I dreamed I was a nut. I had a very hard shell and I was curled up inside it. Inside my shell, I was me and there I kept all the parts of me. I had been swept into a river, and it tried to carry me with it but I stayed in one place and refused it.
Curious to say, I abruptly fell out of the river. I fell onto green grass and it was spring all around me. For a time, I stayed tight inside my shell. Then I unfolded myself and I was all there, in one piece.
The others who had been carried by the river were not so fortunate.
This is a dream that feels truer than most. It is a thing that almost certainly will happen. I do not understand how it can happen, that I shall become a nut and be swept away in the river. But I know it is so. And the mouth of the river looked like the shape I draw below. And the river sprang out of a black stone.
Dawn came before I fell asleep. I had expected a sleepless night and put it to good use. I finished transferring Chade’s information on the Skill-portals to the grand map he had given me. I did not wish to trust any portal-stone that I had not seen with my own eyes, lest it be fallen or sunken in a swamp. But if no other escape presented itself and I were hard-pressed, it was good to know which stone might lead where. I was astonished to notice that he had marked some as leading to the city of Chalced. I thought I’d best fight rather than consider those an escape.
I read over Kettricken’s notes and studied her map. It held more information than I’d possessed before, but much of it was still vague. I would have to travel to the outer reaches of Chade’s map and hope to find new maps of the lands beyond. From what the old sailor had told me, I should make the Spice Isles my destination and from there find a way. I found a faint smile as I considered his final advice to me. “Oh, if I was going there, I’d never start from here.”
Verity’s sword was going with me. Once more, it was in a plain leather sheath, the hilt disguised with a wrap of worn leather. I had considered taking an axe; it was definitely my better weapon, but while a man might wear a sword for vanity, no one suffered the weight of an axe for any reason save to use it. I needed to look like an ordinary traveler, a bit of an adventurer, but not a father bent on vengeance. The sword would serve me well, as it always had.
As the day grew gray outside, I dressed carefully. I shaved with warmed water, wondering when next I might have that luxury. My hair had finally grown to the point that I could tie it back in a warrior’s tail. I set out my fine cloak and my personal pack. Then, on a whim, I went down to the guards’ hall and joined them for a very early breakfast. There was hot porridge and honey, with dried apples chopped into it, an aromatic tea, bread and butter, and slices of last night’s roast. My guard was there and many of their Buckkeep fellows and they cheered me with rough jests and suggestions as to how best to deal with anyone who dared to come into Buck and raid a man’s home. That was the most of what they knew, that my home had been raided and Lady Shine stolen and then recaptured. Only a few of my personal guard knew of Bee, and those few understood that I did not wish that knowledge to be shared.
So it was that at the formal breakfast I ate little and once more accepted farewell wishes. I wished to be away but I understood this was the fee I owed Dutiful and Elliania, and I did my best to pay it gracefully. Chade was dozing, but I woke him to say good-bye. He seemed to be in a very genial mood and asked if I would play a game of Stones with him. I reminded him that I had to go to Clerres. He promised that he would remember that I had kept my word and said farewell to him. I doubted he would recall it after I closed the door to his room.
I tapped in vain on the Fool’s door. He would not answer, even when my knocking shook the door in its frame, and I was not surprised to find it locked. I could have picked that lock. He knew that. But the locked door was a message. He was closed to me. I steadied my breathing and walked away from that stab. It was just as well, I told myself. Better a silence than another shouting quarrel. Who knew what he might fling at me this time?
I returned to what had been my room to gather my personal pack. I was only mildly surprised to find Perseverance waiting by the door. His expression was grim but he brusquely insisted on carrying my pack for me and I allowed him.
Down we went to the courtyard, where I found my guard drawn up in fine formation. The former Rousters now blended almost seamlessly with my troops. Foxglove was there, and Riddle was already mounted. Lant looked pale, and Perseverance had mounted up as well. He did not lead Bee’s horse, and that struck a sharp pang with me. I had been harsh to him. Had I enjoyed the boy’s foolish hope? Or was it just that I hurt to see him now as hopeless as I was?
Again, there was a crowd of folk to say farewell, and Dutiful and Elliania and the princes in full regalia as they saw me off. We rode out of the gates of Buckkeep Castle to cheers. Motley flew overhead, occasionally cawing to remind us that she accompanied us. As we cantered showily away, I reflected that half my morning had been wasted with pomp.
“Necessary,” Riddle said, as if he had heard my thoughts, and he gave me a humorless grin.
The cantering soon gave way to an easy trot that would eat up the miles. We would overnight at an inn, and press on the next day. I hoped that the following evening would find me at the Skill-stone where Shine had seen my daughter vanish. There I would bid my companions farewell and journey on alone. I would go first to the ancient market-circle where once I had dreamed the Fool transformed.
