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Chapter Eight


And back-to-back those brothers stood

And bade farewell their lives,

For round them pressed the Red Ship wolves,

A wall of swords and knives.

They heard a roar and striding came

The bastard Buckkeep son.

Like rubies flung, the drops of blood

That from his axe-head spun.

A path he clove, like hewing trees,

As bloody axe he wielded.

Blood to his chest, the bastard came,

And to his blade they yielded.

Twas Chivalrys son,

His eyes like flame,

Who shared his blood

If not his name.

A Farseer son,

But neer an heir

Whose bloodied locks

No crown would bear.

Antler Island Anthem, Starling Birdsong

I was pulling off my clothes before I was halfway down the stairs. I emerged into my room, shut the door, and hopped from one foot to the other as I pulled off my boots. None of what I had worn today could I wear down to the gathering in the Great Hall. All it would take was one style-obsessed idiot to recognize a garment he had earlier seen on Lord Feldspar.

I began to drag clothing from his wardrobe, then forced myself to stop. I closed my eyes and visualized last nights gathering. What had they had in common, all those peacocks parading their finery? The long-skirted jackets. A plenitude of buttons, most of them decorative rather than functional. Fussy lace at throat and wrist and shoulder. And the clash of bright colors. I opened my eyes.

Scarlet trousers, with rows of blue buttons down the outsides of the legs. A white shirt with a collar so high it near-choked me. A long blue vest with tufts of red lace at the shoulders and red buttons like a row of sows nipples down the chest. A massy silver ring for my thumb. No. None of that. My own trousers from Withywoods, laundered and returned, thanks to Ash. The plainest of the fussy shirts in a foresty green. A brown vest, long, with buttons, but ones of horn. And that was all I had time for. I looked in the glass and ran my hands through my rain-damp hair. It lay down, for now. I chose the plainest of the small hats: To go bareheaded would attract more stares than any hat. It would have to do. I hoped to look poor enough that no one would seek to be introduced to me. I chose the least uncomfortable of the shoes and pulled them on. Then, with the re-woken expertise of my youth, I rapidly loaded my concealed pockets, transferring my small weapons and envelopes of poison and lock picks from the jacket I had worn earlier today, trying not to wonder if I would use them if Chade ordered me to. If it came to that, Id decide then, I promised myself, and turned away from that stomach-churning question.

On my way! My Skilling to Chade was tight and private.

Who are you? His question reminded me of our old game. Create an identity in the space of a heartbeat.

Im Raven Kelder. Third son of a minor lord in rural Tilth. Ive never been to court before, Ive only arrived at Buckkeep tonight, and Im dazzled by all I see. Im dressed plainly and rather unfashionably. Ill be full of foolish questions. My father died late, my brother only recently inherited, and hes pushed me off the holding and told me to seek my own way in life. And Im more than happy to be having an adventure and spending my share of my small inheritance.

Good enough! Come, then.

And so Raven Kelder hurried down the wide stairs and immersed himself in the crowd thronging the Great Hall. Tonight was Last Night for Winterfest. Wed celebrated the turning from dark to light, and tonight was our final feast before we settled down to outlast the storms and cold of winter. One more night of fellowship, song, feasting, and dancing, and tomorrow the nobility of the Six Duchies would begin to drain out of Buckkeep Castle and trickle back to their own holdings. Usually it was the most subdued of the Winterfest nights, a time of bidding farewell to friends, for the winters harsh weather cut down on travel. When I was a lad, the nights that followed Last Night were for indoor pursuits: the fashioning of arrows, weaving, carving, and sewing. The younger scribes would bring their copy work to the Great Hearth and listen to the minstrels as they worked.

