The depredations of this dragon are just as damaging as if we were facing an invasion by a small army. The creature is “small,” I am told, by dragon standards, and yet her hunger seems insatiable. The shepherds dare not put their flocks out into the higher summer pastures, for even with men and dogs watching over them the dragon swoops in and takes what she pleases. As many cattle and sheep die in their headlong flights as by her claws. The best breeding stock of cattle and horses were, for a time, safe if kept within barns or stables, but even that is no longer the case. There have now been three reports of the dragon using claws and powerful sweeps of her tail to demolish buildings to get at the cattle inside.
Will homes and humans be next? The situation is intolerable. As king, you must offer us some kind of solution, whether a negotiation or a military response. There are rumors that Skill-coteries are able to communicate with dragons. Those of my shepherds and farmers who have been brave enough to stand and either offer this dragon selected stock or threaten her have been ignored. At the least, cannot you send a coterie here to attempt to reason with this creature?
I stood as if turned to ice. I tried to make my mouth form words. “What do you mean?” I managed at last, but I knew what she meant. As impossible as it seemed, there was only one explanation.
“Like you did,” she said. “They went into a stone, like you did. And they took Bee with them.”
I felt the world halt around me. My ears rang. “What stone? Where?” I could not find enough air in my lungs to make my questions more than a whisper.
Shine blinked. She spoke quietly, in a puzzled voice. “He tricked us. The Chalcedean who seemed kind. He found us and he took us back to Dwalia. And Vindeliar and a few of the others. They were hiding because Chalcedeans were near. Almost as soon as she saw us, she made us all hold hands.” She scowled suddenly. “As if it were a game. A children’s game. Soula held my hand too tight, digging her nails in. The bitch . . .”
Her voice ran down. I held my breath. Let her talk. Ask no questions. I could see how fragile she was, how tenuous her focus on us. She reached toward Riddle suddenly with a shaking hand and her voice went breathy. “Dwalia took out a scroll. And a glove, a very thin glove with silver on the fingertips. But it wasn’t pretty. She put it on. And she touched the stone and—”
“Shun! Sweet Eda be praised! It’s you! Shun!”
Foxglove had halted my guard a respectful distance away and the Rousters had bunched behind them. Lant and Perseverance had ridden forward to see why they had halted, and now he flung himself from his horse and raced toward her.
“Lant!” she cried, and then she shrieked, “Lant! Lant!” She flung herself into his arms and I did not want to see the terrible race of emotions that went across his features. I hoped no one else could know what they meant. He held her, but not as she clung to him. He held her as a thing lost to him, while she wrapped herself in his arms as if she had finally and safely reached home.
“I thought you were dead! I saw them kill you. And then they kidnapped me!” Her dull calm was gone. Safe in his embrace, her hysteria was rising.
“Shine. What stone? Where?” Riddle demanded. He seized her by the shoulders and turned her back to face him. She tried to hold on to Lant’s shirt but at Riddle’s warning glance, he surrendered her and stepped back. Did he look relieved to have her taken from his embrace? She looked confused and panicky, but Riddle put his fingers on her chin and turned her face to his. “Shine. Look at me. We may be able to get Bee back right now. What stone did they enter? How long ago?”
She stared at him, blinking once as if she was trying to put her memory in order. I knew that feeling. Her crying had been too intense for tears. Her nose was running and her cheeks and nose were bright red. She finally spoke. “Last night. Dwalia led them. They all held hands. I was at the end, with Kerf. And Soula. At the last moment Bee leaned down and bit his wrist. He was so surprised he let go of me. But Bee didn’t let go of him. She dragged him into the stone. He went in screaming.” Her voice lifted on her last sentence, as if that gave her satisfaction. She turned back toward Lant, obviously baffled at how he had released her.
Riddle tugged her back to face him.
I tried to keep my voice level and calm. “Shine. You have to guide us back to that stone. Now. I must go after Bee.”
She moved her gaze slowly from Riddle’s face to mine. Her eyes grew flinty and her voice childish. “You left us through a stone. And then they came. You shouldn’t have left us.”
“I know that and I’m so sorry. But you are safe now. And we need to find Bee so she will be safe, too.” I spoke very simply, as if she were a child. I recalled that fragmented thoughtfulness that follows torture or extreme hardship. Shouting at her would do me no good.