It was a peculiarly routine journey. The inn had received word to expect us, and received us well. I actually slept that night, and in the morning enjoyed a solid breakfast with Riddle and Lant and Foxglove. We spoke of very ordinary things: that the breakfast bread was fresh and good, and that we hoped the weather would hold fair. Riddle predicted an early spring, and Foxglove said she thought the snow was already softening.
I donned my fine Buck-blue cloak and again we rode forth, with me at the head of a troop of guards. The innkeeper and his family saw us off with cheers, and sweet cakes of oats and dried fruit for our day’s journey. We pushed our horses, for I thought to be kind to my guard. If we reached the Skill-stone by afternoon, there was a possibility they could return to an inn for the night instead of having to sleep out in the open. I had no such prospect before me. I knew that once I had passed through that stone I would encounter winter in the Mountains. I only hoped I would not step out into a blasting storm.
My plan from there was clear. Camp for three nights in the ridiculously bulky tent I’d been gifted with. I’d subsist on marching rations for that necessary interval between uses of a Skill-pillar. From there, Chade’s chart showed me it was but a Skill-step through the pillar to Kelsingra. In that city, I would seek passage down the Rain Wild River and on to Bingtown and then Jamaillia. In Jamaillia, I was sure to find a ship bound for the Spice Isles. Once there, I’d trust to my luck and Kettricken’s map to find my way to Clerres. And blood.
I almost rode past the turn. Riddle was the one who pointed it out. The tracks we had made in the snowy field were smoothed to dimples and pocks in the snow. It seemed years since I had last ridden this way. Years since Bee had passed beyond my reach forever. Years, and a moment ago. The closer we drew to the stone, the more impatient I was to be gone. We entered the forest and followed the fading tracks. When we came to the place where Dwalia and her luriks had camped, Foxglove halted our troops and gave the order for them to set up a camp.
“No need.” I spoke quietly to her. “I’m not going to make this a dramatic moment, Foxglove. I’m going to walk to that rock, touch it, and be gone. And you will turn our guards around and head back toward an inn. I hope that tonight you will sleep in warmth and comfort, and perhaps hoist a tankard to wish me good luck.” I cleared my throat and added quietly, “Inside my chamber, there is a parcel addressed to you. Within it, there are messages for folk that are dear to me. If a year passes with no word from me, then you will know it is time to deliver them.”
She stared at me, then gave a stiff nod.
I dismounted, and she shouted to our guards to hold off on that order. She dismounted, handed her horse to her granddaughter, and followed me. Riddle came after us, and Lant. I glanced back, thinking I would see Perseverance shadowing us, but the boy had vanished. From somewhere, the crow squawked. They’d be together. Just as well.
In the gloom under the leaning evergreens, the winter afternoon already seemed like evening. The shadowed snow and dark trunks were shaded from black to palest gray. In that dimness, it took me a moment to pick out the Skill-stone gripped in the roots and leaning trunk of an evergreen. I approached it without reluctance. Nettle’s Skill-users had traveled to the Mountains via this stone and returned days later without incident. It was as safe to use as any Skill-portal, I told myself. I pushed from my memory what had happened the last time I had traveled by stone. I sealed from my heart that this was the very stone that had devoured Bee and those who had taken her.
Only a light snow had fallen since last I had been here, and little of it had penetrated the interweaving needled branches overhead. With a gloved hand, I brushed snow and fallen needles from the face of the stone. I had my sword at my side, a pack on my back, and a large carry-bag on my shoulder. Everything I thought I needed was in the pack and everything the others had insisted I take was in the carry-bag. I had privately resolved I would not carry it for long.
“So,” I said to Riddle. He pulled off his glove as I did mine, and we clasped wrists. Our eyes met briefly and then we both looked aside.
“Travel well,” he said to me, and “I shall try,” I replied. His grip tightened on my wrist and I returned that pressure. Nettle, you’ve chosen well, I Skilled to her. Through my eyes, I showed her the man she had chosen. Care for his heart. It’s a true one. And then I swiftly set my walls to hold in all my fears and worries.
I bade farewell likewise to Foxglove and to Lant. The old captain met my gaze with her steely one and bade me “Uphold the honor of the Farseers.” Lant’s hand was sweaty as he gripped my wrist, and he seemed to tremble.
“You’ll do fine,” I told him quietly. “Take care of that old man for me. Blame it on me that I would not let you come.”
He hesitated. “I’ll do my best to live up to his expectations,” he replied.
I returned him a rueful grin for that. “Best of luck with that!” I wished him, and he managed a shaky laugh.
They were watching me. I held up a hand. I closed my eyes, though I did not need to. Through the stone, I said to Nettle and Dutiful. I could feel Thick watching us drowsily. I’ll be sending Riddle right back to you. He should be home by tomorrow evening.
And you will Skill to us as soon as you emerge from the stone?
I already promised I would. I will not leave you worrying. I expect to be told as soon as the child is born.
