The Fool’s Tale
When winter’s clutch is cold and dark
And game is scarce and forest stark,
This songster to the hearth retreats
To warm his cheeks and icy feet.
But on the hill and in the glen
Are hunters hardier than men.
With lolling tongues and eyes that gleam
They surge through snow with breath like steam.
For in the hunt there is no morrow,
Time does not wait. There is no sorrow
As blood spills black and snarls are rife.
For life is meat, and death brings life.
The stairs seemed steeper than I remembered. When I reached my old bedchamber, I entered it as cautiously as befit an erstwhile assassin. I closed and locked my door, put wood on the fire, and for a short time considered simply getting into the bed and going to sleep. Then I drew the curtains shut and inspected the area where they were fastened to the rod. Yes. I saw it now, as I had not in all those years. Another tug on the drapery pull triggered the door panel, but no sound or crack betrayed it. Only when I pushed on it did it swing silently open and the narrow black staircase appear before me.
I climbed the risers, stumbling once when my curly toe hooked on the step. Up in Chade’s old workroom, Ash had come and gone. Our dirty dishes had been tidied away, and a different pot simmered at the edge of the hearth. The Fool had not moved since I left him, and I crossed the room anxiously to lean over him. “Fool?” I said softly, and with a cry he flung his arms wide and sat up to cower behind his raised hands. One flying hand glanced off my cheek. As I stepped back from his bed, he cried, “I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me!”
“It’s only me. Only Fitz.” I spoke calmly, trying to keep the anguish from my voice. Eda and El, Fool, will you ever recover from what you endured?
“I’m sorry,” he repeated breathlessly. “So sorry, Fitz.” He was breathing hard. “When they had me . . . they never woke me gently. Or allowed me to sleep until I woke. I so feared sleep I would bite myself to stay awake. But always, eventually, one sleeps. And then they would wake me, sometimes just a few moments later. With a little barbed blade. Or a hot poker.” His grimace had barely the semblance of a smile. “I hate the smell of fire now.” He dropped his head back on the pillow. Hatred surged in me and then passed, leaving me empty. I could never undo what they had done to him. After a time, he rolled his head toward me and asked, “Is it day now?”
My mouth had gone dry and wordless. I cleared my throat. “It’s either very late at night or very early in the morning, depending on how you think of such things. We spoke last in early afternoon. Have you been sleeping all this time?”
“I don’t exactly know. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell. Give me a few moments, please.”
I retreated to the far end of the room and studiously ignored him as he tottered from the bed. He found his way to the garderobe, was there for some time, and when he emerged called to ask if there was wash-water.
“In a pitcher next to the bowl on the stand by your bed. But I can warm some for you if you wish, too.”
“Oh, warm water,” he said, as if I had offered him gold and jewels.
“Shortly,” I replied. I set about my task. He groped his way to the chair by the fireside and sat down. I marveled at how quickly he had learned the room. When I brought the warmed water and a washing cloth, he reached for it immediately and I realized that he had been silent so he could track my activity by what he could hear. I felt as if I spied on him as he washed his scarred face and then repeatedly scrubbed his eyes to clear the gummy mucus from his lashes. When he had finished, his eyes were clean but reddened at the rims.
I spoke without apology or preamble. “What did they do to your eyes?”
He set the cloth back in the bowl and clutched his damaged hands together, gently rubbing the swollen knuckles. He was silent as I cleared the table. Very well, then. Not yet. “Are you hungry?” I asked him.
“Is it time for a meal?”
“If you’re hungry, it’s time for your meal. I’ve eaten too much already. And possibly drunk more than I should have as well.”
His response shocked me. “Do you truly have another daughter beside Nettle?”
“I do.” I sat down in my chair and pulled one of the shoes off. “Her name is Bee. And she is nine years old now.”
“Fool, what purpose could I have for lying to you?” He made no answer to that. I reached down and unfastened the second shoe. I pulled it free and put my foot flat on the floor. My left calf cramped abruptly and I exclaimed in pain and bent to rub it.
“What’s wrong?” he asked in some alarm.
“Ridiculous shoes, courtesy of Chade. Tall heels and pointed tips curling up at the toes. You’d laugh if you could see them. Oh, and the jacket has a skirt that goes nearly to my knees. And buttons shaped like little blue flowers. And the hat is like a floppy sack. Not to mention the curly wig.”
A small smile quirked his mouth. Then he said gravely, “You’ve no idea how much I’d love to see it all.”
“Fool, it’s not idle curiosity that makes me ask about your eyes. If I knew what was done to you, it might help me undo it.”
Silence. I removed my hat and set it on the table. Standing, I began to unbutton the jacket. It was just slightly too tight in the shoulders and suddenly I could not endure how it bound me. I gave a sigh of relief, draped it on the chair back, and sat down. The Fool had picked up the hat. His hands explored it. Then he set it, wig and all, upon his head. With apparent ease, he twitched the hair into place and then effortlessly arranged the hat into an artful slouch.
