There are similar standing stones throughout the Six Duchies and beyond. All seem to be carved of the same black stone. All seem to have been sturdily set to withstand all elements. Some are decorated with runes. Others seem to be plain, but a closer inspection usually reveals that runes once graced them, and have either worn away or been chiseled off them.
Although we have not been able to find mention of them in the Skill scrolls we have, they were almost certainly used by the Elderlings as a method for swift transit from one place to another. Herewith, I have set out a map of the known Skill-pillars, as I shall call them. On this map, I have clearly marked a legend that shows which runes apply to which locations. Although some of the Skill-pillars may appear to be unmarked, an experienced Skill-user can still use them for transit. It is not suggested that younger users of the Skill be allowed to travel through the stones alone. Indeed, they should always be accompanied by an experienced user, and should only use the stones for travel as an absolute necessity. It can be a taxing experience for the novice user, leading to exhaustion or, in the case of forced overuse, madness.
— CHADE FALLSTAR'S “ON SKILL-PILLARS”
The Fool's fragile recovery collapsed in the early hours. I awoke in darkness to the sounds of him tossing and struggling in his sleep. When I tried to wake him, his face was warm and I could not break him from his nightmares. I sat beside him, holding his hand and talking to him softly, easing him into quieter dreams. I was uncomfortably aware that the Black Man had awakened. He lay on his bed and silently watched me with the Fool. I could not see his eyes, but I felt them on me. He measured us and I did not know why.
Toward dawn, I felt Chade's press against my mind. Reluctantly I admitted him. You can go home now. This will be your tale. The Prince and I sent you home early with Thick, on a trading vessel, as Thick was miserable here and we wished you to bear tidings to the Queen immediately. I think that will be believable; just avoid giving any details. I shall be so glad to have you in place there. Nettle is a fine girl, but we have had to be very circumspect in our reports through her, and very careful not to task her beyond her abilities. It is imperative I have someone in place who can be privy to the sort of information that must be conveyed to the Queen.
I cannot go now, Chade. The Fool has fallen ill. He cannot travel.
Chade was silent for a few moments. Then, But from what you said, you would not have to carry him far. Just to the Skill-pillar, and then whisk him home, to healers and warmth and safety.
I wish it were that simple. The path to the pillar is very treacherous and cold. And the journey through the Skill-pillar is tasking for him. I dare not risk him. He has already been through too much.
I see. I felt Chade weighing my words. Then, Do you think he will be better a day from now? I could give you another day.
I made my thoughts firm. I do not know. But I will take as many days as he needs, Chade. I will not risk him.
Very well. The thought oozed annoyance but also acceptance. If you must.
Indeed, I must, I replied firmly. We will travel when the Fool is stronger. Not before.
Dawn found me hollow with worry. Well I knew that many men who died from battle wounds died days after the battle, from fevers and flux and infection. The journey here had strained his healing and undone many days of rest. The Fool slept heavily, far past midday, and then woke, gummy-eyed and haggard, to drink cup after cup of water. Prilkop insisted that we move him from the floor to his bed. The Fool made the short staggering walk between us, then folded onto the Black Man's bed as if he were exhausted, and almost immediately sank down into sleep. His skin was warm beneath my touch.
“Perhaps it's just one of his changing times,” I told Prilkop. “So I hope. It would be better than infection. He will be feverish and weak for several days, and then shed a layer of skin as if he'd been burned. Underneath, his new skin will be darker. If that is what this is, there's little we can do for him now except keep him comfortable and wait.”
Prilkop touched both his cheeks with a gesture, and then smiled at me, saying, “This I suspected. To some of us, it happens. The discomfort passes.” Then, looking down at the Fool he added, “If that is all of it.” He shook his head. “The injuries to him were many.”
A question came to me and I asked it without pausing to wonder if it were impolite. “Why did you change? Why is the Fool changing? The Pale Woman remained white.”
He lifted his hands, expressing bafflement. “On this, I have thought many times. Perhaps, as we cause change, we change. Other prophets who remain white often speak much, but do little. He and I, in our youths, much change we foretold. Then, out we went and we made changes. And, perhaps, we also changed ourselves.”