, you knew I was for you. In two strides you claimed me and we both know that was right and is right. Do not say to me that you can undo what is done.

I guarded my thoughts. I did not want this attachment. There could not be this attachment. I groped within me for my wolf, for Nighteyes, but nothing stirred. I sat on her back as still as if I were a sack of grain. I thought of everything else. How far I would travel before I pushed her into a gallop. I reviewed my mental map of where I would leave the king’s highway and go cross-country to Salter’s Deep. I’d memorized that bit of the map and hoped it was accurate. I was fairly certain the roan could handle a long cross-country gallop. If I was wrong—

I can. For a time, I was used as a hunter’s mount.

I began a meticulous catalog of the weapons I had selected. I had tried to provide for every exigency. Sword and knife. A dust poison that could be flung. One suitable for poisoning food if the opportunity presented itself. Six tiny darts tipped with a very potent poison. A sling. I wondered if I could hit anything with it; I hadn’t practiced in years.

I am your best weapon. The man who trained me was like you. He refused me. I was young then, and did not know there were three other horses he spent just as much time with. They were all stallions. His friends mocked him for training me, saying I would never learn the kicks and jumps. That only stallions know how to fight. He proved them wrong. And he collected the wagers and before the summer was over, he sold me.

How does a horse know of such things as wagers? The thought escaped me before I could quell it.

She tossed her head, taking a bit more of the reins. I gave it to her. What do you think stable boys do when they are waiting for their orders? They roll bones and shout and pass coins. And that was what I was to the man who trained me to fight. Bones to roll.

I felt a pang of sympathy for her. Horse, we can be—

Fleeter. I am not “horse” nor “roan.” I am Fleeter.

Fleeter. I accepted the name reluctantly, felt the binding go tighter as I did so. We can be friendly with each other. But I am not seeking—

What is your name?

I breathed out slowly.

I feel the shape of it in how you think. Must I guess it?

I heard the sound of galloping hoofbeats behind us. Horses. More than two. Move to the side of the road and be unworthy of notice. Even before I tugged the reins, Fleeter had moved to the side of the road and slowed. She was too swiftly becoming attuned to me. Setting her aside from me was like trying to be rid of a feather with honey-sticky fingers.

So you are Changer?

No. This can’t be allowed. I blocked myself from her.

I thought the riders would be messengers or lads out for a gallop. When I glanced back furtively and saw Perseverance bearing down on me, leading a saddled and riderless horse, my heart sank. Priss. Bee’s horse. I did not recognize the second rider until they drew closer. Then I was shocked and almost angry to see Lant. As he reined in his mount beside me, he was pale, his face drawn with pain. Could there possibly be any more problems for me today? “You should be recovering, not taking a horse for a gallop,” I greeted him. I tried to keep my words bland before Perseverance.

Lant’s expression went sour. “And should not you be at Buckkeep, preparing to ride out tomorrow with your guard?”

There were a hundred possible lies to answer that question. The most believable would be to say that I was limbering my horse and myself for tomorrow’s long ride.

“I’m going after my daughter,” I said. “Now.”

He stared at me, then gave a tight nod. “And Lady Shine,” he added.

I looked at Perseverance. He met my glare calmly. “Lady Bee will wish to ride her own horse home.”

Fleeter resumed her pace, and the others fell in on either side of us. I itched to ask but waited.

Lant gave in first. “I went to visit Lord Chade, to let him know I’d be leaving tomorrow morning. It is my habit to visit him at least once every day, even when he is incapable of reasoned conversation, and I did not wish him to think that I was abandoning that courtesy. Today, he was rational for a short time. He asked me to recount our conversation. When I did, he told me I’d best make my way to the stables right away if I was to catch up with you.”

“And I thought for a bit when he told me to saddle his horse,” Perseverance added calmly. “And then I followed.”

I held my words behind my teeth. I did not want either of them with me. I had no idea what I would find, if indeed I found the raiders at all. I wanted to be free to travel swift and alone, and in the end to be as stealthy or as savage as I judged necessary. I had brought the carris seed for my own use. I did not want to offer it to Lant, injured as he was, and I would never give it to a mere boy like Perseverance. When I had control of my voice, I spoke calmly.

“I told you that if your injuries held you back, I’d go on without you, Lant. That still holds. And Perseverance. You are to return to Buckkeep Castle right now.”

“I understand that,” Lant said, but his words had the sharp edges of humiliation. It was hard for me to care.


“Sir.” He had not changed his horse’s pace and he did not look at me.

“Did you hear my order?”

“I did, sir.”

“Then obey.”

He did look at me then. His eyes were very bright and I knew he fought the tears forming in them. “Sir, I cannot. I made a promise to Steward Revel. He found out I was teaching Lady Bee to ride. He was not sure he approved, but after I promised him I’d see she came to no harm on a horse, he said he did not think he had to report what we were doing. And when our lessons with Scribe Lant were to begin, he summoned me again, and said I must always be ready to defend her, in the schoolroom or indeed anywhere in Withywoods. And I promised him again. Defend her I did. Even though she and I had had a bit of a tiff a few days earlier. It’s as if I swore my loyalty to her first, before I swore to you. So I think only she can tell me to abandon her.”

“That’s the most convoluted logic I have ever heard.” It wasn’t. The Fool could do much better than that to get his own way.

Perseverance said nothing. I thought of ordering him even more sternly to return. And if he still refused, what then? Kick him? Poke him with my sword? The boy was more than stubborn. He was intent on becoming a man. Soon enough, Fleeter and I would outdistance both of them. And then he could be helpful to Lant in returning to Buckkeep. A fine prince I was. I could not get even a stable boy to obey me. I tried to summon the will to insist.

My Wit made me aware of her a heartbeat before her weight hit my shoulder. I flinched at that landing, and Fleeter flicked an ear back in a query.

“Fitz—Chivalry,” the crow announced. She set her feet more firmly in the fabric of my coat and used her beak to push the flap of my collar out of her way.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded of her, not really expecting an answer.

“It spoke!” Perseverance exclaimed.

“It’s a crow!” Lant exclaimed as if perhaps we had not noticed. Breathlessly he asked, “Is she your Wit-beast?”

“No. She’s not my Old Blood companion.” I had never demanded the current usage of anyone and I did not have time to wonder why I did so now, for Per immediately pleaded, “Would she come to me, do you think? She is such a beauty.”

Motley leaned forward and pecked my cheek lightly. “Nice boy!” she squawked.

Eyes wide, Per extended his forearm hopefully to her, as if she were a falcon. She hopped from my shoulder to the offered perch with the barest lift of her wings.

“Aren’t you fine?” Per breathed as he drew his arm in to admire her.

“Fine,” she agreed in mutual admiration, and I suddenly dared to hope she’d found a more permanent home than the Fool or I could offer her.

“Would you like the care of her? She’s got a few white feathers and because of them the other crows mob her. You’ll have to ink them black for her if they start to fade.”

“Truly?” Per looked as if I’d conferred an honor on him. “The poor thing! What’s her name? How did you come to have her?”

“We call her Motley. Her owner died and a mutual friend asked if I could look after her for a time.”

“Motley. Well. Aren’t you fine? Would you ride on my shoulder, do you think?”

The bird’s bright gaze met mine for an instant, almost as if she begged pardon or asked permission. Then as Perseverance slowly lowered his wrist, she climbed up his arm until she sat on his shoulder. Per shot me a grin and then, as he recalled our mission, it faded. “Sir? What are we riding into? Has Bee been found? Is she well?” He tipped his head toward the axe that rode across my back. “It doesn’t need a new handle, does it?”

