“He told me he would die here. I never completely believed him. If I had, there are things I would have said to him.” I sighed, suddenly filled with the futility of such thoughts, and of all the things I had meant to do and never done. I groped within myself trying to find some meaningful thought or sentiment. But there was nothing to think or to say. The Fool's absence filled me, leaving no room for anything else.
We moved on that day, and most of us were in high spirits. Burrich rode alone on the sled now, silent and unmoving, fading more as the day passed. Swift walked on one side of him and I on the other, and we spoke not at all. On our rest halts, I trickled a little water into Burrich's mouth. Each time, he swallowed it. Even so, I knew that he was dying, and I didn't lie to Swift about it.
Night came and we halted, and made food. Thick had no lack of friends now ready to look after him, and he loved the attention. I tried not to feel abandoned by him. All the days that I had wished to be free of his care, and now that I was, I wished I had the distraction of it again. Web came to Swift and me, bringing food for the boy and nodding to me that I should take a rest from my vigil. Yet walking apart from Burrich and Swift only made the night seem colder.
I found myself at Longwick's fire, where he shared his harvest of gossip with me. Some of the freed Outislanders had been with the Pale Woman since the Red Ship War. Once, there had been scores of them, but she had relentlessly fed them to the dragons. At first, the main settlement had been on the shore near the quarry site, but after the war she had begun to fear that the Outislanders would turn on her. She had also been determined, from the beginning, that she would make an end of the dragon Icefyre. Legend said that the halls and tunnels beneath the glacier had existed for generations. She had waited for the year's low tide to discover the fabled under-ice entry to it. Once within, she had put her men to chipping out the icy ceiling of the treacherous passage, to create a hidden access that could be used at almost any low tide. When she destroyed her beach settlement, she had ordered her servants to transport the larger of the two stone dragons and reassemble him in the great hall of ice. It had been a prodigious task, but she cared nothing for how many men or how much time it consumed.
In the years since the war, she had dwelt there, extracting tribute from the clans that still feared her or hoped to regain their hostages from her. She struck cruel bargains; for a shipment of food, she might return a body. Or a promise that the hostage would never be released to shame his family. When I asked Longwick if he thought that knowledge of her habitation was widespread in the Out Islands, he shook his head. “I got the sense that it was a matter of shame. No one who paid the bribes would have spoken of it.” I nodded to myself at that. I doubted that many of the Narwhal Clan knew the full tale of what had become of Oerttre and Kossi, only that they were missing. Well did I know that very large secrets could still remain secrets.
So the Pale Woman's kingdom had been built, from the labor of half-Forged warriors. When one became injured, or old, or intractable, he was given to the dragon. Many lives had gone into the stone in her futile efforts to animate it. We had arrived at the waning of her power. Scores served her where once there had been hundreds. Her dragon and the forced labor had consumed them.
The Pale Woman had made efforts of her own to kill Icefyre but had never succeeded in more than tormenting him. She feared to remove the ice that held him and had never discovered a weapon that effectively pierced his overlapping scales and thick hide. Her hatred and her fear of him had been legendary among her slaves.
“I still don't understand,” I said to Longwick quietly as we watched the small flames of his fire dying. “Why did they serve her? How did she get Forged Ones to obey her? The ones I saw in Buck were without loyalties of any kind.”
“I do not know. I soldiered in the Red Ship War, and I know what you speak about. The men I talked to said that their memories of their time serving her are dulled. They recall only pain, no pleasure, no scent, no taste of food. Only that they did what she bade them, because it was easier than being disobedient. The disobedient were fed to the dragon. I think here we see a more sophisticated use of Forging than any we knew in the Six Duchies. One man told me that, when she took all his loyalty and love of his home and family away, it seemed to him that she was the only thing he could serve. And serve he did, though even the blunted memories of what he did for her shame him now.”
When I left Longwick and went back to where Burrich rested on the sled, I caught a glimpse of Prince Dutiful and the Narcheska between the tents. They stood, their hands entwined and their heads close together. I wondered how her mother regarded their marriage to come. To her, it must seem a strange and sudden alliance with an old enemy. Would she support it when it meant her daughter must leave her mothershouse to reign in a distant land? I wondered how Elliania herself felt about it; she had only recently regained her mother and sister. Would she now wish to leave them and travel to the Six Duchies?