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old stories for new times

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I tell stories while Fitz sleeps. They spill out of me almost by accident, and it’s easier to allow the flow than stanch it. I see the smooth body of a snake in a broken tree branch, carve it out with patient knife strokes and explain how the serpent lost his legs in the story I learned at my parents’ knees. I paint the blushing cheeks of a nearly done puppet, and tell the story of the farmer’s daughter who outsmarted the wily nobleman at an after-dinner game of riddles. I’ve collected stories as I’ve collected nothing else, and although I’ve shed names and costumes and thousands of objects shaped between my hands, I’ve never fled anywhere so fast that I could not take the stories with me. Sometimes they feel like the lightest burden I carry, and sometimes they feel like weights around my ankles, dragging and clinking behind me, rustling with rumors of my past mistakes.

They are children’s stories mostly, because children know the stories most worth knowing and because I was a child when most of them came into my keeping. There are a few bawdy songs mixed in, filthy sailor’s declarations to girls in port. When no one else is awake to hear my joking, I laugh at himself for reciting those words as sincerely as the rest, with as much true feeling.

Loving Fitz is a constant ache behind my breastbone, up and down the length of my spine, a buzzing in my fingertips and the desire to touch him again and again. I suspect that this is always the way of Prophets and their Catalysts, but of course there isn’t anyone to tell me. The scrolls, such as they are, have little to say about love, and what they can tell me will likely only make sense years on, if any of us live that long.

I lie with my back to the fire sometimes, unsleeping, watchful, humming lullabies and soaking in every newly hewn line of Fitz’s face. I recall the moment when I recognized him, when the sight of the man sprawled in my bed broke open every path I had thought closed, when I added up the features beneath new scars and old fatigue and knew Fitz for who he was. The urge to kiss him had been unbearable then, and I had leaned in to press his mouth to each of Fitz’s closed eyelids as he slept. I sat by Fitz’s bed, and watched the rhythm of his breath, smoothed the lines in his forehead and sang him a love ballad in a language I feel sure no one will ever speak to me again.

The joy I feel, folded into the fireside chair and working at the tiny, cupped hand of a puppet while Fitz sleeps, seems too large for anyone to contain, even someone who has contemplated the whole weft of history.

I’m honest with myself, even while I spin stories to a feverish, unhearing man in my bed. The way I love Fitz is not pure, not free of the desire to curl around him and kiss every part of him, taste his skin and make him strain with pleasure. But there is nothing I can do about that now, with Fitz fevered and pale and shaking, mumbling nonsense in his sleep. All I can do is store away every muttered word, his nightmare nonsense a secret safe in my keeping. Once and only once, I press my lips to the steady pulse at Fitz’s throat, my tongue flickering unchastely, and it is enough to make me certain I could not take advantage. If I were ever to have Fitz that way, he would have to come to me with eyes open, knowing exactly what he was walking into. So for now the pining is all right, curling myself up at Fitz’s bedside and counting his breaths, pounding out willow bark for tea in time to that soft rhythm.

I think I must be young yet, because I know in my bones I would give up any influence I have on the fate of the world if it would keep Fitz safe and in the circle of my love. And I know I’m getting older too, because I can see that for the impetuous rubbish that it is now, in a way I couldn’t in Buckkeep Castle when Fitz was young and beautiful and seemingly careless.

When I leave the hut, for herbs and food and brandy, I can see the wolf waiting in the woods, watchful but not unfriendly. We have no common language except through Fitz, so there’s no way to extend an invitation. Which is unfortunate given that the wolf looks to be a much more polite houseguest than the rest of the mountain kingdom, who seem to feel at ease barging into my house anytime they please. I look at him crouched in the underbrush, golden eyes keen, and I nod to him as an ally as I slip through my door, the only creature who could love my Catalyst as truly as I do.

I start to carve a long, sleek muzzle, nudging it out of a block of wood, my eyes moving between Fitz’s face and my own fingers as I tell him about the wolf who chases the moon across the sky each night and his brother who chases the sun, always running just a little behind. The stories cannot heal him, but the telling of them fills the space, keeps reality from intruding too much. I think of the real wolf outside the door, the metaphorical wolves gathering, and the only thing I want is to keep Fitz safe, shore him up with stories set in the eternal present and keep the future at bay. For a little while.

Fitz wakes to speak to me truly sometimes, though those waking conversations hardly amount to more than his fevered dreams. His voice is weak, and barely audible even with an ear close to his mouth. But he says “Fool,” like a term of endearment, and that is enough to listen for as I apply fresh cloths to his back, the skin around the arrow split and oozing darkly. I don’t let myself fear Fitz’s death, can’t believe there could be that much cruelty knotted into the fabric of the universe. I tell the story of the woman who bargained for her husband’s soul on the shores beyond death, how she gave up her sight so that his spirit would be allowed to lead her back to the living world. I would follow Fitz blindly into chaos, and I expect the moment for that is still to come.

More and more often, I find myself singing a counting rhyme I learned as I passed through the Rain Wilds in my youth, a funny little song about dragons. It keeps coming back to me, these days, in snatches and at odd moments, sneaking up on me so I don’t even know I’m humming it under my breath, tapping out the beat against the wooden bodies of the puppets, until something else requires my full attention. Then I hear the echo of my own voice, another ghost in a house lousy with them.

I have been a prophet long enough to know there is no such thing as idle chatter in my mind, nothing but the tug of minor threads making themselves felt. I count dragons and watch my sleeping Catalyst, and I know that something larger is stirring, something more than Regal’s plotting, something deeper stalking the future the Farseer line.