The Black Prophet has likely been at the root of our near failures. Without his alliance, it is doubtful that Beloved would have enjoyed any success with his rebellion. Prilkop vanished from our records generations ago and we are beyond any doubt that his disappearance was deliberate. Since he was discovered as a natural-born rather than bred at Clerres, his time at our school was too short to be certain of his loyalty.
Perhaps the most astonishing part of this disaster has been that both Prilkop and Beloved returned to Clerres of their own volition. And initially both he and Beloved were inclined to share a complete and true report of all their activities. But something in our questions caused both of them to soon become recalcitrant. When gentler means failed and we could not lull them into contentment with their situation, we were forced to move into more energetic methods of questioning them. All know that knowledge gained by such means is often untrustworthy. We have recorded separately information garnered from questioning both Beloved and Prilkop, and recorded as reliable only that which corresponds.
Our knowledge of the traveling stones, of those who made them and how they were constructed, and even what locations the runes signify is fragmented but fascinating.
That long, cold day faded slowly.
The lone surviving Chalcedean died quickly. I tried to ask him about Bee, but he only shook his head and groaned. Any information the others knew had been lost with their lives.
I stood, shaking my head. The commander of the Ringhill Guard, one Spurman, was already giving his men orders to gather the bodies. Foxglove rode over to me. Her face was full of hope as she dismounted. “No,” I said softly to her unspoken question. “She was here and so was Shine. But the Chalcedeans and the captives fought a day or more ago. Bee and Shine fled when the Chalcedeans turned on one another. They are at least a day gone, perhaps two. Where they are now, no one seems to know.”
“I’ll organize a search,” she replied calmly. “They can’t have gone far. Fitz, we’ll find them.”
“So we all hope.” I lifted my voice as I turned to my guard. “Captain Foxglove will be conducting a search for escaped Chalcedeans. Watch for any of their captives or any stragglers.” I turned a firm gaze on my Rousters, where they had assembled in a rough formation separate from my guard. “Alive,” I cautioned them. “Any pale rider in white furs, any captive of theirs, or any Chalcedean mercenary you find, take them alive.”
Foxglove was shaking her head. “Not likely. We’ve seen two bodies in white furs. Both looked as if they’d cut their own throats. Probably rather than be taken by the Chalcedeans. We ambushed some Chalcedeans on their way to the ship. And chased what remained of them back here.”
“Do what you can, then,” I said quietly.
I left Foxglove to organize the search while I returned to the tent where Bee and Shine had slept. A more leisurely inspection of it turned up nothing that I connected to either of them. A very pale Lant had followed me there. He stared at the corner where they’d slept.
“How do you know they were here?” he asked me as Riddle came into the tent.
I picked up a blanket and tossed it to him. “Shine’s perfume lingers on some of the bedding. It’s not strong, but it’s there.”
He nodded slowly, and held the blanket to his breast. Slowly he turned and left the tent, still clutching it. “He shouldn’t be here,” Riddle said to me in a low voice.
“On that, we agree.”
“I mean that he’s injured. And heartsick. Not that he’s incompetent.”
I kept silent.
“You’re too hard on him, Fitz. He can’t help who he is, or what he isn’t. I, for one, am glad for what he isn’t. And I was very glad of his sword a short time ago. Nettle was nearly a widow before she was a mother.”
“I don’t dislike him,” I said, and wondered if that were true. “He’s just not the sort of man I need backing me right now.”
“Nor am I, then, I suppose.”
I stared at him. He turned and left the tent. I followed. In the thin winter sunlight, he stretched and then turned to look back at me. “You drugged us and left us. Like discarded baggage. I understand the other two. Per is just a boy yet, and Lant is injured. But why me?”
“I couldn’t get them to drink it without your sharing it, too.”
He looked away from me. “No, Fitz. I can think of a dozen ways around that, from joggling my arm when I started to drink to telling me what you were doing.”
It was hard to admit the truth. “I didn’t want any of you to witness what I might have to do. I didn’t want you to see me as . . . what I truly am. What I had to be today.” I glanced toward where Hogen’s body had been. Foxglove was there, ordering it dragged away by the Ringhill Guard to join the other bodies piled for burning. I wondered if anyone would notice how I’d mutilated him.
“I think I know who you are.”
I met his gaze and gave him honesty. “Probably you do. I’m still not proud to have you see it. Let alone watch me do it.” I looked away from him. “I’d rather that my daughter’s husband, the father of my grandchild, not be a party to things like this.”