She leaned toward me and whispered, “No. We have to get far, far away. They may come back out of the stone. And there were still some soldiers roaming the forest there. I left the fire burning to lure them and I took the horse and left as quietly as I could. I wish the white horse hadn’t followed me. So easy to see her in the night. I would have killed her to keep her from following if I’d had a knife. But I had nothing. Nothing at all. And it got too dark for me to find my way. So I found a thick grove of trees and hid there until daylight.” She drew a breath. “I rode through the forest until I found a road. We galloped and galloped until the stupid horse wouldn’t gallop anymore. And then I found you.”
“You have to guide us back to the stone. See all the guards we have with us? They’ll protect you this time.”
She lifted her eyes and looked at the waiting troops. Then she narrowed her expression. “I don’t think I could find that place again. Even if I wanted to. Please. We have to get far, far away from here.”
“We will,” Riddle assured her. “But first we have to go back for Bee.”
She stared at him, taking deeper and deeper breaths until I feared she would break out into a shriek. “You don’t understand. I can’t go back there!” Her eyes grew very round and black. “After Bee dragged Kerf in. We, we were . . . There were more Chalcedeans nearby. Dwalia had said so. But they went into the stone and left us, Soula and me. And Soula, she started screaming and hitting me, and trying to follow them into the stone. I had to make her be quiet. And . . . she was part of them, the ones that had ruined our home and dragged us away. So I . . . I killed her. I think.”
“You had to kill her,” I said. I could not let her dwell on that. “You had to kill her, and your father will be so proud that you did. It was the right choice. Shine. What stone?” My heart was racing. Nettle and Dutiful had told me there were no records of Skill-portals in this area. Had they lied to me? I felt a flash of anger, followed by the fear that the stone was unknown because it was defective.
But my effort to reassure her and focus her mind failed badly.
She turned her head slowly to me. “My father?” she asked dully.
“Our father.” Lant’s voice broke on the word and I wanted to strike him. Not now, not now. But he spoke on. “Lord Chade is your father.”
She blinked at him. The look on her face reminded me of a foundering animal. She would go down soon and with her my chance to find Bee. She spoke slowly. “Lord Chade is your father, you mean. You told me your secret . . . the night before . . .”
Her eyes widened. No, don’t let her thoughts go back to the night she was raped and kidnapped. I tried to keep my voice calm. “I must know where the stone is, Shine!”
Lant held up a shaking hand. “Let me speak. Let it be said before your guard gets here. Let me tell her and have it over it with! I can bear this no longer.” He looked at her, his face full of tragedy. “Shun—Shine. You are my sister. Shine Fallstar. Lord Chade is father to us both.”
She stared, her gaze going from me to Riddle and then to Lant. “It’s a poor jest,” she said brokenly. Her bottom lip quivered. “If you love me at all, you will take me away from here, as fast and as far as we may go.”
Lant gave me an agonized look.
Sometimes it is better to rip off the bandaging quickly. “Of course he loves you,” I reassured her. “He is your brother. He would never let you come to harm.”
She snapped her head around to stare at me. “My brother?”
Riddle was staring at us, aghast. Some secrets could not be preserved safely, not without risking terrible consequences. I spoke softly. “Lord Chade is father to you both.” I took a breath and tried to speak kindly. “And now you must guide us back to the stone. Where Bee disappeared.”
She gaped at me. Then her head swiveled again and she looked at her brother. What did she see there? The same resemblances I had seen once I had known to look for them? “Lant,” she said in a fading voice, as if she called to him from across a great distance. And then she went boneless, sliding to the road in a heap. The heavy fur coat collapsed around her and, lying there, she suddenly reminded me of a very thin winter-killed deer. Riddle dropped to his knee beside her and put fingers at the side of her throat. He looked up at me. “It’s been too much for her. She’s done, for now. And we can’t wait for her to come to her senses. We’ll have to follow her tracks back. Summon Foxglove to take her?”
Lant made a sound of remorse and pain. I took his upper arm before he could fall to his knees beside her. I spoke close by his ear. “Not your fault. And it would be best if you let someone else tend to her for a time when she comes round. She will need time, just as you did.” He tried to twist free of me, but I kept my grip, set my thumb in a certain spot, and pushed it between his arm muscles in a way that would definitely be uncomfortable. As I hoped he would, he went from morose to angry in less than a heartbeat. Riddle was already gathering up Shine. I lifted my free hand and gestured to Foxglove and the troops.