I had expected slow ballads from the minstrels, mulled drinks, and quiet conversations. Instead I walked into a hall where folk were once more dressed in their best garments and jewelry, and minstrels played lively tunes that set toes to tapping and brought dancers out onto the floor. And as I entered, the middle of the dance floor was dominated by the King and Queen of the Six Duchies. The plague of buttons that had attacked my wardrobe had not spared the royal couple. Hundreds of buttons, in silver and ivory and mother-of-pearl, decorated the queens dress. They ticked and rattled against one another as she trod the lively steps. Dutifuls garments were burdened with multiple buttons of horn, ivory, bone, and silver in a more sedate but no less rattling display. I stood several layers of folk back in the crowd and watched them. Dutifuls eyes had not left Ellianias face: He seemed as entranced with her as he had when they were courting. The queens cheeks were flushed and her lips parted as she breathlessly kept the pace of the lively dance. As the music skirled to a close, he lifted her and whirled her around while she braced her hands on his shoulders. The applause of the crowd was unrestrained and unfeigned. His grin was white in his dark beard, and Ellianias cheeks were red. Both of them were flushed and laughing as they left the dance floor and retreated to their elevated thrones at the end of the room.

I drifted in the crowd like a bit of seaweed caught on a tide change. Chade, I decided, was correct. There was an undercurrent of excitement tonight, a spice of curiosity in the air. The queens request that all attend in their best finery had been heeded. Clearly something special was to occur, perhaps a bestowal of honors, and the room simmered with expectations.

I had time to visit a wine cask and secure a glass for myself before the musicians began to fuss with their instruments prior to choosing the next tune. I maneuvered myself into a position where I had a clear view of the high dais and yet remained at the edges of the crowd. Dutiful said something to the queen; she smiled and shook her head. Then she stood and, with a gesture, silenced the minstrels. The quiet rippled out until the entire gathering had stilled and all attention had focused on her. Dutiful, still seated on his throne, looked askance at her. She smiled at him and patted his shoulder reassuringly. She took a breath and turned to address her nobility.

Lords and ladies of the Six Duchies, I have excellent news to share with you. And I fondly believe you will celebrate it as jubilantly as I shall! After her years in the Six Duchies, her Outislander accent had faded to a charming lilt. Dutiful was watching her with one raised eyebrow. At a nearby table, Lord Chade looked somewhat concerned, while Kettrickens face was full of speculation. The Skillmistress sat at Lord Chades left hand. Nettles face was grave and thoughtful. I wondered if she even heard Ellianias speech or if her mind was full of her own dilemma. The queen took a few moments to survey her listeners. No one spoke; the servants stood still. She let the silence build. Then the queen cleared her throat.

I have long agonized that there have been no females born to the Farseer line during my reign as queen. Heirs I have given my king. I am proud and glad of our sons, and believe they will reign here well after their father. But for my own land a princess is required. And such I have been unable to bear. Her voice faltered and broke on the last words. King Dutiful was looking at her with concern now. I saw the Duchess of Farrow lift a hand to her mouth. Tears started down her cheeks. Evidently our queen was not the only one who struggled to bear a living child. Was that what she would announce tonight? That she was with child again? Surely Dutiful would have been told, and the announcement delayed until the pregnancy was assured.

Queen Elliania lifted her head. She glanced at Dutiful as if to reassure him and then said, But of course, there is a Farseer princess. She has long dwelled among us, tacitly known to many and yet unacknowledged by her dukes and duchesses. Two days ago, she gave me portentous news. She will soon bear a child. I myself swung a needle on a thread over her palm, and my heart leapt with joy when its swinging foretold a girl child in her womb. Ladies and gentlemen of Buckkeep Castle, my dukes and duchesses of the Six Duchies, you will soon be blessed with a new Farseer princess!

What had begun as gasps of astonishment was now a rising mutter of voices. I felt faint. White-faced, Nettle stared straight ahead. Chade had a stiff smile of feigned puzzlement on his face. Dutiful, mouth ajar, stared in horror at his queen and then betrayed Nettle by swinging his gaze to her.

Elliania seemed completely immune to the catastrophe she was wreaking. She looked out over her audience with a wide smile and then laughed aloud. And so, my friends, my people, let us acknowledge what many of us have long known. Skillmistress Nettle, Nettle Farseer, daughter of FitzChivalry Farseer, cousin to my own dear husband, and a princess of the Farseer line, stand forth, please.

