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Chapter Seven

Secrets and a Crow

With the Red Ships at our doors and our noble King Shrewd failing in both body and mind,

The young bastard saw his opportunity. He felled him. With magic and might of muscle,

He took from the duchies the king they needed. And from Prince Regal he stole

His father, his mentor, his rock of wisdom.

The kindness bestowed on a bastard felled him.

And the Bastard laughed. In his murderous triumph, sword bared and bloody, he soiled with murder

The keep that had sheltered his worthless life. Cared he nothing for the great hearts

That had fostered him, fed him, clothed and protected him. He loved only bloodshed.

No loyalty did the Bastard cede to king or country.

Wounded in heart, sorrowing as a son, burdened with the concerns of a country at war,

The prince, now king, stepped forward to his tasks. His brothers dead or fled, to him fell

The heavy crown. To him fell the mourning, and to him, the protecting. The last son,

The loyal son, the brave prince became the king of the racked and troubled land.

Vengeance first! weary King Regal cried. To his shelter flocked his dukes and nobles.

To the dungeons with the Bastard! they pleaded with one voice. And so King Regal

Did his duty. To cell and chains went the conniving Bastard, the Witted One, the Regicide.

To dark and cold he was sent, as befitted such a dark and cold heart.

Discover his magic, the king bade his loyal men. And so they tried. With questions and fists,

Clubs and iron, with cold and dark, they broke the traitor. They found no nobility, no cleverness,

Only wolf-greed and dog-selfishness. And so he died, the Traitor, the Witted One, the Bastard.

Of no use to anyone but himself had his life been. His death freed us from his shame.

King Regals Burden, a song by Celsu Cleverhands, a Farrow minstrel

I tottered back to my room, silently cursing my painful shoes. I needed to sleep. Then I would check on the Fool, and after that, I thought with a sigh, I would once more assume my role as Lord Feldspar. There would be feasting, dancing, and music again tonight. My mind wandered to Bee, and I felt that sudden gulf of guilt. Revel, I told myself sternly. He would see that Winterfest was well kept at Withywoods. And surely Shun would not allow the holiday to go by without appropriate foods and festivity. I only hoped they would include my child. I wondered again how long I would be away from her. Was Kettricken wiser than I? Would it be best to send for her?

I was chewing my lip at that thought as I reached the top of the stairs. When I looked down the corridor and saw Riddle standing outside my door, my heart lifted as it does when one sees an old friend. Then as I drew closer it sank again, for his face was solemn and his eyes opaque as when a man hides his feelings. Lord Feldspar, he greeted me gravely. He bowed, and I took care that the bow I gave him was little more than a nod. Farther down the hallway, two servants were replenishing the corridor lamps.

What brings you to my door, good man? I took care that my words held the right amount of disdain for a messenger.

I bring you an invitation, Lord Feldspar. May I step within your chambers and recite it for you?

Of course. A moment. I patted about in my garments, found my key, and, opening the door, I preceded him into the room.

Riddle shut the door firmly behind us. I removed the wig and hat gratefully and turned to him, expecting to see my friend. But he still stood at the door as if he were no more than a messenger, his face both grave and still.

I said the words I hated most. Im so sorry, Riddle. I had no idea what I was doing to you. I thought I was giving the Fool my strength. I never intended to steal from you. Have you recovered? How do you feel?

Im not here about that. He spoke flatly. My heart sank.

Then what? Sit, please. Shall I call for someone to bring us food or drink? I asked. I tried to keep my words warm, but his manner warned me that his heart was sealed against me right now. I could not blame him.

He worked his mouth, took in a deep breath, and then let it out. First, he declared, in a voice almost hard despite its shaking, this is not about you. You can be offended. You can offer to kill meyoure welcome to try to kill me. But its not about you or your pride or your place at court, or who Nettle is or my common parentage. His words grew more rushed and impassioned as he spoke, and the color rose higher in his face. Anger and pain sparked in his eyes.

Riddle, I

Just be quiet! Just listen. He took another breath. Nettle is pregnant. I will not let her be shamed. I will not let our child be shamed. Say what you will, do what you will, she is my wife and I will not let our joy be dirtied with politics and secrets.

I was the one who sat down. Luckily, the bed was behind me when I did so. If he had driven the air out of me with a blow to my belly, the impact could not have been stronger. Words rattled in my head. Pregnant. Shamed. Wife. Dirtied. Secrets.

A baby.

I found my voice. Im going to

Riddle crossed his arms on his chest. His nostrils flared and he exclaimed defiantly, I dont care what you do. Understand that. Do whatever you wish, but it wont change anything.

be a grandfather. I choked on the word. Incredulity melted his face and he stared. It gave me the moment I needed to organize my thoughts. Words tumbled from my lips. I have money saved. You can have it all. You must leave soon, before travel is too difficult for her. And I think you must flee the Six Duchies entirely. She is the Skillmistress; she is too well known for you to. . .

We are not leaving! Anger tightened his slack face. We refuse. We were lawfully wed

Impossible. The king forbade it.

The king can forbid whatever he likes, but if a man and a woman make their vows before the Witness Stones, with at least two witnesses

Only if one is a minstrel! I interrupted him. And the witness must know both parties.

I wager the Queen of the Six Duchies knows us both, he said quietly.

Kettricken? I thought Kettricken was a party to forbidding the marriage.

Kettricken is not the Queen of the Six Duchies. Elliania is. And she comes from a place where a woman can marry whomever she wishes.