“Let go of me!” Lant demanded in a low voice. At least he had the presence of mind to be somewhat subtle.
I smiled and spoke softly, gesturing as if speaking of concern for Shine. I gradually eased the pressure on his arm as I did so. “When you can control yourself, I’ll stop controlling you. There are too many people watching for you to indulge your emotions right now, or to have any heartfelt conversations with Shine about who your father is and what it means to her. So you will mount up and ride beside Riddle and me, you will help us follow her tracks back to that stone, and we will leave her care to Foxglove and my guard. Understand?”
He did not like it. I did not care how he felt. I watched his face and saw the moment when he recognized that logic was on my side. He ceased struggling and I left him standing with the horses while I went to speak to Foxglove and Riddle. Shine might have been awake but she was not stirring. Her eyes were slits and she made no comment as I asked Foxglove to create a travois for her to ride on. Foxglove nodded grimly and began to order some to find sturdy branches and others to gather firewood and create a fire so that Shine might have hot food and drink before she was moved, and I conceded that. I took Lant, Riddle, and my few remaining Rousters and began to ride slowly back down the road in the direction from which Shine had come. I chose not to notice that Perseverance trailed behind us, Motley on his shoulder. The boy had witnessed Lant’s revelation. I’d deal with it later. This section of the king’s highway traversed a forested area with some farms and smallholdings. The short winter day would soon fade. I wondered how far she had galloped the brown and how tired he had been to start with. I wanted to hurry. I could not afford to miss the trail.
I broke the Rousters into pairs and sent them ahead of us at a gallop with directions that at every crossroads, two should peel off from the main body and ride down each tributary. If any pair saw anything to indicate that two horses had emerged from the forest onto the road, one should halt near the disturbed snow and the other was to ride back to me immediately. They rode off at a breakneck gallop, perhaps hoping to redeem themselves.
For a time Lant, Riddle, and I rode in silence at a more measured pace, scrutinizing the road to either side. Perseverance, still leading Bee’s horse, had fallen in behind us. I studied the snowy ground to the left side of the trampled road while Riddle watched the right. I thought about Bee. Last night, she had been riding on a horse with Shine. She’d bitten someone, and somehow that had helped free Shine. Why hadn’t she been able to free herself? Again she was snatched away from me, vanished, perhaps through a Skill-pillar. Sadness and despair deepened in me, enhanced by the lingering effects of the elfbark. We watched not just for Shine’s tracks but for anything that might indicate sleighs or a mounted troop of men had passed. Any sign of my little girl. After a time, Riddle observed aloud, “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t ask.”
I knew his question. “It’s true. Chade is their father.”
“I knew that about Lant, but not the girl. Why did he keep Shine secret?”
“Well, because he is Chade. He never told me that Lant was his son until a few days ago. Though I suppose I should have known it by looking at him.”
Riddle nodded to that. “I think more people at Buckkeep know than Chade suspects. It was fairly obvious in how he treated Lant from the beginning. So why keep Shine a secret?”
I was silent for a pause. Lant asked acidly, “Do you want me to ride ahead so you can gossip about my parentage and my half-sister in privacy?”
I stared at him. “Lant. Riddle is married to my daughter, Skillmistress Nettle. Your cousin. So I think that makes him family.”
Riddle fought the grin on his face. “And actually I’m discussing your father, not you. Chade! I am scandalized!” The grin spread despite his best efforts.
“Chade,” I confirmed and a bark of laughter burst from me, defying my dark spirits. We both laughed aloud and shook our heads.
After a time, Lant asked, “Why did he keep Shine a secret, even from me? He managed to bring me to Buckkeep and let me know he was my father. Why not Shine?”
I spoke heavily and reluctantly. Better he asked these questions now than before witnesses. “He has kept her ignorant and hidden from all others because of dangers both to himself and to her. Her family was not pleased to be saddled with his bastard, and yet they did not mind extorting funds for her keep and education. Funds they apparently did not use for her benefit. He was allowed only sporadic access to her. Her grandparents took care of her at first and were, if not kind, at least not cruel. When they died and she was turned over to her mother and her mother’s husband—”
“I know some of that,” Lant cut in hastily.
Riddle raised an eyebrow at me.
“About as bad as you can imagine,” I told him, and saw him wince.
“What will Chade do with her now, do you suppose?” he asked me.