“It looks far better on you than it did on me.”
“Fashion travels. I had a hat almost like this. Years ago.”
He sighed heavily. “What have I told you and what haven’t I? Fitz, in my darkness, my mind slips around until I scarcely trust myself at all anymore.”
“You’ve told me very little.”
“Have I? Perhaps you know very little, but I assure you that night after night, in my cell, I spoke with you at length and in detail.” A wry twist of his mouth. He lifted the hat and set it on the table, where it crouched on its wig like a small animal. “Each time you ask me a question, it surprises me. For I feel that you were so often with me.” He shook his head, then leaned back suddenly in his chair and for a time appeared to stare at the ceiling. He spoke into that darkness. “Prilkop and I left Aslevjal. You know that. We journeyed to Buckkeep. What you may never have guessed is that we used the Skill-pillars to do so. Prilkop spoke of having learned it from his Catalyst, and I, I had my silvered fingertips from when I had touched Verity. And so we came to Buckkeep and I could not resist the temptation to see you one last time, to have yet another final farewell.” He snorted at his own foolishness. “Fate cheated us both of that. We lingered for a time but Prilkop was anxious to be on his way. Ten days he allowed me, for as you recall I was still very weak, and he judged it dangerous to use the pillars too frequently. But after ten days he began to chafe to be on our way again. Nightly he urged me to leave, pointing out what I knew: that together you and I had already worked the change that was my mission. Our time together was done, and long past done. Lingering near you would only provoke other changes in the world, changes that might be far less desirable. And so he persuaded me. But not completely. I knew it was dangerous, I knew it was self-indulgent even as I carved it. The three of us together, as we once had been. You, Nighteyes, and me. I shaped it from the Skill-stone and I pressed my farewell into it. Then I left my gift for you, knowing well that when you touched it, I would be aware of you.”
I was startled. “You were?”
“I told you. I have never been wise.”
“But I felt nothing of you. Well, there was the message, of course.” I felt cheated by him. He had known that I was alive and well, but had kept his own situation concealed from me.
“I’m sorry.” He sounded sincere. After a moment, he continued. “We used the pillars again when we left Buckkeep. It was like a child’s game. We jumped from one standing stone to the next. Always he made us wait between our journeys. It was . . . disorienting. It still makes me queasy to think of it. He knew the danger of what we did. On one of our leaps . . . we traveled to an abandoned city.” He halted, then spoke again quietly. “I hadn’t been there before. But there was a tall tower in the middle of it, and when I climbed those stairs, I found the map. And the broken window and the fingerprints in the soot from the fire.” He paused. “I am sure it was the map-tower you visited once.”
“Kelsingra. So the Dragon Traders name it now,” I said, not wanting to divert him from his revelations.
“At Prilkop’s insistence, we stayed there five days. I remember it . . . strangely. Even knowing what the stone can be and do, having it speak to one continually is wearing. I felt I could not escape the whispers no matter where I went. Prilkop said it was because of the silver Skill on my fingertips. The city drew me. It whispered stories to me when I slept, and when I was awake it tried to draw me into itself. I gave in once, Fitz. I took off my glove and I touched a wall in what had been a market, I think. When next I knew myself as myself, I was lying on the ground by a fire and Prilkop had all our things packed. He wore Elderling garb and had found some for me as well. Including the cloaks that help one hide, one for each of us. He demanded that we leave immediately, declaring that travel through the pillars was less dangerous to me than spending another day in the city. He said it had taken him a day and a half to find me, and that after he had dragged me away I had slept for another full day. I felt I had lived a year in Kelsingra.
“So we left.” He paused.
“Are you hungry?” I asked him.
He considered the question carefully. “My body has not been accustomed to regular meals for quite some time. It is almost strange to know that I can ask you for food and you will give it to me.” He coughed, turning aside as he did so and hugging his belly against the strain. The coughing went on for some time. I fetched him water and he sipped from the cup, only to go off into an even worse spate of coughing and wheezing. When he could draw a full breath and speak, tears had tracked down his cheeks from the effort. “Wine, if we have it. Or brandy. Or more water. And something to eat. But not a lot, Fitz. I must go slowly.”
“That’s wise,” I told him, and found that the pot held a creamy chowder of whitefish, onions, and root vegetables. I served him up a shallow bowl of it and was relieved when his groping fingers found the spoon I’d placed within his reach. I set a cup of water next to it. I regretted that his eating would put an end to his tale-telling, for it was rare beyond rare for the Fool to be so forthcoming. I watched him spoon up soup carefully and convey it to his mouth. Another spoonful . . .
He stopped. “You’re watching me so closely that I can feel it,” he observed unhappily.
“I am. I apologize.”
