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“Get up, Fitz. Get up! We have to get out of here. The dragon is stirring and the ice is cracking. He could bring it all down on us. Get up.”

And when I could not, he grasped me by the collar and dragged me, out of the tunnel and into the excavation and up the ramp into the world of light and men.

Chapter 24

TINTAGLIA'S COMMAND

And when the shepherd-turned-warrior had wearied himself with whetting his blade on the dragon's impervious hide, he fell back from him, sweating and panting. Yet the moment he had breath to curse him, he did so again, saying he would take vengeance times three on the creature that had eaten his entire flock.

At those words, the dragon seemed to waken from his sated sleep. Slower than a sunrise, he lifted his head and opened his eyes. He looked down at the man and his blade, and his great green eyes swirled and whirled. Some say they were like whirlpools in the deep, and that they sucked Herderson's soul down into their depth and made it the dragon's servant. Others say that Herderson stood firm before the dragon's gaze, and it was only when Herderson breathed in the dragon's outblown breath that he became subject to the creature. It is a hard thing to bear true witness to, for those who had gathered to watch Herderson attempt to slay the dragon had come no closer than the edge of his pasture.

Be it his gaze or his breath, it took the man's heart. He suddenly flung aside both shield and sword and cried out, “Forgive me, emerald one, O creature of jewel and flame and truth. I did not perceive what glory and might was yours when I first approached you. Forgive me, and allow me ever after to serve you and sing your praise.”

— “THE TALE OF THE DRAGON'S SLAVE”

The world was a bright white place and cold. I found my feet, got them firmly under me, and remembered how to make them work. From somewhere, Burrich came, to grab my other arm. Then Dutiful, Burrich, and I were staggering and sliding through the dawn light toward the huddled tents. I saw Chade all but running up the hill toward us. At a considerable distance behind him, Thick trudged along. Longwick and his remaining guardsmen were following them. The Wit coterie had tumbled half-dressed from their tent, and stood in the snow, pointing up the hillside and shouting to one another as they pulled on their coats and boots. The Hetgurd warriors stood apart and staring, nodding to one another as if they had expected a doom like this all along. Icefyre's first try at breaking free had felt like a small earthquake, and he continued to make efforts as we hastened away from the excavation. Behind us, we felt as much as heard the dragon shuddering to break free of his icy prison. The cracking ice squeaked and popped and groaned as he fought it. Even so, it seemed to me that each effort was feebler than the first one. Then, when we were halfway down the hill, the creaking of the ice ceased. My Wit-sense of Icefyre remained as strong, but that awareness told me of a creature that had expended tremendous effort and was now on the verge of collapse.

“It would be ironic,” I panted to Burrich and Dutiful, “if after all these years of longing to die, he finally perished in an attempt to live.”

Burrich snorted. “We all perish in our last attempt to live.”

“What went wrong?” Dutiful demanded. “Why did you wake him instead of just killing him? Did the powder fail? What changed your mind?”

Before I could answer, Chade was upon us. My old mentor stalked toward me, trembling with his outrage. His questions were harsher.

“How could you?” he demanded, his voice shaking with passion as soon as he was within hearing range of me. “How could you betray your own blood that way? You were sent to kill the dragon. What right do you have to decide against that? How could you turn on your family?”

“I haven't turned on my family. I've let the Fool be Forged for the sake of the Farseers,” I said. Speaking that harsh truth aloud, under the bright morning light, suddenly made it real. I had to take a breath. In a quieter voice, I went on. “She's had us watching the puppets, Chade, until we forgot that she was up there, pulling the strings. The Pale Woman wishes the dragon killed, yes. Perhaps if we killed him, she even would have given us back the Fool, but only so that he could witness the destruction of all he'd hoped for. Only so he could witness the end of the Farseer line.”

Heedless of the men who were drawing into hearing range, I lined out my logic for Dutiful and him. In their prolonged silence, I heard them trying my reasoning and finding it sound. Into the silence, I said to Dutiful, “I've broken your promise, and lost you your bride. But I cannot tell you I am sorry to have done so. I fear it would have been a marriage founded on death, and death would be the only fruit of it. For now, at least, we've chosen life. Life for the dragon. And possibly a stronger peace between the Six Duchies and the Out Islands than we could have built on the dragon's death.”

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