“No. It doesn’t. And I don’t know what we’re riding into, or what condition Bee is in. Which is why I don’t think either of you should be accompanying me.” The words felt like stones as they fell from my lips.

Lant spoke up suddenly from my other side. “Well, whatever you do know, I’d like to know as well. Did you receive more tidings since we last spoke? I’ve only Lord Chade’s directive that I follow you.”

I spoke more to the boy than to him. “We’ve had reports of her captors riding toward the coast. The ship they hoped to escape on has been seized. We believe we know the path they intend, and the king’s forces are on their way to cut them off. We may discover her captors before they do. Or after. In either case, I know I must be there.” I recounted the details tersely. Then we all rode silently for a time.

When Per spoke, his words came slowly. “So. We’re actually riding ahead of your guard, aren’t we? Are you hoping to get to the soldiers and Bee before the king’s soldiers do? You hope we can fight them and rescue her ourselves?”

“That would be insane!” Lant declared. “There were at least a score of mercenaries, not counting the pale folk.”

Per had a more pragmatic worry. “All I’ve brought with me is my belt-knife.”

Lant snorted. “Lad, we are not going to charge into a band of trained mercenary soldiers with nothing but your belt-knife and FitzChivalry’s axe. I’m sure he has a better intention than that.”

But I didn’t.

Lying was suddenly too much effort and rather pointless. “I don’t have a plan, really. When and if I locate them, I’ll decide what to do. And that is why you should both go back. Now.” I turned to look at Lant. “Ride with my guard tomorrow. You can let Foxglove know that I’ve ridden ahead to scout. That would actually be a very useful thing for you to do, if you’d carry that message to Foxglove for me.”

Lant appeared to consider it. I hoped it would offer him a dignified way out of following me into what was, truly, an ill-considered venture. For that brief time, there was only the sound of the horses’ hooves on the packed snow of the road, the creaking of saddle leather, and the wind shushing as it smoothed the coverlet of snow that covered the meadow. I looked at the distant trees and then at the sky. Overcast. No snow tonight, I hoped fervently.

We topped a small rise and looked down the broad moving waters of the Buck River. The edges of the moving water were frozen but a stripe of dark water still showed at the center of the current. Just past that crossing I’d leave the road and cut across country. I could see the trail I’d follow. I watched a farmer’s wagon pulled by a heavy team of grays come down to the ferry on the other side. Good timing. There were three houses and a barn and several large pens on the far side of the river. The ferry was a rickety old one, used mostly by farmers and shepherds wanting to move flocks. We rode down to the splintery timbers of the landing and sat our horses in silence as the ferry bumped and sloshed its way across to us. I glanced at my companions. Lant looked dismayed and Per uncertain. The nose of the ferry dock was coated with ice. Priss bridled as we approached it.

The ferry slowly drew closer and then thumped against the landing. A lad leapt off and made it fast, first one line and then the other. The wagon driver lifted a hand in greeting and nodded to us without curiosity as his team stoically thudded across the wooden timbers of the landing. The wagon followed with a lurch and a thud. The sounds of the creaking wagon and the rushing river masked the hoofbeats of another horse. Only my Wit made me turn to see who came.

Yes. I could have more problems today.

“Fitz!” Riddle exclaimed, half-angrily, as he pulled in a rangy white gelding. “What are you thinking, to bring these two? Lant should be resting and healing! And that lad is no more than a boy!”

“I didn’t ‘bring’ them. They’ve followed me.” I took in the light leather armor he wore under his heavy wool cloak. The sword he bore was nothing like the elegant gentleman’s accessory that graced Lant’s hip. Riddle was dressed for serious fighting. “Nettle sent you?” I guessed.

He dropped his head guiltily. “No. She doesn’t know I’ve gone. I told her I wanted to ride with you tomorrow and she agreed to that. Reluctantly. When I couldn’t find you and the roan was gone from the stables, I knew. And here I am.” His expression changed abruptly. “Thank El! I’m so tired of sitting and waiting and worrying.”

Any fears that he’d been sent to bring me back were dispersed. I returned his grin despite my effort to restrain it. “You are going to confront a very angry woman when you get back to Buckkeep Castle.”

“Don’t I know it. My only hope of mercy is to have her small sister with me.”

The smiles we exchanged were tense. We might jest about it but we both knew that Nettle’s anger was going to be a very real storm we’d have to weather. In some dim corner of my mind, I suspected her anger would be justified. I knew that my charging off to save Bee could be seen as foolhardy; what could one man do against a band of mercenaries? I was not directly disobeying my king, I excused myself. I’d stopped arguing before Dutiful felt he had to absolutely command me to follow his plan. I could not trust a band of guardsmen to rescue my child. I could not stand idly and wait for her to be restored to me.

And so I’d defied my king. But now I had three followers, two of them noblemen, and somehow that seemed very different to me. As it well might to King Dutiful. A lone kinsman disobeying his king is one thing; this appeared closer to a mutiny. I cast a sidelong glance at Riddle. In the set line of his jaw and pinched lips, I read much the same sentiments. He spoke without looking at me. “Not far past that ferry, there’s a cart track that goes up toward summer pasturage. If we leave the road there and follow the track, we can probably overnight in the shepherds’ huts in the hills before we push on toward Salter’s Deep.”

“Or not spend the night. Just push on,” I suggested.

“Leave the road?” Lant asked in dismay.

Riddle has always had a talent for sharing a glance without being obvious. He spoke kindly to Lant. “I think you should turn back now. Take the boy with you. If you must, ride with Foxglove tomorrow. If we’re riding into direct conflict, then four of us are not enough to do battle with a mercenary troop. It’s more likely Fitz and I will be doing something more . . . covert. And in that situation, two of us are less visible than four of us with five horses.”

Lant said nothing. I wondered where his true inclination lay. He had to be in moderate pain still. Which hurt worse, his injured pride that he had done nothing when Bee and Shine were taken, or the wound to his body? And how much did he dread encountering Shine not as her suitor but as her brother? I think he was on the point of turning back when Perseverance spoke.

“You can go back if you need to, Scribe Lant. No one would blame you. But I can’t go with you. When we find Bee, she will want her horse. And as she was in my care when I lost her, I have to be the one to bring her back.” He looked at me and perhaps realized he had been less than tactful. “Or at least, I have to be one of the ones who is there,” he added lamely.

The ferryman spoke. “You want to cross or not?”

“I do,” I said. I dismounted. He held out his hand and I dropped my fare into it. I led Fleeter. Her hooves thudded on the timbers of the landing. She eyed the gap between it and the ferry, but when I stepped across, she followed me. The ferry bobbed slightly at our weight and I led her to the center of the flat vessel. I didn’t look back at any of them. I hoped they would all turn back.

But then I heard Riddle speaking to his mount and felt the mild lurch as they boarded. Perseverance led both of his horses. Priss was unhappy and jigged a bit, but he spoke to her and his own mount boarded calmly. “I’m with them,” he said to the ferryman, and he let him pass without paying. I allowed myself one glance back.

Lant was shaking his head. Then he sighed. “I’m coming,” he said, and gave the ferryman his coins. He boarded with his horse, and the ship’s lad cast off the lines.

I watched the water and the far shore. The current pushed and surged against the vessel, but the ferryman and his boys moved us steadily across the river. Fleeter stood steady but Priss was white-eyed, tugging on her reins.

Riddle led his horse to stand beside me.

As the ferry approached the far bank, Riddle spoke to Lant. “Our horses are swifter and we can’t wait for you and the lad,” he said bluntly. “You can follow, or you can go back to Buckkeep. But we can’t wait. Ready, Fitz?”

I was already swinging back up into Fleeter’s saddle. “I’m ready,” I replied.