I had folded my arms across my chest. At the mention of my daughters rightful name, and my own, I had to fight to keep breathing. Whispering in the hall rose to the level of chirring summer insects. I scanned the faces. Two young ladies exchanged delighted glances. One gray-haired lord looked scandalized while his lady held her hands before her mouth in horror at the scandal. Most of Ellianias audience was simply dumbstruck, waiting for whatever might happen next. Nettles eyes were wide, her mouth ajar. Chades face was ashen. Kettrickens slender fingers covered her mouth but could not conceal the joy in her eyes. My gaze flickered to King Dutiful. For a long moment, he was frozen. Then he rose, to stand beside his queen. He extended a hand to Nettle. His voice shook but his smile was genuine as he said, Cousin, please.

Fitz. Fitz, please. What. . . The desperate Skilling that reached me from Chade was nearly incoherent.

Be calm. Let them handle it. What other choice did we really have? If it had been someone elses life, someone elses secret, I might have found the tableau charming. The queen, her cheeks flushed and eyes bright with delight at honoring Nettle; Dutiful, his hand outstretched to welcome his cousin to the most dangerous moment of her life; and Nettle, her teeth showing in something not quite a smile, her gaze fixed, unmoving at the table.

I saw Riddle, too. He had always had a talent for moving unobserved in crowded situations. Now he carved through the melee like a shark through water. I saw the determined look on his face. If they turned on Nettle, he would die fighting to protect her. By the set of one shoulder, I knew he already had his hand on the haft of his knife. Chade, too, marked his passage. I saw him make a small motion. Wait, his hand said, but Riddle moved closer.

Lady Kettricken moved gracefully to stand behind Nettles chair, then bent down and whispered something to her. I saw Nettle take a breath. She rose, her chair scraping back on the floor. The erstwhile queen paced at her side as she escorted Nettle to the throne dais. There, as was proper, they both curtsied deeply. Kettricken remained at the bottom of the steps while Nettle managed to ascend all three. Dutiful took her hands in his. For a moment, their bowed heads were close together. I am sure he whispered something. Then they straightened, and Queen Elliania embraced her.

Nettle had locked her thoughts down so firmly that I could not even reach out to her with reassurance. Whatever she felt, she betrayed only pleasure as she thanked the king and queen for congratulating her on her child. She said nothing of the revelation of her parentage. Truly, Elliania had the right of it when she said it was a secret already known to many. The stamp of the Farseer line was on Nettles face, and many of the older folk had known of the scandalous gossip about FitzChivalry and Lady Patiences maid. Patiences transfer of Withywoods to Lady Molly, supposedly in honor of Burrichs selfless sacrifice to the Farseer family, would have only confirmed that Mollys daughter was mine. A larger omission was mention of Nettles marriage or the father of her child. Those ripe bits of gossip would be well chewed tomorrow. I watched my daughter as she began to turn and return to her seat, but Kettricken stopped her and held her there, her hands on her shoulders. I saw Riddle look up at her, white-faced, a mere man among many as the woman he loved was proclaimed a princess. My heart went out to him.

Kettricken spoke now, her voice cutting through the rising murmur. For years many have persisted in believing that FitzChivalry Farseer was a traitor. Despite what I have recounted of that fateful night when I fled Buckkeep, the taint on his name has lingered. So I would ask if any minstrel here knows of a song, sung but once in this hall? Tagson, son of Tag, son of Reaver, sang it. It was the true tale of the doings of FitzChivalry Farseer, when he came to the aid of his king in the Mountains. Do any minstrels here know it?

My mouth went dry. Id never heard the song, but Id been told of it. In my lifetime, Id been the subject of two songs. One, Antler Island Tower, was a rousing ballad that recounted how I had fought against the Red-Ship Raiders when by treachery they had managed to gain a foothold on Antler Island. It had been composed during the Red-Ship Wars by an ambitious young minstrel named Starling Birdsong. The melody was pleasing and the refrain was memorable. When first it had been sung, the folk of Buckkeep Castle had been willing to believe that enough Farseer blood ran through my bastard veins that I might be a hero, of sorts. But that had been before my fall from grace, before Prince Regal had convinced all of my treachery. Before Id been thrown into his dungeon on the accusation of killing King Shrewd. Before I had supposedly died there, and vanished from Buckkeep history and public knowledge forever.

