Wide gape the gates of yellowed bone. A tongue of plank is our path between the teeth as we walk toward the gullet. Here I will be devoured. This is a true thing, near unavoidable on any path. I must enter those jaws.
We all slept in the Elderling tent that night, packed as neatly as saltfish in a box. I slept along one wall, the Fool against my back. Even against the fine fabric, I slept much more warmly than I had in our small tent. In the early hours of dawn Per came in from his watch. “The porridge is nearly cooked,” he told me softly as I woke. “I put a bit of honey in it.”
I sat up, trying not to wake the others this early. Both the Fool and Spark, I thought, should take all the sleep they could. Then my Wit sent a sudden shuddering through me. A predator, one bigger than me, moved outside the tent, exploring our camp. In the next moment Motley began a raucous cawing. I heard the clatter of an overturned pot.
I shifted as quietly as I could and reached across the Fool to seize Lant’s shoulder. “Sssh,” I warned him as he woke. “Something’s outside. Follow me, sword drawn.”
The others woke as we extricated ourselves but sensed our caution. Spark’s eyes looked as big as saucers as I stepped over her, sword bared, and ducked to exit the tent. Lant came behind me, as barefoot as I was, naked steel in his hand. As soon as I saw our intruder, I reached back to grab his wrist. “Don’t look directly at him,” I warned. To the others inside, I said in a carrying whisper. “Bear. Come out. Don’t dress, just get clear of the tent. You don’t want to be caught inside it. Do not run, but be ready to scatter if I shout.”
The bear was a big fellow, and the silvery hair on his shoulders and a graying muzzle showed that he was both old and wise. No bear gets that old without the wisdom that survival demands, but neither does a creature in the wild live to that age without infirmities. The breadth of his shoulders showed me what a powerful creature he once had been, but he was gaunt now. He was on all fours, sniffing through Lant’s pack, which had been left by last night’s campfire. His interest was plain: food.
As the others emerged he became aware of us and made a leisurely decision to display his size for us. He lifted himself onto his hind legs and stood looking down at us with his glittering black eyes. He was a big one. Very big. His mouth was ajar, taking in our scent and incidentally displaying sizable teeth. I could smell his hot breath on the cold winter air, and in it the carrion stink of infection.
“Spread out, but walk slowly,” I suggested to the others in a low voice as they came fumbling out of the tent. “Move apart from one another. If he charges, we scatter. Don’t bunch up where he can get all of us.”
I could hear Spark’s panting breath. They emerged last, with the Fool caped in one of his skirts. Spark had the sense to keep hold of the Fool’s sleeve as she began to tug him sideways away from the group. The bear’s glittering gaze followed them.
Food, I reminded him. Smell it. Apples. Maybe bacon or fish? Perhaps a pot of honey. I could only suggest. The Wit-magic allows me to reach toward an animal but it does not assure that the animal will accept my thoughts. It certainly gives me no power to command a wild creature. And sometimes it is a mistake to try to touch minds.
It certainly was this time. I sensed his pain and he did not like that I knew his weakness. The bear gave a low huff, an angry sound. “Stand still,” I warned the others. “Do not run.” I lifted my sword. It had never felt smaller in my hand. The bear looked around at the human statues. I spared one sideways glance for Spark and the Fool. They were the most vulnerable, weaponless and the Fool unsighted. They were both in their stocking feet. Spark still had the Elderling cloak bundled around her. The rest of us could run. Lant and I both had swords, and Per had his staff in his hands.
But the bear decided we were no threat. He dropped back to all fours. He snuffed Lant’s pack. His thick black claws were as big around as sausages, with deadly sharp tips. He demonstrated their power as he casually tore the pack open, scattering the contents over the snow. Lant made a dismayed noise. “Stand steady,” I told him, and he obeyed. I tipped my eyes toward Spark. She looked haggard but her jaw was set with determination. Moving slowly, she had lifted one side of the butterfly cloak and was trying to drape it around the Fool. He was hugging himself against the cold, fear and misery on his face. What did he perceive? The warmth emanating from such a large creature, the sounds it made as it ransacked Lant’s supplies? I studied the bear, estimated his size and strength. “Per. Get up that tree behind you. He’s too big to climb it. Go. Now.”