“Wait!” Perseverance cried out, and I felt disloyal as I shook my head. Lant said something that I didn’t catch but I heard Riddle say to him, “Follow as you can, then,” and we were off, our horses lunging up from ferry to landing, and off we went through the tiny settlement, hooves clattering on icy cobbles. Beyond the little cluster of houses, a cart track diverged from the main road. Fleeter did not wait for me to guide her. She diverted, stretching into first a lope and then a gallop. The roan had been waiting for this all afternoon, and having the nose of Riddle’s horse at my stirrup only urged her on. The packed snow of the wagon tracks gave both horses good purchase and my cheeks began to burn from the wind.

Go! I said to Fleeter and felt her joyous assent. She surged forward, and the world swept past us.

In a short time, I heard the beat of hooves behind us. I glanced back to see Perseverance urging his horse on and actually gaining on us. Lant came behind, one hand on the reins and one clutching his shoulder, his face grim. Nothing I could do about that, I decided, and we rode on.

My body settled into the rhythm of Fleeter’s motion and we moved as one creature. She was a magnificent mount, and I could not prevent my admiration seeping through to her. We go well together, we two, she said, and I could not deny it. I felt her take joy in our headlong run, stretching her stride and pulling ahead of Riddle and his mount. My mind leapt many years, to another cross-country gallop. I’d been little more than a youth and had followed Chade as we tore through forest and over hills to the town of Forge and my first encounter with Forged ones. I reined my thoughts away from that memory and immersed myself in the day, the horse, and the wind on my face.

I let go. We were just running, we two. Nothing more. Think only of how well we moved together. I let her set her pace. We slowed, she breathed, and then she ran again. We startled a fox with a rabbit limp in his jaws. At the bottom of a small incline, she leapt a trickling brook rather than fording it. I am Fleeter! She rejoiced and I with her.

The early winter evening began to shadow the snow with pale blues. We encountered a wagon drawn by a team of heavy black horses and driven by a boy scarcely older than Perseverance. It was loaded with firewood and we gave way to the steaming team. Fleeter broke trail through the deeper snow beside the track, and Riddle and his mount followed in her wake.

I did not have to push her. She knew I wanted speed and her heart was in giving it to me. Lant was soon left far behind us, and then Perseverance. Riddle kept up, somewhat. He was no longer at our side but whenever I glanced back, I saw his face, red and set with cold, his dark eyes determined. Each time I glanced back, he’d give me a stiff nod, and on we would go. Light bled slowly from the day, color seeping away with it. The cold deepened around us and the wind woke. Why, I wondered, did it seem that always I rode into a cold wind, never pushed by it? The skin of my face grew stiff, my lips cracked, and the ends of my fingers grew distant with cold.

But on we went. Fleeter’s pace dropped as we rode up into the hills. The skies were overcast, and I relied more on Fleeter’s vision than my own. We followed the wagon trail as much by feel as by sight. We entered a stretch of forest, and the looming trees made the night much darker. The trail was more uneven here. I began to feel old, cold, and foolish. Had I imagined myself afire with carris seed, galloping away the night to go to Bee’s rescue? I could barely see my hand in front of my face, and the full length of my spine ached with cold. We passed a woodcutter’s clearing. Beyond it, the trail we had been following became a shallow indentation in the snow.

The wind rose as we left the forested slope behind. The cold slapped me but the wind pushed some of the clouds aside. Light from the stars seeped down to show the windswept snow that covered the summer sheep- and goat-pastures. Fleeter slowed as she moved forward through the unbroken snow. She lowered her head and pushed stubbornly on.

I smelled a barn. No, Fleeter smelled a barn or some sort of animal shelter, and shared that sensation with me. It was different from when Nighteyes had conveyed information to me. For the wolf, it had always been about hunting and killing and food. The horse smelled something familiar, something that was possibly shelter and rest. Yes, rest. She was tired. And cold. It was time to be out of this wind, and time to find water. Ahead of us on the white-coated hillside there was a huddle of structures: a stock pen and a slant-roofed, three-sided shelter. Beside it was a snow-covered mound, a haystack. And sharing a wall with the animal pen was the shape of a humble cabin.

I did not have to pull Fleeter in. She halted of her own will and stood, sides heaving softly, taking in the scents. Sheep, old dung. Straw. I dismounted stiffly and walked first to the pen, feeling my muscles moving differently, feeling warmth trying to seep back into my feet. My hips hurt, and my back shouted at me with every step. Had I imagined I could ride all night and be capable of stealth, let alone fighting?

I was an idiot.

I found the gate to the corral, moved the bar, and dragged it open, fighting the snow that blocked it. When it was one horse wide, I led her in. She stabled herself as I burrowed past snow to get an armful of hay. I carried it into the shelter and made three more trips to heap the manger full. She was grateful to be standing out of the wind. I fumbled the sack of grain free of my saddlebag.


I’ll see what I can do.

I left her standing in the shelter as I explored the area. I beat my hands against my thighs as I walked, trying to stir enough warmth into them that I could unsaddle Fleeter. The overcast thinned and pale moonlight opened the night around me. There was a well, with a bucket and windlass. When I lowered the bucket, I heard it break thin ice before it tipped and filled. I brought the bucket up as Riddle arrived. I lifted a hand in silent greeting. He dismounted, led his horse into the shelter, and I followed. I held the bucket while Fleeter drank and then offered it to his mount.

“I’ll get a fire going in the cabin,” he offered.

“I’ll take care of the horses,” I replied.

My stiff fingers struggled with stiffer leather and buckles. The two horses moved close together, sharing the warmth of their bodies. By the time I had both made comfortable for the night, a dim light was showing through the cracks around the door frame of the cabin. I drew another bucket of water and headed for the cabin with my saddle-pack slung over my shoulder. Inside, the cabin was a humble but mostly snug retreat from the night. It had a plank floor; a stone fireplace took up one wall. Riddle had laid a fire and it was beginning to burn well. The furnishings were simple. A table and two stools. A raised platform spanned one end of the cabin and was intended as sleeping space. A shelf held two pots with bales for cooking over the fire. A candle-lantern. Two earthenware cups and two bowls. The shepherds had left a supply of firewood in the lea of the cabin. I went back to the hayrick and raided it ruthlessly to cushion the sleeping platform while Riddle heated water in one of the pots.

Riddle and I were near wordless as we moved around the cabin. We had stepped back into our old relationship and did not want or need much conversation. He made tea with the hot water. I spread the hay on the sleeping platform and then pulled a chair closer to the fire and sat. It seemed a great deal of work to bend down and work my boots off my numbed feet. Slowly, so slowly, the heat of the fire began to warm the cabin and then to penetrate to my chilled flesh. Riddle wiped dust from a mug and filled it with tea. I took it. My face felt stiff and sore. A single day of hard riding and the cold had taken this toll on me. What was my little daughter enduring? Was she still alive? No. Don’t consider that thought. Perseverance had seen her carried off in a sleigh, surrounded by furs and blankets. They valued her and were taking good care of her.

And I would kill them all for doing that. That thought warmed me as the fire and hot tea could not.

I heard the thuds of horses coming at a dogged trot. I rose stiffly but Riddle was at the door of the cabin and swung it open before I could even fully stand. He lifted the candle-lantern and by its faint light I perceived Lant riding into the clearing. Perseverance was already dismounting.

“You look terrible,” Riddle greeted Lant.

Lant said nothing, but as his foot hit the ground he gave a stiff grunt of pain.

“Go inside. Get warm by the fire,” Riddle told him, taking the reins of his horse.

“I can do that, sir,” Perseverance offered, and Riddle handed the reins to him with thanks, then passed him the candle-lantern.