He looked at me.
I tried to explain. “Once you are a father, you have to try to be a better man than you truly are.”
He stared. Then he laughed. “Me especially?”
“No. No, not you. I meant myself. That I tried.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “The carris seed is catching up with you, Fitz. But I do know what you mean.”
“How did you know?”
“Your breath reeks of it.”
“I needed it,” I excused myself.
“So. Share with me now. And let’s get started on our own search. If you were Bee and Shine and able to flee, where would you go?”
“I’d probably backtrack to that town, assuming they passed through it.” I passed him the folded paper that had held the carris seed. He shook the few remaining seeds into his palm then clapped them to his mouth. He chewed.
“Me, too,” he agreed. “Let’s send Lant, the boy, and your roan horse on to Ringhill Keep. Have Lant give a report to the Skill-user there to relay to Nettle and Dutiful while you and I begin our search.”
It was past dark when Riddle and I rode through the gates of Ringhill Keep. Our searches had yielded nothing, nor had Foxglove’s soldiers discovered anything. Four times Riddle and I had followed tracks. We’d found one wandering horse that had probably just bolted and a Chalcedean body, and twice the tracks had merged with well-traveled roads. We’d asked in the village, and visited four different isolated farmsteads. No one had seen anything or anyone. By the time we returned to the campsite for a final visit, the area had been so overridden that there were no longer any tracks worth following. The smoldering remains of the bone-fire gave off a greasy smell. Night was coming on, and I was finished.
As its name suggested, the Ringhill Keep fortification ringed one of the hills that overlooked the coast of Buck. From its vantage, one could watch ships approach Forge, Salter’s Deep, and the smaller fishing villages that fringed that part of the coast. It was not a grand keep, but like many settlements in Buck it was growing. We allowed the stable boys to take our horses. I had used Perseverance’s mount. The lad had ridden Priss and gentled Fleeter here. I thought of checking on her but as I knew it must, the carris seed had deserted me. I was weary past exhaustion, and the dark mood of elfbark had claimed me.
I did my best to be civil as the commander of the keep greeted me. Commander Spurman invited Kesir Riddle and me to join him for a late repast. They put us in the best lodging the keep had, and urged us to take advantage of the steams. I had no heart for cleanliness, but forced myself through the ritual. We shared the steams with a dozen or more guardsmen, still drunk on blood and battle. My efforts to remain unnoticed were useless, and I had to accept congratulations from them.
When we entered the dining hall, I found not only Spurman but also a handful of his officers, Foxglove, Lant, and several others convened. I had expected a small and simple meal, but Spurman had ordered up the best his keep could offer. For a moment, I was baffled. Then I recalled that I was a prince. Carris seed. My head felt full of wool. Time to tighten my thoughts and be very careful.
I do not know how I survived that meal. I decided it was better to be seen as taciturn than as a man who made unrelated comments. When the meal was over, I hoped to retreat to my bed, but killing Chalcedeans within Buck was an activity that seemed to require a thorough discussion. Over and over Spurman and his officers marveled at the Chalcedeans’ audacity and wondered who their peculiar allies had been and what they had hoped to achieve. Riddle, Lant, and Foxglove all expressed puzzlement, and I maintained my noble silence. When the talk ran down, the keep’s Skill-user found a moment to draw Riddle and me aside. “A private word before you retire, gentlemen, if you are not too weary?”
I was so tired my ears were humming, but as we bade everyone good night and left the gathering, she managed to catch up with us. Out of earshot of the others, she still looked embarrassed as she told us, “I am to inform you, in the strongest possible terms, that you are to return to Buckkeep Castle as soon as you are able.”
Riddle and I exchanged a glance. “Was the message from Skillmistress Nettle or King Dutiful?”
“Yes. She relayed the king’s will in this.”
I thanked the Skill-user, and both Riddle and I moved slowly toward our rooms. At a bend in the corridor, I asked him, “How angry is Nettle, do you think?”
“Very,” he said shortly. And in that terse response, I sensed that he wished to keep that aspect of our fiasco private. For a time I was silent. Nettle was pregnant and should have had a time of peace and happiness as she waited for her child. I had driven a wedge between her and Riddle. I tried to tell myself that it was outside my control, that her sister being stolen had destroyed peace and happiness for all of us. Yet I could not quite convince myself.
I walked more slowly. “Before we go back to Buck, I want to see the ship they came on.”
