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Sometimes it seems unfair that events so old can reach forward through the years, sinking claws into one's life and twisting all that follows it. Yet perhaps that is the ultimate justice: we are the sum of all we have done added to the sum of all that has been done to us. There is no escaping that, not for any of us.
So it was that everything that the Fool had ever said to me and all the things he'd left unsaid combined. And the sum was that I betrayed him. Yet I believed that I acted in his best interests, and mine. He had foretold that if we went to Aslevjal Island, he would die and Death might make another snap of his jaws at me. He promised to do all in his power to see that I survived, for his grand scheme to change the future required it. But with my latest brush with death still fresh in my memory, I found his promises more threatening than reassuring. He had also blithely informed me that once we were on the island, I would have to choose between our friendship and my loyalty to Prince Dutiful.
Perhaps I could have faced one of those things and stood strong before it, but I doubt it. Any one of those things was enough to unman me, and facing the sum of them was simply beyond my strength.
So I went to Chade. I told him what the Fool had said. And my old mentor arranged that when we sailed for the Out Islands, the Fool would not go with us.
Spring had come to Buckkeep Castle. The grim black stone edifice still crouched suspiciously on the steep cliffs above Buckkeep Town, but on the rolling hills behind the keep, new green grass was pushing optimistically up through the standing brown straw of last year's growth. The bare-limbed forests were hazed with tiny green leaves unfurling on every tree branch. The wintry mounds of dead kelp on the black beaches at the foot of the cliffs had been swept away by the tides. Migratory birds had returned, and their songs rang challenges in the forested hills and along the beaches where seabirds battled for choice nesting nooks in the cliffs. Spring had even invaded the dim halls and high-ceilinged chambers of the keep, for blossoming branches and early-blooming flowers graced every alcove and framed the entries of the gathering rooms.
The warmer winds seemed to sweep my gloom away. None of my problems and concerns had vanished, but spring can dismiss a multitude of worries. My physical state had improved; I felt more youthful than I had in my twenties. Not only was I building flesh and muscle again, but I suddenly possessed the body that a fit man of my years should have. The harsh healing I had undergone at the inexperienced hands of the coterie had inadvertently undone old damage as well. Abuse I had suffered at Galen's hands in the course of his teaching me the Skill, injuries I had taken as a warrior, and the deep scars from my torture in Regal's dungeons had been erased. My headaches had nearly ceased, my vision no longer blurred when I was weary, and I did not ache in the chill of early morning. I lived now in the body of a strong and healthy animal. Few things are so exhilarating as good health on a clear spring morning.
I stood on the top of a tower and looked out over the wrinkling sea. Behind me, tubs of earth, freshly manured, held small fruit trees arrayed in blossoms of white and pale pink. Smaller pots held vines with swelling leaf buds. The long green leaves of bulb flowers thrust up like scouts sent to test the air. In some pots, only bare brown stalks showed, but the promise was there, each plant awaiting the return of warmer days. Interspersed with the pots were artfully arranged statuary and beckoning benches. Shielded candles awaited mellow summer nights to send their glow into the darkness. Queen Kettricken had restored the Queen's Garden to its former glory. This high retreat was her private territory. Its present simplicity reflected her Mountain roots, but its existence was a much older Buckkeep tradition.
I paced a restless turn around its perimeter path, and then forced myself to stand still. The boy was not late. I was early. That the minutes dragged was not his fault. Anticipation warred with reluctance as I awaited my first private meeting with Swift, Burrich's son. My queen had given me responsibility for Swift's instruction in both letters and weaponry. I dreaded the task. Not only was the boy Witted, but he was undeniably headstrong. Those two things, coupled with his intelligence, could carry him into trouble. The Queen had decreed that the Witted must be treated with respect, but many still believed that the best cure for Beast Magic was a noose, a knife, and a fire.
I understood the Queen's motive in entrusting Swift to me. His father, Burrich, had turned him out of his home when the boy would not give up the Wit. Yet the same Burrich had devoted years to raising me when I was a lad and abandoned by my royal father as a bastard that he dared not claim. It was fitting that I now do the same for Burrich's son, even if I could never let the boy know that I had once been FitzChivalry and his father's ward. So it was that I awaited Swift, a skinny lad of ten summers, as nervously as if I faced the boy's father. I took a deep breath of the cool morning air. The scent of the fruit tree blossoms balmed it. I reminded myself that my task would not last long. Very soon, I would accompany the Prince on his quest to Aslevjal in the Out Islands. Surely I could endure being the lad's instructor until then.
The Wit Magic makes one aware of other life, and so I turned even before Swift pushed open the heavy door. He shut it quietly behind him. Despite his long climb up the steep stone stairs, he was not breathing hard. I remained partially concealed by screening blossoms and studied him. He was dressed in Buckkeep blue, in simple garments befitting a page. Chade was right. He would make a fine axeman. The boy was thin, in the way of active boys of that age, but the knobs of shoulders under his jerkin promised his father's brawn. I doubted he would be tall, but he would be wide enough to make up for it. Swift had his father's black eyes and dark curling hair, but there was something of Molly in the line of his jaw and the set of his eyes. Molly, my lost love and Burrich's wife. I took a long, deep breath. This might be more difficult than I had imagined.
I saw him become aware of me. I stood still, letting his eyes seek me out. For a time we both stood, unspeaking. Then he threaded his way through the meandering paths until he stood before me. His bow was too carefully practiced to be graceful.
"My lord, I am Swift Witted. I was told to report to you, and so I present myself."
I could see he had made an effort to learn his court courtesies. Yet his blatant inclusion of his Beast Magic in how he named himself seemed almost a rude challenge, as if he tested whether the Queen's protection of the Witted would hold here, alone with me. He met my gaze in a forthright way that most nobles would have found presumptuous. Then again, I reminded myself, I was not a noble. I told him so. "I am not 'my lord' to anyone, lad. I'm Tom Badgerlock, a man-at-arms in the Queen's Guard. You may call me Master Badgerlock, and I shall call you Swift. Is that agreed?"