I rose and poured a small amount of brandy into a cup. Then I arranged myself in the chair with my feet outstretched toward the fire and took a measured sip of the brandy. When the Fool spoke, it surprised me. I continued to watch the fire, and listened without comment as he spaced his tale out with slow mouthfuls of the chowder.
“I remember how you warned the prince . . . well, he’s King Dutiful now, isn’t he? How you warned him about using the Skill-pillars to go to an unfamiliar destination. You are right to worry about that. Prilkop assumed the pillars would be just as they were the last time he’d used them. We stepped into the pillar in the map-city and suddenly found ourselves facedown on the ground with barely room to struggle out from under the stone.” He paused to eat more chowder.
“The pillar had been toppled. Deliberately, I suspect, and we were fortunate that whoever had done it had not been more thorough. It had fallen so that the top of it rested on the rim of a fountain’s bowl. Long dry and deserted: That city was not like Kelsingra. It showed the signs of ancient war and more recent pillaging. Deliberate damage. The old city was on the highest hills on an island. As to where exactly that island is, I could not tell you. It was unfamiliar to me. Decades ago, when I first traveled here, I did not pass through the place. Nor did I on my return journey here.” He shook his head. “When we journey back, I do not think we can rely on that path. What would happen to us if there was no room to emerge from a stone? I’ve no idea. And no wish to discover it.”
More soup, and a bit spilled. I said nothing, and watched only out of the corner of my eye as he groped for the napkin, found it, and wiped at his chin and nightshirt. I sipped more brandy and took care that my cup made a small sound as I set it back on the table.
“When we had bellied out from under the pillar, it took us half a day to hike through the ruins. The carvings, what little remained of them, reminded me of what I’d seen in Kelsingra and on Aslevjal. Most of the statues had been shattered, and many of the buildings had been raided for stone. The city was broken. I’d hear a shout of laughter and half a sentence whispered by my ear, and then a distant bit of music. The discord rang terribly against me. I tell you, if I had had to remain there any longer than we did, I would have gone mad. Prilkop was heartsick. Once, he said, it had been a place of beauty and peace. He hurried me through it despite how weary I was, as if he could not bear to witness what it had become.
“Are you drinking brandy without me?” he asked suddenly.
“Yes. But it’s not very good brandy.”
“That’s the worst excuse I’ve ever heard for not sharing with a friend.”
“It is. Will you have some?”
I fetched another cup and poured him a small measure. While I was up, I added a log to the fire. I suddenly felt very comfortable and weary in a good way. We were warm and dry on a winter night, I’d served my king well this evening, and my old friend was at my side and slowly recuperating. I felt a twinge of conscience as I thought of Bee, so far away and left to her own devices, but comforted myself that my gifts and letter would soon be in her hands. She had Revel and I liked her maid. She would know I was thinking of her. Surely after I had spoken to both Shun and Lant so severely, they would not dare to be cruel to her. And she had her riding lessons with the stable lad. It was good to know she had a friend, one she had made on her own. I dared to hope she had other household allies I knew nothing about. I told myself I was foolish to worry about her. She was actually a very capable child.
The Fool cleared his throat. “That night, we camped in the forest at the edge of the broken city, and the next morning we hiked to where we could look down on a port town. Prilkop said it had grown greatly since last he had seen it. Its fishing fleet was in the harbor, and he said there would be other ships coming from the south to buy the salted fish and fish oil and a coveted leather made from very heavy fish skin.”
“Fish leather?” The question leapt from me.
“Indeed, that was my reaction. I’d never heard of such a thing. But there is a trade in it. The rougher pieces are cherished for polishing wood or even stone, and the finer pieces are used on the grips of knives and swords; even soaked in blood, they don’t become slippery.” He coughed again, wiped his mouth, and took more brandy. When he drew breath to go on, it wheezed in his throat. “So. Down we went, in our winter clothes, to that sunny town. Prilkop seemed sure of a welcome there, so he was surprised when the folk stared at us and then turned away. The city on the hilltop was regarded as being haunted by demons. In that town, we saw abandoned buildings that had been built from the stone salvaged from the city but were now considered haunted by dark spirits. No one welcomed us, even when Prilkop showed them silver coins. A few children followed us, shouting and throwing pebbles until their elders called them back. We went down to the docks, and there Prilkop was able to buy us passage on an ill-kept vessel.
“The ship was there to buy fish and oil and stank of it. The crew was as mixed a lot as I’ve ever seen; the youngsters aboard looked miserable and the older hands were either tremendously unlucky or had suffered repeated rough treatment. A missing eye here, a peg for a foot on another man, and one with only eight fingers left to his hands. I tried to persuade Prilkop that we should not board, but he was convinced that if we did not depart that town we’d lose our lives that night. I judged the ship just as poor a choice, but he was insistent. And so we went.”
