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Chapter Fifteen

Surprises

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 Thicks remembering song. The tea was working and we needed results more than we needed to experiment with the Skill. We took the safe road. Nettles courier from Buckkeep arrived with the supply of the Outislander elfbark known as delvenbark from Chades 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 Chades 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. Im 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 Vigilants. 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 someones death; I did not even know whose.

My people and my home, I would have said at one time. Id been proud of how Id taken care of the folk here, paid them well, and treated them well. Now that illusion was as broken as a smashed egg. Id 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 Mollys grave. As a holder and as a father, I had failed miserably. Id 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. Hed served under Tallerman, and I valued Perseverances 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.

Well 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. Well let them go to smoke and ash together, and this time as they burn, well remember well who they were.

I thanked him. My hair had not grown much in the months since Id sheared it for Mollys death; I could not even band it into a warriors 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 hed 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. Hed 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 Craftys 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 Nettles agony at the uncertainty of Bees fate, and Dutifuls 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 Riddles. 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 mothers cottage. But Im 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. Dutifuls 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 Chades 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. Im sorry. Dutifuls apology betrayed what he expected. The Fool was dying.

Id 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 Regals 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.

Isnt it strange how wise counsel can cool the hottest head? He made sense but my heart screamed protest. I nodded slowly.

Im off to bed, Chade said. He tilted his head and looked at his son. Lant? You mustnt 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 Bees 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, Bees 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 Nettles 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 Bulens 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 taskand 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 Derricks 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 Bees gray. His arm was bound across his chest, but he sat his horse firmly. We dont need Bees horse, I told him.

I should bring her, sir. Bee will want to ride her home.

I gave the boy a look. You arent coming with me, lad. Youre 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 cant 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.

Id been staring at him as I mused. Im glad of you. Thats all. In this hard time, Im glad of you. That well 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 youll ask it anyway?

The boy Ash. Your apprentice. Is he yours, too?

My son, you mean? No. Ive only the two, Lant and Shine. In a lowered voice, he added, I hope I still have two.

Hes a fine apprentice.

I know. Hell stay with me, that one. Hes got the edge. He glanced at me. Your boy. That Perseverance. Hes 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 werent 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 didnt 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 Im coming after you? How could she? Why would she think Id bother coming for her when Id abandoned her before? I fenced the question with stone. Focus on finding her and bringing her home. Dont 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, its 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 youve 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 youve 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 Nettles journeyman when they had arrived the day before. We followed them.

Whats 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 Chades. I felt the flash of Chades 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 captains 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 lieutenants 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.

Chade.

I wheeled the roan tightly and was in time to see Chade and the redhead exchange sword-thrusts. The tip of Reds sword skittered across Chades belly before slicing into his side. Chades thrust was surer. He gave a low cry and bared his teeth as his blade sank into the youngsters 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 Bees 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. Ive 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 opponents mouth. There was a satisfying crunch of teeth.

Kicking. The roans 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. Id 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 heartbeats 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. Shed 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 Chades other opponent was draped forward on his mount with his blood running freely down his horses 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 hed 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 hed 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 didnt. I heard a muffled shout and knew Chades 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. Id 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 couldnt 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 Id 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 Id 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 mans throat. The lieutenant was wasting time clawing at Chades 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 captains aid.

He was dying and he knew it. I didnt 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. Ill 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 wont 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. Hed 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 mans 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 wasnt going to stand, run, or fight. Chade was pale and breathing hard as he settled back on his haunches. I didnt 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 mans 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 didnt wait for him to speak. He set his knife to the hollow of the mans throat.

Who paid you? How much? What was your mission? Chade spoke the words as if he were counting aloud.

Crafty didnt 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?

Dont know his name! He wouldnt 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, Id 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 couldnt 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 Chades 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. Its not connected, Chade. Whoever bribed them had no way of knowing youd be here: Hed 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? Its 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 cant 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 dont 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, youd be a dead man, and him, too.

Tell me about his teeth.

Im not saying nothing more until you take me to a healer. Im getting cold, so cold. What did you do to my legs?

Chade set the tip of his knife to the mans nostril. Talk to me, or I cut your nose, he said coldly. He inserted the blade up the mans nostril until he felt the edge of it.

Craftys 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 shed 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 mans genitalsor better. Not only is there pain, but disfiguring a mans 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 hed ever done before, and snorted wildly, spraying blood.

I was fairly certain this was all about Shun, and Chades 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, were 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 mans throat. Craftys eyes flew wide open in the sudden knowledge that he was dead. His mouth worked but the sounds were not words. Cutting a mans throat isnt an instant death for him, but its 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 wasnt 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. Ill sit you down and catch a horse. Theres 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. Hes 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 Bees 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. Ill 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.

Master?

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.

No.

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 horses 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 Im conscious.

Too dangerous, I objected, but he lifted the bloody hand that had been clutching his side. I couldnt 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 Fourteen Elfbark | Fool's Quest | Chapter Sixteen The Journey