Shadowdancer the Fourth

by gwendolyn_flight


This is a re-write of Shadowdance by Robin Wayne Bailey, although, if you've read the book, be warned that this version doesn't turn out the same. In case you're curious, Mr Bailey seems to prefer simple sentences and minimal description interspersed with vivid imagery, while I run to complex sentences, and believe that if one descriptor is good, then two or three must be better. :)

Everyone got recast, so here's a quick run-down on ages:
Mulder: 18(1st half) 23(2nd half)
Krycek: 24(2nd half)
Spender: 28(1st half) 33(2nd half)
CSM: 46(1st half) 51(2nd half)
The Witch of Shanalane: 18(1st half) 23(2nd half)
Skinner: 38(1st half) 43(2nd half)
Teena: 35(1st half)
William: 43(1st half) 48(2nd half)
Diana: 13(1st half) 18(2nd half)
Scully: 24(1st half) 29(2nd half)

On this chapter, some implied Skinner/Scully, and non-explicit reference to rape and incest.


Shadowdancer
Chapter Four

MULDER DIDN'T SLEEP at all that night, and the sun was high in the sky when someone knocked at his door. He didn't answer. After a moment, they went away. He listened to the receding steps, remembering William. Sometime later there was another knock. He didn't want to see anyone, didn't want to talk, and shortly, the corridor echoed again with retreating footsteps.

It was almost noon when someone knocked again. He refused to answer, but this time the door opened anyway. Scully poked her head through the archway. "Are you awake?" she whispered. Taking a step into the room, she stopped, grimaced, and pinched her nostrils shut with her fingers. "Oh gods!" she exclaimed in disgust. "You've soiled the sheets. Couldn't you reach the slop jar? It's right under the bed!"

Mulder said nothing, just turned his head to the side on the pillow and looked away.

"Don't you play silent on me, boy!" Scully snapped. "You may be Lord Skinner's guest, but I'm the one who cleans up the messes around here. Now get out of that bed and wash yourself. Those sheets have to be scrubbed at once, or they'll never look clean again." She clapped her hands together sharply. "Move!"

Mulder closed his eyes. "I can't walk," he said without emotion. He then draped one arm over his eyes.

Scully came closer and bent over the bed. The distaste on her face was obvious as she pulled Mulder's hands down and peered at him carefully. "Where's your father?" she asked, suddenly quiet, her anger fading, a note of concern creeping into her voice.

Mulder pulled his hand free and covered his face again. "Gone."

Scully stood there a moment. "I'm going to get Skinner," she said finally. "But first, a drink for you. You're feverish." She left Mulder's bedside, went into the other room, and returned with an earthen drinking cup and an ornately decorated hydria jar. She poured a half measure of water into the cup and lifted Mulder's head while she held it for him to sip. Mulder only moistened his lips a little and turned aside again. "I'll get Skinner," Scully repeated, setting both cup and vessel where Mulder could reach them easily.

Once more, Mulder found himself alone listening to the sound of fading footsteps. He stared at William's unused bed on the other side of the room, then shut his eyes on silent tears until, at last, he drew his hand across his face and wiped his nose. Scully had gone for Skinner, and lying in his own filth was shame enough. He would not cry before the Lord of Whisperstone if he could help it. He pushed against the bed with his hands and drew his back up against the wall until he could sit up. Beyond the window, the day was bright and crisp, like a parody of his pain. He pulled the coverlet up to his chest and waited, thinking of William and fighting back the tears that threatened to come again.

Skinner touched his shoulder. Mulder had not heard him enter. He looked up into his benefactor's worried gaze, and then down at his own dead legs. Scully came in behind Skinner with an armload of clean bedding, which she set down on William's empty bed before coming over to peer around Skinner's shoulder.

"How are you, boy?" Skinner said, settling gingerly on the edge of the bed.

