I let go of Bee and turned to the Fool. It was as if I saw him for the first time. If not for our moment of violent intimacy, if he had not spoken as I plunged the knife into him, I never would have known him. Only his voice had identified him to me. The rags he wore were beyond dirty: they stank and dangled in hanks of rotting fabric. From his knees down, they hung in wet brown tatters. His long, narrow feet were bound in rags. All his grace and elegance were gone. The scarred skin of his face was drawn tight over his bones. He was staring sightlessly up at the overcast sky, still and resigned to whatever might befall him now.
“I’m going to pick you up,” I warned him. He made the slightest nod. I tucked one of the blankets around him as if I were bundling up a child. I slid my arms under him and lifted. The motion released a fresh waft of stench. I held him carefully and looked at Riddle. “How do we do this?”
He was already moving toward the stone. He glanced at me over his shoulder. “If you don’t know, how do you suppose that I do?” His grin was both resigned and scared. He’d do this. He’d risk his life at my request. He’d lend me his strength to attempt something that might kill all of us. I didn’t deserve such a friend. Carrying the Fool, I followed him up the snowy track toward the standing stone.
I glanced back once at the wagon. No one had moved. The driver’s seat was empty. All three were watching us climb the last bit of rocky hill to the Judgment Stone. I pitched my voice lower. “How did you and Chade do it, when he brought you through the stones with him?”
“He took my arm. I thought of Nettle. When he stepped into the stone, I followed. I could feel him drawing on me. It was like, well, like someone chilled cuddling up to you in a bed. Taking your warmth. And then we stepped out. It was a lot less difficult than walking him down this hill in that snowstorm, and finding our way to the inn. That was where he really needed my strength. Not passing through the stones.” He tipped his head to indicate the Fool. “That’s really Lord Golden?”
He looked at him dubiously. “How can you tell?”
He let it be, but then asked, “How will you take him through the stone? Are you linked to him?”
“I was, long ago. I hope it will still be enough.” I shook my head. “I have to try.”
Riddle’s steps had slowed. “So much of you I don’t know, even after all the years. Even after all Nettle has told me.” The snow had stopped, and the light was fading from the day. “We could all get lost, couldn’t we? You and I, we’ve never tried this before. And you’re hoping to bring him through with us. All three of us could …”
“We could all get lost.” I had to finish the statement for him, admitting what we both knew. The enormity of what I had asked him settled on me. It was too much. I had no right. My friend, but I now knew beyond any wondering that he was far more than a friend to Nettle. Had I the right to gamble his life? No. “Riddle. You don’t have to do this. I can try it on my own. You could take Bee back to Withywoods and watch over her for me. I’ll send a bird as soon as we’re safely at Buckkeep Castle.”
Riddle folded his arms over his chest and hugged himself as if he were cold. Or holding his fears in tight. His dark eyes met mine directly. No pretense. No indecision. “No. I’m going with you. I saw your face, back there. I saw how you staggered when you got off the wagon. I think you’ve spent most of your strength in trying to heal him. You need strength, I’ve got it. Nettle said I could easily have been a King’s Man, if I wanted.”
“You chose a Queen instead,” I said quietly, and he smiled, agreeing without a word.
We found ourselves facing the standing stone. I looked up at the glyph that would take us to the Witness Stones, not far from Buckkeep Castle. I felt the terror rise in me. I stood, holding the Fool’s body to my chest, feeling the fear and the dragging weariness. Had I already spent the strength I would need for this? I looked down at his ravaged face. He was still, and slowly that same stillness filled me. I looked back once over my shoulder at Bee. She watched me motionlessly. I nodded to her. She lifted her little hand in a vague wave of farewell.
As if he knew my thoughts, Riddle took my arm. I took a long moment to be aware of him. My old friend. Better than I deserved, these friends. I moved my thoughts like a weaver’s shuttle, moving from the Fool to Riddle to myself and over again. I recalled our friendships, the terrible places we had been, and how we had survived them. “Are you ready?” I asked him.