“Want help?” I asked from the doorstep. I was already dreading the idea of putting my boots back on.

“No. Thank you. Sir.” He was curtly furious with me. So, let him be. He led all three horses off to the shelter.

Lant came slowly into the cabin. I stepped back to make way for him. He moved stiffly, his face red and white with cold and pain. He wouldn’t look at me as he came in and took my chair by the fire. Riddle offered him his cup of tea, and Lant took it without a word. “You would have been wiser to turn back,” I told him.

“Probably,” he said shortly. “But Chade’s regard means a great deal to me.”

There was nothing to say to that. When Per came in, stamping the snow from his boots as he entered, Riddle surrendered the other chair to him. The crow came with him. She lifted from his shoulder and landed on the table, fluffed her feathers and then smoothed them, and kept silent. I refilled my mug with tea and when I offered it, Per took it from me, muttering his thanks to the floor.

“Water!” Motley demanded. “Food. Food, food, food!”

Riddle and I had brought food, of sorts. I’d believed I was provisioning only myself. Lant had brought nothing, probably assuming that we’d be stopping at villages or inns along the way. The boy had brought grain for the horses. “My da always said see to your horse first, as he can carry you but you can’t carry him. And not to be too proud to cook up some grain for yourself if you have to. Because if it’s not clean enough for you to eat, you shouldn’t be feeding it to your horse.” This Per announced as he set a small sack of oats on the table after I had put out dried meat and a few withered apples. Burrich would have liked you and your father, I thought.

Riddle shook his head at my meager offering. From his saddlebags, he produced a loaf of dark, sweet bread, a generous chunk of cheese, a nice slab of ham, and a sack of dried plums. It would have been ample for the two of us, and was adequate for all four of us to make a meal. Motley was happy with the scraps. I made a fresh pot of tea, and as Lant and Per sat slackly before the fire, I went out for more wood and built the fire up well for the night.

They were all yawning when I returned. “Have we a plan for the morrow?” Riddle asked me wearily.

“Up early. Ride. Find Bee and Shine. Kill the men who took them. Bring the girls home.”

“That’s a plan?” Lant asked incredulously.

“Based on what I know, that’s the best I can do,” I told him. Riddle nodded agreement and smothered a tremendous yawn. Per was already nodding before the fire. I took the half-full mug of tea from his lax hands. “Go to bed,” I suggested to him. “Remember that tomorrow is another day.” He managed a yawn before he rose and stumbled toward the sleeping platform. He was asleep with his boots on almost as soon as he lay down.

“How’s the wound, Lant?” I asked him.

“Aches,” he muttered. “Everything aches still. I was tired when I began today. Now I’ve got nothing left.”

“Not your fault,” I told him. “You’re still healing. If Chade were himself, he’d have realized that he shouldn’t send you. No reason to be ashamed. You need this rest and you should take it.”

I wondered why I was attempting to comfort him and then put my finger on it. Guilt. He felt guilty for not defending Shine when she was taken, and guiltier now that he could barely participate in a mission to rescue her. And tomorrow, I knew, he would feel even worse. I watched him as he rose from his chair. He staggered two steps sideways and then trudged to the bed. He lay down, wrapped his cloak more closely around himself, and was still.

“Fitz?” Riddle asked thickly.

“I’m sorry,” I lied as he stood. I caught him as he sagged and eased him down onto the floor. Taking him by the shoulders, I dragged him closer to the fire. I snapped his cloak out and spread it over him. He was fighting to keep his eyes open.

“Take care of Lant and the boy,” I told him. “That’s the best way to help me. What I may have to do, I think I’ll do best alone. Don’t feel bad about this. I’ve always been a treacherous bastard. And you know that.”

“Fiiiizs,” he managed, and then his eyes closed. I sighed heavily.

“Oh, Fitz,” the crow said in a voice oddly like the Fool’s. It felt like a rebuke.

“I do what I have to do,” I told her. “I’m not taking you with me, either.”

I put a piece of wood in the fire.

I lay down beside Riddle, my back against his, covered us both with my cloak, and closed my eyes. I did not allow myself to fall asleep. I did not have that luxury. I let myself rest for as long as it took my propped log to burn through in the fireplace.

When I heard it fall, I arose. I sprinkled seed on another piece of bread and went out to the stable. I moved softly, waking Fleeter with my thoughts as much as with my touch.

I didn’t deceive her. “If you eat this, you will have the strength to carry me through the rest of the night and the day tomorrow.”

I thought she would question me. Nighteyes would have questioned me. Instead, without hesitation, she lipped the piece of bread from my hand. Her trust shamed me. I did not think it would do her any harm. Nonetheless, I did not feel comfortable with what I had done. I went back to the cabin to allow the seed to work.

I ate lightly, pressing carris seed into what was left of Riddle’s cheese and toasting it on the now-stale bread. Carris seed was often used on festive cakes for a lift of energy and spirit. I was judicious with it. The effects often ended quite abruptly. I recalled well how Chade had once dropped in his tracks after depending on it too heavily. The bread, melted cheese, and tangy seeds were delicious and I felt the invigorating effects almost immediately. I felt almost lighthearted as I moved around the small cabin. The other three were sleeping heavily and probably would not wake until well past noon. I gave the crow a small cut of the bread and put water in one of the mugs for her. I checked on Perseverance before I left, slightly worried that perhaps he had consumed a heavier dose of my tea than I’d intended for him. But his breathing was strong and he even muttered as I felt the strong pulse at his throat. He’d be fine. I washed out the cup very well and packed the pot with snow, which I heated and added to it all the delvenbark that I carried. Time to disappear from the Skill-current. I hadn’t told Chade that I’d retained a measure for myself. At the time, it had simply seemed a good idea. Now as I drank the bitter brew, I reflected that no one could hide my daughter from me or cloud my mind. I felt it deaden the Skill in me immediately, and felt also both the dampening of spirit and unnatural energy it bestowed. I washed the kettle with snow and put it back on the table. I packed some of the food, built up the fire for them. As I went out the door, I heard the sharp clap of wings and felt a slap of black feathers against my cheek as the crow escaped. She flew to the top of the horse’s shed and kicked down some snow from the ridgepole as she landed. The moon was well risen now, but even so she was just a darker bit of blackness against the sky. I looked up at her.

“Are you sure you want to be out here? They won’t wake up for some time.”

She ignored me, and I decided to do the same to her. She was a crow. She could look after herself. She’d either wait for the others to wake or fly back to Buckkeep Castle. I watered all the horses and put more hay for the other four beasts before I saddled Fleeter.

“Are you ready?” I asked her and felt her cheery response. I wondered if she could sense the energy of the carris seed coursing through me and if it affected her willingness for our mission. I could certainly sense its effect on her.

It’s good to move, she assured me.

“It’s good to be doing something,” I agreed. I took my frustration and helplessness and used them as fuel for my growing anger at Bee’s captors. We had a bit more of a climb and then we’d pass over through the pass called the Maiden’s Waist and down into the valley beyond. There was a village on the other side of the hills and probably a cleared road. I still wasn’t sure that I’d find them before the king’s troops, but it would be close. “I have to be there,” I told Fleeter.

Then we shall, she agreed. I gave her loose reins and we swiftly left the cabin behind us.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Parting Ways

The dream begins with a distant bell tolling. In this dream, I am myself. I am trying to run away from something, but I can only run in a circle. I rush as fast as I can, trying to run away, but always I find I am running directly back to the most dangerous place. When I tumble too close, they reach out and catch me. I do not see who they are. Only that they capture me. There is a staircase of black stone. She puts on a glove, slipping her hand into his anguish. She opens the door to the staircase, and grips me by the wrist as she drags me down. The door slams shut behind us, soundlessly.