And I already promised that to you. Go carefully, Da.
I love you all. And then, because those words sounded too much like a final farewell I added, Tell the Fool not to be too angry with me. Take care of him until I return.
I turned back to those waiting around me. “Nettle expects you home by tomorrow,” I warned Riddle.
“I’ll be there,” he promised me, and I knew that he did not mean just for the next evening.
Foxglove looked weary and Lant looked as if he felt sick. I shared some of his nervousness. The world seemed to waver a bit around me as I stepped toward the stone. As I set my bare hand to the cold stone and pressed firmly against the rune, Lant leapt forward suddenly. He clasped my wrist and exclaimed, “I go with you!”
Someone also clasped me suddenly around the waist. I thought perhaps Riddle would pull me back, but I felt the stone give way and draw me in. Lant came with me, with a drawn-out shout that cut off as the darkness snapped shut around us.
Traveling through a pillar had always felt disorienting. This time instead of twinkling darkness it was as if someone had snapped a hood over my head and then let a horse kick me. I had no sense of traveling a great distance; it was more like a sudden push off a ladder. I fell hard on snowy ground. Lant landed on top of me, and I was crumpled facedown across the lumpy carry-sack and something else. There was snow in my eyes, and the cold that engulfed me was far sharper than that of Buck. The wind had been knocked out of my lungs. I wheezed in snow, coughed it out, and then fought to breathe as I struggled to sit up.
Lant abruptly heaved himself away from me. He sat facing away from me in the snow. His shoulders shook but he made not a sound.
“Let me up!”
I pushed myself up off the noisy sack and wiped my sleeve across my eyes. I heaved myself into a sitting position. The struggling lump in the snow beneath me was wrapped in a butterfly’s wing. Perseverance abruptly pushed one corner of the Elderling cloak aside and stared up at me. “What happened? Where am I?” An instant later there was an explosion of black feathers slapping me, and an indignant Motley fled skyward.
“Stupidity happened!” I shouted. Except that I had no breath to shout, so it came out as a gasp. I floundered to my feet and looked around me. Yes. I was where I had expected to be. Loose, fresh snow had smoothed the rumpled tracks Nettle’s coterie had left. Around me was the open circle of what had once been a market pavilion, and we had tumbled from one face of the lone standing pillar that centered it. Dark mountain forest glowered at us from all directions. Beneath me, I felt the distant humming of what I thought of as the Skill-road. Constructed long ago by Elderlings, it thrummed with the memories of those who had trodden it. Moss and grass always seemed reluctant to invade its surfaces. The forest leaned in over the decorative stonework that edged the plaza. I set my walls against the muttering of stone-memories.
I glanced at the sky. Night would soon be falling, it was very cold, and I was unexpectedly saddled with two idiots. I felt vaguely ill in a way I could not define. Not dizzy or feverish. I felt as if I had just arisen from my bed after a long illness. Well, I had, without preparation, towed two unSkilled ones through a pillar, and the simmering memories of the Skill-road besieged my walls. I decided I was lucky that I felt only weak. And they were fortunate to be sane and alive. If they were.
“Lant? How do you feel?”
He dragged in a long breath. “Like the morning after a night of drinking bad ale.”
I turned and glared at Perseverance. “How did you do that?”
He looked surprised I would ask. “I hid under the cloak near the stone. You know how it conceals things that are beneath it. Then, at the last moment, I jumped up and caught hold of you. And here I am.” He stood straight suddenly and met my gaze. He seemed totally unaffected by the passage. He draped the butterfly cloak around his shoulders. “I followed to serve you as I vowed to do. To avenge my Lady Bee, whose colors I wear.”
I wanted to stamp and shout, to call them every demeaning and damning term I knew. They looked at me like puppies and suddenly I could not muster the energy. The cold that squeezed me was not a cold that had patience with human frailty. I looked down at both of them. “Lant. Get up. There’s a tent in that bag. Make camp over there, under those trees where the snow is shallower. I’m going to get a fire going.”
They stared at me, then exchanged astonished glances. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lant stand. He stumbled two steps sideways and then reached up to hold his head in his hands. The Skill-portal journey had not been easy for him. His own fault. My anger at how they had complicated my life drowned any sympathy I might have felt. Perseverance, wrapped in layers of butterfly wings, looked less affected. I walked away from them, pulling my clothing closer. I’d worn the gaudy Farseer cloak over the plain one and was suddenly glad to have it. I found a dead and hanging branch, shook it cautiously to rid it and the branches right above it of loose snow, and then began to break pieces off of it. I returned to find them struggling to erect the small tent I’d been reluctant to bring. Now I was glad of it. I ignored their efforts as I scraped clear an area of the cobbles of the old market and set about my fire-making. I was rusty at this skill, light-headed from our passage, and the longer I struggled, the colder and stiffer my hands became. I panted and sniffled as I worked, for the cold does that to a man. I felt my lips dry and tried to remember not to lick them, as I knew they would immediately crack. Night was coming on and the cold was squeezing me harder. Patience was hard to find. I should have brought a fire-pot.