He paused. He ate some more soup, wiped his mouth, sipped his brandy, and carefully wiped his mouth and fingers again. He picked up the spoon and set it down. Sipped again from his brandy cup. Then he pointed his blind eyes my way, and for the first time since we had met again, a look of pure mischief passed over his face. “Are you listening?”
I laughed aloud, to know he still had that spirit in him. “You know I am.”
“I do. Fitz, I feel you.” He held up his hand, showing me the fingertips that had once been silvered with Skill and were now sliced away to a smooth scar. “I took back my link to you long ago. And they cut the silver from my fingertips, for they guessed how powerful it was. So, in the years of my confinement, I thought I imagined my bond with you.” He tipped his head. “But I think it’s real.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve felt nothing in all the years we were separated. Sometimes I thought you must be dead and sometimes I believed you had forgotten our friendship entirely.” I halted. “Except for the night your messenger was killed in my home. There were bloody fingerprints on the carving you had left for me, the one of you, Nighteyes, and me. I went to brush them away, and I swear that something happened.”
“Oh.” He caught his breath. For a time, he stared sightlessly. Then he sighed. “So. Now I understand. I did not know what it was, then. I did not know one of my messengers had reached you. They were . . . I was in great pain, and suddenly you were there, touching my face. I screamed for you to help me, to save me or to kill me. Then you were gone.” He blinked his blinded eyes. “That was the night—” He gasped for air suddenly and leaned on the table. “I broke,” he admitted. “I broke that night. They hadn’t broken me, not with the pain or the lies or the starvation. But that moment, when you were there and then you were not . . . that was when I broke, Fitz.”
I was silent. How had he broken? He had told me that when the Servants tormented him, they wanted him to tell them where his son was. A son he had no knowledge of. That, to me, had been the most horrific part of his tale. A tortured man who is concealing knowledge retains some small portion of control over his life. A tortured man who has no knowledge to barter has nothing. The Fool had had nothing. No tool, no weapon, no knowledge to trade to make his torment cease or lessen. The Fool had been powerless. How could he have told them something he didn’t know? He spoke on.
“After a time, a long time, I realized there was no sound from them. No questions. But I was answering them. Telling them what they needed to know. I was screaming your name, over and over. And so they knew.”
“Knew what, Fool?”
“They knew your name. I betrayed you.”
His mind was not clear, that was obvious. “Fool, you gave them nothing they did not know. Their hunters were already there, in my home. They’d followed your messenger. That was how the blood got on the carving. How you felt me there with you. They’d already found me.” As I said those words, my mind went back to that long-ago night. The Servants’ hunters had tracked his messenger to my home and killed her there before she could deliver the Fool’s words to me. That had been years ago. But only weeks before, another of his messengers had reached Withywoods and conveyed his warning and his plea to me: Find his son. Hide him from the hunters. That dying messenger had insisted she was being pursued, that the hunters were hot on her trail. Yet I’d seen no sign of them. Or had I not recognized the signs they had left? There had been hoofprints in a pasture, the fence rails taken down. At the time, I’d dismissed it as coincidence, for surely if they’d been tracking the messenger, they would have made some attempt to determine her fate.
“Their hunters had not found you,” the Fool insisted. “They’d trailed their prey there, I think. But they were not looking for you. The Servants who tormented me had no way of knowing where their hunters were at that moment. Not until I screamed your name, over and over, did they know how important you were. They had thought you were only my Catalyst. Only someone I had used. And abandoned . . . For that would be what they expected. A Catalyst to them is a tool, not a true companion. Not a friend. Not someone who shares the prophet’s heart.” We both held a silence for a time.
“Fool, there is something I do not understand. You say you have no knowledge of your son. Yet you seem to believe he must exist, on the word of those at Clerres who tormented you. Why would you believe they knew of such a child when you did not?”
“Because they have a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand predictions that if I succeeded as a White Prophet, then such an heir would follow me. Someone who would wreak even greater changes in this world.”
I spoke carefully. I didn’t want to upset him. “But there were thousands of prophecies that said you would die. And you did not. So can we be sure these foretellings of a son are real?”
He sat quietly for at time. “I cannot allow myself to doubt them. If my heir exists, we must find him and protect him. If I dismiss the possibility of his existence, and he does exist and they find him, then his life will be a misery and his death will be a tragedy for the world. So I must believe in him, even if I cannot tell clearly how such a child came to be.” He stared into darkness. “Fitz. There in the market. I seem to recall he was there. That I touched him and in that moment, I knew him. My son.” He drew a ragged breath and spoke in a shaky voice. “All was light and clarity around us. I could not only see, I could see all the possibilities threading away from that moment. All that we might change together.” His voice grew weaker.
“There was no light. The winter day was edging toward evening, and the only person near you was . . . Fool. What’s wrong?”
