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.
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.
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.”