For a wonder, the boy obeyed. He moved silently and swiftly. The tree was not an easy one to climb but the boy was inspired. One safe.
“Lant. Now you go.”
“No.” His voice was deadly calm with terror. “Two swords are better than one. I’m not going to attack him, but if he comes after you, I’ll do my best.”
I shot him a sideways glance. Chade’s son. Where had this man suddenly come from? “Very well,” I conceded. The bear was struggling with something wrapped in several layers of waxed cloth. “We’re going to move back and away.”
Spark had moved the Fool slowly toward what she perceived as their only possible escape. The dense forest behind us offered them no clear place to run. She’d followed the edge of the pavilion and the old stonework, working her way around the curve until she was now nearing the stone pillar. With a sinking heart, I realized that the bear was now between them and me. I could see the panicky rise and fall of her chest as they edged closer and closer to the portal. I saw her lips move and watched the Fool tug the glove from his silvered hand. I could not hear what she said to him but I saw his tight nod. “Don’t!” I said in a low voice. “Don’t chance it. Once he’s had all the food, he will likely leave. Stand still.”
The bear lifted his head at my words. He had attempted to eat the cheese, waxed cloth and all. It had tangled in his teeth and now he pawed irritably at his mouth, trying to dislodge it with his claws. He rumbled his displeasure and then gave an abrupt snarl of pain. Sometimes old bears have bad teeth, and the cloth was wrapped around one. He gave a sudden roar of fury and Spark gasped shrilly. He turned his head sharply toward them. His eyes, small and snapping black with anger, focused on them. In terror, she dragged the Fool toward the pillar.
“No!” I shouted.
Bears walk and bears shamble. Bears also charge swiftly, swifter than a healthy man can run. He was an old bear but the Fool was blind. I could not outrun a bear. The Fool and Spark did not have a chance. The bear ignored my shout and went after them, closing the distance, roaring as he went. There was no time to think, no time to debate which was the lesser danger. “Go!” I shouted at the Fool and Spark.
The bear would have them. His maw gaped wide and then he reared back, batting wildly at the crow as she flapped her wings in his face and stabbed at him with her beak. It was the instant that Spark needed. She pushed the Fool through the pillar and turned to flee, but the Fool gripped her wrist and dragged her in after him. She went screaming, the fluttering crow fleeing with her. The charging bear slammed into cold black stone, and then fell back from it, mystified and angry. He swiped at it, the long black claws screaming against the face of the pillar. They were gone, to safety or oblivion, I could not tell. And Lant and I had one chance to live as the bear turned and chose his fresh targets.
“Trees!” I said to Lant. He needed no other word. I followed him as he plowed through the snow toward a vast evergreen. It had no low branches. I gave him a leg up and then followed. For a city boy, he climbed well. “Higher!” I shouted to him. Up we went, stocking feet digging into rough bark, fingernails bending and breaking as we climbed a stretch of trunk bereft of branches. He reached a thick branch. “Move over!” I panted and he did.
If the bear had been younger or smaller, we’d have been in grave danger. As it was, he made several attempts to follow us, digging his claws into the bark and ripping chunks of it free, then hurling himself against the trunk so that the tree shook from his onslaught. When he could not reach us, he turned his fury on our tents. Mine presented no challenge to him. He shredded and tossed it, rooted through it for food, and then roared at the fabric still tangled in his sore tooth. He moved away from it with a festoon of canvas collaring him between his massive head and the hunch of his shoulders. I looked away as he attacked the Elderling tent, unable to bear its destruction.
“What stuff is that made of?” I heard Lant marvel and dared to look down. The bear had collapsed the tent and now battled the yielding fabric, rolling in a tangle of bear, dragons, and serpents. His wrestling bared our still-burning fire-pot, our bedding, and the rest of our supplies. He slashed at the fabric but I saw no rents in it. “We’ll have nothing left!” Perseverance cried from his tree, and I shouted back, “We’ll have our lives. Stay put, boy!”
I think the bear eventually felt he had vanquished the tent. He went back to our supplies, spilling and spoiling and eating and then roaring his fury at the pain. I hated what he was doing to us, and yet felt a pang of anguish for him. His death awaited him this season, and it would not be an easy one for the old fellow.