We are in a place where the emptiness is actually made of other people. They all begin speaking to me at once, but I plug my ears and close my eyes.

—Dream Journal of Bee Farseer

Everything changed once Ellik had Vindeliar in his control. I was not sure of the reason for this, save that he seemed to take pleasure in the distress it caused the luriks and Dwalia. The night he seized the fog boy and kept him over at his camp, we did not load the sleighs or travel at all. He told us nothing and left us waiting.

Ellik went to greet his soldiers and Vindeliar. He welcomed Vindeliar to his fire and to the meat his men had taken that day. His standing soldiers ringed them so that we could not see what went on. Lingstra Dwalia stood at the edge of our firelight and stared toward them, but did nothing to interfere. Ellik kept his voice low. We heard him speak, and then Vindeliar striving to answer him. At first Ellik sounded affable, then serious, and finally angry. Soon we could hear Vindeliar sobbing, his voice rising high on his words, but I could not make out what he told them. I did not hear anything to make me think they physically struck him. But sometimes the men would erupt into a roar of laughter at something. Dwalia’s fists kneaded her skirts, but she did not speak to any of us. Two of Ellik’s men stood near our fire, watching her. Once, when she took two steps toward them, one drew his blade. He smiled as he did it, inviting her to come closer. She stopped and when she turned back to our campfire, they both laughed.

It was a very long night. When morning came, perhaps she thought they might give Vindeliar back to us. They did not. Half of the soldiers went to their bedrolls, but the others put more wood on their fire and kept watch on the fog man. When it was clear that Ellik had gone to sleep, she turned to us. “Go to bed,” she ordered us angrily. “Tonight we will travel again, and you should be rested.”

But few of us slept. Before the winter sun reached noon, we were awake and moving nervously about our campsite. Ellik arose, and we saw the guard around Vindeliar change, as did the two men watching our campsite. The pale Servants tried not to stare at them. No one wished to invite their scrutiny. With straining ears and sidelong glances, we tried to hear Ellik’s orders for his men. “Hold them here,” I heard Ellik say as he mounted his horse. “When I return, I expect to find all exactly as I left it.” Dwalia’s anxiety soared when Ellik ordered an additional horse saddled for Vindeliar. We watched in dread as Ellik rode away, trailed by four of his men surrounding Vindeliar. They rode toward the town in broad daylight.

I think that was the most frightening day, for Ellik was away and his soldiers were left watching us. And oh, how well they watched us. With sidelong glances and smirks, with pointing fingers that dismissed some of the luriks and hands that sketched the measure of breasts or buttocks of another, they watched us. They did not speak to us, or touch any of us with their hands, which somehow made the strokes of their eyes and their muttered words all the more threatening.

But his men kept Ellik’s discipline. He had ordered them to leave us alone, “for now,” and they did. Still, the dreadful suspense of knowing that at any time he might rescind or change that order hovered over all of us. All that afternoon the luriks went about their tasks with grave faces, eyes darting constantly to see what the soldiers were doing in their adjacent camp. Twice I heard whispered conversations. “This was never seen, never foretold! How can it be?” They scrabbled through remembered writings, citing quotes to one another, trying to interpret them in new ways that would allow them to believe that what was happening had somehow been foreseen or foretold. Dwalia, it seemed to me, broke those conversations as often as she could, ordering Servants off to melt snow for water or bring still more firewood. They obeyed her, going off in twos and threes, for safety and, I think, so they might continue their whispering.

While Dwalia tried to keep our camp bustling, Ellik’s men remained idle and staring, commenting on particular women as if they were horses being auctioned. The males in our party were scarcely less nervous, wondering if Dwalia would order them to defend us. None of them was a hardened fighter. They were all the kind of folk I thought of as scribes: full of knowledge and ideas, but slight as willow saplings and bloodless as fish. They could hunt well enough to keep food on the spit, and Dwalia ordered them off to do so. My blood ran cold when I saw several of the soldiers rise and slouch after them, grinning maliciously and laughing low together.

We waited around our fire, cold in a way that the flames could not warn. Eventually, our hunters came back with two thin winter rabbits and drawn faces. They had not been assaulted, but the soldiers had followed them, speaking about what they might do to them in whispers just loud enough to reach their ears. Thrice they had scared off game just as the hunters let their arrows fly.

I waited as long as I could, but eventually I had to relieve myself. I went to Shun, who was very annoyed but in just as desperate a circumstance. We went together, looking over our shoulders, until we found a slightly more private spot. I still pantomimed pissing standing up before joining her and crouching in the snow. I was getting better at it. I no longer peed on the backs of my boots. We had both finished and were refastening our clothing when a shadow moved. Shun sucked in her breath to scream.

“Don’t,” he said softly, more a plea than a command. He came a step closer and I could make out in the gathering dusk that he was the young soldier who had been making cow eyes at Shun since we had left Withywoods. He spoke quickly, softly. “I just wanted to tell you, I’ll protect you. I’ll die before I let anyone hurt you. Or her.”

“Thank you,” I said as softly, preferring to believe he spoke to me rather than Shun.

I could not read his eyes in the dimness but I saw a smile twitch his mouth. “Nor will I betray your secret,” he said, and then he stepped back into the shadow of the evergreens. We stayed where we were for some time, before we both cautiously approached that grove of trees. No one was there.

“He’s spoken to me before,” Shun admitted. I looked at her wide-eyed. “Several of the soldiers have spoken to me. Just as they whisper vile things to the pale people when they take them food or gather their dishes.” She stared off into the darkness where he might have gone. “He is the only one who has said anything kind.”

“Do you believe him? What he said?”

She looked at me. “That he will protect us? One against so many? He can’t. But knowing that he thinks he might have to protect us from his fellows tells me that he knows something bad is coming.”

“We all knew that,” I said quietly. We walked back to the camp. I wanted to take her hand, to hold on to someone, but I knew she wouldn’t welcome it.

Dusk was falling when Ellik and his men returned. Dwalia gave a wild gasp of relief when she saw that Vindeliar was with them and appeared intact. The saddle-packs on all the horses were bulging, and Ellik’s companions were laughing and shouting to their fellows before they reached the fire. “We’ve plundered a town in daylight, and not a soul the wiser!” one called, and that brought the men around the fires scrambling to see what they had.

From their packs they took bottles of wine and rich foods, hams and loaves of bread studded with currants and swirled with spices, smoked fish and winter apples. “In broad daylight!” I heard one man say, and another, as he swirled a homespun dress in the air, “Took it right off her and she stood like a cow waiting to be milked! Had a feel or two, but no time for anything more! And when we walked away, her husband took her arm and they walked off through the town without a backward glance!”

Dwalia’s jaw dropped open in horror. I thought it was at what the man had said but then I followed her gaze. Vindeliar still sat his horse beside a grinning Ellik. The fog man wore an uncertain half-smile, a necklace of pearls, and a fur hat. A brightly figured scarf swathed his neck, and his hands were gloved in red leather with tassels. As we watched, one of the men who had ridden with him slapped him on the thigh and told him, “This is just the beginning!” Vindeliar’s smile broadened and became more certain.

That broke Dwalia’s resolve, I think. “Vindeliar! Remember the path! Do not stray from what has been seen!” she shouted at him.

Ellik wheeled his horse and rode it right up to her, pushing her back until she stumbled and nearly fell into the fire.

“He’s mine now! Don’t speak to him!”

But the smile had faded from Vindeliar’s plump face and he watched in dismay as Ellik leaned down to backhand Dwalia. She did not move but accepted the blow. Courage, or did she fear worse if she avoided it?