Mulder turned his gaze slowly back to the lord. Skinner looked terribly. His face appeared drawn and sleep-deprived. Shadows circled his deep-set brown eyes, and dirt runneled the deep lines of his neck and brow. He smelled, too, of sweat and horse-froth, as though he had ridden some long distance. Yet he had taken the time to come see his guest.

"The day passes," Mulder answered in a flat voice, realizing he owed Skinner the courtesy of a response. Still, he could generate no enthusiasm. His lids quivered shut, and he hugged the coverlet as a chill rippled through him. "William is gone."

"I know," Skinner said quietly. "The gate guard told me he left in the middle of the night, taking nothing with him. He said your William was weeping, and that he mumbled a name over and over as he passed through the gate." A hand brushed tenderly over Mulder's damp forehead and pushed back the drooping brush of hair. "You name, Mulder."

Though he tried to stop it, a droplet squeezed from Mulder's eye and glided down his cheek. He reached up to brush it away, but Skinner instead caught it with his fingertip and held it up to sparkle in the light.

"What passed between you and your father last night, boy, to cause you both such grief?" Skinner lowered his hand and wiped the bit of moisture on his tunic near his heart. "The love you bore for each other was plain enough. No man I know could have shown more."

Mulder remembered the pain of William's hands upon him, so strong, hurting, pinning him. Again, confusion and fear swept over him, so powerful, numbing. Yet he recalled also, one layer of memory over another, his father's anguish, his pleas for forgiveness, the sorrow and shame on the old woodcutter's face.

What had driven William to hurt him?

He clenched his fists into the coverlet, struggling to make sense of it, knowing only that some dark desire had possessed his father last night and made them both its victim. How could he explain to Skinner? How could he tell such an evil truth, or speak of the deed that had been consummated under Skinner's roof? However he disliked it, Mulder knew he had to lie again.

"We argued," he stated honestly enough. "About the Witch, and about my legs."

Skinner stopped him. "You are crippled, then, as I'd heard." He nodded with sudden understanding as he lifted one of Mulder's arms and examined it closely. "I knew there was something odd about you. See? The calluses on your elbows where no normal man would have them. And the strange, careful way you walk as if at any moment you expect to fall. This is the Witch's work, isn't it?" Skinner ran a hand along Mulder's thigh down to his knee. "She made you whole again."

"Only during the nighttime hours," Mulder said softly. "From sunrise to sunset I'm still half a man."

Skinner looked long and hard at Mulder, then turned away and rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. After a moment, he turned back again, and his features settled into an expression of great weariness. "None of this explains why William ran."

Mulder drew a breath and let it our slowly. "He didn't know about the Witch's part in this. He thought it was some miracle from the gods. But last night I told him the truth." He looked up and met Skinner's gaze with directness. "William is very superstitious, and he'd heard stories about the Witch of Shanalane. He said terrible things, and when I defended her, he said I was abathakati -- tainted." Suddenly, he covered his face; he felt shame burn through him, but this lie was far better than the truth. "He hurt me," Mulder continued finally. He drew a deep breath and leaned his head back against the wall. That, at least, was no lie. "And I hit him. I'd never done that before. He took it as proof of my utter corruption and fled." He rubbed a hand over his eyes and looked beyond the window. "Now I'm alone. William won't come back, and I have no one."

Scully stepped closer. "Lord," she said, bending over Skinner. "You haven't slept all night. You should rest. I'll see that the boy is bathed and the room cleaned. This discussion is best left to a later time."

Skinner waved her back, then rubbed his eyes in unconscious echo of Mulder's gesture, and rose from the bedside. He shot a tired smile at Mulder. "You're not the only one who needs a bath. I don't know which of us is worse." He sniffed himself and made a face before looking to Scully. "You're right, though, Dana. We can continue this, but after we've cleaned ourselves." He leaned down and rumpled Mulder's hair. To Mulder's surprise, he found he didn't mind the touch. "You look after Fox," Skinner went on, "and when he's presentable, have him carried down to the courtyard. See that there's food waiting, too."