A spark caught and lingered, and then another, and finally a tiny trickle of smoke rose from my tinder. “Go get wood,” I told the two watching me struggle. “There’s a hatchet in my pack. Don’t dump it out on the snow, reach inside to find it.”
“I’m not an idiot,” Perseverance said huffily.
“You’ve not proved that today,” I told him, and he went.
Lant lingered a moment longer. “I told my father you’d refused me. He told me it wasn’t your decision to make. That I should find a way. So I did.”
That sounded like Chade. “We’ll need a lot of wood to last through the night, and the light is nearly gone,” I pointed out. Lant stamped away.
I fed the tiny fire twigs and then snapped off bits of the branch and then finally dared add some actual wood to it. I looked around at the gathering gloom. Motley had taken up a post in a bare-limbed tree and was watching me. I decided we would have a large fire tonight. Perseverance returned dragging a substantial branch. I broke some of the smaller limbs from it and then set him to chopping the rest. The fire was lending some warmth by the time Lant returned. He’d found a storm-broken evergreen, and the resinous branches caught quickly and burned hot. I could tell he did not feel well. He kept pinching his lips together as if he feared he’d be sick, and more than once he reached up to press the heels of his hands to his temples. I didn’t care how he felt. “We still need more wood,” I told them.
For a time we all came and went, bringing whatever storm-dropped wood we could find. When we had a substantial reserve, we crouched around the fire, warming ourselves. “You first,” I said to Lant. “What supplies did you bring?”
I watched him try to order his thoughts. “Warm clothes. Some dried meat and fruit. Bread, honey, some bacon, cheese. A blanket rolled small. A knife and a cook-pot. A bowl and a cup and spoon. Coin for inns. My sword.” He looked around us at the forest. “I thought there might be inns.”
“There aren’t,” I told him. I looked at Perseverance. “And you?”
The boy had the brilliant Elderling cloak hooded up over his head. It was too large for him. He peered at me from the recesses. “I’m dressed warm. I brought food, mostly grain for porridge. Some smoked dried meat. A cook-pot for it, and a spoon. A cup. My knife. A sling. Not a lot.”
“I’ve got her cloak, sir, the butterfly cloak. It’s surprisingly warm.”
I looked at him. His cheeks were pink and the tip of his nose was red, but he looked comfortable crouched by the fire. I pondered for a time. I didn’t like my decision. “We’ll camp here for three days. Then I’ll take you back.” And I’d have to wait at least another three days before I dared another journey through the pillar. Setback after setback.
“No,” said Lant.
“Won’t go,” Perseverance replied. He didn’t look at me. Instead he went to his pack that he’d set inside the tent and came back with a pot. He moved away from the trodden area to pack it full of clean snow. He brought it back and set it by the fire. “We’ll have porridge for dinner,” he announced. He looked at Lant. “I could add some of your dried fruit if you want.”
Lant was warming his hands. “It’s in my pack. Fetch it for me and I’ll find the apples for you.”
“No.” I said. They both stared at me. I pointed at my cousin. “Fetch it yourself, Lant. Perseverance is my man, not yours. For the next three days, you’ll do everything for yourself. Then we’ll see if you don’t want to go back to Buckkeep.”
He glared at me. Then, without a word, he rose and stalked off to the tent. He returned with his pack, opened it, and took out a packet of dried apples. I had to admire his self-control. He didn’t take his temper out on the boy, but only selected a handful of dried slices and gave them to the lad. Perseverance thanked him.
I inspected their work on the tent. It had been intended only for me, and to be comfortably large for one man. Three were going to be more than snug. The tent was canvas, sewn like a big pocket that could be staked down and the top lifted with a line to a tree. I tightened several of the lines and tapped down one peg more securely. I hadn’t wanted to bring it but I knew we’d all be glad of it tonight. I’d planned to abandon it as soon as I could.
The cold was not as daunting now that I knew I had a warm fire to return to. I walked slowly around the circular clearing that had once been a marketplace. I tried to imagine Elderlings converging here to trade goods and exchange news. I looked up at the pillar that had ejected us. It was a darker shape against a dark sky. I recalled the first time I had seen this place. Kettricken, the Fool, the old woman, Kettle, Starling, and I had come here on our long quest to find King Verity and persuade him to return to his throne and his embattled kingdom. The Fool had climbed the pillar, and when I looked up at him there, he had been someone else: another jester or songster, from another time. And Starling had slapped me, hard, to wake me from that vision. Later, the Fool and I had gone hunting with Nighteyes. And ended up in a water fight in a creek. Boys. We’d been such boys, but I’d believed myself a man. So many years ago. How my world had changed since then. How we had changed.