Yet there had been a second song, one that not only celebrated my Farseer blood and Wit-magic, but asserted that I had risen from my grave to follow King Verity on his wild quest to wake the Elderlings and bring their aid to the Six Duchies. As in the Antler Island song, strands of truth had been braided with poetry and exaggeration. To my knowledge, only one minstrel had ever sung it in Buckkeep, and he had done so to assert that those with the Old Blood Wit-magic could be as loyal and noble as anyone else. Many of the listeners on that day had not welcomed such an opinion.

Kettrickens eyes roved over the gallery where the minstrels were gathered. I watched with relief as they exchanged puzzled glances and shrugs. One fellow folded his arms on his chest and shook his head in disgust, evidently displeased that anyone would wish to sing the praises of the Witted Bastard. One harper leaned over the railing to consult a graybeard below. The fellow nodded and even though I could not hear him, I suspected he admitted to having heard the song once, but the eloquent lift of his shoulders denied any real knowledge of the words, tune, or authorship. Just as my heart began to slow and the look of disappointment to settle on Lady Kettrickens face, a matronly woman dressed in an extravagant gown of blue and green stepped from the crowd. As she made her way forward into the open space before the royal dais, I heard a scattering of applause and then someone cried out, Starling Birdsong! Of course!

I wondered if I would have recognized my old lover without that call. Her body had changed with the years, her waist thickening and her curves growing. In the be-buttoned layers of lush fabrics that made up her gown, I did not recognize the tough and pragmatic wandering minstrel who had also followed Verity into the Mountain Kingdom to wake the Elderlings. She had let her hair grow long, and the streaks in it were silver, not gray. She wore jewels on her ears and wrists and fingers, but as she advanced, she was stripping the rings from her hands.

The look of disappointment on Kettrickens face had been replaced with one of delight. Well, here is a minstrel of yore who has let many years pass since we last heard her lift her voice. Our own Starling Birdsong, now Lord Fishers lady wife! Do you remember the song of which I spoke?

Despite her years, Starling flourished a curtsy and then rose gracefully. Age had lowered the timbre of her voice, but the music had not left it. Lady Kettricken, King Dutiful, and Queen Elliania, if it please you, I have heard the song sung but once. And do not think me a jealous minstrel when I say, while the threads of truth ran strong through it, the words rattled against one another as painfully as gravel in a boot, and the tune was stolen from an ancient ballad. She shook her head, lips folded, and then said, Even if I recalled every word and note, I would not think it a kindness to you if I sang it.

She paused, head lowered respectfully. Despite all my misgivings, I almost smiled. Starling. So well she knew how to whet the appetite of an audience! She waited until precisely the moment when Kettricken drew breath to speak; then she raised her head and offered, But I can sing you a better song, if you would, my lady and once my queen. If you with a nod allow me, if my king and my queen grant permission, my tongue can be freed from its long-imposed silence, and sing to you I shall, of all I know of the Witted Bastard. Of FitzChivalry Farseer, son to Chivalry, loyal to King Verity, and, to the last breath of his days, a truehearted Farseer, despite his ignoble birth!

The music rose and fell in her words: she was tuning and preparing her voice. I saw her husband now, Lord Fisher, standing at the edge of the crowd, a proud smile on his face. His shoulders were as broad as ever; he wore his graying hair in a warriors tail. Ever he had gloried in the popularity of his wild minstrel wife. The look of enjoyment on his face was not feigned; he basked in her reflected glory. She had not come to the festival tonight as Starling the minstrel but as Lady Fisher. And yet this was the moment she had dreamed of, for all those years. She would not let it pass her by, and he would rejoice in it with her. She looked round at her audience as if to ask them, Shall I sing?

She could and she must. The lords and ladies of the Six Duchies already hung on her every word. How could King Dutiful forbid it, when his own queen had revealed the bastard daughter of the bastard Farseer, sheltered and then exalted as Skillmistress at Buckkeep Castle? Lady Kettricken exchanged a look with her son and his wife. And then she nodded, and the king spread his hands in permission.

