But he already slept. I lifted a corner of the cloak and draped it over his eyes to shield them from the rising sun. I sniffed the air and it came to me that it would be a good time to hunt.
I took the whole morning for the hunt, and came back with a brace of rabbits and some greens. The Fool still lay as I had left him. I cleaned the rabbits and hung the meat to bleed. I set up his tent in the shade. I found the Elderling robe he had once given to me and laid it out inside the tent. I checked on the Fool. He slept on. I studied him critically. Biting insects had found him. They, and the growing strength of the sun on his skin, convinced me that I should move him.
“Beloved,” I said quietly. He made no response. I spoke to him anyway, knowing that sometimes we are aware of the things we hear when we are sleeping. “I'm going to move you. It may hurt.”
He made no response. I worked my arms under the cloak and lifted him as gently as I could. Still, he cried out wordlessly, squirming in my arms as he tried to escape the pain. His eyes opened as I carried him across the ancient plaza to the tent in the shade of the trees. He looked at me and through me, not knowing me, not truly awake. “Please,” he begged me brokenly. “Please stop. Don't hurt me any more. Please.”
“You're safe now,” I comforted him. “It's over. It's all done.”
“Please!” he cried out again, loudly.
I had to drop to one knee to get him inside the tent. He shrieked as the fabric brushed over his raw back in passing. I set him down as gently as I could. “You'll be out of the sun and away from the insects here,” I told him. I don't think he heard me.
“Please. No more. Whatever you want, anything. Just stop. Stop.”
“It has stopped,” I told him. “You're safe now.”
“Please.” His eyes fluttered closed again. He was still. He had never truly wakened.
I went out of the tent. I had to be away from him. I was sick at heart for him, and wretched with my own sudden memories. I had known torture. Regal's methods had been crude but effective. But I had had a small shield that the Fool had lacked. I had known that as long as I held out against him, as long as I could refuse to give him proof that I was Witted, he could not simply kill me. So, I had held firm against the beatings and deprivations; I had not given Regal what he wanted. Giving him that would have allowed him to kill me, without compunction, with the sanction of the Dukes of the Six Duchies. And in the end, when I knew that I could not hold out any longer, I had snatched my death from him, taking poison rather than allowing him to break me.
But for the Fool, there had been nothing he could hold back. He had nothing that the Pale Woman wanted, except his pain. What had she made him beg for, what had she made him promise, only to laugh at his capitulation and begin again on his tormented flesh? I didn't want to know. I didn't want to know, and it shamed me that I fled his pain. By refusing to acknowledge what he had suffered, could I pretend it had not happened?
Little tasks are how I have always hidden from my thoughts. I refilled my water skin with clean cold water from the creek. I stole fuel from the former funeral pyre and built a small cook fire from it. When it was burning well, I set one rabbit to roast on a skewer and the other to bubbling in a pot. I gathered up my strewn winter garments, beat some of the dirt from them, and hung them on bushes to air. In the course of my tasks I found the Rooster Crown where the Fool had apparently flung it in a pique. I brought it back and set it just inside the flap of the tent. I went to the stream and scrubbed myself clean with horsetails and then bound my dripping hair back in a warrior's tail. I did not feel like a warrior. I wondered if I would have felt better if I'd killed her. I thought of going back and killing the Pale Woman and bringing her head to the Fool.
I did not think it would help, or quite likely I would have done it.
I set the rabbit soup aside to cool, and ate the roasted one. Nothing quite compares to fresh meat when one has gone a long time without it. It was bloody near the bone and succulent. I ate like a wolf, immersing myself in the moment and in the sensation of feeding. But eventually I had to toss the last gnawed bone into the fire and contemplate the evening ahead of me.
I took the kettle of soup into the tent. The Fool was awake. He lay on his belly and stared at the corner of the tent. The long light of late afternoon shone through the tent's panels and dappled him with color. I had known he was awake. The renewal of our Skill-bond made it impossible for me not to know. I could block most of the physical pain he felt. It was harder to block his anguish.
“I brought you food,” I said to him.