It all fit together as tightly as the blocks that make up an arch. Almost. But your other witness had to be a minstrel. . . My words trickled away. I knew who their minstrel had been.

Hap Gladheart. Riddle confirmed it quietly. A smile almost twisted his face. Perhaps youve heard of him?

My fostered son. Hed been delighted to call Nettle sister. I found I had clamped both hands over my mouth. I tried to think. So. Married. In public and yet in secret. Yes, Elliania would do it, and possibly not realize that in flaunting her husbands authority she was doing far more than simply asserting her belief that a woman should have complete control over who she wed. Or didnt wed, and merely slept with.

I let my hands fall away from my mouth. Riddle still stood as if he expected me to leap to my feet and pummel him. I tried to recall if Id even felt that impulse. I hadnt. No anger: That was drowned in dread.

The king will never accept this. Nor Kettricken, nor Chade. Oh, Riddle. What were the two of you thinking? Joy warred with tragedy in my voice. A child, a child that I knew Nettle wanted. A child that would change their lives completely. My grandchild. And Mollys.

Babies happen. For years, we have been cautious. And lucky, I suppose. And then we were neither. And when Nettle realized she was pregnant, she told me she intended to be happy about it. No matter what she must do. His voice changed and suddenly my friend spoke to me. Fitz. We are neither of us youngsters. This may be our only chance for a child.

No matter what she must do. I could almost hear Nettles voice saying those words. I took a deep breath and tried to reorder my thoughts. So. This was something done. They were wed, they were going to have a baby. Useless to advise them against having the baby, useless to remonstrate with them over defying the king. Begin now, where they are.

In danger. Foolishly defiant.

What does she plan to do? Go to the king, tell him she is both married and pregnant?

Riddles dark eyes met mine and I saw something like pity there. She shared her news with Queen Elliania only. Only we four know that Nettle is with child. And only five people know that we are truly wed. Not even to her brothers has she confided the news. But she told Elliania. The queen is ecstatic. And full of plans for the child. She did some sort of needle-dangling magic over Nettles palm, and she is certain our child will be a girl. Finally, a daughter born to the Farseer motherhouse. And hence a future Narcheska.

Im confused, I said after a silence.

As well you should be. As I was when they first told me. First, you must understand how close Nettle and Queen Elliania have become over the years. They are nearly of an age. Both felt like outsiders when first they came to Buckkeep Castle court: Elliania an Outislander, and Nettle a simple country girl made a lady. When Elliania realized that Nettle was her husbands cousin, she claimed her as kin.

Her husbands second cousin?

Riddle shook his head. A member of her new motherhouse. At my puzzled expression, he added, You have to think of it from Ellianias perspective. In the Outislander culture, the mothers lineage is what matters. It was terribly hard for Elliania to come here to be the Farseer queen. If she had stayed in her own land, she would have become the Narcheska of her motherhouse. Equivalent to a queen. She bartered that away to save her mother and her little sister Kossi, and to finally ensure peace between the Six Duchies and the Out Islands. That she and Dutiful came to love each other was simply the kindness of fate.

You know how Elliania has grieved that she has borne only two sons. Her grief at her failure to provide a daughter to send back to the Out Islands and reign after her mother as Narcheska consumes her.

What of Kossi? Surely her younger sister would be next in line for that title?

Riddle shook his head. No. We saved Kossis life, but her health never recovered. She was nearly two years in the Pale Womans captivity. Two years of starvation, cold, and mistreatment. She is a brittle woman, frail as dried twigs. And she has shown a marked dislike for the company of men. She will bear no children.

I recall she had a girl cousin. . .

Disliked by both Elliania and her mother. One of the reasons for her desperate desire to present a girl to her motherhouse.

But Nettles child is no kin to Elliania at all!

She is if Elliania says she is. There is a saying there. Every mother knows her own child. Thus, when Elliania draws up genealogies, you are Patiences son.

I was hopelessly befuddled. What does that have to do with it?

He smiled. You Farseers are an inbred lot. And yet pitiable by Outislander standards. Generations without a female child. It left Elliania wondering if there were any true descendants of the original Farseer motherhouse. In her desperate quest for a female of true lineage, she had the most doddering of the minstrels singing themselves hoarse with genealogies. Do you know who Queen Adamant is?

No.

The first Farseer to stake a claim on the cliffs of Buck was Taker. He himself was an Outislander, and is seen as something of a rogue there, for he forsook his own motherhouse to establish a new one here. He took a wife from among the people he conquered. Her name was Adamant. We now call her Queen Adamant. The first of the Farseer motherhouse.

Very well. I didnt see where any of this was going.

Patience and Chivalry were very distant cousins, according to Elliania. Both descended by wandering lineage from Adamant. She of the copper-gleaming hair and violet eyes, according to one very old ballad. Hence you are doubly descended from that motherhouse. That makes Nettle the rightful Narcheska of the Farseer line. The motherhouse that Elliania joined. Her kin. And hence a possible source of an heir for Elliania.

The thought that there have been generations with no female offspring to refresh the line troubles her. And at the same time, it has comforted her. She now feels the fault is with the Farseer males, who cannot seem to seed girls in their wives wombs. For years, she tormented herself that it was her own failing that she had borne only two males. She has known for years about Nettles true parentage and sees her opportunity to right a great wrong done to Nettle by raising Nettles child as a Narcheska. After a dearth of females, Nettle was born, finally, a true daughter of the Farseer motherhouse. But instead of being celebrated, she was hidden in the shadows. Concealed from the royal court. Her parentage denied. And only brought to Buckkeep when she became useful to the Farseers.