He shook his head. “It’s not tied up in Salter’s Deep anymore. It was confiscated days ago. Spurman told me that they removed the ship as part of the ambush. The crew claimed to know nothing except that they’d been hired and paid very well to simply stay aboard and wait for their passengers to come back. They came out of the Pirate Isles, and were hired new to the ship and one another. Most of them seemed glad to walk away from it.”
“No chart on board with Clerres marked on it?” I was half-jesting, but Riddle took me seriously.
“Nothing. Literally nothing. No extra clothing left aboard, not a trinket or a shoestring. Only the crew and their bits of possessions. Nothing to indicate there had even been passengers.”
Despair gaped like a dry well in front of me. I could not indulge in that. I could not curse nor weep. Such things prevent a man from thinking, and I needed to think clearly. I reached the door of my room and opened it. Riddle followed me in.
“So. We return to Buckkeep Castle tomorrow,” he told me.
“So I planned.”
“We are ordered back, Fitz. That’s a bit different.”
“Oh.” It took a moment for me to consider all the ramifications of that. Prince FitzChivalry, so recently acknowledged and lauded, was being summoned back to Buckkeep like a recalcitrant page. This was not going to be pleasant for anyone. I grasped abruptly how much of my personal freedom had vanished when Chade had taken my arm and presented me to the court. What had seemed a family matter, my sidestepping my cousin’s request that I not go off on my own, now loomed as a prince directly disobeying his king’s directive. Dutiful had reminded me he was my king, and I’d admitted that to him. And then done as I thought best, as if I were merely Tom Badgerlock. No. Not even Tom Badgerlock should have defied his king that way. I chewed my lower lip.
Riddle sank down to sit on the edge of my bed. “I see that you understand.”
I walked to the window and stared out at the lights of Salter’s Deep. “I wish you hadn’t been dragged into it.”
“Oh, Fitz, I dragged myself into it. I could have just reported that I suspected you were going alone, and the Buckkeep Guard would have brought you back.”
I turned to stare at him. “Truly?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. They might have just told me to drag you back quietly. A task that neither of us would have relished.” He gave a small sigh. “No, I got myself into this.”
“Sorry to have put you in that position.” Loyalty to me or to Nettle, and he’d chosen me. That did not bode well for any of us.
And me? I’d chosen my duty as a father over my duty as a prince to a king. As I knew I would again. As I must.
Bee, where are you? My heart cried out for her, and shame wafted over me. Why couldn’t I find and save my child? We’d come so close. I’d seen where she had slept, just days ago.
Riddle’s voice jolted me. “Fitz. This is a terrible question but it must be asked. At what point do we accept that Bee and Shine are lost to us?”
I turned wild eyes upon him. “Don’t even say that!”
“I have to say it. Someone has to ask it. You know as well as I do that they may both be already dead, out in the forest. We have no trail left to follow. The Servants and the Chalcedeans are all dead or fled.” He came to join me at the window. “We’ve no clues left to follow. The best we can hope now is that they turn up on their own at a farmstead or inn.”
“And the worst that can happen is that things remain as they are now. With us having no idea whatever became of them.”
For a time, we both stood in silence. I tried to find a thread of hope. “We did not find Vindeliar or Dwalia,” I reminded him.
“They may be bodies in the forest. Or hiding from us as they did before. They have not left us a trail we can follow.”
He was right. Reality and the bleakness of elfbark welled up in me like blood in Ellik’s wound. “I’m so powerless.” The words burst from me. “Riddle, I had to come here and try to find her. Since Winterfest, she has been gone and I’ve been able to do nothing. Nothing! And now I’ve even less of a trail to follow.” Agony and anger were one force in me. I wanted to smash everything in the room but most of all, I wanted to destroy myself for how impotent I was. I had cut my hair to my scalp when Molly died, a symbolic destruction and punishment of myself because I had failed to save her. Now I wanted to slash my face, to batter my skull against the wall, to fling myself from the window. I hated myself for my total failure. I was a thing that was so useless as to be evil. I was an assassin and capable of torture, a man bereft of goodness. But even my wickedness was impotent. It had gained me nothing.
“I do not like the expression on your face,” Riddle said softly. “Fitz, you cannot hold yourself responsible. This was a thing that happened to you, not a thing you did.” His voice was sympathetic.
“It was a thing I did not do. A neglected duty,” I said quietly. I turned back to the window and looked down. A drop but not a big enough one. The impulse would not work.
Riddle knew me too well. “And then if we did find her, that would be the first piece of news she’d have about you.”