“I don’t know. I don’t even know if he will be mindful enough to recognize her. But I think she would be safest at Buckkeep, given over into Kettricken’s care, perhaps. She has always longed to be at court, and I rather imagine her maternal line will be a bit more cautious about crossing Lord Chade’s will in that now.”
FitzVigilant took breath to ask a question I knew I wouldn’t want to answer. I was glad to hear a galloping horse and see one of my Rousters headed back toward us. “They must have found something!” I touched my heels to Fleeter and she broke into a grudging trot. Riddle’s horse surged past us and No! I sensed from her. I am Fleeter. I always lead.
Show them! I suggested to her, and she lifted into an effortless gallop. She did not allow her mind to touch mine again, and I did not try to push my way in. I did not want to reestablish any sort of a bond, but I was glad that my misuse of her had not broken her spirit.
Sawyer, one of my Rousters, began shouting before we had even reached him. “We’ve found her trail. I told Reaper to stay off it, but I don’t know how long he can resist.”
“Well done,” I told him.
He wheeled his horse and led the way, despite Fleeter’s disgruntlement at following him. It felt good to be in motion. We reached a section of the road that wound through a denser area of forest. There another Rouster awaited us, standing in the cold beside his restless horse. “Can we follow it now?” he demanded. I did not answer immediately. I flung myself from Fleeter’s back and in a heartbeat Riddle was beside me. I waded into the unbroken snow beside the wallowed trail. “Two horses, one behind the other,” Riddle announced decisively.
“So I read it, too,” I replied. I swung back up into my saddle. “Be wary!” I warned the others. “Shine said some of the mercenaries were still prowling in the area. If you see them, we need to take them alive. I need to talk to them.”
Sawyer gave a tight nod and his partner grunted an assent. A small part of my attention noted that both of them were standing a bit straighter. They exchanged satisfied looks. These two, it seemed, might take a bit of pride in accomplishing a task. Possibly salvageable.
The trail was easy to follow. I focused on that and pushed Fleeter to move as quickly as she could go. The deep snow was trampled but it was not a well-broken path. I kept my head up and watched the encroaching forest for any sign of the mercenaries. Twice Riddle and Lant moved off to inspect other tracks we sighted. Each time they found only deer trails. I wondered if a terrified Shine had only imagined the Chalcedean trackers as she had the ghost in her room.
The forest became denser. Here evergreens towered and laced their branches overhead to steal the afternoon’s graying light from us. The snow was shallower but the trail was still plain. We followed it up a slope, weaving among rocky outcroppings and ducking under leaning trees that had grown at angles among the stones. Under these giants, there was little underbrush.
“Fitz!” Lant called and I pulled Fleeter around, thinking he had seen danger. Instead he leaned down from his mount and brushed snow from stone. “There was a town here once. Or something. Look how straight this stone still runs.”
“He’s right,” Riddle confirmed before I could even speak. “Most of it’s buried in earth as well as snow. But look there. The trees lean in, and it’s narrowed, but that might have been a road at one time.”
“It would make sense,” I said, and turned Fleeter back to the trail. Old structures. In the Mountain Kingdom we had often found standing stones near Elderling ruins.
“I smell old smoke,” Riddle declared, and just then Sawyer cried, “There are more tracks over there, sir. Looks like they’re headed in the same direction we are!”
I threw caution to the wind and urged Fleeter on. She surged up the steep trail in powerful bounds, and suddenly an abandoned camp was before us. Hasty shelters of branches and evergreen boughs surrounded a blackened place where a small campfire had burned. “Stop!” I called to the others. We dismounted and Perseverance stayed with the horses as we moved forward more slowly. I quested with my Wit but felt no others near. If there had been Chalcedeans stalking Shine last night, they were here no longer. I squatted down to peer into a temporary shelter built of pine boughs. Someone had huddled in there. That was all I could tell.
“Fitz,” Riddle said, his voice soft but urgent. He pointed with a gloved hand.
White coat, pale skin, pale hair. Dead. Sprawled on her back in the snow, the only color a bit of blood coming from her mouth. Riddle and I crouched over her, our heads close together. I slid a hand under her neck and lifted. It wasn’t broken.
“That’s a hard grip to get or maintain,” he said. “I’m impressed.”
I nodded. Chade’s daughter. Cup the back of the neck and drive the pinching fingers in hard to crush the windpipe. No air, choking on her own blood. Not the quickest death in the world nor the quietest, but it had done the job.