I was silent. I could not deny the truth of his words. It stung badly to hear them uttered by her husband and my friend. I had believed I was protecting her. As I was protecting Bee by keeping her away from Buckkeep? There was an uncomfortable thought. I tried to justify myself.

Nettle is the bastard daughter of a bastard son of an abdicated prince, Riddle.

A flash of anger. Here, perhaps. But in the Out Islands our child might well be seen as a princess of their line.

You and Nettle would do that? Leave Buckkeep and the court and go to the Out Islands?

To save my daughter being seen as a shame and a bastard? Yes. I would.

I found I was nodding in agreement. And if the child is a boy?

He heaved a sigh. That will be a different battle, on a different day. Fitz, we were friends before I fell in love with your daughter. Ive felt guilty that I did not come to you before this. That I did not reveal our marriage to you.

I didnt hesitate. Id had too much time in the last few days to remember all sorts of decisions that had been taken out of my hands. Im not angry, Riddle. I stood and held out my hand. We clasped wrists and then he embraced me. I spoke by his ear. I thought you had come here in fury over what I did to you as we passed through the Skill-pillars.

He stepped back from me. Oh, Ill leave that to Nettle. If she hasnt blasted the skin from your flesh with her words yet, youve that to look forward to. I dont know what will come of this, Fitz, but I wanted you to know that Ive done my best to be honorable.

I can see that. As you always have, Riddle. No matter what comes of this, I will take your side and Nettles.

He gave a tight nod, then heaved a deep sigh and went over to sit on the chair I had offered him earlier. He clasped his hands and looked down on them.

Theres more, and its bad news, I guessed.

Bee. He said her name, took a deep breath, and then sat, wordless.

I sank back down onto the bed. I remember what you said at the tavern, Riddle.

He looked up at me suddenly. The muscles in his face were tight. And the situation hasnt changed, Fitz. Nor the outcome. Nettle said she would talk to you, that this wasnt my burden. But it is. Even if I were not married to your daughter, as your friend it would still be my duty. Fitz, you have to give her up. You have to bring her here, to Buckkeep, where she can be properly supervised and educated. You know that. You do.

Did I? I clenched my teeth to hold back my angry response. I thought back over the last month. How many times had I resolved to do better with Bee? And failed. How many times had I set her aside to deal with disasters and mayhem? Id involved my nine-year-old daughter in disposing of a body and concealing a murdereven if she didnt know Id killed the messenger. For the first time I thought of the potential danger to my child, if, indeed, there were pursuers still searching for the messenger. Or assassins seeking Shun and FitzVigilant. Chade had put those two with me for safekeeping, secure in his belief that I would protect them. Id given no thought to that at all when Id left everyone to bring the Fool to Buckkeep. No consideration that Bee might be in danger from assassins seeking their targets in my home. That last attempt on Shuns life had been a poisoning. The assassin had killed a kitchen boy instead of Shun. A sloppy job. And what if his next attempt was just as sloppy? Winterfest would open the doors of Withywoods to all sorts of folk. What if the assassin poisoned more than a single dish in his next try for Shun?

Why hadnt I seen this before?

Ive lost my edge, I said quietly. Im not protecting her.

Riddle looked puzzled. Im talking about your being a father, Fitz, not her guardsman. I think youre more than capable of protecting her life. But someone has to make sure she has that life for you to protect. Give your daughter an education and the opportunities appropriate to her station. The manners, the dress, the social experiences. She is the daughter of Lady Molly, as well as the child of Holder Badgerlock. It would be very appropriate for her to come to court and spend time with her sister.

He was right. But, I cant give her up.

Riddle stood, squared his shoulders, and spoke firmly. Then dont. Come with her, Fitz. Find a new name and come back to Buckkeep. This is where Bee belongs. And where you belong. And you know that.

I stared at the floor. He waited some time for me to speak, and when I did not, he said more softly, Im sorry, Fitz. But you do know that were right.

He left quietly and as he shut the door behind him I wondered how difficult that had been for him. Wed known each other a long time. He had begun as a sort of spy for Chade and a bodyguard for when I needed someone to watch my back. Hed become a comrade and someone Id trusted as wed experienced terrible things. And then, somehow, hed become the man who courted my daughter. Riddle would be the father of my grandchild. Strange. Id trusted him with my life, more than once. I had no choice now, in that he must be trusted with not just my daughters heart but the fate of the child they would have. I swallowed. And with Bee? Because I was failing her.

If I gave Bee to Riddle and Nettle, I could undertake the Fools vengeance.

That traitorous thought made me want to vomit.

I got up suddenly. I could not think about it at the moment. I tried so hard, but there was just not enough time or enough of me. And trying was not doing. Oh, Molly, I said aloud and then clenched my jaws together. There had to be an answer, but I couldnt see it. Not now.

Time to go check on the Fool. I went to the window and looked out. I felt as if it should be late afternoon bordering on evening. Too much had happened already today. Kettricken was Witted. She was interested in Bee. Web wanted me to adopt a crow. I was to be a grandfather, possibly the grandfather of a Narcheska. And Riddle believed I was a failure as a father and wished to take my child from me. As I turned to head toward the stairs, Nettle tugged on my thoughts.

Riddle told me. No point in pretending I did not know. She would feel the current of concern in my thoughts.

I knew he would, though I wish he had left it to me. Something about manly honor. Did you shout at him? Tell him he had shamed me and therefore you?