It was when he tore open my pack and I saw Bee’s precious books fall into the snow that I gave a cry of loss and started down the trunk. Lant seized the back of my collar. “No,” he said.
“Try to follow the advice you gave your stable boy. Don’t give up your life for a thing, no matter how precious.”
He was not well seated on the tree, and for one berserk moment I wanted to jerk him free and let him drop to the snow below. Instead I leaned my forehead against the rough bark and to my shame great tremors of loss and shame shook me. Lant kept his grip on me, fearing, I think, that I would simply let go and fall. I did not. I clung there while breakers of loss pounded me. I cursed the sorrow that would not let go of me, that ambushed me and unmanned me every time it woke. The books were things, not my child. The candles scattered like ivory bones across the snow were not Molly. But they were all I had left of my wife and my child.
From far away, I felt a plucking of Skill. Fitz? Are you alive?
Yes, I replied dully to Dutiful. I live. Not that I wish to, but I live.
Danger? His Skilling was thin as smoke.
I let down my walls, suddenly aware that I’d raised them against the whispering memories of the plaza and the Skill-road. The Skill is swift as thought. In a heartbeat, he knew all that had befallen us.
I can send help to you. I can . . . and whatever he was offering wafted away.
No. Send no one. We have to follow the Fool. I pushed the thought hard and wondered if he received it. The decision I had not known I was going to make was now obvious. As soon as the bear left, we’d salvage what we could and use the portal to go to Kelsingra. If the Fool and Spark had made it there, I was certain they would need help. If they hadn’t, at least I would know. I could not leave Lant and Per here and go alone, for they’d be without shelter or supplies now, and it was likely the bear would come back. So, we would go on. I hoped there would not be a red dragon waiting for us on the other side.
The old bear had probably not had a decent meal in days. He dismissed us as a nuisance he had routed and got on with his pillaging. Our supplies were not equal to his appetite, but he was thorough in his snouting and tearing. His attempting to eat the cheese would probably hasten the inevitable end of his life. Often he stopped to roar in pain and anger and paw at his mouth and the twist of fabric snagged on his bad tooth. We sat in the trees, trapped and shivering, until nearly noon. The large pack that Spark had carried, he exploded into a wild blossoming of skirts and scarves and petticoats. The Fool’s pack was filled with a tinker’s treasure trove of peculiar items. When he’d finally convinced himself there was nothing more to be found and eaten, he wandered off in a leisurely way that told me the pavilion was part of his regular territory. He would definitely be back.
Even after he was out of sight, we waited for a time. When we finally clambered down, we were all stiff and cold. “Per, see if you can wake either fire. Lant, let’s salvage what we can.”
My first thought was for Bee’s books and Molly’s candles. I found her old journal but not the dream book. The journal was in better condition than I had expected. It had snow on the cover, but the little tie that held it closed had worked. I shook the snow from it, careful not to melt any with the warmth of my hands. There was little left of my pack. Of my four candles, I could find only three. I dug barehanded in snow for a time, until my fingers were numb and I had to admit defeat. I knew I was lucky the bear had not eaten all of them. Doubtless he had been attracted to the flower-scented beeswax. I tore a piece of canvas that was not wet with bear saliva and wrapped my treasures. My heart cried after Bee’s other book. The bear had scattered things far and wide, and I held a tiny bit of hope that I’d still find it.
Which was worse? Bare feet or feet in wet socks in snow? Per had decided on bare feet and I marveled at his toughness. He was working over the fire. Embers from the fire-pot and the last coals from our fire combined to become flames. “Build it up large,” I told him, for if the old bear came back, flaming branches might be our best weapon.
Lant and I worked quickly. We shook out the bright fabric of the Elderling tent, and I was astonished to find it intact. Not all of the supports had survived, but we salvaged what we could. We left our swords thrust upright in the earth beside the fire yet we all knew how puny they would be against a bear’s attack. We spread the tent out near the fire and began to gather anything useful that remained to us. Pots and cups, clothing, coin-pouches, and knives. As soon as we found our boots and dry socks, we had them on, then our cloaks and gloves.
“What is our plan?” Lant asked at one point, and I realized I hadn’t spoken aloud since I’d given them their tasks.
