Molly and I circled the stone together, looking up at it. The sun was shining into my eyes when I saw the glyph that would take me to the Witness Stones near Buckkeep. I stared at it, feeling fear form cold in my belly. I did not want to do this. I had to.
The stone stood black and still, beckoning me like a pond of water on a hot summer day. And like a deep pool, it could pull me into its depths and drown me forever.
“Come back to me as soon as you can,” Molly whispered. And then she flung her arms around me and held me in a fierce hug. She spoke into my chest. “I hate the days when we must be parted. I hate the duties that still tug at you, and I hate how always they seem to tear us apart. I hate your dashing off at a moment’s notice to do them.” She spoke the words savagely and each was a small knife plunged into me. Then she added, “But I love that you are the kind of man who still does what he must do. Our daughter calls, and you go to her. As we both know you must.” She took a deep breath and shook her head at her flash of temper. “Fitz, Fitz, I am still so jealous of every minute of your time. And as I age, it seems that I wish to cling to you more, not less. But go. Go do what you must and come back to me as quickly as ever you can. But not by the stones. Come back to me safely, my dear.”
Simple words, and to this day, I do not know why they bolstered my courage as they did. I held her closer to me and stiffened my own spine. “I’ll be fine,” I assured her. “The time I was lost in the stones, it was only because I’d used them so often in the days before. This will be easy. I’ll step in here and stumble out by the Witness Stones above Buckkeep Town. And first thing I’ll have a bird sent to Withywoods to tell you I’m there.”
“And it will take at least a day to get here. But I’ll be watching for it.”
I kissed her again, and then stepped free of her. My knees were shaking and abruptly I wished I had pissed earlier. Facing a sudden and unknown danger is different from deliberately plunging oneself into a previously experienced and known to be life-threatening task. Imagine deliberately walking into a bonfire. Or stepping over the railing of a ship in a storm. I could die. Or worse, not die, forever, in that cool black stillness.
Only four steps away. I could not faint. I could not let my terror show. I had to do this. The stone was only two steps away. I lifted a hand and gave Molly a final wave, but dared not look back at her. My mouth had gone dry in purest fear. With the same hand, I set my palm to the face of the standing stone, right under the glyph that would carry me to Buckkeep.
The stone’s face was cool. The Skill infused me in an indescribable way. I didn’t step into the stone; it engulfed me. A moment of black and sparkling nothing. An indefinable sense of well-being caressed and tempted me. I was on the cusp of understanding something wonderful; in a moment I would grasp it fully. I would not just comprehend it. I would be it. Complete. Unheeding of anything, or anyone, ever again. Fulfilled.
Then I tumbled out. The first coherent thought I had on falling out of the stone onto the wet and grassy hillside above Buckkeep was the same as my last thought before I entered. I wondered what Molly had seen as I left her.
I had dropped to my quivering knees as I emerged. I didn’t try to move. I looked out, breathing air that carried a hint of brine from Buckkeep Bay. It was cooler here, and the air was moister. Rain had fallen recently. Sheep grazed the hillside before me. One had lifted its head to regard me; now it dropped it back to the grass. I could see the back walls of Buckkeep Castle across a rumpled distance of stony pasture and wind-gnarled trees. The fortress of black stone stood as it seemed it always had, its towers giving it a sweeping view of the sea. I could not see it, but I knew that on the steep cliffs below it Buckkeep Town clung like a creeping lichen of people and structures. Home. I was home.
Slowly my heartbeat returned to normal. A creaking cart crested the hill and made its way toward the castle gates. With a critical eye, I approved the slow pace of a sentry along the castle walls above it. We were at peace now, but still Dutiful maintained the watch. Good. Chalced might seem to be preoccupied with its own civil war, but rumor said the duchess now controlled most of her wayward provinces. And as soon as it was at peace with itself, doubtless Chalced would once more seek war with its neighbors.
I looked back at the Skill-pillar. The sudden desire to reenter it, to bathe again in that unsettling pleasure of sparkling darkness, seized me. There was something there that was immense and wonderful, something that I longed to join. I could step back inside and find it. It waited for me.
I drew a deep breath and reached out with the Skill to Nettle. Let fly a bird to Withywoods. Let Molly know I am here and safe. Choose the swiftest bird that will home there.