Of course not! Her prickly sarcasm stung me. Need I remind you that I am a bastard and know what it is to be seen as my fathers shame?

Which is why you have always denied me entirely.

I. . .what? I never denied you. Had I? Uncertainty flavored my thoughts. Memories flooded in. I had. Oh, yes, I had. Only to protect you, I amended. Times were harsher then. To be not just the Bastards daughter, but the child of the Witted Bastard, possibly possessing that dirty magic. . .some folk would have seen fit to kill you.

So you let Burrich claim me.

He kept you safe.

He did. Her words were relentless. And it kept you safe, when you chose to pretend you were dead. It kept the Farseer reputation safe, too. No inconvenient bastards to muddle the line of succession. Safe. As if safe were more important than anything else.

I hemmed my thoughts tightly from her. I was not sure what she was trying to tell me, but I was certain of one thing. I didnt want to hear it.

Well, my child will know who her parents are! And she will know who her grandparents were! I will see to that, I will give her that, and no one will ever be able to take it away from her!

Nettle, I But she was gone. I didnt reach after her. There was another daughter I had failed. Id let her grow up believing she was the daughter of another man. Id let her mother and Burrich believe I was dead. Id told myself, all those years, that I was keeping her safe. But she had felt denied. And abandoned.

I thought of my own father, as I seldom did. Id never even looked in his eyes. What had I felt, that he had abandoned me in Buckkeep to the care of his stablemaster? I stared at nothing. Why had I done the same to my elder daughter?

Bee. It wasnt too late for me to be a good father to her. I knew where I should be right now, and if I used the Skill-pillar, I could be there before nightfall. It was a little dangerous, but hadnt I risked more than that bringing the Fool through? It would be days before I dared risk any more healing on him. I should go home, gather Bee, and bring her back to Buckkeep. Not to give her up to Nettle, not for us to stay here, but to have her by me while I had to be here to tend the Fool. It made sense. It was what I should do.

The upper chamber was dark save for the reddish light from the fire. The Fool sat in the chair in front of it. I bit my tongue before I could ask him why he was sitting in the dark. He turned his face toward me as I approached. Theres a message for you. On the table.

Thank you.

A young man brought it. Im afraid that when he walked in, I was half-asleep. I screamed. I dont know which of us was more terrified. His voice reached for a note of mockery, and failed.

Im sorry, I said, trying to rein in my wayward thoughts. There was no sense in sharing my anguish with him. There was nothing he could do to help me, except feel ashamed that he had pulled me away from my child.

I made myself focus on his string of anxious words.

And now Im afraid to go back to sleep. I didnt think of other people coming and going from here. I dont know how it could have escaped me. I know they must. But I cant stop thinking about them. What if they talk to others? People will know Im hiding here. It wont be safe.

Im going to light some candles, I told him. I did not say that I needed to see his face because I could not tell how serious he was. As I kindled the first one, I asked him, How are you feeling? Better than yesterday?

I cant tell, Fitz. I cant tell yesterday from early this morning. I cant tell early this morning from midnight. Its all the same for me, here in the dark. You come and you go. I have food, I shit, I sleep. And Im frightened. I suppose that means that Im better. I remember when all I could think about was how badly every part of my body hurt. Now the pain has subsided to where I can think about how scared I am.

I lit a second candle from the first one and set them in the holders on the table.

You dont know what to say, he observed.

I dont, I admitted. I tried to set my own fears aside to deal with his. I know you are safe here. But I also know that no matter how often I say that, it wont change how you feel. Fool, what can I do? What would make you feel better?

He turned his face away from me. After a long moment, he said, You should read your message. The boy blurted out it was important before he ran away.

I picked up the small scroll on the table. Chades spy-seal was on it. I broke the wax free and unrolled it.

Fitz. Do I look that frightful? When I sat up in my chair and screamed, the boy screamed, too. As if hed seen a corpse rise from the grave and shriek at him.

I set the scroll aside. You look like a very ill man who was deliberately starved and tortured. And your color is. . .odd. Not tawny, as you were in the days of Lord Golden, nor white as you were when you were King Shrewds jester. You are gray. Its not a color one would expect a living man to be.

He was silent for so long that I turned my eyes back to the scroll. There was to be another festive gathering tonight, the final one of the Winterfest before our nobility once more dispersed to their own duchies. Queen Elliania urged everyone to attend and asked everyone to wear their best to celebrate turning toward the growing light. Chade suggested that perhaps Lord Feldspar should make a trip to town and purchase some finery for the occasion. He suggested a tailors shop, and by that I knew that the garments would have been ordered and rushed to be prepared for me.

Youre an honest man, Fitz. The Fools voice was dull.

I sighed. Had I been too honest? What good would it serve for me to lie to you? Fool, you look terrible. It breaks my heart to see you this way. The only thing I can offer myself or you is that as you eat and rest and grow stronger, your health will improve. When you are stronger, I hope to use the Skill to urge your body to repair itself. That is the only comfort either of us has. But it will take time. And demand our patience. Haste will not serve us.

I dont have time, Fitz. Rather, I do. I have time to get better or time to die. But somewhere, I am sure, there is a son who needs to be rescued before the Servants of the Whites find him. With every day, with every hour, I fear they have already secured him. And with every day and every hour, I am mindful of the continued captivity of a hundred souls in a faraway place. It may seem it has little to do with us and Buckkeep and the Six Duchies, but it does. The Servants use them with no more thought than we give to penning up a chicken or wringing a rabbits neck. They breed them for their insights into the future, and they use those insights to make themselves omniscient. It bothers them not at all when a baby is born who will never walk or can barely see. As long as they are pale and have prescient dreams, that is all they care about. The power of the Servants reaches even to here, twisting and turning events, bending time and the world to their will. They have to be stopped, Fitz. We have to go back to Clerres and kill them. It must be done.