Scully protested. "You need sleep, my lord."

Skinner grinned patiently. "You fret too much, old friend. I'm stronger than you think. Riding around pointlessly all night is admittedly a bit tiring, but it only takes an argument with Jeffrey to stir the blood again, and mine's been whipped to a froth." He looked back to Mulder. "I'll join you in the courtyard shortly." Then turning back to Scully, "He doesn't look half as bad as you said."

Scully put on an exaggerated frown. "He perked up deliberately to make me seem a liar."

Skinner's grin widened, then he shrugged and left the room. Scully followed her lord, but returned moments later with the wash basin and a cloth. She poured water from the hydria jar by Mulder's bed into the basin.

"I like him," Mulder confided as Scully pulled away his coverlet and began to clean him, her touch gentle and impersonal and, frankly, feminine enough that Mulder didn't mind it. "But the villagers in Shandisti almost never speak of him. Why is that?"

Scully rinsed the cloth, wrung it, and continued her ministrations. "Skinner seldom leaves Whisperstone anymore, except to hunt. This business with Spender and the Witch of Shanalane has taken him farther from the gates of his keep than he's ventured in a score of years. He entertains few guests, he visits no one, and he stays out of other people's business." Scully sighed, her hand pausing on Mulder's hip for a moment. "He uses these walls to shut out the whole world."

"But why?" Mulder wondered aloud.

Scully shrugged, and her hand stroked a line down his thigh. "A woman," she answered grimly, a small, bitter smile playing about her lips. "It's always a woman, isn't it? Years ago he fell in love. None of us ever saw her, mind you. But nearly every night he would ride from the gates when the sun declined, and each dawn he would return. The horse would be half-dead, but his smile would be brighter than the sun itself."

Scully paused in her story then to wrestle Mulder onto his belly, starting a sweat that dampened her fine red hair and plastered wisps of it to her forehead. Once he'd been settled, she wet the cloth again. The water was cool, and there was a welcome, comforting pleasure in being cared for. "It went on for nearly the whole of once summer," Scully continued when she had caught her breath. "Then one night, Skinner returned earlier than usual. It was just before the stroke of midnight, and his horse was lathered as if he'd tried to ride the beast into the ground. He just left the poor animal standing untended at the gates and shut himself in his rooms. For three days he spoke no word to anyone."

"She rejected him?" Mulder asked.

"No one knows what happened," Scully answered. She dropped the cloth in the basin and set it one the floor beside the hydria jug. "When our lord finally emerged again, he was as you see him now, pleasant and kind, from all appearances a man for men to envy, and he went about his life completely as if nothing was amiss. But from that time forward, he almost never left the confines of Whisperstone."

"And no one ever found out who the lady was?" Mulder persisted as Scully struggled to get the soiled sheets out from under him.

Scully only shook her head as the sheets came free. "He never breathed her name," she said, leaving him sprawled on the clean mattress, the filthy sheets bundled carefully in her arms.

"You never tried to find out?"

Scully frowned as she dropped the soiled bedding on the floor. "My duty is to care for my lord and his household . . ."

"You did try," Mulder interrupted with a careful smirk.

Again, Scully shook her head. "No. It was clear that Skinner wanted to forget some deep pain. What good would it have done for me, or anyone, to pick at his scabs?" She snatched up one of the clean sheets she had brought and gathered it into a crumpled line before laying it out beside Mulder. "Thank the gods for the mattress pad," she murmured as she began the laborious process of working the new sheet beneath Mulder. "Otherwise we'd have to wait for the mattress to dry."

Mulder watched Scully as she worked. At first, he had thought this woman to be quite a gossip, so freely did she talk about her lord's personal business. But there was something familiar about the way Scully spoke of Skinner, some light in her eyes, a particular set to her chin. And when Scully spoke again, Mulder failed to understand the words, for it was William's voice that filled the room. He saw, then, the love that physic bore for lord. But was it William's dark love? That, he couldn't tell. It was plain, though, that in Scully's heart there was room for nothing else but service to her lord.