Slowly I turned away from the easy exit. “Tomorrow we leave for Buckkeep.”
Riddle nodded slowly.
Mornings come, whether we want them or not. I dragged my body from my bed and trusted that my herb-addled mind would catch up with me. Breakfast was interminable and full of pleasant conversations I could scarcely follow. Someone had recognized Ellik as Chancellor Ellik of Chalced, and for some reason it was very exciting that a Buck stable boy had made an end of the old man. Spurman assured me twice that he’d sent word on to Buckkeep Castle concerning exactly who had attempted this peculiar invasion of Buck. My weary mind offered me no response for him, so I simply nodded.
And finally, finally, we departed Ringhill Keep. I rode at the front of my guard, with Riddle beside me. Perseverance trailed behind us, still leading Bee’s horse, Priss. He looked battered and wan. Lant rode beside him. Riddle leaned over and said quietly that the boy had had his first night drinking with men the evening before, and been feted as a hero for his “first kill.” He tipped his head toward Lant. “Lucky for the lad, Lant intervened right after he puked the first time. He forbade any more liquor and sent him off to bed. But I expect he has a bit of a head today.”
I rode Fleeter. The horse seemed to have recovered from my abuse of her, but exhibited a wariness in contrast with her former eagerness to please me. I let her feel that I regretted how roughly I had used her, but did not try to intrude into her thoughts.
Foxglove came behind us at the head of our troops. She was displeased with the Rousters and cool toward me. I could tell that her efforts to integrate them with my guard were not going smoothly. Yesterday her control of them had been tenuous at best. Today as they formed up with my guard, they still remained as a separate rank at the rear of the formation. I suspected that she was unhappy with me for saddling her with such troublemakers. We had not ridden far before Lant edged his mount closer to mine. He spoke while looking straight ahead. “You humiliated me. You left me drugged and sleeping as if I were a child.”
You are. I shook my head. “Lant, I left you sleeping as if you were a badly injured man who should not have been sent out on such a mission. That was true of Perseverance as well.” I fabricated some balm for him. “I could scarcely have left the boy there alone. How is your wound?”
My diversion of the conversation baffled him for an instant. “It’s healing,” he said gruffly.
“Good. It needs time. Lant, I have a suggestion. It’s a strong suggestion. When we return to Buckkeep Castle, report to Captain Foxglove. Let her direct you in your swordplay, going gently until your muscles are rebuilt. I do not propose that you become a soldier or a member of my guard.” How to phrase the next part. Become a man? No. I fumbled for words.
“So they can mock me for my lack of skills? So I could fail again for you?”
How had he ever become such a bubbling pudding of self-centeredness? Here was another repair task I did not want. “Lant. Muscles in your chest were cut. They need to heal and then grow strong. Let Foxglove help you with that. That’s all I was suggesting.”
He was quiet for a time. Then he said, “My father is going to be very disappointed.”
“In both of us,” I pointed out.
He sat back in his saddle. I think he took peculiar comfort from my words.
The day passed in a way that would have been pleasant at another time. The weather stayed mild for winter. Fleeter recovered enough of her spirits to want to be out in front of the other horses and I was happy to let her be. Motley flew ahead of us, circled back to ride on Per for a time, and then flew ahead again. She seemed just a pet crow today, cawing wordlessly as she flew overhead. Once, when she was perched on Per’s shoulder I asked her, “How many words do you know?”
She cocked her head at me and asked, “How many words do you know?”
Per almost smiled as she said, “She sounded just like you.”
The well-kept roads avoided the hills and wound through several small towns. In each settlement, we paused to ask for tidings of Bee or Shine, and to tell each innkeeper that there was a large reward for two lost girls. No one had news for us.
That night we found lodging at an inn. Riddle, Foxglove, Lant, and I had rooms above the kitchens, and they were warm. My guard and Perseverance had a loft over the stables; the Rousters would sleep in the common room. I enjoyed a well-prepared meal and a mug of ale, and an early bed in a clean room, followed by a late-night fistfight when my Rousters did not go to bed but quarreled among themselves. The ruckus woke me; I pulled on trousers and dashed down the steps two at a time. By the time Riddle arrived, I had a black eye and two men on the floor and a third cornered. We exiled all three to the inn’s stables for the night and promised the innkeeper that damages would be paid for. As we climbed back up the stairs, Riddle observed, “Usually princes don’t do that sort of thing.”
“I’m not prospering in this role, am I? All the times when I wondered what it would be like to be legitimate and recognized as a Farseer at Buckkeep Castle? I’m finding it more of a liability than a privilege.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he promised me doubtfully.