I said what I knew was true. One thing at a time, my friend. We can only attempt one thing at a time.

He stared sightlessly at me as if I had said the cruelest thing in the world to him. Then his lower jaw trembled, and he dropped his face into his broken hands and began to sob.

I felt sharp annoyance and then deep guilt that Id felt it. He was in agony. I knew it. How could I feel annoyed at him when I knew exactly what he was experiencing? Hadnt I felt that way myself? Had I forgotten the times when my experiences in Regals dungeons had washed over me like a wave, obliterating whatever was good and safe in my life and carrying me right back into that chaos and pain?

No. I tried to forget that, and in the last decade of years, for the most part I had. And my annoyance with the Fool was not annoyance but extreme uneasiness. Please. Dont make me remember that.

I realized Id said the betraying words out loud. His only response was to cry louder, in the hopeless way of a child who has no hope of comforting himself. This was misery that could not yield, for he sorrowed for a time he could not return to, and a self he would never again be.

Tears cant undo it, I said and wondered why I uttered the useless words. I both wanted to hold him and feared to. Feared that it would alarm him to be touched and feared even more that it would draw me tighter into his misery and wake my own. But at last I took the three steps that carried me around the table. Fool. You are safe here. I know you cant believe it just yet, but its over. And you are safe. I stroked the broken hair on his head, rough as the coat of a sick dog, and then pulled him closer to cradle his head against my sternum. His clawlike hands came up and clutched my wrist, and he held himself tighter against me. I let him have his tears. They were the only things I could give him then. I thought of what I had wanted to tell him, that I had to leave him for a few days to get Bee.

I couldnt. Not right now.

He was slow to quiet and even when his sobs ceased, the breath shuddered in and out of him. After a time, he patted my wrist tentatively and said, I think Im all right now.

You arent. But you will be.

Oh, Fitz, he said. He pulled away from me and sat up as straight as he could. He coughed and cleared his throat. What of your message? The lad said it was important.

Oh, it is and it isnt. The queen wishes us to be dressed in our finest for the last night of Winterfest revelry, and that means I must make a trip down to Buckkeep Town to secure some clothing. I scowled to myself as I reflected I would have to go as Lord Feldspar in his awful garb. But not in those shoes. Oh, no. I wasnt walking on icy cobbles in those shoes.

Well. Youd best be on your way, then.

I should, I agreed reluctantly. I didnt want to leave him alone in his darkness. Yet I didnt want to stay where his despondency could infect me. I had come up the stairs thinking that I could safely confide Nettles news to him. For a moment, I had seen him as the friend and counselor he was in our youth. Now the news was ash on my tongue. Here was another Farseer he had not foreseen. His talk of deformed babies had chilled me; how could I tell him my first grandchild was expected? It might plunge him into yet another dark spiral. Worse would be to tell him I had to be gone for six to eight days. I could not leave him to fetch Bee. But I could agree to having her brought here. I would talk to Kettricken about it tomorrow. Together we would arrange it.

You do your duty to your friends. How often had Nighteyes sat beside me when I sought to lose myself in futile Skilling attempts? How often had Hap staggered me back to the cabin and deliberately given me less than the amount of stunning drugs Id commanded him to fetch? I did not even want to think of the weeks, and then months, Burrich had spent trying to help me make the transition back from wolf to human. My friends had not abandoned me, and I would not abandon the Fool.

But he could still abandon me. And he did. He levered himself up from the table. You should go and do your errand, Fitz, he said. He turned and almost as if he were sighted walked back to the bed.

As he clambered into it and drew up the blankets I asked him, Are you certain you want to be alone now?

He did not reply. And after a time I realized he wasnt going to. I felt unreasonably hurt at this. A dozen scathing comments went unsaid by me. He had no idea of what I had given up for him. Then the moment of anger passed and I was grateful I had not spoken. I never wanted him to know what I had sacrificed for him.

And there was nothing left for me to do but my duty. I went down the stairs, freshened my appearance as Feldspar, and defiantly put my own boots back on.

Winterfest might celebrate the lengthening of the days but it did not mean that we were on the road to spring. Yesterdays clouds had snowed themselves to nothing. The sky overhead was as deep and pure a blue as a Buck ladys skirts, but more clouds clustered on the horizon. Frost coated the festive garlands that festooned the shopfronts. The packed snow on the street squeaked under my boots. The cold had subdued the holiday spirit, but scattered vendors of winter sweets and toys still shouted their wares to hasty passersby. I passed a miserable donkey with icy whiskers, and a hot-chestnut vendor who could barely keep his brazier lit. He warmed his hands over his wares, and I bought a dozen just to carry them in my chilled fingers. Overhead, the gulls wheeled and screamed as they always did. Crows were noisily mobbing a tardy owl they had found. By the time I reached the street of the tailors, my drunkards nose was as red from the cold as Chade could ever have wished. My cheeks were stiff and my lashes clung together briefly each time I blinked. I gathered my cloak more closely around myself and hoped that the new clothing that awaited me was not as foolish as what I was wearing.

I had just located the correct shop when I heard a voice call, Tom! Tom! Tom!

I remembered in time that I was Lord Feldspar. So I did not turn, but a boy on the street shouted to his friends, Look, its a talking crow! He said Tom.