He blinked twice and then nodded. Abruptly, he recalled that that was not correct. "It is, sir. Master Badgerlock."
"Very well. Swift, do you know why you were sent to me?"
He bit his upper lip twice, swift successive nibbles, then took a deep breath and spoke, eyes lowered. "I suppose I've displeased someone." Then he flashed his gaze up to mine again. "But I don't know what I did, or to whom." Almost defiantly, he added, "I cannot help what I am. If it is because I am Witted, well, then, it isn't fair. Our queen has said that my magic should not make any difference in how I am treated."
My breath caught in my throat. His father looked at me from those dark eyes. The uncompromising honesty and the determination to speak the truth was all Burrich's. And yet, in his intemperate haste, I heard Molly's quick temper. For a moment, I was at a loss for words.
The boy interpreted my silence as displeasure and lowered his eyes. But the set of his shoulders was still square; he did not know of any fault he had committed, and he would not show any repentance until he did.
"You did not displease anyone, Swift. And you will find that to some at Buckkeep, your Wit matters not at all. That is not why we separated you from the other children. Rather, this change is for your benefit. Your knowledge of letters surpasses the other children of your age. We did not wish to thrust you into a group of youths much older than you. It was also decided that you could benefit from instruction in the use of a battle-axe. That, I believe, is why I was chosen to mentor you."
His head jerked and he looked up at me in confusion and dismay. "A battle-axe?"
I nodded, both to him and to myself. Chade was up to his old tricks again. Plainly the boy had not been asked if he had any interest in learning to wield such a weapon. I put a smile on my face. "Certainly a battle-axe. Buckkeep's men-at-arms recall that your father fought excellently with the axe. As you inherit his build as well as his looks, it seems natural that his weapon of choice should be yours."
"I'm nothing like my father. Sir."
I nearly laughed aloud, not from joy, but because the boy had never looked more like Burrich than he did at that moment. It felt odd to look down at someone giving me his black scowl. But such an attitude was not appropriate to a boy of his years, so I coldly said, "You're like enough, in the Queen's and Councilor Chade's opinions. Do you dispute what they have decided for you?"
It all hovered in the balance. I saw the instant when he made his decision, and almost read the workings of his mind. He could refuse. Then he might be seen as ungrateful and sent back home to his father. Better to bow his head to a distasteful task and stay. And so he said, voice lowered, "No, sir. I accept what they have decided."
"That's good," I said with false heartiness.
But before I could continue, he informed me, "But I have a skill with a weapon already. The bow, sir. I had not spoken of it before, because I did not think it would be of interest to anyone. But if I'm to train as a fighter as well as a page, I already have a weapon of choice."
Interesting. I regarded him in silence for a moment. I'd seen enough of Burrich in him to suspect he would not idly boast of a skill he didn't possess. "Very well, then. You may show me your skills with a bow. But this time is set aside for other lessons. To that end, we've been given permission to use scrolls from the Buckkeep library. That's quite an honor for both of us." I waited for a response.
He bobbed a nod, and then recalling his manners, "Yes, sir."
"Good. Then meet me here tomorrow. We'll have an hour of scrolls and writing, and then we'll go down to the weapons court." Again I awaited his reply.
"Yes, sir. Sir?"
"What is it?"
"I'm a good horseman, sir. I'm a bit rusty now. My father refused to let me be around his horses for the last year. But I'm a good horseman, as well."
"That's good to know, Swift." I knew what he had hoped. I watched his face, and saw the light in it dim at my neutral response. I had reacted almost reflexively. A boy of his age shouldn't be considering bonding with an animal. Yet as he lowered his head in disappointment, I felt my old loneliness echo down the years. So too had Burrich done all he could to protect me from bonding with a beast. Knowing the wisdom of it now didn't still the memory of my thrumming isolation. I cleared my throat and tried to keep my voice smoothly assured when I spoke. "Very well, then, Swift. Report to me here tomorrow. Oh, and wear your old clothes tomorrow. We'll be getting dirty and sweaty."
He looked stricken.
"Well? What is it, lad?"
"I . . . sir, I can't. I, that is, I don't have my old clothes anymore. Only the two sets the Queen gave me."
"What happened to them?"
"I . . . I burned them, sir." He suddenly sounded defiant. He met my eyes, jaw jutting.
I thought of asking him why. I didn't need to. It was obvious from his stance. He had made a show for himself of destroying all things that bound him to his past. I wondered if I should make him admit that aloud, then decided that nothing would be gained by it. Surely such a waste of useful garments was something that should shame him. I wondered how bitterly his differences with his father had run. Suddenly the day seemed a little less brightly blue. I shrugged, dismissing the matter. "Wear what you have, then," I said abruptly, and hoped I did not sound too harsh.
He stood there, staring at me, and I realized that I hadn't dismissed him. "You may go now, Swift. I will see you tomorrow."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, Master Badgerlock." He bowed, jerkily correct, and then hesitated again. "Sir? May I ask you a last question?"
He looked all around us, almost suspiciously. "Why do we meet up here?"
"It's quiet. It's pleasant. When I was your age, I hated to be kept indoors on a spring day."
That brought a hesitant smile to his face. "So do I, sir. Nor do I like to be kept so isolated from animals. That is my magic calling me, I suppose."
I wished he had let it rest. "Perhaps it is. And perhaps you should think well before you answer it." This time I intended that he hear the rebuke in my voice.
He flinched, then looked indignant. "The Queen said that my magic was not to make a difference to anyone. That no one can treat me poorly because of it."