It was an unimpressive stretch of road, not much more than a dirt track really, winding through the verdant countryside. Yet it was like a thread pulling me along. Strange to think my destiny was waiting at the other end. The wheel of time was rolling again, events were converging, and it was time to summon the Catalyst. Whatever happened, this road was the first step towards whatever portentous events I had predicted all those years ago.
The dragons flashed through my mind and I pushed the thought away. There was no saying that this was that time, the time I’d feared since I was a child. A shiver ran down my back and I felt as if the traitorous dragons there stirred. Chill fear gripped my heart again. Try as I might to deny it, the events of recent years were starting to align. The Elderlings of the Mountain Kingdom, Tintaglia and now the hatching of the Bingtown dragons were all part of that pattern. I just desperately wished they weren’t. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the meaning of those tattoos and the dream might not become clear for many years yet. For as many years as remained to the natural life span of my Catalyst. And according to Chade, he had been rusticating in peaceful ignominy for years, so, far from the perils of court life, that span was likely to be long.
My lips twitched unconsciously into a smile at the thought of him, then I rebuked myself. Really, this wouldn’t do. I’d have to get better control over myself before I saw him. I no longer had the excuse of adolescence to allow such bursts of candour. Well could I imagine what might happen if I ever gave myself away. So many times in the Mountains I had nearly done just that. I’d felt his puzzlement, felt him begin to stiffen before a quick word, a jest, an expression had turned aside his suspicion. The dawning smile on my lips died away. It hurt to think that such concealment was necessary. As dear as he was to me, and as I think I was to him, it hurt to know there had to be such constraint between us, even if it was only on my side and he was unaware of it.
Unless he knew how I felt already. That would have been too terrible a thought to contemplate if it weren’t for the breathless hope that always accompanied it. Certainly our last meeting had given him enough hints to work it out. He had told me himself that Starling had bluntly told him the truth. Perceptive of her, when, young as I was, I was only just beginning to comprehend my own feelings. Such a heady time those days were. Plunged from blackest despair to near euphoria by his mere presence, by the possibilities his survival offered. Such was the work of the Catalyst. Small wonder that in all that excitement, in all the passionate emotions his return and our subsequent adventures roused, I almost missed his personal significance to me.
And then the kiss. I still think of it often. Just the memory of it and my lips burn, as if his are there still. I hadn’t planned it. It was truly the culmination of all my probing of my own feelings and our friendship. The moment it dawned upon me that he was truly staying behind, that we might not see each other for years, maybe never, that was the moment I truly realised how difficult it was to give him up, how precious he was to me. And with those thoughts in my head, it seemed impossible to do otherwise. So it wasn’t a gentle or artful kiss. Hardly tender, more desperate than anything else, and swiftly abandoned when I felt him stiffen against my chest. I think I gave too much away in that moment. Though I can usually rely on Fitz to be rather dense about things he doesn’t want to think about or grasp. He might have dismissed it. That thought hurt. Part of me hoped he’d cherished the memory as I had, though a more rational part of me knew it’d be better if he really had forgotten the incident.
Because now I was going to see him again. In ten minutes, half an hour, an hour. However long it took for me to get to his cottage along this interminable track. And if he remembered with distaste that farewell, or the other foolish things I’d said and done in youthful, thoughtless passion, how would that affect his welcome? Would he welcome me at all, or would he turn me away?
I reined in Malta and reached down to the saddle bag for my brandy bottle. I’d brought my best, apricot brandy as a gift, though I’m afraid I had already made liberal use of it. I took another swig and noticed my hand was trembling. I stoppered and stowed the bottle, then sat on my horse for a few minutes breathing deeply and trying to meditate. I smiled ruefully at myself. I should have been anticipating this visit with pleasure, not setting forth like a condemned man.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle like someone was watching me. I urged Malta on and we rounded a bend in the road. Up ahead I could see a stream, and several hundred yards from its bank, where our path petered out, was a small cottage. A man and what could have been a large dog stood outside it, both of them peering intently in my direction. My heart swelled at the sight.
Fitz and Nighteyes.
I suddenly knew that, whatever happened, I was glad I had come.