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Web spoke. “This is not a stag you hunt for meat, my prince. It is not even a wolf that you slay to protect your flocks. This is a creature, as intelligent as yourself if the legends be true, that has given you no provocation to kill it. You must know—” And then Web halted his words. Even as provoked as he was, he would not betray his prince's secret Wit. “You must know what I shall now tell you. He lives, this Icefyre. How he does, I do not know, nor can I say how robust the spark that lingers in him. He flickers in and out of my awareness like a flame dying on a final coal. It may be that we have come all this way and arrived only in time to witness his passing from the world. There would be no dishonor in that. And I have traveled far enough at your side that I think it is not in you to slay any creature that lies defenseless at your feet. Perhaps you shall prove me wrong. I hope not. But”—and here he turned to his Witted companions—“if we do not fulfill our prince's request to help him locate the dragon, if we do not unearth Icefyre from this ice that grips him, I believe he will die just as surely as if our prince took his head. The rest of you may do as you will in this. But I shall not hesitate to use what magic Eda has blessed me with to discover the dragon's prison and free him from it.” He lowered his voice. “It would, of course, be much easier if you all helped me.”

During all of this, the Hetgurd contingent had held themselves apart. I stole a glance at them, and was only mildly surprised to see the Fool standing, not with them, but beside them, as if to show plainly where his loyalties lay. The Owl, their bard, had that listening look so familiar to me from my days with Starling. Every word uttered here would be fixed in his memory, to be later set in the swinging, lurching rhymes of the Outislander bard's tongue. Speculation and dread played over the faces of the others. Then Bear, their leader, thudded a fist on his chest to draw everyone's attention to him.

“Do not forget us, nor forget why we are here. If it is as your wizards say, if the dragon lives but only feebly and you unearth him, we will witness that. And if this Six Duchies farmer-prince kills our dragon when he is in sickness and unwarlike, then all the wrath of every clan will fall, not just on Narwhal and Boar clans for condoning such a cowardly act, but upon the Six Duchies. If the young Prince does this to make an alliance and stave off further war with the God's Runes folk, then he must be sure that he does it in the manner agreed upon. He was to meet our dragon in fair combat, not ignobly take his head as he lies ailing. There is no honor in taking a battle token from a warrior who is already dying and not by your own hand.”

The Fool stood silent through the Bear's declaration, and yet something in his stance made it seem the man was his spokesman. He did not have his arms crossed on his chest, nor did he scowl forbiddingly. Instead he looked deeply at Dutiful, the White Prophet pondering the man who might be his antagonist in his quest to set the world on a better path. The look sent a chill up my back.

As if aware of my gaze on him, he suddenly turned his eyes to mine. The question in them was plain. What would I do, how did I choose? I looked away from him. I could not choose, not yet. When I saw the dragon, I thought to myself, then I would know. And a cowardly part of myself muttered, “If he dies before we chip him out of the ice, then all is solved, and I need never stand in opposition to Chade or the Fool.” It was no comfort that I suspected they were both aware of that secret hope.

Peottre spoke in reply to the Bear. He said, in the weary way of a man who explains something for the hundredth time to a stubborn child, “The Narwhal mothershouse accepts all consequences of this act to our own. Be it so, if the dragon rises against us and curses our descendants. If our kin and fellows turn against us, be it so. We accept that we have brought it upon ourselves.”

“You can bind yourself!” Bear declared angrily. “But your words and gestures cannot bind Icefyre! Who is to say he will not rise to take his vengeance on any who came here to witness his betrayal?”

Peottre looked down at the snow in front of his feet. He seemed to brace himself, as if preparing to shoulder a heavier burden on top of what he already bore. Then he spoke slowly, clearly, as if saying his lines in a ritual, yet his words were plain as bread. “When the time comes to take sides, lift your weapons against me. I vow I will stand and face them all. If I am defeated, let every man of you bloody his weapon in me before I die.”

Midway through his speech, Elliania had gasped in a sharp breath and surged forward as if to stand in front of him. He thrust her aside roughly, a harsher treatment of her than I had ever seen him make, and he held her out from him at arm's length with a firm grip on her upper arm, as if to hold her apart from whatever he had just taken onto himself. Her body heaved as if she stifled sobs or screams as she hid her face in both her hands as he spoke on.

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