Ellik stared down at her for a moment until she lowered her eyes. Then he rode back to his own fire, announcing, “Tonight we feast! And tomorrow, another test of our fine friend’s abilities!”

Some of the Servants were staring hungrily and longingly at the soldiers’ camp. As Ellik dismounted, his men offered him the best of the loot. For a time, a stricken Vindeliar looked toward our camp like a dog that longs to return to its familiar kennel. Then Ellik’s men surrounded him, handing him an opened bottle of wine and a sweet cake. A moment later he was down and one of his riding companions had thrown a familiar arm across his shoulders and drawn him into the thick of their comradeship. I recalled a dream I had had, of a beggar sucked down and drowned in a whirlpool of jewels and food.

Cold rose in me. None of them had foreseen this. But I had. Only me.

I didn’t understand how that could be and suddenly I knew that I had to understand. There was great danger in me not understanding these dreams. I was the only one who could seize the tiller and steer the boat, but I did not know how.

Hush, Wolf-Father bade me sternly. Say nothing. Not to these people.

I have to know.

You don’t. You don’t have to be that. Take a breath. Breathe now, smell the scents of now. Be alert to the danger that is now. Or you will never have to fear tomorrow’s danger. There was sad finality in his warning, as if he knew too well the meaning of it. I tamped down my questions and opened myself to all that was happening around us.

“At least they did no worse than take her clothing,” Odessa said quietly.

Dwalia, sitting dispiritedly by our fire, guessed the reason for that. “Until they know the limits of Vindeliar’s power, they will not risk putting themselves in a position in which the whole town might suddenly turn on them. But while they are playing childish pranks on merchants, we sit here exposed to any who might decide to wander through this stretch of woods. We can be seen now. Anything might befall us.”

Odessa’s brow wrinkled. “Anything?” she asked, as if the concept puzzled her.

Dwalia looked ill. “Anything. We are so far from the path, I do not know how to recover our way. I do not know if we should act or hope that the path reclaims us. Anything we do may take us farther from our correct choices.”

Odessa nodded almost eagerly. “So we were taught in the school. ‘Trust the way of the White Prophet. Avoid extreme actions. Only the Prophet through her Catalyst may steer the future best.’ But when we are so far from the path, is it still true?”

“So we must believe,” Dwalia replied, but she sounded uncertain to me. Her luriks had ventured closer as she spoke. They huddled around her like a flock of sheep clustering close to their shepherd. A remembrance of a dark dream came to me. I clenched my teeth, feeling I held back vomit rather than sounds as the words of the dream echoed in my head. The sheep are scattered, given to the wind’s teeth while the shepherd flees with the wolf’s cub.

I heard a raised voice from the other campfire. “Why? Why not? For a celebration! For those of us who stayed here and waited while you tested the boy in town.”

“They are mine,” Ellik replied, but his stern words were laced with tolerant amusement. “When they are changed to coins, then be sure you will be given your rightful share. Have I ever cheated you of your rightful due?”

“No, but . . .”

I craned my neck. It was the handsome rapist speaking. By the firelight, his nose and cheeks were red with more than cold. They had been drinking the stolen wine. I caught a glimpse of Vindeliar. He was sitting flat in the snow, a foolish smile on his face.

“It’s all his fault,” Dwalia said in a poisonously bitter voice. I thought she was speaking of Ellik but she was staring sightlessly into the darkened forest. “He did this to us. He could not be content with the role he was given. He was treated well. He had no reason to run off, to choose a Catalyst of his own, to destroy the path with his willfulness. I feel his influence in this. How that can be, I do not know. But I am certain it is so, and I curse his name.”

“So spare us two or even one!” Hogen suggested boldly. “One will not make that big a hole in your purse, Commander!”

I thought that Ellik would be furious at the demand, but perhaps he had been made more mellow by drink and by his enjoyment of his prize that day. “Commander? No. Duke. Duke I will be again, with this boy on my leash. Name me so from now on!”

At that proclamation, some of his men cheered.

Did Hogen judge him mellowed with wine and success? He flourished an elaborate bow to Ellik and said in a mockingly elegant voice, “Duke Ellik, your excellency, we your most loyal subjects beg a boon of you. Will not you spare us one of yon womanflesh for us to enjoy on this cold night?”

The other men erupted in laughter and cheers. Duke Ellik joined in. He slapped the man firmly on the back and spoke loud and clear. “Hogen, I know you well. One will never be enough for you. And by the time all of you have finished with one, there will be nothing left for the market!”

“Then give us two, and she will have half the work!” Hogen proposed boldly, and at least three of the man shouted their approval.

Beside me, I felt Shun stiffen. She set her hand on my shoulder, and her grip was like a claw. She bent to say by my ear, “Come, Bee. You must be weary. Let us go to our rest.” She clutched the shoulder of my coat and almost lifted me to my feet as she pulled at me. Around us, the luriks crouched frozen around the fire, their gazes turned toward the other fireside. Their eyes grew wider in their pale faces.

“Can we not flee?” I heard one whisper. “If we scattered into the forest, some of us might escape!”

“Do nothing,” Dwalia hissed. “Do nothing.”

But Shun paid her words no heed. She had me on my feet and we were moving, stepping quietly back from the circle of firelight. In their terror, the luriks did not seem to notice our departure. Dwalia did. She glanced at us but did nothing, almost as if she wanted us to flee.

I had lost track of the conversation from the other campfire, but the rough burst of laughter I heard was more frightening than merry. Ellik lifted his voice and sounded almost jolly in his tolerance.

“Oh, very well, Hogen. All here know that your brain cannot work when your dick is lonely for a dip. I will give you one. Just one. Chosen especially for you. Come, subjects! Follow your duke.”

I dug in my heels and, with an angry hiss, Shun halted. I stared back. I was terrified but I had to see what was happening. Shun’s grip vised down on my shoulder but she stopped trying to drag me. I think she felt the same paralyzing curiosity. The same dread and horror.

Ellik came toward our fire, a wide, drunken grin on his seamed old face. His hand was on Hogen’s shoulder as if he steered the man, but I think he more leaned on him as he staggered through the snow. The rapist was as handsome as ever; his golden hair gleamed in the firelight, and he smiled with his even white teeth. So handsome and so cruel. Some of the luriks had been perched on their bundles around the fire. They stood as Ellik came on and retreated, but not far. They clustered closer to Dwalia as if she would protect them. I knew she would not.

“Do nothing,” she warned them in a stern voice as Ellik came closer. His men clustered behind him and the handsome rapist, leering like panting dogs. Hogen’s mouth was wide and wet, his left hand gripping his crotch loosely as if to contain himself. His pale eyes wandered over the luriks like a beggar child staring at a display of sweets. The Whites froze like rabbits. Shun made a low sound in her throat. She crouched down and I allowed her to move me some paces sideways to the flimsy shelter of some willow saplings. We both stared.

“Here she is! Here’s the lovely for you, Hogen!”

Ellik stretched forth his hand and let it hover near a slender girl with a face as pale as the moon. She gave a low cry and cowered closer to Dwalia. Dwalia did nothing at all. She stared at Hogen and Ellik with a stony face and made no sound. At the last moment, Ellik’s hand darted sideways and he seized Odessa by the front of her coat, pulling her from the shelter of the others as if he had just selected a piglet for the spit. Her mouth sagged into a cave of woe, her homely, unfinished face contorting as Ellik dragged her forth to the mocking cries of his men and Hogen’s cry of disappointment. “She’s ugly as a dog’s butt. I don’t want her!”

All the men behind him roared with laughter at his protest. Ellik laughed until his face was bright red and then wheezed out, “Your cock has no eyes! She’ll do for you. She wouldn’t bring anything at the market anyway!”