I glanced back at Per and Lant. Per was crouched over his little pot, adding another handful of snow. The apples and the oats waited beside him. He was explaining to Lant that it would take a lot of melted snow to make a pot of water, and then it must boil before he added the oats or the apples. I felt a burst of disgust that Lant did not know such simple things as how to cook porridge over a fire in winter. Then it came to me that his life would never have taught him such skills, any more than mine had taught me the rules of the various gambling games that pleased the nobles of Buckkeep. I wasn’t being fair to expect those things of him. But life wasn’t fair. Life does not wait for any of us to grow up. Perhaps if it had been summer, they’d have been throwing water at each other.
I looked at Lant and tried to see him dispassionately. He had grit. He’d ridden after me with that half-healed stab wound. Even now, I saw his hand stray to his healed ribs and gently rub them. I knew the ache of old injuries in the cold. He’d known I would not welcome him, and yet he’d followed me. I still didn’t understand why. Lant said something in a low voice, Per chuckled, and the crow copied him with her cawing laugh. Nothing could have made me smile tonight. I felt envy for their youth, and a spark of warmth for both of them. They’d made such a mistake today. And they’d have to pay the toll for it.
So I let them struggle. The water finally boiled, the oats and apples eventually cooked. We each had a small portion and then waited while Per cooked more. Lant looked a bit better after he had eaten. I gave the crow a stingy portion of bread. I filled my own little pot with snowmelt and made tea for us. We each had a cup and drank it slowly. I gave Per the first watch, with strict instructions that he was to keep the fire well fed. I no longer had a wolf to protect me through the night. This place and its memories were cutting my heart with loneliness and I longed for the Fool as he had been, for Nighteyes at my side. I could almost recall how the fur on the back of my wolf’s neck would have felt, tipped with cold and then warm near his skin. I reached for him but found only silence.
I showed Perseverance a star, and told him to wake Lant for his watch when the star was over the top of a fir tree. I gave Lant the same instructions, and told him to wake me when the star had journeyed into the bare branches of an oak.
“Keep watch for what?” Lant looked around the silent forest.
“Wild creatures. Big cats. Bears. Anything that might see us as prey.”
“They’re afraid of fire!” Lant insisted.
“And that’s one reason why one of us stays awake and keeps the fire fed.” He did not ask me the other reasons and I did not offer them: That at least once the Servants had used this same portal. That sometimes forest creatures were hungry enough not to fear fire.
Lant and I tried to make ourselves comfortable in the cramped tent. When we had settled back-to-back, I was grateful for his body-warmth. I had just begun to doze off when he spoke. “I know you didn’t want me to follow you.”
“Coming through the Skill-portal with me when I didn’t expect you or Perseverance was incredibly dangerous. We were very lucky.” I thought about taking them back through the pillar. The obvious broke over me. Perhaps one of Nettle’s Skill-users could come through and then take them back, so I didn’t have to. Belatedly, I realized that I had not told Nettle that we were safe. I composed myself and reached out.
“Why do you dislike me so much?”
“Hush. I’m trying to Skill.” I pushed his blunt question aside. I reached out. Nettle? Dutiful?
I heard a distant music, like wind in the trees. I focused on it and tried to draw it closer to me. Fitz? Fitz? Hearing Dutiful was like listening to someone shout over driven surf. His thought was carried to me on Thick’s Skill-music, like flotsam tossed on a wave. I pushed my thoughts at him. We’re all safe. Lant and Perseverance came with me.
The stable boy from Withywoods.
What happened? You were silent so long!
We needed to build a shelter and make a fire right away. It’s very cold here.
Fitz, it’s been a full day since you left, and a bit more than that.
Oh. I was silent for a time, absorbing that. It didn’t seem that way. It seemed as if we stepped in and out again.
I’m here. We’re fine. My distrust for that pillar flared anew. It had devoured Bee, and we’d experienced a delay. I would not ask Nettle to risk one of her Skilled ones in it, nor chance sending Lant and Per through it again. Thick’s Skill-music rose and fell. I reached for it, and it slipped away. I arrowed my message to them. Don’t worry! We will be fine here. Tell Chade that Lant is with me.
Nothing. No response. Distant music and then that faded. I came back to the tent and Lant’s sullen silence. No. That was the deep steady breathing of sleep. I’d not have to answer his question tonight. I had others to occupy me. Was my Skill damaged somehow? How had I not realized how long we’d been in the pillar? Why was it so difficult to reach Nettle and Dutiful? I should have lain awake worrying but I didn’t. I realized that when Lant shook my shoulder.
“Your watch,” he said hoarsely. I sat up in the dark, and beside me Perseverance muttered at my letting the cold air under the blankets we’d shared. I hadn’t even woken when Per and Lant had changed places. Not good. Dragging them through the Skill-portal had taken a heavier toll on me than I’d realized. I crawled out of the tent, every joint aching, and reached back to take the cloaks I’d added to our blankets but, “Here,” Lant said, and pushed a small bundle of bunched fabric at me. “The boy let me use it. It was all I needed.”