I let her fall back into the snow and stood. And there it was, right before me.
I’d seen the looming block of stone but not recognized what it was. The big tree that had grown up beside it had nearly toppled it. At the edge of the camp, the stone leaned drunkenly, one face of it touching the snow that had banked around it. Lichen had begun to encroach on the stone’s edges. I approached it slowly, as if it were game to be stalked. Lant and Riddle followed, but my two Rousters stood by with Perseverance as if they could sense danger.
Someone had recently swept the snow from the uppermost face of the stone. A hundred questions pelted me. How had the Servants known this stone was here? Were they Skilled, to be able to use it? Did they know more of that magic than we did? I’d been told there were no Skill-pillars in this area. How was it that the Servants knew of this and we did not? All useful questions, and the answers would have undoubtedly been even more useful. But pondering them now was a waste of time.
“Do you know where it goes? Do you recognize the rune?”
“I do.” It was one of the few that I knew very well. “It goes to a crossroads market beyond the Mountain Kingdom. On our way to find King Verity we followed an Elderling road and came upon it. It’s not far from where we found the stone dragons sleeping.” I recalled the place well indeed. Both the Fool and I had briefly fallen under the spell of that place. The memory stone there was strong, and he had seemed to become someone else, a long-ago White who had passed that way, a poet or jester . . .
I drew off my glove.
“Fitz, no! Contact Nettle first, let her know what you—”
I pressed my hand to the cold black stone.
And nothing happened. I felt astonished. And sick.
“Maybe it’s broken.” Riddle spoke doubtfully, and I heard his reluctance to encourage me at all.
“Shine said they went through the stone.” I centered my hand on the rune, dug my fingers into the cold, rough impression. I pushed. Nothing. I could sense nothing from the stone.
No. I could not allow myself to be dead to the Skill right now. It could not be so, not when Bee might be only two steps through darkness away from me. “No. No!”
I rubbed my hand down the face of the cold stone, eroded by age. I felt the skin of my palm snag on it, felt callus sand away. “No!” I shouted.
“Fitz, it might be—”
I do not recall whatever else Riddle might have said. I shoved at the stone, hit it with a fist. I went into a rage. The edges of my vision went red and black. And when I came out of my rage, I had ruined a battle-axe against the Skill-pillar. I did not even recall pulling it from my back sling. My arms, back, and shoulders hurt from the force of the blows but the stone itself showed little sign of my attack, other than a few gray scuffs on its black surface. I was out of breath, and sweat ran down my back to match the tears of frustration that had coursed down my cheeks. I found I was hoarse from roaring curses.
I dropped the useless weapon in the snow and stood, lungs screaming for the air that I gulped, my raw hands braced on my knees. When I could straighten up and look around me, I found all my companions standing in an awestruck circle, at a very safe distance away.
“Fitz?” Riddle’s voice was soft.
“Why don’t you step back from that axe?”
Instead I stooped down and picked it up. I examined the peened-over edge, and then returned it to my back sling. I crouched, scooped up a handful of snow in my raw palm, and ate it. The moisture eased my throat. “I’m done,” I told them wearily.
“What happened?” Lant demanded.
“Stupidity happened,” I told him. “I drank elfbark tea so their wizard could not use the Skill to hide Bee from me, and I deadened my Skill to the point where I can’t use a portal. She might be only two steps away, and I cannot take them!”
“What now, sir?” It was one of my Rousters.
What now? I sank down and sat in the snow. It was cold. I didn’t care. I tried to master my thoughts. It seemed to take a long time. I looked up at Riddle, who was still keeping his distance.
“I’m staying right here. Perseverance, take Fleeter. She’s fast. Ride ahead to Buckkeep Castle. Riddle and Lant, follow as swiftly as you can, but I’ll wager the boy will get there first. Go straight to Skillmistress Nettle. Tell her what has happened and ask her to send me Skilled ones who are experienced at using the stones to travel and who know how to use a blade. Riddle and Lant, if you will, give a full report to King Dutiful.”
Per spoke up fearfully. “Sir, I don’t know the fastest way.”
He still held the horses’ reins. I looked at Fleeter. Do you know the swiftest way to the stables at Buckkeep? Can you run that far?
I do. Her Wit was contained. You still claim we cannot bond, and you ask this of me?