He had swayed in his chair and then caught his face in his hands. Then he said in a woeful voice. “I don’t feel well. And . . . my back feels wet.”
My heart sank. I moved to stand behind him. “Lean forward,” I suggested quietly. For a wonder, he obeyed me. The back of his nightshirt was wet with something that was not blood. “Lift up your shirt,” I bade him, and he tried. With my help, we bared his back, and again he did not protest. I lifted a candle high. “Oh, Fool,” I said before I could think to control my voice. A large and angry swelling next to his spine had split open and was leaking a thin, foul fluid down his scarred and bony back. “Sit still,” I told him and stepped away to the water warming by the fire. I soaked my napkin in it, wrung it out, and then warned him, “Brace yourself,” before applying it to the sore. He hissed loudly, and then lowered his forehead onto his crossed arms on the table.
“It’s like a boil. It’s opened and draining now. I think that might be good.”
He gave a small shudder but said nothing. It took me a moment to realize he was unconscious. “Fool?” I said, and touched his shoulder. No response. I reached out with the Skill and found Chade. It’s the Fool. He’s taken a turn for the worse. Is there a healer you can send up to your old rooms?
None that would know the way, even if any were awake at this hour. Shall I come?
No. I’ll tend to him.
Are you certain?
Probably better not to involve anyone else. Probably better it was only him and me, as it had been so often before now. While he was unaware of pain, I lit more candles to give me light, and brought a basin. I cleansed the wound as well as I could. He was limp and still as I trickled water onto it and sponged away the liquid that flowed out. It did not bleed. “No different from a horse,” I heard myself say once through my gritted teeth. Cleaned, the split boil gaped on his back as if some vile mouth had opened in his skin. It went deep. I forced myself to look at his abused body. There were other suppurations. They bulged, some shiny and almost white, others red and angry and surrounded by a network of dark streaks.
I was looking at a dying man. There was too much wrong with him. To think that somehow food and rest could bring him closer to healing was folly. It would prolong his dying. The infections that were destroying him were too widespread and too advanced. He might even now be dead.
I set my hand to the side of his neck, placing two of my fingers on the pulse point there. His heart was still beating: I felt it there in the feeble leaping of his blood. I closed my eyes and held my fingers there, taking a peculiar comfort in that reassuring beat. A wave of dizziness passed through me. I had been awake too long, and drunk too much at the feast long before I’d added brandy with the Fool to the mix. I was suddenly old, and tired beyond telling. My body ached with the years I’d heaped on it and the tasks I’d demanded of it. The ancient, familiar pain of the arrow scar in my back, so close to my spine, twitched to wakefulness and grew to an unavoidable deep throb, as if someone’s finger were insistently prodding the old injury.
Except that I no longer had that scar. Or the pain from it. That realization whispered into my awareness, light as the first clinging snowflakes on a window. I did not look at it, but accepted what was happening. I let my breathing slow and remained very still inside my own skin. Inside our skin.
I slipped my awareness from my own body into the Fool’s and heard him make a soft sound, a wounded man disturbed in deepest sleep. Do not worry. I am not after your secrets.
But even the mention of secrets roused him. He struggled a little, but I remained still and I do not think he could find me. When he subsided, I let my awareness tendril throughout his body. Gently. Go softly, I told myself. I let myself feel the pain of his back injury. The boil that had drained was not as dangerous as the ones that had not. It had emptied itself but the poisons from some of the others were working deeper into his body and he had no strength to fight them.
I turned them back. I pushed them out.
It did not take that much effort. I worked carefully, asking as little of his flesh as I could. In some other place, I set my fingers to the sores and called up the poison. Hot skin strained to the breaking point opened under my touch, and the poisons trickled out. I used my Skill-strength in a way that I had not known it could be used, yet it seemed so obvious to me there and in that moment. Of course it worked this way. Of course it could do this.
Someone seized me and jerked me back. I lost my balance and fell. Someone tried to catch me, failed, and I struck the floor hard. It knocked the wind out of me. I gasped and wheezed and then opened my eyes. It took a moment for me to make sense of what I saw. The dying firelight illuminated Chade standing over me. His face was seized with horror as he stared down at me. I struggled to speak and could not. I was so weary, so very tired. Sweat was drying on my body, and my clothing clung to me where it was soaked. I lifted my head and became aware that the Fool was slumped forward on the table. The red light of the fire showed pus oozing from a dozen injuries on his back. I rolled my head and my gaze met Chade’s horrified stare.
“Fitz, what were you doing?” he demanded, as if he had caught me in some foul and disgusting act.
I tried to draw breath to respond. He looked away from me and I became aware that someone else had entered the room. Nettle. I knew her as she brushed against my Skill-sense. “What happened here?” she demanded, and then as she stepped close enough to see the Fool’s bared back, she gasped in dismay. “Did Fitz do this?” she demanded of Chade.
