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— “SKILL DREAMING”—SKILLMASTER SOLICITY

I slept well, without dreams of any kind, and woke to the sound of the waves against the beach. Dawn had barely found us, but already both guardsmen and Hetgurd warriors were up and about. I splashed my face in the icy stream. The incoming tide had covered the carved dragon, but now that I knew it was there, I could feel it as a sort of Wit-humming from beneath the waves. I glanced out toward the anchored ships. I wanted to ask Web what he thought of the dragon, and yet I felt guilty at the thought. I hadn't kept faith with him; I hadn't come to allow him to teach me. Did I have the right to ask him to use his knowledge for my benefit, when I would not learn it for myself? I knew how I would react to Swift's behaving so. I grimly reminded myself that there was only so much time in a day, and of late every moment in mine seemed to have been spoken for.

I checked on the tent where Thick slept on. Coward that I was, I decided to leave him in peace. I wandered over to the guards' cook fire, where the porridge was just beginning to boil. Longwick had no immediate task for me. I glanced out at the anchored ships, but saw no signs of life there. They had probably stayed up late talking. I visited the quarry again. By the light of day, I thought I glimpsed bones and the round of a human skull under the rainwater, but the sides of the quarry were steep and I had no desire to investigate. Whatever had happened there had happened long ago. My own problems were more immediate. I drifted over to where the Hetgurd men had their tents. They were gathered outside them, and at first I thought they were having breakfast from a stone table. Then, as I ventured closer, I realized that the sporadic conversation was an ongoing argument. I halted where I was, making a show of scratching and stretching while gazing seaward. Then I went down on one knee as if adjusting my shoe, all the while listening closely. They were muttering their complaints to one another, so it was not easy to understand them. When I had heard enough to realize that they had left an offering for the Black Man at the traditional spot, on this stone table, and that it had not been taken, I stood up and ventured near.

With an oafish smile on my face and using my broadest Six Duchies accent, I asked them brokenly if they knew when the Narcheska's party might come ashore. A broad man with a stylized bear on his cheek told me that they would arrive when they arrived. I nodded pleasantly with the slightly unfocused look of a man who is not certain of what has just been said to him. Then, nodding at the stone table, I asked what they were having for dinner. I took three steps toward it before two men stepped in between the table and me to block my access to it.

The Bear explained to me that this was not a meal, but an offering, and that I should probably go down to my own fellows and eat with them, as they had no use for beggars here. I peered at him, my mouth movements echoing his as if puzzling out his words, and then smiled broadly and wished them all a good evening and left. I'd had my glimpse of the stone table. On it was a clay pot, a small loaf of dark bread, and a dish of salted fish doused in oil. It had not looked appetizing, even to my morning hunger, and I scarcely blamed the Black Man for leaving it untouched. Their distress over this apparent rejection was interesting to me. From their words, they had expected some island denizen to come and stealthily take the offering. That he had not worried them. These were hardened warriors, selected by the Hetgurd to be single-minded in their task. Most warriors I had been around were pragmatic about matters of religion and superstition. They might make a “good luck” toss of the salt, but only a few cared much for omens such as the wind catching it and blowing it aside. My evaluation was that these men had expected the Black Man to accept their gifts and, by that acceptance, signal his permission for them to be here. He had not, and that unsettled them. I wondered how much that would affect their attitude toward our quest.

As I walked back to my tent, I reflected that this belief of theirs indicated that in the past, someone or something had accepted such offerings. Was there someone actually living on the island; or was it more likely some creature like the robber-rat that Swift had wanted to befriend that had taken the food?

I found Thick waking. He seemed a trifle more kindly disposed toward me this day, and accepted my aid in getting himself warmly dressed. He had one coughing spell that left him red-cheeked and breathless. It troubled me more than I let show. Lingering coughs could take down large warriors, and Thick was neither big nor hearty. He had been battling this lung ailment too long, and now faced a time of living in a drafty tent in a chilly spring. But I said nothing of my worries to him as we walked over to the fire for our share of hot porridge and tea.

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