Odessa had half-fainted, sagging to her knees, held up only by the wiry old man’s grip on the neck of her shirt. Ellik was stronger than he looked. He gave a sudden heave, pulling her to her feet and swinging her into Hogen so that he had to catch her in his arms or fall himself. “Take her, you hound!” All humor suddenly fell from the commander’s face. His expression was savage as he said, “And remember this night well when I deduct her value from your share of our take. Don’t think you can whine and bargain with me, boy. I set the bargains. And this ugly rag of skirts is what you get from me tonight.”

Hogen stared at his commander over Odessa’s bowed head. She had come to her senses enough to struggle feebly, her hands paddling at Hogen’s shirtfront. Hogen’s face had gone dark with fury but as he met Ellik’s gaze, his eyes dropped. “Stupid bitch,” he said disdainfully, and I thought he would cast Odessa back into the other luriks. But instead he shifted his grip on her, catching her one-handed under the throat and dragging her off with him. The other soldiers, gone silent for a short time at their commander’s rebuke, followed him with sudden shouts and offers of wagers and demands to be next upon her.

Dwalia did nothing. Her followers huddled behind her like sheep. I wondered if each was secretly glad the wolves had dragged off Odessa and not herself.

Not wolves. Wolves feed when they are hungry. They do not rape.

I’m sorry. I could tell I had offended Wolf-Father.

“Come.” Shun dragged me behind a snow-laden bush. “They won’t stop with her. We have to escape now.”

“But we’ve nothing with us . . .”

From the other campfire, we heard short bursts of screams. The men mocked Odessa, whooping along with her. Shun’s grip on my shoulder began to shake. “We have our lives,” she whispered angrily. “That’s what we flee with.” I could tell she could scarcely get breath into her lungs. She was terrified. And trying to save me.

I could not take my eyes off the huddled luriks. Dwalia was a standing silhouette against the firelight. Abruptly she moved. “Ellik!” She shouted his name angrily into the night. “We had an agreement! You gave us your word! You cannot do this!” Then, as I saw the two men he had left watching the luriks move toward her, she shouted at them, “Do not block my way!”

“That’s . . . stupid.” Shun’s voice shook out of her body. “We have to run. We have to get away. They’ll kill her. And then there is nothing between them and us.”

“Yes,” I said. I listened to Wolf-Father. “We must leave no fresh tracks. Move where the snow is trampled already. Get as far from the camp as we can while they are busy. Find a tree-well, a place under an evergreen where the branches are heavy with snow and bent down, but the ground around the trunk is almost clear. Hide there, close together.”

I’d reached up to take her by the wrist. She let go of my collar and abruptly I was the one who was leading her, away from Dwalia and her paralyzed luriks, away from the campfires and into the dark. Odessa’s screams had stopped. I refused to wonder why. We moved furtively, until we were at the edge of our campsite. Shun was not speaking. She simply followed me. I took her to the trail the horses and sleighs had made through the snow when we first arrived. We were moving steadily, both of us breathing raggedly with fear, backtracking the trail of the sleighs and horses. The forest was black, the snow was white. I saw a game trail crossing our path. We turned and followed it, leaving the runner tracks behind us. Now we moved as deer did, ducking our heads to go under low-hanging, snow-laden boughs. “Don’t touch the branches. Don’t make any snow fall,” I warned. On a rise to our left, I saw a cluster of evergreens. “This way,” I whispered. I went first, breaking trail through the deep snow. I was leaving tracks. We couldn’t help that.

The snow will be shallower in the deeper forest. Go, cub. Do not hide until you are too weary to run any farther.

I nodded and tried to move faster. The snow seemed to clutch at my boots and Shun made too much noise. They would hear us running away. They would catch us.

Then we heard Dwalia scream. It was not shrill, it was hoarse. And terrified. She screamed again and then shouted, “Vindeliar! Come back to us! Vinde—” And her voice was cut off, as swiftly as one quenches a torch.

I heard frightened voices, a chorus of them, some shrill. Questioning, like a flock of chickens woken in the dark of night. The luriks.

“Run now. We must run now!”

“What are they doing to her?”

“Vindeliar! He must help us.”

Behind us in the night, I heard Dwalia’s voice rise in a desperate choked cry. “This must not happen! This must not happen! Make it stop, Vindeliar! It is your only chance to return to the rightful path. Forget what Ellik told you! It wasn’t true! Forget Ellik!” Then, in a desperately hoarse voice, “Vindeliar, save me! Make them stop!”

Then a different kind of scream cut the night. It wasn’t a sound. It hurt me to feel it; it made me sick. Fear flowed through the air and drenched me. I was so terrified I could not move. Shun froze. I tried to speak, to tell her we had to get farther away, but I could not make my voice work. My legs would not hold me up. I sagged down in the snow with Shun falling on top of me. In the wake of that wave, a deadly silence filled the forest. No night bird spoke, no living thing gave voice. It was so still I could hear the crackling of the fires.

Then a single shrill, clear cry. “Run! Flee!”

And then the hoarse shouting of men. “Catch them! Don’t let them steal the horses!”

“Kill him! Kill them all! Traitors!”

“Stop them. Don’t let them get to the village!”

“Bastards! Traitorous bastards!”

And then the night was full of sound. Screams, cries. Men roaring and shouting. Orders barked. Screeched pleas.

Shun was the one to rise and drag me to my feet. “Run,” she whimpered, and I tried. My legs were jelly. They would not take my weight.

Shun dragged me through the snow. I staggered to my feet.

We fled from the rising screams into darkness.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Red Snow

I but recount the rumors and gossip as they come to me. The tales I am hearing seem too wild to be true, but as you have ordered me, I do. This is what news reached me. The Duke of Chalced is no more. A horde of dragons bearing armored riders came out of the wilderness and attacked the city of Chalced. They spat fire or something just as destructive. They ringed the city with circles of destruction. Finally they targeted the palace of the duke himself, destroying it with their spew and the battering of their wings and the lashing of their tails. It is said that his towering stronghold crumpled to a quarter of its height and is no longer inhabitable.

The elderly and ailing duke, it is said, came out of his palace to stand before his troops. A tower fell, crushing him and much of his soldiery. Chancellor Ellik, long the duke’s most trusted advisor and a sword companion from the time of their youth, survived. The Chalcedean forces were reduced to a retreat that became a rout.

By the next morning, the daughter of the Duke of Chalced had emerged as allied with the dragons and their tenders and now claims to be “rightfully” the Duchess of Chalced. Ellik has proclaimed that he was the duke’s chosen successor and accused the so-called duchess of witchcraft. One Redhands Roctor, formerly a minor nobleman in the west of Chalced near Heastgate, has challenged both of them. His military forces were untouched in the attack and in my opinion are most likely to prevail. Chalcedeans are unlikely to accept the rule of a woman, even one with the goodwill of dragons. Duke Ellik’s forces were greatly diminished in the dragon rout of Chalced city. It would take divine intervention for him to return to power and influence, especially since he failed to protect the city. The “Duchess” of Chalced has offered a reward for his severed head, and the people of the city of Chalced call him a coward who abandoned them to the dragons.

—Unsigned report to Lord Chade Fallstar

Fleeter and I made good time. The moon silvered the snow and I had the stars to keep my bearings. The cart trail soon joined a wider way as we neared the Maiden’s Waist, though the wide passage through the rolling hills scarce merited the title pass. Fleeter was glad to be on trodden snow again. The roan employed her long-legged stride as we climbed the last stretch, and then we loped through an evergreen forest, and down a narrow trail that wound through bare-limbed oaks and alders. The slow winter dawn gradually came to light our way. Fleeter dropped our pace to a walk and breathed. The trail widened and I passed several small homesteads. Smoke rose from their chimneys, and candlelight told of farmers waking early. I saw no one outside.