“I don’t know. Build up the fire and bring more candles!” he ordered in a trembling voice as he sank into the chair I had left empty. He set his shaking hands on his knees and leaned down toward me. “Boy! What were you doing?”
I’d remembered how to pull air into my lungs. “Trying to stop . . .” I pulled in another breath. “. . . the poisons.” It was so hard to roll over. I ached in every fiber of my body. When I set my hands to the floor to try to lever myself up, they were wet. Slippery. I lifted them and brought them up to my eyes. They were dripping with watery blood and fluid. Chade shoved a table napkin into my hands.
Nettle had thrown wood on the fire, and it was catching. Now she kindled fresh candles and replaced the ones that had burned to stubs. “It stinks,” she said, looking at the Fool. “They’re all open and running.”
“Heat clean water,” Chade told her.
“Shouldn’t we summon the healers?”
“Too much to explain, and if he dies it were better that it did not have to be explained at all. Fitz. Get up. Talk to us.”
Nettle was like her mother, stronger than one expected a small woman to be. I had managed to sit up, and she seized me under my arms and helped me to my feet. I caught my weight on the chair and nearly overset it. “I feel terrible,” I said. “So weak. So tired.”
“So now perhaps you know how Riddle felt after you burned his strength so carelessly,” she responded tartly.
Chade took command of the conversation. “Fitz, why did you cut the Fool like this? Did you quarrel?”
“He didn’t cut the Fool.” Nettle had found the water I’d left warming by the fire. She wet the same cloth I’d used earlier, wrung it out, and wiped it gingerly down the Fool’s back. Her nose wrinkled and her mouth was pinched tight in disgust at the foul liquids she smeared away. She repeated the action and said, “He was trying to heal him. All of this has been pushed from the inside out.” She spared me a disdainful glance. “Sit on the hearth before you fall over. Did you give a thought to simply using a pulling poultice on this instead of recklessly attempting a Skill-healing on your own?”
I took her suggestion and attempted to collapse back to the hearth in a controlled fashion. As neither of them was looking at me, it was a wasted effort. “I didn’t,” I said, beginning an attempt to explain that I had not, at first, intended to heal him. Then I stopped. I wouldn’t waste my time.
Chade had suddenly sat forward with an enlightened expression on his face. “Ah! Now I understand. The Fool must have been strapped to a chair with spikes protruding from the back, and the strap slowly tightened to force him gradually onto the spikes. If he struggled, the wounds became larger. As the strap was tightened, the spikes went deeper. These old injuries appear to me as if he held out for quite a long time. But I would suspect there was something on the spikes, excrement or some other foul matter, intended to deliberately trigger a long-term infection.”
“Chade. Please,” I said weakly. The image he painted made me queasy. I hoped the Fool had remained unconscious. I did not really want to know how the Servants had caused his wounds. Nor did I want him to remember.
“And the interesting part of that,” Chade went on, heedless of my plea, “is that the torturer was employing a philosophy of torment that I’ve never encountered before. I was taught that for torture to be effective at all, the victim must be allowed an element of hope: hope that the pain would stop, hope that the body could still heal, and so on. If you take that away, what has the subject to gain by surrendering his information? In this case, if he was aware that his wounds were deliberately being poisoned, once the spikes had pierced his flesh, then—”
“Lord Chade! Please!” Nettle looked revolted.
The old man stopped. “Your pardon, Skillmistress. Sometimes I forget . . .” He let his words trail away. Nettle and I both knew what he meant. The type of dissertation he had been delivering was fit only for an apprentice or fellow assassin, not for anyone with normal sensibilities.
Nettle straightened and dropped the wet cloth in the bowl of water. “I’ve cleaned his wounds as well as water can. I can send down to the infirmary for a dressing.”
“No need to involve them. We have herbs and unguents here.”
“I’m sure you do,” she responded. She looked down on me. “You look terrible. I suggest we ask a page to fetch you breakfast in your room below. He’ll be told that you overindulged last night.”
“I’ve just the lad for the job,” Chade declared abruptly. “His name is Ash.”
He flicked a glance at me, and I did not betray to Nettle that I’d already met the lad. “I’m sure he’ll do fine,” I agreed quietly, even as I wondered what plan Chade was unfolding.
“Well, then, I’ll leave you two. Lord Feldspar, I’ve been informed by Lady Kettricken that you begged for a brief audience with her tomorrow afternoon. Don’t be late. You should join those waiting outside her private audience chamber.”
I gave her a puzzled glance. “I’ll explain,” Chade assured me. More of his plans unfurling. I held in a sigh and smiled weakly at Nettle as she left. When Chade rose to seek out his healing herbs and unguents, I unfolded myself gingerly. My back was stiff and sore and the elegant shirt was pasted to me with sweat. I used what water was left in the pot to cleanse my hands. Then I tottered over to claim a seat at the table.
