“I’m with you,” he said. And I could feel that was true. It was as Chade had described it, a sort of harness to which I could cling. Rather like holding to a powerful horse while crossing a deep, cold river.
I clutched the Fool to my chest and we stepped forward into stony darkness.
A Time of Healing
The duties of a King’s Man are simple. He must first maintain himself in excellent health of body. This will assure that when the King calls upon him to lend strength, he will have it. The King’s Man must have a close affinity to the one he serves; it is best if he has a true regard for the one who will draw Skill-strength from him, rather than simple respect and a sense of duty.
This regard should ideally extend in both directions. The Skill-user who calls upon a King’s Man to lend strength must keep the well-being of his partner in the forefront of his mind. For once the King’s Man has surrendered control of his body’s resources to the Skill-user, it will be beyond him to refuse. An experienced King’s Man can let his partner know when he feels he is approaching the maximum of what he can give. It is absolutely essential to the trust that is required in this relationship that the Skill-user respond to such a reminder.
On the Training of a King’s Man, Skillmistress Inkswell
We fell from the face of the pillar onto the snowy hilltop of the Witness Stones. The snow was deep and fresh, untracked and thigh-deep. It caught me as I stumbled, but did not fall, nor did I drop the Fool. Riddle still held to my arm as we emerged into deep dusk. I took a deep breath of cold air. “That was not near as hard as I feared it would be,” I panted. I was winded, as if I’d run up a steep hill and my head pounded with a Skill-headache. But we had arrived intact. It seemed that only moments had passed and that I was wakening from a long sleep. Despite the headache, I felt rested. I had a memory of a starry blackness, in which the stars were below us as well as above, behind and before us. We stepped from that infinity to the snowy hillside near Buckkeep Castle.
Then Riddle dropped senseless into the snow beside me. He fell with terrible limpness, collapsing as if he had not a bone in his body. I held fast to the Fool as I dropped to one knee beside him. “Riddle? Riddle!” I called stupidly, as if he had only forgotten I was there and decided to fall on his face. I let the Fool’s legs drop to the snowy ground as I caught at the shoulder of Riddle’s shirt and tried to turn him faceup. He did not respond to my voice or my touch. “Riddle!” I shouted again, and with great relief I heard an answering shout from down the hill.
I turned and looked behind me. A boy carrying a torch waded through the snow. Behind him, a team labored to draw a sledge up the steep hill. By the wavering torchlight, I saw steam rising from their coats. A girl rode a horse behind them, and then the girl was suddenly Nettle, and at my shout she urged her mount to surge through the deep snow and pass the trudging team. She reached us before anyone else and flung herself from her horse and into the snow beside Riddle. As she put her arms around him and lifted him so that his head rested on her breast, she answered any questions I might ever have had about what he meant to her. Even in the fading light of the day, the flash of anger in her eyes was sharp as she demanded, “What did you do to him?”
I answered honestly. “I used him. And in my inexperience, more ruthlessly than I meant to, I fear. I, I thought he would stop me if I took too much.” I felt like a stammering boy before her deep cold anger. I bit back my useless apology. “Let us get them both onto the sled and back to the keep and summon healers and the King’s Coterie. Later, you can say or do whatever you wish to me.”
“I shall,” she warned me heartily, and then lifted her voice, giving commands. Guards rushed to obey her, several of them exclaiming in dismay as they recognized Riddle. I trusted none of them with the Fool but carried him myself to the sled, loaded him, and clambered up afterward to sit beside him.
The snow was slightly packed, and the big horses made better time going down the hill than they had coming up. Even so, it seemed an eternity in the dark and cold as we approached the lighted towers of Buckkeep Castle. Nettle had given her horse over to someone else; she rode with Riddle, and if their relationship had been a secret, it was no longer. She spoke softly and urgently to him, and when he finally stirred and managed a feeble response she bent over him to deliver a heartfelt kiss.
The sled did not even pause at the gates, but took us directly to the infirmary. The healers were waiting for us. I did not object as they took Riddle first, and again I carried the Fool myself. Nettle dismissed the guards and promised them news as soon as there was any. The room was long with a low ceiling and blessedly empty of other occupants. I wondered if it was the same room where I had once recovered from my Skill-pillar mishap. There were rows of cots, not so different from a barracks. Riddle had already been stretched out on a bed, and I was horribly relieved to hear him weakly protesting at being there. I set the Fool down carefully on a bed two cots away, knowing well that Nettle would need space from me for some time. And Riddle, I thought glumly. I did not think I’d done permanent damage to him, but in my ignorance and my anxiety for the Fool, I had completely forgotten to have a care for how much of his strength I took. I’d used him roughly and I would deserve his anger. I was baffled by it. Had I needed that much from him to bring the Fool through the pillar?