I told myself I had never believed it anyway. But I had to ask him, “Then you are not a White Prophet? And I am not your Catalyst?”
“What? Of course I am. And you are! But I am not a full White. No full Whites have walked this world for hundreds of years.”
“Then … the Black Man?”
“Prilkop? Far older than me, and probably of purer blood. And like the Whites of old, as he aged, he darkened.”
“I thought he darkened as he was able to fulfill his mission as a White Prophet? That as much as he was successful in setting the world on a better path, so he darkened?”
“Oh, Fitz.” He sounded weary and sad. After a long pause, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what the Servants took from me. Everything I thought I knew, every certainty. Have you ever stood on a sandy beach when the tide is coming in? Felt the waves come up around your feet and suck the sand from under you? That’s my life now. With every day, I feel I sink deeper into uncertainty.”
A hundred questions filled my mind. And I suddenly knew that, yes, I had believed that he was a prophet and I was his Catalyst. I had believed it, and I had endured the things he had foretold for me, and I had trusted. And if it had all been a lie, a deception practiced on him that he had perpetuated upon me in turn? No. That was what I could not believe. It was what I must not believe.
“Is there anything more to eat? Suddenly I’m hungry again.”
“I’ll see.” I rolled off the bed and went to the hearth. Whoever Chade had dispatched had been thorough. There was a covered pot on the kettle hook, swung to the edge of the coals where it would stay warm but not burn. I hooked it over the hearth and peeked in. A chicken had been stewed down to a morass of thready flesh in a thick brown broth. Onion and celery and parsnip mingled together in a friendly sauce. “Stewed chicken,” I told him. “Shall I bring you some?”
“I’ll get up.”
His answer surprised me. “Earlier today, when I brought you here so quickly, I thought you balanced on the knife’s edge of death. Now you sound almost like yourself.”
“I’ve always been tougher than I looked.” He sat up slowly and swung his legs out, feet groping for the floor. “But don’t deceive yourself. I doubted I would have survived longer than a couple more nights in the cold. I scarcely remember the last few days. Cold and hunger and pain. No difference between night and day, save that nights were colder.” He stood and swayed. “I don’t know where you are,” he complained helplessly.
“Stand still,” I bade him, as if he could do otherwise. I put a small table near Chade’s old chair, and then guided the Fool to his seat. I found dishes and cutlery on a shelf; Lady Rosemary kept a much more orderly lair than Chade had. I brought him a bowl of the chicken and a spoon, and then found a bottle of brandy and some cups. “How hungry are you?” I asked, eyeing what was left in the pot. My own appetite had wakened at the smell of the food. The toil of the Skill-journey I had mostly transferred to Riddle, but it had still been a long and taxing time since I’d last eaten.
“Eat something,” the Fool replied, having sensed my dilemma.
I dished out food for myself and sat down in Lady Rosemary’s chair with my bowl on my knee. The Fool lifted his head. “Do I smell brandy?”
“It’s to the left of your bowl.”
He set down his spoon and a tremulous smile claimed his mouth. “Brandy with Fitz. By a fire. In clean clothes. With food. One last time, and almost I could die happy.”
“Let’s avoid the dying part, and have the rest.”
His smile grew stronger. “For a time, old friend. For a time. Whatever you did to me before we entered the stones, and Riddle’s sacrifice, then food and warmth and rest have pulled me back from that brink. But we shall not deceive each other. I know the rot I carry inside myself. I know you saw it.” He lifted a claw-like hand to scratch his scarred cheek. “It isn’t a happenstance, Fitz. They deliberately created that within me, just as they etched my face with scars and tore the Skill from my fingertips. I do not fancy that I have escaped. They set a slow death to work inside me and then pursued me as I tottered away, striving to see that I always exerted myself to exhaustion each day, always threatening those who might aid me. I fancy I traveled faster and farther than they thought I would, but even that may be a fantasy. They plot in convolutions far beyond what you or I could imagine, for they have a map of the maze of time, drawn from a hundred thousand prophecies. I do not ask why you stabbed me because I already know. They set it in motion, and waited for you to do their evil will. They sought to hurt you as much as to kill me. No one’s fault but theirs. Yet you are still the Catalyst, and you turn my dying into an infusion of strength.” He sighed. “But perhaps even that is their will, that you find me and bring me here. Is this a pebble, Fitz, that triggers the avalanche? I don’t know. I long to see as I once did, long to pick my way through a swirling mist of possibilities. But that is gone, lost to me when you brought me back from the dead.”