Then you will grant me a boon. When I ask it.
I promise it will be so, I replied humbly. She owed me nothing and I needed this so desperately. I held my breath.
I’ll take the boy there.
Bear him well, Fleeter.
I know no other way. She tossed her head, dismissing me.
Thought is swift. The bargain was sealed in that moment. I met Per’s gaze. “Trust Fleeter. She knows the way. Go now.”
For an instant our gazes held. Then Per passed the reins of the other horses to Lant. He mounted Fleeter, turned her head, and she bore him away. I spoke to the others. “Sawyer and Reaper. You ride back to Captain Foxglove. Tell her that she and my guard are to take Lady Shine to Buckkeep as swiftly as they can. Sawyer, pick the six best soldiers in the Rousters. Bring them back here, with whatever supplies you can muster for spending the night in the open.” I looked at Riddle, to see if I’d missed anything.
He was scowling. “I don’t like leaving you here.”
“There’s nothing you can do for me by remaining.”
He tipped his head. “The body?”
I just looked at him.
“We’ll take it. Foxglove can sling her over the white horse and take her back to Buckkeep.”
I didn’t care. Riddle turned away from me and began to give his orders.
The forest seemed a different world after they had left. I’d sent my lightest follower on my swiftest horse. Per would reach Buckkeep before nightfall. I believed Nettle would listen to him. If not, Lant and Riddle would not be far behind. By tomorrow afternoon, someone should arrive who could use the stone. Someone else would go through the portal and face for me whatever lay on the other side. I might be sending them into an ambush, or into a scene of people deranged by a Skill-passage. They might find my child with her mind forever scrambled and leaking. They might find only tracks leading away. Had Dwalia known where she was taking them, or was it a random escape? Did she know how to use the pillars, and was she strong enough with her wizard to take that many followers through safely?
If she was, we were up against an incredibly powerful opponent. If she wasn’t, my quest might end with a child who would never recognize me again.
I knew I should build a fire and prepare for the oncoming night. The falling snow was not yet penetrating the interlaced evergreen boughs overhead, but it would. Colors were already fading from the day in the dimmer light of the forest. Pale gray, gray, dark gray, black. I watched it get darker and did nothing. More than once, I set my hand to the runes on the pillar, and hoped. In vain.
I heard my Rousters before I saw them. I could make out from the tone of their conversation that a night in the open, while their fellows traveled on to the comforts of the barracks at Buckkeep Castle, was not appreciated. They were carrying fire, probably from the cook-fire Foxglove had kindled earlier. The light of their makeshift torches wavered and danced as they approached.
Both Sawyer and Reaper had returned with six extra Rousters. “Make camp,” I told them, and they did. They built a fire where Dwalia’s had burned. Three shelters were thrown up rapidly, from tree limbs and pine boughs. They’d brought bedrolls, and they floored the shelter with those. They had food and they shared it among themselves. I had no appetite, but when they melted water for drinking, I heated some and made a tea for us. They exchanged some sidelong glances and did not drink until after I did. Evidently FitzVigilant or Perseverance had made complaint about my trickery.
Long after they had gone to bed, I sat and stared at the fire. I do not know how often I stood and walked to the stone and put my hand on it. It was foolish. I could feel that my Skill was quenched. It was the same ear-stoppered mental isolation that I had felt on Aslevjal the first time I’d accidentally eaten Outislander elfbark. I tried to reach out with the Skill without success. I unfolded my Wit, and sensed the sleeping men and an owl hunting nearby, and very little else. Toward dawn I crawled into the tumbledown shelter the Servants had left, and slept. I woke after the others were long risen. My head hurt and my spirits were less than low. I was cold and hungry and angry with myself.
I walked to the stone and put my hand on the rune.
The morning passed. More snow fell. I dismissed four of the Rousters to go and find meat. I wasn’t hungry but it gave them something to do. We had seen no sign of anyone else in the forest and they were chafing with boredom. The sun wandered the sky behind a layer of clouds. The hunters came back with two grouse. They cooked them. They ate them. I drank tea. The afternoon meandered toward evening. Too much time had passed. Was no one coming?
The light was going away when they arrived and I saw the reason why they had taken so long. Riddle led the way, and Nettle rode behind him. She sat her horse, but a litter followed: she’d probably disdained it. A full coterie of six Skill-users, armed and armored, followed them. And the baggage train, and attendants appropriate to Nettle’s station, trailed after them. I went to meet them. Her public greeting to me was restrained, but I read anger, weariness, disappointment, and sorrow on her face. Riddle was subdued to stillness.