Does my harp come? Starling turned to her husband, and he in turn gestured wide. The doors to the Great Hall opened and two healthy lads appeared, a grand harp supported between them. I had to smile. For it to appear so quickly, she must have ordered it the moment Kettricken asked if any recalled that song. And such a harp! This was no wandering minstrels harp! Sweat stood out on the boys faces, and I wondered how far and fast they had lugged the beast. She had timed her delaying perfectly for its arrival. They brought it forward and set it down: It stood as high as Starlings shoulder. She glanced toward the minstrel gallery, but someone had already stepped forward, bearing his own stool. He placed it before the harp, and then I saw the only awkward moment in her performance. Her gown had never been cut for her to be seated behind a harp with the instrument leaned back on her shoulder. With a fine disregard for modesty, she lifted her skirts and bundled them out of the way, displaying legs still shapely and stockinged in bright green, and dainty blue slippers with silver buttons. She woke the harp, running her fingers lightly up and down the strings, letting them barely speak, as if they whispered to her that they were in tune and waiting for her.

Then she plucked three strings, one after another, as if she were dropping gold coins on a path and bidding us follow. The notes became a chord, and her other hand began to pluck a lilting melody. Then she lifted her voice.

This, I knew, was the song she had waited a lifetime to sing. Always, always, she had wanted to leave a song that would linger in Six Duchies memory and be sung over and over. When first I had met her, she had spoken with hungry ambition of how she would follow me and record my deeds and fate so that she might be witness to a turning point in Six Duchies history. And witness she had, but her lips had been stilled and her song unsung, by royal decree that what had happened in the Mountains must ever after be kept secret. I was dead and must remain so until the Farseer throne was returned to stability.

Now I stood and I listened to my own tale. How long had she honed those words, how many times had she practiced the music that flowed effortlessly and faultlessly from her fingers? This was her highest achievement. I knew that before she was two verses into the song. I had heard her sing other minstrels work, and I had heard her sing songs and play music of her own composing. Starling was good. No one could ever deny that.

But this was better than good. Even the minstrel who had earlier scowled seemed bespelled by her words and notes. This was the music she had saved, and these were the words she had turned and shaped as if she were a wood carver. I knew the story of my own life, and most of the court would know at least some of it. But she sang me from an abandoned bastard child to a hero, to a shameful death in a dungeon and a crawl out of a forgotten grave, until I stood before a stone dragon, one that had drunk the life from King Verity, and looked up at her as she and Queen Kettricken departed.

For a time she plucked strings and wove chords, letting that part of the tale sink in. It was not how it had been sung before, and many a face was puzzled. Then, with a sudden sweep of her fingers, she struck up a martial air and finished the tale. I myself had told her what happened after they had departed astride a single dragon with the heart of a king bearing them back to Buckkeep. Verity-as-Dragon had set out to pit himself against the whole of the Outislander fleet, to save his queen, his unborn child, and his entire beloved kingdom from the ravages of the Red Ships. Tears rolled down Kettrickens cheeks as she listened, and King Dutiful was rapt, his mouth slightly ajar.

And so it was me and my Wit-companionmy wolf Nighteyeswho had woken the other sleeping dragons. We had battled Regals corrupt Skill-coterie and their hapless apprentices, and in shedding blood we had woken the stone dragons to a semblance of life and sent them winging after Verity, a veritable army at his back. She gave three verses to how the dragons had followed the king, describing half a dozen of their varied shapes, and then recounted how swiftly the Red Ships had been driven from our shores. Verity-as-Dragon had led and the other dragons had followed, taking the battle to their islands. Queen Elliania, of Outislander blood, listened with her face grave and nodded as if to confirm all that Starling told of those bloody days.

Again, an interlude of only music. Gradually, the tempo slowed and the chords deepened. She sang then of how the Bastard and his wolf, knowing they were dead to all, knowing that the name of FitzChivalry Farseer would ever be tarnished with shame and accusations of treachery and cowardice, walked away into the depths of the Mountain forests. Never again, she sang, would they hunt the green hills of Buck. Never could they come home. Never would their deeds be known. Never. Never. The tale and the song slowed, and became a trickle of wistful notes. They dwindled. Silence.