“Thank you,” I said, but Lant was already crawling into the tent. The Elderling cloak was lighter than silk. I shook it out and wrapped it around me and pulled the hood up over my head. For a short time I shivered, and then my own warmth surrounded me. I went to the fire and sat down on a chunk of a log. It was too low and uncomfortable but it was better than sitting in the snow. When I wearied of that, I rose and paced slowly around the old market-circle. I came back to the fire, fed it, packed snow into the pot, melted it with a few tips of the evergreen needles, and drank it as tea. Twice I tried to Skill to Nettle with no success. I sensed a strong current of Skill and the muttering of the Skill-road, imbued with the thousands of memories of Elderlings who had passed over its surface. If Nettle heard me, I could not pick her voice out from theirs.
My mind raveled through the years, and I had leisure to think of all the foolish decisions I’d made. In the dark I mourned the loss of Molly and how I had wasted Bee’s little life. I indulged my hatred for Dwalia and her followers, and raged that they were beyond my vengeance. I lifted and studied my own ridiculous quest. I had to wonder if I would even find Clerres, and what one man could do to topple such an evil nest of cruelty. It was foolish even to try, but it was the last thing I had to give purpose to my life.
I wondered if I were a coward to refuse to risk my eyesight to bring back the Fool’s. No. I was better suited to this mission than he was. I was sad to leave him, but glad he was somewhere warm and safe. If I succeeded in my quest and returned to him, he would forgive me. Perhaps. And perhaps by then, the dragon’s blood he had taken would have restored his sight. I could hope. For him, I could hope for a better life and good years to come. For myself, the only hope I had was that I could kill successfully before I was killed.
The steep thrust of the mountain peaks that surrounded us delayed dawn. When there was enough light to see, I built up the fire, packed both pots with snow and set them to melt, then shouted at the others to wake up. Per stumbled out first, and my reluctance to part with the butterfly cloak shamed me. The cold reached for me with greedy fingers. But my daughter had chosen to protect him under the cloak, and what she had given to him, I would not take away. Lant roused more slowly, and I hastened the process when I took back the two cloaks that had become part of his bedding.
“I’m going hunting,” I told them. “You two are to stay near the camp. Gather lots of wood and keep the fire going. I may not be back until late evening. Or even tomorrow morning.” How far was it? I would travel swiftly and alone, unburdened by a pack animal or companions. I could do it.
“Where are you going?” Per was suspicious.
“I told you. Hunting. I’ll bring back meat, I hope. A good meal for us.”
“You’ve no bow. How can you hunt?”
I was already tired of the conversation. “As I used to. Like a wolf.” I turned and walked away from them. At the edge of the clearing, I stopped. “Cut staves for yourselves. There are wild animals here, some big enough to think you’d be prey. Lant, practice with the boy. Teach him what you know.” I turned away from them. Whacking at each other with staves would both occupy them and keep them warm. As I walked away, Motley cawed derisively after me but did not follow.
I wondered why I was doing this. It was not part of my plan. But neither was Per or Lant. I reached for Nettle to let her know what I was doing and found only a roaring current of Skill full of strange voices. I pulled hastily away from it. I hiked on.
The trail was more overgrown than I remembered it. Trees and bushes had begun to encroach on the edges of the ancient Skill-road. Perhaps not even Elderling magic could hold out forever. Windblown dead needles and small branches littered the smooth snow. I relaxed into the cold, accepting it, and felt my muscles loosen as my body generated its own heat. I moved swiftly but quietly, looking for movement. If I had the chance, I’d kill something for us to eat, but as Per had guessed, meat was not my primary goal.
The last time I’d walked this way, the foliage had been dense and green. Snow mounded on the moss that draped the tree branches now. I passed a tree where a bear had sharpened his claws. The tracks were old, softened with snow. Birds flitted through the trees. A deer trail crossed my path, but nothing moved on it right now. In a small clearing I came across a tangle of wild roses still heavy with frozen red hips. The birds feeding on them cursed me as I stole from the edges of the prickly tangle. I filled my kerchief and tied it shut. If nothing else, they would flavor porridge or tea for us. I picked a final handful to chew as I walked.
The forest grew denser and darker. I hurried. Although the year had turned her steps toward spring, the days were still short. My feet got cold and I pulled my hood tighter around my ears. I ran then, plowing through the snow across the path, pounding my feet until they warmed with the exercise. I ran carelessly, spooking a fat bird that might have made a good meal, if I’d had the means to kill it. After that I walked, and ran, and walked again. I ate snow to keep my mouth wet, but avoided chilling my body with too much of it. Onward. I watched the winter sun pass over my head and shadows start to grow long. This was foolishness. Why had I yielded to the impulse? I was as stupid as Lant and Per put together. Then, as evening leached all colors from the day, I came to the first buried hulk beside the snow pathway.