That gave me the excuse to turn and look where the lad was pointing. Perched on a signboard across the street was a bedraggled crow. It looked at me and screamed shrilly, Tom, Tom!

Before I could react, another crow dived on it, pecking and flapping and cawing. In response to that attack, a dozen more birds appeared as if from nowhere to join in the mobbing. As the beleaguered bird took flight, I caught a glimpse of white pinions among her black ones. To my horror, one of the other crows struck her in midair. She tumbled in her flight and then in her desperation took refuge under the eaves of a nearby shop. Two of her attackers made passes but could not reach her. The others settled down on nearby rooftops to wait. With the instincts of all bullies, they knew that eventually she would have to emerge.

Then, in the way of their kind, they would peck her to death for being different.

Oh, Web, what have you gotten me into? I could not, could not, take in another orphan. She would have to fend for herself. That was all. I would have to hope that she would make her way back to him. I wished he had not sent her in search of me. I hardened my heart and went into the tailors shop.

My new accoutrements began with a very short blue cape trimmed in layers of snowflake lace. I wondered if the tailor had jumbled Chades order with one for a lady, but the tailor and her husband gathered round me to try it on and make some adjustments to the ties. They then brought out the matching cuffs for my wrists and ankles. The tailor made a mouth at the sight of my distinctly unfashionable boots but agreed that they were probably more suitable for the snow. I promised her that the lace cuffs would be worn with my most fashionable bell-toed shoes, and she appeared mollified. The lad who had delivered the order had paid them in advance, so all I had to do was accept the package and be on my way.

As I came out of the shop, the light of the short winter afternoon was starting to leak away. Cold was settling on the town, and the traffic in the streets had thinned. I did not look toward the crow hunched under the eaves nor at her gathered tormentors. I turned my steps toward Buckkeep. Tom! Tom! she cried after me, but I kept walking.

Then, Fitz! Fitz! she cawed shrilly. Despite myself, my steps faltered. I kept my eyes on the path before me as I saw others turning to stare at the crow. I heard the frantic beating of wings and then heard her shriek, FitzChivalry! FitzChivalry!

Beside me, a thin woman clasped her knotted hands to her breast. Hes come back! she cried. As a crow! To that, I had to turn, lest others mark how I ignored this sensation.

Ar, its just some fellows tame crow, a man declared disdainfully. We all turned our eyes skyward. The hapless bird was flying up as high as she could, with the mob in pursuit.

I heard you split a crows tongue, you can teach it to talk, the chestnut vendor volunteered.

FitzChivalry! she shrieked again as a larger crow struck her. She lost her momentum and tumbled in the air, caught herself, and flapped bravely, but she had fallen to a level below the murder of crows and now they all mobbed her. In twos and threes they dived on her, striking her, tearing out feathers that floated in the still air. She fought the air to try to stay aloft, helpless to protect herself from the birds that were mobbing her.

Its an omen! someone shouted.

Its FitzChivalry in beast form! a woman cried out. The Witted Bastard has returned!

And in that instant, terror swept through me. Had I thought earlier I recalled what the Fool was enduring? No. I had forgotten the icy flood of certainty that every hand was against me, that the good people of Buck dressed in their holiday finery would tear me apart with their bare hands, just as the flock of crows was tearing that lone bird apart. I felt sick with fear, in my legs and in my belly. I began to walk away and at every step I thought they must see how my legs quavered, how white my face had gone. I gripped my package with both hands and tried to walk on as if I were the only one uninterested in the aerial battle overhead.

Hes falling! someone shouted, and I had to halt and look up.

But she wasnt falling. Shed tucked her wings as if she were a hawk and she was diving. Diving straight at me.

An instant to see that, and then she had hit me. Ill help you, sir! the chestnut vendor shouted and started toward me, his tongs raised to strike the flapping bird tangled in my cloak. I hunched my shoulders and turned to take the blow for her as I wrapped her in the fabric.

Be still. Youre dead! It was the Wit I used to speak to her, with no idea if she would hear my thoughts. She had become still as soon as I covered her and I thought it likely she actually was dead. What would Web say to me? Then I saw my foolish hat and flopping wig lying in the street before me. I snatched it up and under the guise of catching my parcel to my chest I held the crow firm as well. I whirled on the well-meaning chestnut vendor. What do you mean by assaulting me? I shouted at him as I jammed hat and wig back onto my head. How dare you humiliate me like this!

Sir, I meant no ill! the vendor cried, falling back from me. That crow!

Really? Then why did you charge at me and nearly knock me to the ground, if not to expose me to ridicule? I tugged vainly at my lopsided wig, settling it oddly on my head. I heard a boy laugh, and a mother rebuke him with barely contained merriment. I glared in their direction and then one-handedly made my wig and hat worse. There were several guffaws from behind me. I whirled, letting my hat and wig nearly leave my head again. Imbeciles! Ruffians! I shall see the Buckkeep town guards know about the dangers on this street! Assaulting visitors! Mocking a guest of the king! I want you to know, I am cousin to the Duke of Farrow, and he will be hearing about this from me! I puffed out my cheeks and let my lower lip tremble in feigned rage. My shaking voice I did not have to manufacture. I felt half-sick with fear that someone would recognize me. The echo of my name seemed to hang in the air. I turned on my heel and did my best to flounce with indignation as I strode hastily away. I heard a little girls voice ask, But where did that bird go?