I do not know how long the song lasted. I came back to the Great Hall and the gathered nobles of the Six Duchies as if I had been on a long journey. Starling sat before her tall harp, her head bent forward and her brow resting on its dark wood. Her face glowed with perspiration. She breathed as if she had run over nine hills. I stared at her. She had been a stranger, a lover, a nemesis, and a betrayer to me. And now she was my historian.

When the applause came, it began as a whisper and rose to a roar. Starling lifted her head slowly and I followed her gaze as she looked around at the faces of her audience. Tears tracked down the faces of many, and anger sat on some. I saw a stony-faced woman sneer at the emotion of the lady next to her. Another noble shook his head and leaned close to whisper to his companion. Two young women were embracing each other, overcome with the romance of the story. The Duchess of Bearns hugged herself tight, her clasped hands under her chin, her head bent over her hands. The Duke of Rippon appeared to be telling the people around him, I knew it. I always knew it, as his big hands beat against each other.

And I? How to describe that vindication? I stood among them, unknown and unseen, but feeling as if we had finally come home, my wolf and I. I felt a sharp pang that the Fool had not been here to hear this, and realized I was trembling, as if I had come in from somewhere very cold and was shaking as the warmth finally came back into my body. I was not weeping, and yet the water ran from my eyes until I could scarcely see.

Dutifuls gaze scanned the crowd, and I knew he was looking for me, but he was searching for me in the guise of Lord Feldspar. Lord Chade stood and moved slowly from his place at the high table. I thought he was going to Kettricken, but then his steps wavered and he began to wend his way through the crowd. I watched him, puzzled, and then with horror realized that he had seen me and was coming straight toward me.

No, I Skilled to him, but he was sealed tightnot to keep me out but to keep whatever he was feeling in. When he reached me, he took a firm hold of my arm. Chade, please, no, I begged him. Had the old mans mind turned?

He looked at me. His cheeks were wet with tears. Its time, Fitz. Time and past time. Come. Come with me.

The people standing closest to me were watching and listening. I saw one mans eyes widen and his face transform from puzzlement to shock. We were in the midst of the crowd. If they turned on me now, they could tear me apart. There was no retreat here. And so, as Chade tugged at my arm, I let myself be led. My knees felt loose: I felt as if I walked like a puppet, jouncing with every step.

No one had expected this. Queen Elliania smiled joyously, but all color had drained from Nettles face. Kettrickens chin trembled and then her face crumpled and she wept as if I were King Verity himself walking toward her. As we passed Starling, she lifted her head. When she saw me her hands flew to her mouth. Her eyes went wide and greedy, and some part of me thought, Already she plans what song she will make of this.

The empty space between the crowd and the king and queens dais was an endless desert we crossed. King Dutifuls face was white and stark. What are you doing? What are you doing? he demanded of us, but Chade did not hear him and I had no answer to give. A tumultuous roar of confusion, whispers, speculations, and then shouts rose behind us. Nettles eyes were black in a face carved of ice. Her fear soaked me. When we stood before my king, I went to my knees more out of sudden weakness than from any sense of propriety. My ears were ringing.

Dutiful saved us all.

He shook his head slowly as I stared up at him. Never is over, he proclaimed to the crowd. He looked down at my upturned face. I stared up at him. I saw King Shrewd and King Verity there. My kings, looking down at me with earnest sympathy. FitzChivalry Farseer, too long have you sojourned among the Elderlings, your memory spurned by the very people you saved. Too long have you been in a place where the months pass as if days. Too long have you walked among us in false guise, deprived of your name and your honor. Rise. Turn and face the folk of the Six Duchies, your folk, and be welcomed home at last. He bent and took my arm.

Youre shaking like a leaf, he whispered by my ear. Can you stand up?

I think so, I muttered. But it was his strength that pulled me to my feet. I stood. I turned. I faced them all.

The roar of acclaim broke over me like a wave.

Chapter Seven Secrets and a Crow | Fool's Quest | Chapter Nine The Crown