“Gather anything useful. Follow the Fool and Spark as quickly as possible.”
“They said there was a red dragon there. And a bowman.”
“They did. So we will try to emerge from the pillar prepared to be attacked.”
Lant opened his mouth and shut it again.
“Somewhere in this wreckage, there’s a bit of leather with a needle thrust through it and some stout thread wrapped round it. As soon as you find it, let me know. Make three piles of whatever we can still use.”
“Do we take Gray’s things? And Ash’s?”
“We salvage all and then choose. We carry as much as we can, for I want to assume we will be reunited and that there was some sane reason for them packing so many garments.”
“Even the beads and string? All those gloves?”
I followed Per’s gesture. The Fool’s spilled baggage included a veritable rainbow of gloves, in all fabrics and weights. My heart listed a bit toward sadness. He’d always intended to silver his hand. He hadn’t lied to me. The Fool and I seldom lied to each other. Except when we did. “As much as we can carry of anything that might be useful. We don’t know what we are going into.”
We worked as fast as we could but it was not an easy task. Some of Per’s grain had been caught in a corner of the bag, and he cooked it for us as we shook snow from clothing and pawed through snow to find our scattered gear. Under Burrich’s tutelage, I had learned to mend harness as a lad, and the sewing skill had served me well all my life. Perseverance’s pack was mendable. Mine was shredded and Lant’s was worse. The torn canvas of my tent became two rough sacks, hastily stitched. Despite our need for haste, I spent time to make a smaller bag to hold Bee’s book and Molly’s candles and stowed them securely. I looked up from securing the flap to find Per watching me intently. Bee’s dream journal was in his hands. He offered it to me uncertainly. “I think I recognize her hand. Such pictures as she drew! Is this truly her work?”
“That’s mine!” I said, my declaration harsher than I intended. The hurt in his eyes rebuked me as I took it from his hands. It was all I could do not to snatch it from him.
“Sir, if it’s not too late . . . I’d still like to learn my letters. Perhaps someday I could read what she wrote.”
“It’s private,” I said. “But yes, I will teach you to read. And to write.”
He looked at me with dumb dog’s eyes. My scowl sent him back to work immediately.
We hurried and yet time seemed to slip away from us. The early Mountain shadows of evening had begun to creep across the land when we were finished. The Fool’s tent made a surprisingly small bundle. I could not say the same for the warm winter garments the Fool and Spark had packed. Woolen skirts and shawls were far heavier than I would have expected them to be.
“The packs are too heavy and awkward,” Lant observed. He’d kept his voice neutral; it wasn’t a complaint. “If we have to be ready for anything as we emerge from the pillar, carrying these is not a good plan.”
He was right. “We won’t carry them. We’ll grip them as we go through, to be sure they travel with us. We’ve no idea what we’ll find. They may be there and safe, or injured. Or captured.” In a quieter voice I added, “Or not there at all.”
“Like Bee,” Per said in a small voice. He took a breath and squared his shoulders. “Could that happen to us? That we go into the pillar and never come out?”
“It could,” I admitted.
“Where would we be then? What would happen to us?”
How to describe it? “I think we would . . . become part of it. I’ve felt it, once or twice. It doesn’t hurt, Per. In fact, that’s the danger of the Skill to young users. That it feels as if it might be good to let go and tatter away and merge with it.”
“Merge with what?” His brow was furrowed. Lant’s face was pale.
“The Skill-current. I don’t know what else to call it.”
“Maybe merge with Bee?”
I took a breath. “Highly unlikely, boy. And I don’t want to speak of that, please. You can stay here if you wish. I can try to Skill to Dutiful and ask him to send a Skill-user through the pillar to take you back to Buckkeep. But you’d be here for at least two days, I think. In the cold, with little food, and a possible visit from a bear. Still, if you choose that, well, it’s your choice. I’m afraid I can’t stay here with you until they come for you. I have to go after the Fool and Spark as quickly as I can.” Too much time had already passed. I was now as eager to go was I was fearful.
Per hesitated. Lant spoke. “You could just as easily be lost going back to Buck as you might going forward to Kelsingra. I don’t really want to make either journey, but I’ll follow you, Fitz.”
“I’ll go with you, too,” Per said. “How do we do it?”
