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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.


TITLE: ON THE CONSTRUCTION AND USE OF PORTAL-STONES

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 horses 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 kings highway and go cross-country to Salters Deep. Id 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 hunters 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 hadnt 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 cant 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. Bees 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.

Lants 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 tomorrows long ride.

Im 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 Id 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 Id 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, Id 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.

Perseverance?

Sir. He had not changed his horses 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 Id 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. Its 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.

Thats the most convoluted logic I have ever heard. It wasnt. 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.

FitzChivalry, 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.

Its a crow! Lant exclaimed as if perhaps we had not noticed. Breathlessly he asked, Is she your Wit-beast?

No. Shes 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.

Arent 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 shed found a more permanent home than the Fool or I could offer her.

Would you like the care of her? Shes got a few white feathers and because of them the other crows mob her. Youll have to ink them black for her if they start to fade.

Truly? Per looked as if Id conferred an honor on him. The poor thing! Whats 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. Arent you fine? Would you ride on my shoulder, do you think?

The birds 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 doesnt need a new handle, does it?

No. It doesnt. And I dont know what were riding into, or what condition Bee is in. Which is why I dont 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, Id like to know as well. Did you receive more tidings since we last spoke? Ive only Lord Chades directive that I follow you.

I spoke more to the boy than to him. Weve 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 kings 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. Were actually riding ahead of your guard, arent we? Are you hoping to get to the soldiers and Bee before the kings 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 Ive 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 FitzChivalrys axe. Im sure he has a better intention than that.

But I didnt.

Lying was suddenly too much effort and rather pointless. I dont have a plan, really. When and if I locate them, Ill 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 Ive ridden ahead to scout. That would actually be a very useful thing for you to do, if youd 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 Id leave the road and cut across country. I could see the trail Id follow. I watched a farmers 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 didnt bring them. Theyve 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 gentlemans accessory that graced Lants hip. Riddle was dressed for serious fighting. Nettle sent you? I guessed.

He dropped his head guiltily. No. She doesnt know Ive gone. I told her I wanted to ride with you tomorrow and she agreed to that. Reluctantly. When I couldnt find you and the roan was gone from the stables, I knew. And here I am. His expression changed abruptly. Thank El! Im so tired of sitting and waiting and worrying.

Any fears that hed 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.

Dont 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 Nettles anger was going to be a very real storm wed 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. Id 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 Id 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, theres 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 Salters 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 were riding into direct conflict, then four of us are not enough to do battle with a mercenary troop. Its 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 cant 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 didnt 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. Im 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. Im coming, he said, and gave the ferryman his coins. He boarded with his horse, and the ships 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 cant wait for you and the lad, he said bluntly. You can follow, or you can go back to Buckkeep. But we cant wait. Ready, Fitz?

I was already swinging back up into Fleeters saddle. Im ready, I replied.

Wait! Perseverance cried out, and I felt disloyal as I shook my head. Lant said something that I didnt 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 Riddles 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 Fleeters 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. Id 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, hed 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. Fleeters pace dropped as we rode up into the hills. The skies were overcast, and I relied more on Fleeters 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 Bees 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 woodcutters 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.

Water?

Ill 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.

Ill get a fire going in the cabin, he offered.

Ill 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. Dont 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 wouldnt 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 Chades 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. Id believed I was provisioning only myself. Lant had brought nothing, probably assuming that wed 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 cant carry him. And not to be too proud to cook up some grain for yourself if you have to. Because if its not clean enough for you to eat, you shouldnt 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.

Thats a plan? Lant asked incredulously.

Based on what I know, thats 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.

Hows the wound, Lant? I asked him.

Aches, he muttered. Everything aches still. I was tired when I began today. Now Ive got nothing left.

Not your fault, I told him. Youre still healing. If Chade were himself, hed have realized that he shouldnt 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.

Im 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. Thats the best way to help me. What I may have to do, I think Ill do best alone. Dont feel bad about this. Ive 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 Fools. It felt like a rebuke.

I do what I have to do, I told her. Im 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 didnt 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 Riddles 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 Id intended for him. But his breathing was strong and he even muttered as I felt the strong pulse at his throat. Hed 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 hadnt told Chade that Id 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 horses 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 wont 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. Shed 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.

Its good to move, she assured me.

Its good to be doing something, I agreed. I took my frustration and helplessness and used them as fuel for my growing anger at Bees captors. We had a bit more of a climb and then wed pass over through the pass called the Maidens 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 wasnt sure that Id find them before the kings 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-Two Confrontations | Fool's Quest | Chapter Twenty-Four Parting Ways