It was a pale comfort. When I was not imagining the dragon feasting on Nettle's tender flesh, I was imagining Burrich's reaction to a company of Queen's Guard sent to his home to fetch Nettle back to Buckkeep Castle. I passed the voyage in a misery of suspense with little to distract me save Thick's sullen and subtle revenges on me. The second time I scraped my knuckles reaching for the doorknob, I turned on him.
“I know you're doing this, Thick. I don't think it's fair. It's not my fault you are on this voyage.”
He sat up slowly, swinging his bare legs over the side of his bunk. “Then whose fault is it, huh? Who made me come on this boat, when I'm going to die from it?”
I saw my error. I could not tell him I was only doing the Prince's bidding. Chade was right. In this, I had to take the blame. I sighed. “I brought you onto the ship, Thick. Because we need your help if we are going to slay the dragon.” I put all the warmth and excitement into my voice that I could muster. “Don't you want to help the Prince? Don't you want to be part of the adventure we're having?”
He squinted at me as if I were crazy. “Adventure? Puking and eating fishy food? Going up and down, up and down, all the time? Going around people who wonder why I'm not dead?” He crossed his stubby arms on his chest. “I heard adventures in stories. Adventures have golden coins and magic and beautiful girls to kiss. Adventures aren't puking!”
At the moment I was inclined to agree with him. As I left the cabin, I stumbled over the doorstep. “Thick!” I remonstrated.
“I didn't do it!” he claimed, but he laughed all the same.
The little ships flew over the white-tipped waves, and the winds favored us. Even so, the voyage seemed interminable to me. By day I tried to oversee Swift's lessons and be sure that Thick was not neglected without too many minor injuries to myself. By night, I struggled to reach my daughter, and found nothing. By the time we put into port at Zylig, I felt a tottering wreck and possibly looked as bad. Web came to stand beside me at the railing as I watched our approach to the town.
“I won't ask you your secrets,” he said quietly. “But I'll offer to help you bear whatever it is you're bearing, in any way I can.”
“Thank you, but you've already eased much of it. I know I've been impatient with Swift these last few days, and that you've been helping him with his lessons. And I know too that you've visited Thick often and kept boredom away from him. That's as much help as anyone can give me right now. Thank you.”
“Very well, then,” he said regretfully, and patted me on the shoulder and left.
Our stay in Zylig dragged for me. We spent our nights in the stronghouse there, and I spent many of my days there also. Thick's cough lingered still, but I do not think he was as sick as he claimed to be. Tedious as it was for me to linger near his sickroom, I still judged it to be for the best, for on the two occasions I did persuade him to venture outside, the looks he received were not kindly. Thick was like a crippled chick in a flock of healthy birds; any excuse would have sufficed to peck him to bits. He did not feel kindly toward me, and yet I was not comfortable leaving him alone. Although he did not ever ask me to stay with him, whenever I left the chamber he was in, he would find an excuse to follow me, or to call for me a few minutes later.
The first time that Web came at Chade's suggestion to spend time with Thick, I thought it was the old man deliberately throwing us together. But then Chade summoned me and sent me out in the evening, garbed as an Outislander, right down to the owl tattoo he hastily marked on my cheek. With paint and pitch he put a twisting scar in my lower lip to explain my taciturn ways and guttural speech. He gave me enough Outislander coin to sit and drink their miserable beer in their overheated taverns for an evening. After that, I went out several more times, each time dressed as a trader from another clan. Zylig was a major trading town; no one remarked on an unfamiliar face in a noisy inn. My function was to sit and listen to gossip and tales. The negotiations with the Hetgurd had stirred all sorts of interests. Outislander bards were tipped well to sing every song they knew of Aslevjal and Icefyre, and many a family tale was traded to impress cronies around the inn fire. I listened well, and distilled gossip and legend down to common factors likely to be true.
There was definitely something frozen in the ice of Aslevjal Island, but it had been almost a generation since anyone had seen it clearly. Men told their fathers' stories of visiting the island. Some had camped on the beach and trekked over the glacier for a glimpse. Others had visited at the lowest tides of the years, when the retreating waters bared an under-ice passage on the south side of the island. By all accounts it was treacherous, for once one was in channels walled with blue ice, it was easy to become lost or to miscalculate the time and tides and stay too long. Then the returning sea trapped the unwary, never to release his bones. For those wise and strong and sly enough, the under-ice tunnel led to a huge cavern, where one might speak with the trapped dragon and beg a boon of him. Some had received prowess as hunters, others luck with women, and others had won fecundity for their mothershouses. So the tales went.