Dawn grew stronger and I pushed Fleeter to a canter. The trail became a road as the morning passed. I rode through a small village without pause and on, past smallholdings and grain fields that dreamed of furrows beneath gently mounded snow. We trotted, we cantered, we trotted. Then more forest. Over a bridge we went, and now passed occasional travelers: a tinker with his painted wagon full of knives and scissors, a farmer and her sons riding mules and leading pack animals laden with earthy-smelling sacks of potatoes, and a young woman who scowled at me when I bid her “Good afternoon.”

Dark thoughts of what Bee was enduring, how Dutiful would react to my disobedience, how angry Riddle would be, and Nettle on his behalf, besieged me. I tried to push them down. Elfbark brought sad memories to the front of my mind and rebuked me for stupidity and failures of all sorts. And in the next moment, the carris seed would make me believe I was invulnerable, and I would fantasize about killing all twenty Chalcedeans and sing aloud to Fleeter as we traveled on.

Calm down. Caution. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, almost hear it in my ears.

More forest. Trot, canter, trot. I stopped at a stream to let her water. How tired are you?

Not at all.

I have need of speed. You will let me know if you tire?

I am Fleeter. I do not tire before my rider does.

You will. And you must let me know.

She snorted, and as soon as I was back in the saddle she pranced a few steps. I laughed and gave her a free head. For a short way she galloped, and then she dropped back into her easy, rocking canter.

I entered a town of more substance, with an inn and a hostelry and three taverns. Folk were up and about now. On the outskirts I passed a rare shrine to Eda. The goddess slumbered under a mantle of white snow, her hands open on her lap. Someone had brushed her hands clean and filled them with millet. Small birds perched on her fingers and thumbs. And on we went, and the road became one of the king’s highways. I did not pause as I reviewed my mental map. This road went directly to Salter’s Deep. It was wide and open and direct, the shortest route.

If I were fleeing the Six Duchies with captives and a troop of Chalcedean mercenaries, it was the last route I would take. The Fool’s words came back to me. He had insisted I would not be able to find them, that the only way to regain my daughter was to go directly to where they must be taking her. I took another pinch of the carris seed, crushed it between my teeth, and rode on. It was sweet in my mouth, a tangy, heady taste, and in a moment I felt the surge of both energy and clarity it always gave.

The likeliest unlikeliest, the likeliest unlikeliest drummed in my head, the words keeping rhythm with Fleeter’s hooves. I could continue on this highway all the way to Salter’s Deep. If I saw nothing along the way, then I could join the Ringhill Guard and wait near the captured ship. Or once there I could work my way back along a less used route and hope to be lucky. Or investigate some of the back roads. I rode on. I passed one diverging road. The next one, I decided. I’d take the next one and follow it.

I heard a sudden caw overhead. I looked up and saw a crow, wings spread, sliding down the sky toward me. Suddenly it was Motley and I braced myself for her to land. Instead she swept past me in a wide circle. “Red snow!” she called suddenly and clearly to me. “Red snow!”

I watched her as she circled again and then veered away. I pulled Fleeter in. What did she mean? Did she want me to follow her? There was no road, only an open field and beyond it a sparse wood of birch and a few evergreens that soon thickened into true forest. I watched her as she glided away, then tilted her wings and beat them hard to come back to me. I stood in my stirrups. “Motley!” I called and offered her my forearm. Instead, she swept past me so low that Fleeter shied from her passage.

“Stupid!” the crow shouted at me. “Stupid Fitz! Red snow. Red snow!”

I reined Fleeter away from the road. We follow her, I told the horse.

I don’t like her.

We follow her, I insisted, and Fleeter conceded her will to mine. It was not pleasant for her. We left the packed and level road, pushed through a prickly hedgerow, and entered the farmer’s field. The snow here was untrodden, and the frozen ground uneven beneath the windblown snow. Our pace inevitably slowed just as I wished that we could gallop. But a lame horse would be even slower. I tried to contain my impatience.

The crow flew away from me, into the shelter of the trees. We moved steadily toward where she had vanished. A short time later she looped back to us, then circled away again. This time she seemed content that we were following her and called no insults.

And there we intersected a trail: not a road, merely an open space that left the field and wound into the scant forest. Perhaps a woodcutter had made it. It could be a cattle-track that led to water. I looked back along it. Had it been used recently? It was hard to say. Were there deeper hollows under the blown and polished snow? We turned and followed it.

When we reached the outskirts of the birch forest, I saw what I could not have seen from the road. The white horse had seemed but another mound of snow in the distance. I did not see the fallen rider until I was almost beside the fur-clad body. And only the crow, looking down from above, could have seen the trail of melted red-and-pink snow that led back into the forest.

The horse was clearly dead, its eyes open and frost outlining the whiskers on its muzzle and coating its out-thrust tongue. Droplets of blood had frozen around its mouth. An arrow stood out of its chest, just behind its foreleg. A good lung shot but not one that had penetrated both lungs. I knew that if I cut the animal open, I would find its body cavity full of blood. There was no saddle on the horse, only a halter. The rider had fled in haste, perhaps. I pulled in Fleeter despite her distaste for the scene and dismounted. The body that lay beyond the horse was too large to be Bee, I told myself as I floundered through the snow toward it. The hair that showed beneath the white fur cap was the right color, but it could not be Bee, it could not, and when I reached her and turned her over, it was not. The pale youngster I revealed was as dead as her horse. The front of her furs was scarlet. Probably an arrow, one that had gone right through her. And she was a White or at least a part-White. She had lived for a short time after she’d fallen facedown in the snow. Frost had formed heavily around her mouth from her last breaths, and her cloudy blue eyes looked at me through ice. I let her fall back into the snow.

I could not get my breath for the shuddering of my heart. “Bee. Where are you?” My words were not even a whisper for I had no air to push them. I wanted to run back down the blood-trail shouting her name. I wanted to mount Fleeter and gallop there as swiftly as possible. I wanted to use my Skill to scream to the sky that I needed help, that I needed everyone in the Six Duchies to come and help me save my child, but I forced myself to stand, sweating and trembling, and do nothing until that fit of reckless urgency had passed. Then I went to my horse.

But as I lifted my foot for the stirrup, Fleeter sank to her front knees. Tired. So tired. She shuddered down, her hind legs folding under her. So tired.

Fleeter! Dismay choked me. I should never have trusted her to know when she was wearied. Carris seed filled one with energy, until it left the user exhausted. Don’t lie down in the snow. Up. Up, my girl. Come on. Come on.

She rolled her eyes at me and for a moment I feared she would drop her head. Then with a shudder and a heave, she stood. I led her slowly from the trail to a stand of evergreens. Under them, the snow was shallower. Stay here and rest. I will be back.

You are leaving me here?

I must. But only for a time. I’ll be back for you.

I don’t understand.

Just rest. I’ll be back. Stay here. Please. Then I closed my mind to her. I’d never ridden a horse to exhaustion. The shame I felt was overwhelming. And useless. I was doing what I had to do. I took from my saddle-packs items that I thought I might need. I shut my heart to Bee. I did not recall Molly or wonder what she would have said, thought, or done. I put the Fool and all his warnings and advice from my mind, and set aside the man that Burrich had hoped I would become. I cut Holder Badgerlock from my heart and banished Prince FitzChivalry to the shadows where he had lived for so many years. I squared my shoulders and closed my heart.

There was another person in the depths of me. Chade’s boy. I took a breath and summoned those memories. I recalled in full that which Chad