And so I left her and rode away from Withywoods alone and quietly joined the procession of noble folk from the Six Duchies going north to the Mountains for the funeral rites. It was passing strange for me to relive a journey I had once made when I was not yet twenty, and had traveled to the Mountain Kingdom to claim Kettricken as bride for King-in-Waiting Verity. In my second journey to the Mountains, I had often avoided the roads and traveled cross-country with my wolf.
I had known that Buck had changed. Now I saw that the changes had happened all through the Six Duchies. The roads were wider than I recalled, and the lands more settled. Fields of grain grew where there had once been open pasturage. Towns sprawled along the road, so that sometimes it seemed one scarcely ended before the next began. There were more inns and towns along the way, though the size of our party sometimes overwhelmed the accommodations. The wild lands were being tamed, brought under the plow, and fenced for pasture. I wondered where the wolves hunted now.
As one of Kettricken’s guardsmen, clad in her white and purple, I rode close to the royal party. Kettricken had never been one to stand upon formality, and her request that I ride at her stirrup was simply accepted by those who knew her. We spoke quietly, the jingling and clopping of the other travelers granting us a strange privacy. I told her stories of my first journey to the Mountains. She spoke of her childhood and of Eyod, not as King but as her loving father. I said nothing of Molly’s disorder to Kettricken. Her sorrow at the death of her father was enough for her to bear.
My position as a member of her guard meant that I was accommodated at the same inns where Kettricken stayed. Often that meant Nettle was there as well, and sometimes we were able to find a quiet place and time for conversation. It was good to see her and a relief to discuss frankly with her how her mother’s illusion persisted. When Steady joined us, we were not as blunt, but that reticence was Nettle’s choice. I could not decide if she thought her younger brother was too young for such tidings or if she thought it too much of a woman’s matter. Burrich had named his son well. Of all his boys, Steady wore most of Burrich’s features and his sturdy build, and shared, too, his deliberate way of moving and unflinching devotion to both honor and duty. When he was with us, it was as if his father sat at the table. I marked Nettle’s easy dependence on her brother’s strength, and not just for the Skill. I was glad he was so often at her side, and yet wistful. I wished he could have been my son, even as I was glad to see his father live on in him. I think he sensed how I felt. He was deferential to me, and yet there were times when his black eyes bore into mine as if he could see my soul. And at those times, I missed Burrich with a cutting sorrow.
In more private times Nettle shared with me her mother’s monthly letters detailing the progress of a pregnancy that had now seemingly stretched over two years. It broke my heart to hear Molly’s words as Nettle read aloud of her mulling on names, and progress on her sewing projects for a baby that would never exist. Yet neither one of us had any solution other than to take a small comfort in the sharing of our worry.
When we arrived in the Mountains, we were given a warm welcome. The bright structures that made up Jhaampe, the Mountain capital, still reminded me of the bells of flowers. The older structures were as I recalled them, incorporating the trees they were built among. But even to the Mountains change had come, and the outskirts of that city were more like the towns of Farrow and Tilth, buildings of stone and plank. It made me sad for I felt that the change was not a good one, as if such structures were a canker growing over the forest.
For three days we mourned a King whom I had respected deeply, not with wild wailing and oceans of tears, but with quietly shared stories of who he had been and how well he had ruled. His people grieved for their fallen King but in equal measure they welcomed his daughter home. They were happy to see King Dutiful and the Narcheska and the two Princes. Several times I heard people mention with quiet pride that young Integrity greatly resembled Kettricken’s brother and his late uncle, Prince Rurisk. I had not seen that resemblance until I heard it spoken, and then I could not forget it.
At the end of the time of mourning, Kettricken stood before them and reminded them that her father and King-in-Waiting Chivalry had begun the process of peace between the Six Duchies and the Mountains. She spoke of how wisely they had secured that peace with her marriage to Verity. She asked that they look at her son King Dutiful as their future monarch and recall that the peace they now enjoyed should be viewed as King Eyod’s greatest triumph.
With the formalities of King Eyod’s funeral over, the true work of the visit commenced. Daily there were meetings with Eyod’s advisors, and there were lengthy discussions on the orderly handing over of the governance of the Mountains. I was present for some of it, sometimes standing at the side of the room, as Chade and Dutiful’s extra eyes and ears, and sometimes sitting outside in the sun, my eyes closed but Skill-linked to both of them in the higher-level meetings. But in the evenings I was sometimes released to have time on my own.