I did not loiter to see if anyone would answer her. My apparent discomfiture at losing my hat and wig seemed to have provided them with some amusement, as I had hoped. Several times before I was out of sight I made seemingly vain attempts to adjust both. When I judged I was far enough away, I stepped into an alley and drew up my hood over my hat and wig. The crow was so still within the fold of my cloak that I feared she was truly dead. She had struck me quite hard, hard enough to break a birds neck, I surmised. But my Wit told me that while she might be stunned and stilled, life still beat in her. I traversed the alley and walked down the winding way of Tinker Street until I found another, narrower alley. There I finally unfolded the wrap of cloak that cradled her still, black form.

Her eyes were closed. Her wings were clapped neatly to her body. I have always been impressed with how birds could fold two limbs so smoothly that, had you never seen a bird before, you would believe it only had legs. I touched her gleaming black beak.

She opened a shining eye. I put a hand on her back, trapping her wings to her side. Not yet. Stay still until we are somewhere safe.

I felt no return of the Wit from her, but her obedience made me believe she had understood me. I arranged crow and parcel under my cloak and hurried on toward Buckkeep Castle. The road was better maintained and more traveled than it had once been, but it was still steep and icy in some places. The light was fading and the wind rising. The wind picked up snow crystals as scathing as sand and blasted them at me. Carts and wagons bearing provisions for this final evening of merrymaking passed me. I was going to be late.

Inside my cloak, the crow had become restive. She shifted and clung to my shirtfront with beak and claws. I reached in to touch her and offer her support. She fluttered violently and the hand I drew back had fingertips of blood. I reached her with the Wit. Are you hurt?

My thought bounced back to me as if I had thrown a pebble at a wall. Despite that, her pain washed against me and prickled up my spine. I spoke aloud in a quiet voice. Stay under my cloak. Climb up to my shoulder. Ill keep still while you do that.

For a time, she did not move. Then she gripped my shirt with her beak and climbed me, reaching to claim a fresh beak-hold with every few steps. She became a lump on my shoulder under my cloak and then moved around to make me a hunchback. When she seemed settled, I straightened up slowly.

I think well be fine, I told my passenger.

The winds had shepherded in the clouds and now they released a fresh fall of snow. It came down in thick clumps of flakes that whirled and danced in the wind. I bent my head and trudged up the steep hill toward the keep.

I was admitted back into the castle grounds without question. I could hear the music and the murmur of voices from the Great Hall. Already so late! The crow-mobbing had delayed me more than I had realized. I hastened past servants bearing trays and well-dressed folk who were less late than I was, and up the stairs. I kept my hood up, my gaze down, and greeted no one. The moment I was inside my room, I lifted my snowy cloak away. The crow gripped the back of my collar, and my wig was tangled in her feet. As soon as she was uncovered, she lifted from the nape of my neck and attempted to fly. With my wig and hat weighing her down, she plummeted to the floor.

Keep still. Ill free you, I told her.

After several minutes of struggling, she lay on her side, one wing half-open and the hair of the wig snarled around her feet. The white pinions interspersed with the black ones were clearly visible now, the feathers that meant every other crow in the world would attempt to kill her. I sighed. Now keep still and Ill free you, I repeated. Her beak was open and she was gasping. One bright black eye stared up at me. I moved slowly. It seemed impossible that she had tangled her feet so thoroughly in such a short time. Drops of her blood were scattered on the floor. I spoke to her as I tried to untangle her. Are you hurt badly? Did they stab you? With my Wit I tried to radiate calm and reassurance to her. Are you hurt? I offered the question, trying not to press against her boundaries. Her pain washed against me. She fluttered wildly, undoing much of my untangling effort, and then fell still again. Are you hurt badly? I asked her again.

She closed her beak, looked at me, and then croaked, Plucked! Plucked my feathers!

I see. Wonder at how many human words she knew mingled with relief that she could give me information. But a bird was not a wolf. Trying to interpret what I felt from her was difficult. There was pain and fear and a great deal of anger. If she had been my wolf, I would have known exactly where she was injured and how badly. This was like trying to communicate with someone who spoke a different language. Let me try to get you free. I need to take you to a table and better light. May I pick you up?

She blinked. Water. Water. Water.

And I will get you water, too. I tried not to think of how time was fleeting. As if in response to my worry, I felt a questioning twinge from Chade. Where was I? The queen had asked Dutiful to be sure I was present, a most unusual request from her.

Ill be there soon, I promised, fervently hoping I would be. I triggered the secret door and then scooped the crow from the floor, holding her safely but loosely in my hands as I carried her up the dark stairway.

Fitz? the Fool asked anxiously before I had reached the last step. I could just make out his silhouette in the chair before the fire. The candles had burned out hours ago. My heart sank at the worry in his voice.

Yes, its me. Ive an injured crow with me, and shes tangled in my wig. Ill explain in a moment, but for now I just need to set her down, get some light, and give her water.

You have a crow tangled in your wig? he asked, and for a wonder there was a trace of both amusement and mockery in his voice. Ah, Fitz. I can always trust you to have some sort of bizarre problem that breaks my ennui.

Web sent her to me. In the darkness, I set her down on the table. She tried to stand, but the strands of hair wrapped her too well. She collapsed onto her side. Be still, bird. I need to get some candles. Then I hope Ill be able to untangle you.