“I’m surprised Nettle knew the way here.”
“Dutiful’s choice. Not mine,” Chade replied brusquely. He spoke from across the room. “He’s never liked my secrets. Never fully understood how necessary they are.”
He came back from a cupboard holding a blue pot with a wooden stopper in it, and several rags. When he opened it, the pungency of the unguent stung my nose and somewhat cleared my head. I rose and before he could touch the Fool, I took the rags and medicine from him. “I’ll do it,” I told him.
“As you wish.”
It troubled me that the Fool was still unaware of us. I set my hand to his shoulder and quested slightly toward him.
“Ah-ah!” Chade warned me. “None of that. Let him rest.”
“You’ve grown very sensitive to Skill-use,” I commented as I scooped some of the unguent onto the rag and pushed it into one of the smaller wounds on the Fool’s back.
“Or you’ve grown more careless in how you use it. Think on that, boy. And report to me while you repair what you’ve done.”
“There’s little to tell that I didn’t Skill to you from the festivities. I think you have a quiet but effective pirate trade on the river that is avoiding all tariffs and taxes. And a sea captain ambitious enough to try to extend it to trade with Bingtown.”
“And you know full well that is not what I need reported! Don’t quibble with me, Fitz. After you asked me about a healer, I tried to reach you again. I could not, but I could sense how intensely involved you were elsewhere. I thought I was not strong enough, so I asked Nettle to try to reach you. And when neither of us could break in on you, we both came here. What were you doing?”
“Just”—I cleared my tight throat—“trying to help him heal. One of the boils on his back opened by itself. And when I tried to clean it for him, I became aware that . . . that he’s dying, Chade. Slowly dying. There is too much wrong with him. I do not think he can gain strength fast enough for us to heal him. Good food and rest and medicine will, I believe, only delay what is inevitable. He’s too far gone for me to save him.”
“Well.” Chade seemed taken aback by my bluntness. He sank down into my chair and drew a great breath. “I thought we had all seen that, down at the infirmary, Fitz. It was one reason why I thought you’d want a quieter place for him. A place of peace and privacy.” His voice trailed away.
His words made what I faced more real. “Thank you for that,” I said hoarsely.
“It’s little enough, and sad to say I doubt there is more I could do for either of you. I hope you know that if I could do more, I would.” He sat up straight, and the rising flames of the fire caught his features in profile. I suddenly saw the effort the old man was putting into even that small gesture. He would sit upright, and he would come up all those steps in the creaking hours before dawn for my sake, and he would try to make it all look effortless. But it wasn’t. And it was getting harder and harder for him to maintain that facade. Cold spread through me as I faced the truth of that. He was not as near death as the Fool was, but he was drifting slowly away from me on the relentless ebb of aging.
He spoke hesitantly, looking at the fire rather than at me. “You pulled him back from the other side of death once. You’ve been stingy with the details on that, and I’ve found nothing in any Skill-scroll that references such a feat. I thought perhaps . . .”
“No.” I pushed another dab of unguent into a wound. Only two more to go. My back ached abominably from bending over my task, and my head pounded as it had not in years. I pushed aside thoughts of carryme powder and elfbark tea. Deadening the body to pain always took a toll on the mind, and I could not afford that just now. “I haven’t been stingy with information, Chade. It was more a thing that happened rather than something I did. The circumstances are not something I can duplicate.” I suppressed a shudder at the thought.
I finished my task. I became aware that Chade had risen and was standing beside me. He offered me a soft gray cloth. I spread it carefully over the Fool’s treated back and then pulled his nightshirt down over it. I leaned forward and spoke by his ear. “Fool?”
“Don’t wake him,” Chade suggested firmly. “There are good reasons why a man falls into unconsciousness. Let him be. When both his body and his mind are ready for him to wake again, he will.”
“I know you’re right.”
Lifting him and carrying him back to the bed was a harder task than it should have been. I deposited him there on his belly and covered him warmly.
“I’ve lost track of time,” I admitted to Chade. “How did you stand it in here, all those years, with scarcely a glimpse of the sky?”
“I went mad,” he said genially. “In a useful sort of way, I might add. None of the ranting and clawing the walls one might expect. I simply became intensely interested in my trade and all aspects of it. Nor was I confined here as much as you might suspect. I had other identities, and sometimes I ventured forth into castle or town.”
“Lady Thyme,” I said, smiling.
“She was one. There were others.”
If he had wanted me to know, he would have told me. “How long until breakfast?”
He made a small sound in his throat. “If you were a guardsman, you’d likely be getting up from it by now. But for you, a minor noble from a holding that no one’s ever heard of, on your first visit to Buckkeep Castle, well, you’ll be forgiven for sleeping in a bit after last night’s festivities. I’ll pass the word to Ash and he’ll bring you food after you’ve had a bit of a nap.”