It had been years but some things a man does not forget. I moved from stone dragon to stone dragon. Here was the one shaped like a wild boar. Here was one with the shape of a dragon. The blue-winged buck’s antlers were edged with snow. They still filled me with awe, each and every one of them.
Years ago, with blood and magic, Nighteyes and I had roused these sleeping shapes and sent them winging to Verity’s aid. Verity. My king. He and the old Skill-user Kettle had poured all their memories and even their lives into a magnificent dragon, shaped from Skill-stone, from the same stuff that made up the pillars. And as a dragon, Verity had risen and carried both Kettricken and Starling back to Buckkeep, so that his queen might bear his son and continue his lineage. The dragon he had made at such a cost led the battle against the Red-Ship Raiders and the Outislanders.
And when all had been vanquished and peace returned to our shores, Verity-as-Dragon had returned here, to slumber with the others in the deep shade beneath the looming trees.
I found him. I brushed the snow from him, clearing it from the magnificent wings now folded close to his side. I swept his head clean of snow, wiping it away from his closed eyes. Then I pulled off my snowy gloves and set my bare hands to his cold and stony brow. I reached, not with the Skill but with the Wit, and I sought for the king I had served and then lost. I felt the dim flicker of some sort of lingering life in the stone. And when I did, I poured into my touch all the Skill and the Wit I could muster. I opened my heart and confided all to the cold stone dragon. It was not pouring memories into stone as Verity had done to wake his creation. This was a simple reaching to my uncle, to my king, an outpouring of all that had befallen me and all I hoped to do. All my anguish I shared with him, the loss of my wife and child, the Fool’s torment, Chade’s fading, all of it.
And when I was emptied far beyond tears or hopes of vengeance, I stood still and empty in the cold beside the frozen dragon. A foolish quest. I was here for the night now, with no tent, no fire. I pushed snow aside to bare years of fallen leaves. I sat down between his outstretched front legs and leaned back against his head, slumped on his paws in slumber. I drew my legs in close to me and pulled my hood well forward. I curled up against my king and hoped the cold would not deepen too much tonight. The Skill-stone he was carved from was cold against my back. Was Verity cold, somewhere? Or did he and Kettle play at Stones in some other world, beyond my reach? I closed my eyes and longed to join them.
Oh, Fitz. You feel so much.
Did I imagine it? I huddled perfectly still. Then I stripped my glove from my hand and set my bare palm to the scaled cheek of my king.
Nothing is really lost. Shapes change. But it’s never completely gone.
Thank you. For my son. For my grandsons.
My king. Your thoughts warm me.
Perhaps I can do a bit more than that.
I felt a rising warmth. Snow melted and slid from the dragon’s body, and he scintillated blue and silver. Warmth flowed up through my hand and into the rest of me. I leaned into stone that suddenly felt alive. But with that rising warmth, my Wit-sense of my king began to fade. I reached for him but could no longer touch him. Verity? I wondered, but he did not respond. Except with warmth. I found I could slide under his chin. I wedged myself under his long jaw, between his front legs. My back stopped aching from the cold. I felt cupped in wonder and safety. I closed my eyes.
Dawn came. I woke to birds. My own body-warmth within my cloaks was all I felt now. I slithered out into the winter day, brushed dry leaves and needles from my clothes, and set my hand on my king’s scaled brow.
Chill stone and stillness. Tiny icicles had formed at the corners of his eyes like frozen tear tracks. The bleakness that rose in me was a steep price to pay for that time of connection and comfort. But I did not regret the price. “Farewell,” I told the dragon. “Wish me luck.”
I regloved my hands. The warmth that had infused me stayed with me as I turned my steps back toward the camp. I walked steadily and swiftly, hoping I’d see the yellow glow of our fire before all light went out of the day. Clouds covered the sky and slightly warmed the day. I walked, then ran, then walked, and pondered all the questions that I’d never have answered.
A flicker of one black-edged ear betrayed the hare that crouched under the rose thicket I’d passed the day before. Still as snow, he waited, his winter coat blending with the snow that was speckled with twigs and birds’ droppings. I did not look at him, but continued my pace as I walked almost past him before I spun and fell on him.
I trapped him under my spread cloak. With gloved hands, I gripped one wildly kicking hind leg. When I was sure I had him, I stood, seized his head in my free hand, and gave his body a violent snap. In that instant his neck was broken and his life was over. He hung motionless, warm and limp and dead as I gripped him by his head. “Death feeds life,” I told him sadly, tucking his furry body under my arm. Pulling my cloak tighter, I continued back to camp.