She remained quiescent, but day birds often go still in the dark. I groped through the dimly lit chamber to find additional candles. By the time I had lit them, put them in holders, and returned to the worktable, the Fool was already there. To my surprise, his knotted fingers were at work on the locks of hair that were wrapped so securely about the birds toes and legs. I set my candles down at the far end of the table and watched. The bird was still, her eyes occasionally blinking. The Fools fingers, once long, elegant, and clever, were now like knotted dead twigs. He was speaking to her softly as he worked. The hand with the deadened fingertips gently bade her feet be still as the fingers of his other hand lifted and pulled at strands of hair. He spoke in a murmur like water over stones. And this one must go under first. And now we can lift that toe from the loop. There. Thats one foot almost clear. Oh, thats tight. Let me push this thread of hair under. . .there. Theres one foot cleared.

The crow kicked the free leg abruptly, and then subsided as the Fool set his hand to her back. You will be free in a moment. Be still, or the ropes will just get tighter. Struggling against ropes never works.

Ropes. I held my silence. It took longer than a moment for him to untangle her second foot. I nearly offered him scissors, but he was so intent on his task, so removed from his own misery, that I banished my concerns about the passing time and let them be. There you are. There, he said at last. He set the hat and battered wig to one side. For a breath, she lay still. Then, with a twitch and a flap, she was on her feet. He didnt try to touch her.

He will want water, Fitz. Fear makes one so thirsty.

She, I corrected him. I went to the water bucket, filled a cup, and brought it back to the table. I set it down, dipped my fingers in it, held them up so the bird could see water drip back into the cup, and stepped away. The Fool had taken up the hat and the wig that was fastened to it still. Wind, rain, and the crow-struggle had taken a toll on the wig. Parts were tangled into a frizz while other locks hung lank and wet.

I dont think this can be easily mended, he said. He set it back on the table. I took it up and ran my fingers through the hair, trying to bring it back to some semblance of order. Tell me about the bird, he requested.

Web asked me if I could take her in. She had, well, not an owner. A friend. Not a Wit-bond, but a human who helped her. She was hatched with some white feathers in her wings

White! White! White! the bird suddenly croaked. She hopped over to the water, a typical crows two-footed hop, and stuck her beak deep into the water. As she drank thirstily, the Fool exclaimed, She can talk!

Only as birds do. She repeats words she has been taught. I think.

But she talks to you, through your Wit?

Not really. I can sense her feelings, distress, pain. But we are not bonded, Fool. I do not share her thoughts, nor she mine. I gave hat and wig a shake. The crow squawked in surprise and hopped sideways, nearly oversetting the water. Sorry. Didnt mean to startle you, I said. I looked woefully at the wig and hat. There was no mending them. A moment, Fool. I must speak to Chade. I reached out to Chade through the Skill. My wig has been damaged. I do not think I can appear as Lord Feldspar tonight.

Then come however you may, but make it soon. Something is brewing, Fitz. Queen Elliania bubbles with it. At first I thought she was angry, for when she greeted me, her eyes were cold and bright. But she seems oddly warm, almost jubilant, leading the dancing with an enthusiasm Ive never seen before.

Did you ask Dutiful if he had any idea what is brewing?

Dutiful does not know. I felt him throw his Skilling wide, including Dutiful in our mental conversation.

Perhaps Dutiful does not think there is anything wrong with his queen so obviously enjoying herself this evening, the king suggested sarcastically.

There is something in the wind. I feel it! Chade replied.

Perhaps I might know my wifes moods better than you do? Dutiful retorted.

I wanted no more of their fractiousness. I will be down as soon as I can, but not as Lord Feldspar. The wig is ruined, I fear.

At the least, dress fashionably, Chade ordered me irritably. If you come down in a tunic and trousers, you will turn every head. Nor can you wear what was ordered for Lord Feldspar. There must be items in Lord Feldspars wardrobe that he has not yet worn. Choose from among them, and quickly.

I shall.

You have to go. The Fool spoke into the silence after my Skilling.

I do. How did you know?

I learned to read your exasperated little sighs long ago, Fitz.

The wig is ruined. And with it, my identity as Lord Feldspar. I must go to my room, sort through clothing, dress, and go down as someone entirely different. I can do it. But I do not delight in it as Chade does.

And as I once did. It was his turn to sigh. How I would love to have your task tonight! To choose clothing and go down well dressed, with rings and earrings and scent, and mingle with a hundred different folk, and eat well-prepared food. Drink and dance and make jests. He sighed again. I wish I could be alive again before I have to die.

Ah, Fool. I began to reach for his hand, and then stopped. He would startle back in terror if I touched him, and when he did that, it woke hurt in both of us.

You should go right now. Ill keep the bird company.

Thank you, I said, and meant it. I hoped she would not panic suddenly and dash herself against the chamber walls. As long it was mostly darkened, I thought she would be fine. I had nearly reached the top of the stairs when his query reached me.

What does she look like?

Shes a crow, Fool. A grown crow. Black beak, black feet, black eyes. The only thing that sets her apart from a thousand other crows is that she was hatched with some white upon her feathers.

Where is she white?

Some of her pinions are white. When she opens her wings, they are almost striped. And there were a few tufts of white on her back or head, I think. The others ripped out some of her feathers.

Ripped, the Fool said.

White! White! White! the bird cried out in the darkness. Then, in a soft little mutter, so that I was barely sure I heard it, she muttered, Ah, Fool.

She knows my name! he exclaimed in delight.

And mine. Mores the pity. It was how she forced me to stop for her. She was shouting FitzChivalry! FitzChivalry! in the middle of Tailors Street.

Clever girl, the Fool murmured approvingly.

I snorted my disagreement and hurried down the stairs.


Chapter Six The Witted | Fool's Quest | Chapter Eight Farseers