We lined up at the pillar. I’d attached a hasty strap to each of my crude sacks. One was slung over my shoulder. Per wore his overstuffed pack and gripped my left hand. Lant rested a hand on my right shoulder and had the strap of the largest bag over his shoulder. In his right hand, he had his sword at the ready. I took a moment to myself. I’d never been trained to take others through a pillar with me, though I’d done it before, under duress. I loosed my Wit and made myself aware of both of them, their shapes and their smell, and then groped toward them with my Skill. Neither had any talent for that magic that I could detect, but almost all people have some small spark of it. I could not make either of them aware of my reaching, but I did my best to enfold them in it. I gave them no warning, no chance to hesitate. I gripped my sword in my right hand and pressed my bared knuckles against the cold stone of the pillar.
Blackness. Points of moving lights that were not stars. Per before me, swearing his loyalty. Lant staring at me, his lips folded tight. I held tight to my awareness of them. I wrapped them in myself.
Daylight blasted us. Cold seized me and suddenly I knew that I had to stay on my feet, drop Per’s hand, and protect us.
“’Ware!” someone shouted as I sprang clear of Per and leveled my blade. My sun-dazzled eyes adjusted to the Fool sprawled at my feet and Spark fighting her way clear of the entanglement of the butterfly cloak. We had gone from a fading evening to the brilliant shine of a sunny winter day. Time lost, but even more unsettling, we seemed to have arrived only moments after the Fool and Spark had. I felt Per jostle into me as he got to his feet. He then staggered sideways, retching. Before I could look back to see how Lant had fared, I heard a roar.
I spun, or tried to, bringing my sword up to the ready. Even before my eyes found the great green dragon charging toward us, my Wit-sense reeled from the size and presence of the creature. He was coming toward us as fast as the wind blowing. I heard the clash of his silver claws on the stone street. His front legs reached, seized ground, and flung him forward. His hide was rippled with silver like water stains on fabric. This was no charging cow, but a powerful, angry creature. His roar struck me again, a sound with an edge of strange Skill and Wit. “Intruders!”
I was no Burrich, to drop a stone dragon to its knees with the power of my Wit. I did not lift my voice but I set myself firmly before his charge and held my sword firm. That was the challenge I flung at him, my defiance, an animal-to-animal declaration, yet I was shocked to see him suddenly brace his front feet, claws screaming on the black stone as he slid to a halt. His tail lashed, a powerful limb that could probably have toppled trees. He threw his head back, jaws opened wide. There were bright flares of color inside his open mouth, shocking orange edging to flaring red. Poison, such colors warn in a lizard or frog. He drew a great breath and I saw the sacs inside the sides of his mouth swell. I dreaded what I knew might follow, something I’d only heard tales about: a pale mist of venom that dissolved flesh and ate bones and pitted stones. But as he drew in the air, something changed in the dragon’s stance. I could not read it. Anger? Puzzlement? He stood, a stiff ruff of silver spines erecting to stand out around his neck like a thorny mane. He breathed out, a hot exhalation of meaty stench, and then drew in more air, slowly wagging his head on his sinuous neck. He was taking our scent.
I had seen dragons before. I’d touched minds with Tintaglia, the first of the queen dragons to return to our world. I’d seen Icefyre’s first flight when he emerged after years of being locked in a glacier. I’d watched mating dragons, seen them dive onto penned cattle offered to them as a bribe. I knew only too well how powerful they were, and how quickly they could reduce a bull to a bloody carcass. I had known that my sword was virtually useless against a bear; against a dragon, it was ridiculous. Lant abruptly stepped up beside me. He’d lifted his blade as well, but it wavered wildly. “Sick,” he gasped, but he didn’t retreat.
“Get under it!” I heard Per order someone hoarsely. “Lie close. It can conceal both of you.” He staggered to my left side, his belt-knife out. “Are we going to die now?” he asked in a quavering voice that broke to shrillness at the end.
“Where is the one who belongs to a dragon?”
Dragon-speech. Sound was only a part of it. Some, I knew, could not understand dragons when they spoke. They heard only the roars, grunts, and snarls of a wild creature. I’d understood the words but could make no sense of them. I stood still and silent.