In the morning I had two fewer Rousters following me. Well, that was two fewer of them for Foxglove to deal with. They’d taken their horses and left their guard tunics. I counted it a small loss. Foxglove had slept through the row in the tavern and I said nothing of it to her. I was sure that word would reach her soon enough.
The day was overcast with snow clouds and a light breeze that woke sporadically to lift ice crystals against our faces. Riddle and I rode side by side, in a silence full of foreboding. I think we both dreaded our return to the castle. We had resumed our formation of the day before, with Lant and Perseverance riding side by side behind Riddle and me. I heard several snatches of conversation and deduced that their recent battle experience had given them something in common. The boy still led Priss. Her empty saddle was a fresh heartbreak every time I looked at it.
I felt I was going home with my tail between my legs. And somewhere, somewhere was my Bee and I was no closer to knowing where. The morning passed with little talk between Riddle and me. Sometimes the crow flew overhead and in front of us, then back as if to be sure we were following her. I had grown so accustomed to her that I hardly noticed her. More often she rode on Per’s shoulder, though once I was a bit surprised to see her on Lant’s.
We crested a gentle rise in the road and saw a rider on a brown horse, trailed by a saddled white horse, on the road ahead of us. I studied them for a moment as they came toward us. The rider was stocky and wore his hood well pulled forward. They were moving at a dogged trot but even at the distance I could tell that the brown horse was being pushed hard and was at the end of his endurance. His head jounced too hard with every step. He tried to slow and his rider kicked him hard. Then Riddle said, “White horse,” at the same time I said, “White coat.”
I called back to Foxglove. “Halt the guard. If I lift my hand, bring them at a gallop. If not, keep your distance.” She nodded, accepting the command but unhappy at not joining us, as both Riddle I urged our horses to a trot. Lant followed and I knew Perseverance would copy him. I wished they hadn’t. I kept my eyes on the rider. At first he showed no sign he was aware of us. The white fur coat convinced me that this was one of the Servants who had escaped the slaughter. As we got closer, he seemed to rouse himself out of a daze. He looked up at us, screamed, and kicked the brown horse he rode frantically, even as he tried to wheel it about. It turned to the rider’s command and broke into a trot, but we were already in motion and before the trot became a canter we were on either side of him. Riddle leaned forward and grabbed the reins, turning the horse sharply as the rider continued to scream and kick it. I knew that scream.
“Shine! Shine, stop! You’re safe! Shine, it’s me, Fitz—Badgerlock! And Riddle. We’re here to find you and take you home. You’re safe! Shine. Where’s Bee? Was she with you?”
The saddled white horse had jigged aside from us. It was evidently only following the brown because it had no idea what else to do. Riddle pulled his horse in, dismounted hastily, and approached Shine. She kicked at him, shrieked again, and then fell off her horse and into his arms. I dismounted, took her reins, and stood stupidly as he patted her back and told her she was all right, she was safe, she was safe now.
Her wailing slowly faded to deep sobs and then to breathless, shaking weeping. “Bee? Shine, where’s Bee? Shine, look at me. Do you know where Bee is?”
To Riddle’s gentle questions, she only shook her head wildly and sobbed louder. A terrible certainty was building in me. The white horse came closer. I ignored it until it stood near enough that with a calm step I could take the end of the dangling reins. Two horses. Two saddles. One rider. No Bee. The saddle on the brown horse was definitely Chalcedean-made. The one on the white horse was like nothing I’d ever seen before. High in the front and low in the back. It looked uncomfortable to me.
Bee, where are you? Did you ride on this horse?
I turned in surprise. Her voice was thick from weeping. She’d pushed back her hood. Her hair was matted and hung in wads about her face. She’d lost weight, and the boniness of her face made her look more like Chade. Her lips were rough and her cheeks chapped red. She was still breathing hard but she had stepped clear of Riddle. The white fur coat she wore was enormous, hanging in folds around her. Her hands clutched her forearms and she hugged her body tight as if she might fall into pieces. She faced me and looked directly into my eyes. This was a different woman from the one who had demanded that all life must stop until we had purchased green stockings for her.
“Bee,” she said. “They took Bee.”
“I know,” I said. I tried to keep my voice calm and even. “They took you and they took Bee. But you’re safe now.” I drew a breath. “Bee. Do you know where Bee is now?”
“They took her,” she said again. “They took her into a stone with them.”