The day faded around me. The trees seemed to lean in closer over the trail, and the cold gripped me more tightly. I tramped on. The golden light of the campfire guided me toward the end of my hike. I felt oddly successful. I had touched Verity again, if only for a short time, and I knew that somewhere my king continued in some other form. The rose hips in my kerchief and the deadweight of the hare made me simmer with pride. I might be old, my joints might ache in the cold, and I had failed in several dozen important ways in the last few months. But I could still hunt, and still bring back meat to share. And that was something, and a bigger something than it had been in a long time.
So I was weary but not tired as I came back into the circle of firelight. Lant and Perseverance were both crouched by the fire, looking into the flames. I shouted at them, held up my hare, and then tossed it at Per, who caught it in a hug. They both stared at me. I grinned. “What’s wrong? Don’t you know how to dress a hare for the pot?”
“Of course I do!” Per declared, but Lant spoke over him.
“The one you call the Fool? He was here. With a girl named Spark.”
“What?” The world rocked around me. “Where is he? Why? How?”
“Gone,” Lant said, and Per added, “They went back into that stone. The same one we came out of.”
“No.” I said it like a prayer, but I knew it was one no god would answer. Lant started to speak. I pointed a finger at him. “You. Tell me everything, every tiny thing. Per, you do the hare.” I hunkered down on the opposite side of the fire and waited.
“There’s little to tell. We were keeping watch here, bringing wood and feeding the fire. Per took out his sling and got a squirrel with it. We saved some for you, but when you didn’t return by nightfall, we ate it. We cut staves, and I showed the boy a few moves he didn’t know. We talked.” He shook his head.
“There wasn’t much else to do. We gathered more firewood. Then, as full night came on, we heard a sound, like a thud. We both turned and there they were, sprawled in the snow. We didn’t know them at first, for all the heavy clothing they were wearing. Then the smaller one sat up, and Per shouted, ‘Ash!’ and ran toward them. He helped him to stand, and Ash said right away, ‘Help my master. Is he all right?’ So then we helped the other one to stand, and it was a woman. Then I looked again, and it was the Fool. We brought them over by the fire. They were dressed warmly, but in very old-fashioned clothing, and both were dressed as women. Old furs, very lush but smelling a bit musty. Per called the girl Ash but the Fool said her name was Spark. She had an immense pack on her back, and the Fool had a tall walking stick.
“The Fool asked Spark who was here, and she told him Per and me, and then the Fool asked us why you weren’t here. And we said you’d gone hunting. We heated water and gave them some hot tea and some of the squirrel broth to the girl, who looked poorly. The Fool said you were going to be very angry with him, but there was no help for that. Then he said, ‘Well, waiting isn’t going to make it any easier or less dangerous. Spark, are you ready for another leap?’ And the girl said she was, but we could all hear how sick she felt. And the Fool told her that she didn’t have to go, that she could stay here and wait, but Spark told him not to be foolish, that he needed her eyes. Then they finished their tea and thanked us and went back to the pillar. When I guessed what they were going to try, I told them that it was dangerous, that you had said we had to wait at least three days before we used a Skill-portal again. But the Fool shook his head and said all life was danger and dead was the only way to be safe. He pulled off his glove, and the girl took out a tiny bottle and put just a few drops of something on his hand. Then the Fool held on to the girl’s shoulder with one hand, and she took his stick, and then the Fool put his other hand on the Skill-pillar. I called to them, asking where they were going. And the girl said, ‘The dragon city.’ And the Fool said, ‘Kelsingra.’ And they both just walked into it.”
I sat down flat in the snow. I tried to breathe. Dragon blood. That was why he had wanted dragon blood. I could understand why the Fool had come after us. He had always wanted to be a part of this quest. But why dragon’s blood had worked to take him through the pillars, I was not sure. And it made no sense to me that he would go on without me, blind, with only Spark at his side.
“There was one more thing,” Per said. He’d made a tidy job of his skinning. The hare’s head and paws were still inside the hide he’d stripped cleanly from the animal’s body. The guts were in a pile. He sorted the heart and liver and tossed them into the pot. The rest of the hare, dark meaty red and sinewy white, was already cut into pot-sized pieces. Motley descended and began an inquest of the small gut-pile.
“What thing?” I asked.
“He said, the Fool I mean, he said, ‘Don’t let Fitz follow us. Tell him to stay here and wait. We’ll be back.’ ”
“He did say that,” Lant admitted.
“Anything else? Anything at all?”
They exchanged looks. “Well, it wasn’t a thing he said, but something they did,” Per said. “Ash left the big pack and most of their supplies here. When they went back into the pillar, they took only a small part of what they’d brought.” He looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Sir, why would Ash and Gray both dress as women?”
“Probably the only warm garments they could steal easily,” I said to him. “Taken from a forgotten wardrobe that once belonged to an old woman named Lady Thyme.” Lant twitched at the name, and I wondered how much he knew of his father’s old disguise.
Per shook his head. “Well, maybe. But their faces . . . Ash had red lips. Like a girl. So did your friend. So it looked like they did it on purpose.”