“Where did you find him?”
“He’s an orphan. His mother was a whore of the particular sort patronized mostly by wealthy young nobles who have . . . aberrant tastes. She worked in an establishment about a day’s ride from here in the countryside. A useful distance from Buckkeep Town for the sorts of activities a young noble might wish to keep secret. She died messily in an assignation gone horribly wrong, for both her and Ash. An informant thought I might find it useful to know which noble’s eldest son had such proclivities. Ash was a witness, not to her death but to the man who killed her. I had him brought to me and when I questioned him about what he had seen, I found he had an excellent eye for detail and a sharp mind for recalling it. He described the noble right down to the design of the lace on his cuffs. He’d grown up making himself useful to his mother and others in her trade, and thus he has a well-honed instinct for discretion. And stealth.”
“And the collecting of secrets.”
“There is that, too. His mother was not a street whore, Fitz. A young noble could take her to the gaming tables or the finer entertainments in Buckkeep Town, and not be shamed by her company. She knew poetry and could sing it to a small lute she played. He’s a lad who has walked in two worlds. He may not have court manners yet, and one can hear he’s not court-born when he speaks, but he’s not an ignorant alley rat. He’ll be useful.”
I nodded slowly. “And you want him to page for me while I’m here so . . .?”
“So you can tell me what you think of him.”
I smiled. “Not so he can watch me for you?”
Chade opened his hands deprecatingly. “And if he does, what would he see that I don’t already know? Consider it part of his training. Set him some challenges for me. Help me hone him.”
And again, what was I to say? He was doing all for the Fool and me that could be done. Could I do less for him? I had recognized the unguent I’d pushed into the Fool’s wounds. The oil for it came from the livers of a fish seldom seen in our northern waters. It was expensive, but he had not flinched from giving it to me. I would not be chary of giving him whatever I could in return. I nodded. “I’m going down to my old room to sleep for a bit.”
Chade returned my nod. “You have overtaxed yourself, Fitz. Later, when you’ve rested, I’d like a written report on that healing. When I reached for you . . . well, I could find you, but it was as if you were not yourself. As if you were so immersed in healing the Fool that you were becoming him. Or that the two of you were merging.”
“I’ll write it down,” I promised him, wondering how I could describe for him something I didn’t understand myself. “But in return, I’ll ask you to select for me new scrolls on Skill-healing and lending strength. I’ve already read the ones you left for me.”
He nodded, well pleased that I’d asked for such things, and left me, slipping out of sight behind the tapestry. I checked on the Fool and found him deeply asleep still. I hovered my hand over his face, loath to touch him lest I rouse him but worried that my efforts might have woken a higher fever in him. Instead, he seemed cooler and his breathing deeper. I straightened, yawned tremendously, and then made the error of stretching.
I muffled my yelp of pain. I stood still for a long moment, then carefully rolled my shoulders. I hadn’t imagined it. I reached behind myself and gingerly tugged my shirt free of where it had adhered to my back. Then I found Chade’s mirror. What I saw confounded me.
The oozing wounds on my back were far smaller than those on the Fool’s; nor were they puffed and reddened with infection. Instead they gaped, seven small injuries as if someone had repeatedly stabbed me with a dagger. They had not bled much; I judged them shallow. And given my propensity to heal quickly, they might very well be gone by the end of tomorrow.
The conclusion I had to reach was obvious. In Skill-healing the Fool’s wounds, I had taken on these small twins. A sudden memory stirred, and I examined my belly. There, just where I had closed the wounds my knife had made on the Fool’s body, was a series of reddened dents. I prodded one and winced. Not painful but tender. My whirling thoughts offered me a dozen explanations. In sharing strength with the Fool, had I actually shared flesh with him? Were his wounds closing because mine were opened? I draped my shirt around me, added wood to the fire, gathered my buttony jacket, and scuffed down the dusty steps to my old bedchamber. I hoped I would find some answers in the scrolls that Chade had promised me. Until I did, I would keep this small mishap to myself. I had no desire to participate in the experiments that Chade would doubtless envision if he knew of this.
I shut the door and it became undetectable. A peek out of my shuttered window told me that a winter dawn was not far away. Well, I would take what sleep I could still get and be grateful. I added a log to the dying fire on my hearth, draped my ruined finery on a chair, found Lord Feldspar’s sensible woolen nightshirt, and sought my boyhood bed. My drowsy eyes wandered the familiar walls. There was the wandering crack in the wall that had always reminded me of a bear’s snout. I had made that gouge in the ceiling, practicing a fancy move with a hand axe that had flown out of my grip. The tapestry of King Wisdom treating with the Elderlings had been replaced with one of two bucks in battle. I preferred it. I drew a deep breath and settled into the bed. Home. Despite all the years, this was home, and I sank into sleep surrounded by the stout walls of Buckkeep Castle.