“I smell him. I smell one dragon-touched, chosen by a dragon we have long believed dead. Are you here by his command?”
I guessed what he smelled. The dragon’s blood the Fool had used. Per made a retching sound. I heard no sound from the Fool or Spark. I took a breath. “We mean no harm,” I called to the dragon. Then I swiveled my head. My Wit had told me someone else approached, and the figure I saw striding toward me was one from my childhood nightmares. He was tall and scarlet-skinned, with blazing blue eyes, as if light shone through sapphires. His tall frame was cloaked in a flowing tunic of gold and loose black trousers. He was long-limbed in proportions that were appropriate to his height, but not human. He wore battle harness such as I’d never seen, but the sword that he pulled ringing from its sheath was an all-too-familiar tool to me. Elderling, like the creatures that had stared down from the tapestry that had graced the wall of my boyhood bedchamber. He spoke as he strode toward us. “Well done, Arbuc! I knew these invaders could not evade us for long! And now they will answer for . . .”
His words trickled away as he halted and stared at us. “These are not the thieves I chased! Who are you, how do you come here, and what do you wish? Answer with words or blood, it’s all one to me.” He stood and held his weapon in a style I did not recognize. Formality. Always choose formality first.
I did not sheathe my blade but neither did I move it in a threatening way. I was glad now that I’d layered my pretty cloak over my serviceable one. I made as courtly a bow as I could with a bared weapon. “Well met, good sir. We are emissaries to Queen Malta and King Reyn of the Dragon Traders. We come from the Six Duchies. We would be most grateful if you would escort us to their palace.”
My lack of aggression puzzled him. I saw that Lant had taken my cue and lowered the tip of his blade. Per stood at the ready. Of the Fool and Spark, I heard not a whisper. I hoped no betraying toe peeped out from under the butterfly cloak’s camouflage.
The Elderling’s gaze traveled from me to Lant to Per. I knew we were not particularly presentable but I retained my dignity and did not lower my eyes. “How did you get here?” he demanded.
I avoided direct refusal in my answer. “Sir, as you no doubt can tell, we have come a long and weary way. In the Mountains we dealt with cold and were even attacked by a bear. We ask only for audience with the most gracious rulers of Kelsingra. No more than that do we seek.”
I saw him turn his eyes toward the cliffs and mountains that backed the city we stood in. I tried to remember all I could of this city. I’d been here once before. Indeed, I had come here by my first inadvertent stumble through a Skill-portal, on my journey to find Verity. Without turning my head, my eyes marked the location of the tower where I had first glimpsed the intricate map the Elderlings had left. As I recalled what little I knew of it, I decided to take a risk. “Or, if you are busy on errands of your own, we shall be happy to venture on to the Tower of the Map and wait there for your king and queen to receive us. We know our arrival is unannounced. We do not presume to hope they will see us immediately.”
I heard the clatter of boots and looked past the scarlet Elderling to see an armed troop advancing toward us. They were men, not Elderlings, and their weaponry and armor were of more familiar sorts than those the red man bore. Six in the front rank, and three more ranks behind them. Outnumbered. A conflict unwinnable with blades.
It required all my self-discipline to take my eyes off the scarlet Elderling. I looked down and carefully sheathed my blade as if it were an unfamiliar act. Then I smiled genially up at him, just a harmless emissary.
Another Elderling had come to join the dragon. He stood beside the powerful creature and despite his height, the dragon dwarfed him. This Elderling was lightly scaled in green and silver and he reached out a hand to touch the dragon’s shoulder. The green dragon abruptly advanced two steps. He took in our scent again and said, “One of them is dragon-claimed. I smell it on him.” The immense head on the thickly muscled neck twisted. “A dragon I have not smelled before,” he said, as if dredging his memory for a name. “A dragon unseen by us. Does he live yet?” The head with its spinning silver eyes canted in the other direction, but his gaze remained fixed on me.
The militant red Elderling’s gleaming eyes narrowed as he regarded us. “An unknown dragon? Which of you belongs to a dragon?”
How to answer that? I retreated toward truth. “I do not understand the terms you use. Please. If you will escort us to where we can await audience with your rulers, I am sure all will be made clear.”
“I am sure it will,” he said after a long pause, but his voice was neither warm nor welcoming.