She allowed Riddle to hand her down from her horse but I sensed the chill between them and knew I was the cause. She looked at me, not him, as she said, “The Skill-pillar?”
I led the way wordlessly. All around us her entourage was busy setting up a camp with a stout tent for her. I heard the ring of hatchets as firewood was gathered and horses were led away. Her coterie trailed her, their faces grim. When we reached the Skill-pillar, I touched the rune once again. “I know where it goes.”
“The ancient marketplace on the trail to the stone dragons,” Nettle said. She met my gaze and said, “Did you think I would not know that?”
“I would like to describe it for the coterie, so they can know what to expect as they emerge from the pillar.”
“Do that. But we all know that there is no assurance the pillar has not toppled, and we cannot know if there are people there or if it is deserted. The Killdeer Coterie has offered to risk their lives to rescue Lady Bee.”
I turned and bowed gravely to the six strangers. “I thank you.” And I did, but I also hated them a little for being able to do what I could not. Then I told them of the pillar as last I had seen it, a pillar standing in what might have been a market-circle at some ancient time. Any town that had once existed there was long gone. The last time I had seen it, it had been surrounded by forest with no sign of human occupation. It would be cold in the Mountains in the winter. They nodded. Their leader, Springfoot, knit her brow and listened earnestly, and then formed her coterie up as if it were a military patrol. Left hands on the shoulder of the Skill-user before them, and right hands holding bared blades, they advanced to the Skill-stone and then looked to Nettle.
She nodded gravely. I watched what I had never seen before: a line of Skill-users swallowed one after another by the black stone. The appearance of the pillar never altered. The coterie simply walked into stone and was gone. When the last of them had vanished I lowered my face into my hands and breathed into the darkness I cupped, imagining a thousand possibilities.
I looked up. Nettle’s expression was strange. I saw her swallow and then she spoke again.
“Springfoot has Skilled to me. They found no one. Only the plaza as you described it. Unbroken snow. No tracks leading away from the pillar. No one is there.”
I stared at her. “They must have gone on from there! Blowing snow must have covered their tracks.”
Nettle closed her eyes. I watched the lines of her brow deepen as she Skilled. She shook her head slowly, then met my gaze again. “Springfoot does not think so. She reports it is a calm, clear evening there. The snow is not fresh. There are rabbit tracks across the surface. Leaf litter, pine needles. All the signs that there has not been fresh snow or wind. Fitz. Springfoot does not think they ever emerged from the pillar.”
I spoke without breath.
“Did they not sense her at all? In the passage?”
She shook her head slowly as she Skilled to them.
“When Chade and I were delayed, Dutiful found us in the pillar. Cannot they . . .?”
She lifted her hands, gloved fingers spread. “They are trying, Da. But they sense nothing there. Even to Skill back to me is a challenge, like shouting over the rush of a river. The Skill-current fountains there, they say, and is hard to navigate.”
Riddle put his arm around her, shoring her up. I stood alone. Very alone. A trained coterie was barely able to function. An untrained woman had led a following there; what chance could they possibly have had? “Then . . . she is gone?”
“They will keep trying.” But I had uttered the unthinkable aloud. Gone. Lost in the Skill-current.
Nettle spoke on. The coterie had supplies for five days and would have to remain for at least three days before using the pillar to return. This particular coterie was as talented with weapons as with Skill. She dared to hope that perhaps Dwalia and the others would still emerge from the pillar; that they were only delayed and not lost. I’d had that experience. I knew it could happen. She reminded me that the old tales were full of instances of folk who had accidentally entered a stone and then emerged months or even years later, untouched by the time that had passed. Her words meant as much to me as the sound of water flowing over icy stones. I’d not had luck that good in a very long time.
After a while, I had become aware that she had stopped speaking. She was silent. Tears, silver in the last light of the day, were tracking down her face. Riddle stood beside her and wept unashamed. No one was talking. There was nothing to say.
We stood and we waited. Nettle Skilled. I attempted to Skill, without result. Eventually, exhaustion claimed her and Riddle guided her off to a sturdy tent and a warm meal. I sat down, put my back to the cold stone, and waited. I spent the night staring into the dark.