Mulder wondered where William had gone. Even though the hurt and shame of last night still jangled through his veins, he was worried about his father and feared he might never see him again.

"You're doing it again!" Scully said, snapping her fingers under Mulder's nose. "Skinner walks in and you're attentive as a new bride to her husband. Then he leaves, and you're in and out, just the way I found you, like the sun through the trees on a cloudy day. Did you hear what I said?"

"I'm sorry," Mulder answered honestly. "I didn't."

"I said, you're too heavy for me to carry to the courtyard. I'm no woodcutter, after all. I'll call two servants to take you down, though they won't be happy about it. Everyone's asleep after chasing about the countryside all night." The last words were tossed over her shoulder as she disappeared through the archway; she returned moments later with clean garments similar to the ones William had given him the night before. "Put these on." She tossed them from the arch and was gone before Mulder could question her further.

Mulder dressed himself and waited. He tried not to think about William, but time and again his thoughts turned to the old man, until a dark mood began to settle upon him. He shook himself, trying to resist it, but the mood only took a stronger hold. `What's to become of me without him?' he thought.

Before he could sink back into lethargy, two strangers entered his room and made short bows. They looked very tired, and Mulder realized that, like their lord, these men had been up all night chasing the Witch.

"We're to bear you to the courtyard," one of them said, coming forward. The other followed, and together they lifted him upon crossed hands. Mulder draped his arms about their shoulders to steady himself.

"I'm sorry for the trouble," he said quietly as they entered the courtyard and approached the gazebo. A second high-backed chair had been placed directly across from the other, and the two men lowered him carefully into it. The cushions were luxurious; he ran his hands over the finely padded arms.

Behind his bearers came three more men. One carried a small table, another a silver tray with goblets and an oinochoe jug decorated with an elaborate floral-patterned band. The third bore two serving dished, one heaped with small meat cakes, the other with sliced fruit, dates and nuts. Mulder watched steam rise from the cakes and realized he was quite hungry. He licked his dry lips and inhaled the aroma.

"Lord Skinner will join you shortly," the last servant informed him. "He wishes that you help yourself until he arrives."

They left him alone in the gazebo. He stared at the warm cakes but decided to wait for Skinner. The table was within reach, though, and he filled one goblet. To his surprise he poured, not water, but wine. He had seldom tasted wine. William had not been able to afford it.

No, he would not think of William. He sipped the wine, savoring its potent, unfamiliar taste. It wasn't as wonderful as he'd expected, but he had a feeling he could grow to like it. He took another sip and gazed up at the sky, so blue and cloudless for this time of autumn. The sun was a welcome warmth on his skin, and just a hint of a breeze whispered through the courtyard. He studied the walls of Whisperstone block by block where they rose high around him, eyes glancing over the traces of creeper vine and the small shuttered apartment windows that dotted its heights. He ran his fingernails over the chair arms and over his unfeeling thighs. At last, he munched a single date.

"Did you taste the cakes? I have the finest kitchen staff in Ispor." Bearing a small bowl, which he placed on the table near at hand, Skinner stepped into the gazebo and smiled as he sat down in the chair opposite Mulder. He had bathed and changed. His garments were dark colors, rich browns and golds and a deep blue that shimmered in the late light. He poured wine into the other goblet, lifted it, then spilled a small quantity on the boards at his feet before he drank. The red liquid quickly ran between the cracks.

"Why did you do that?" Mulder asked, lifting his own goblet.

"Men die, are placed in the earth and become, in time, no more than the dust at our feet," the Lord of Whisperstone explained with a mixture of solemnity and amusement. "So spill a little wine to wet the lips of those who've gone before."

Mulder considered Skinner's words, then tipped his own cup. No doubt the nobles had many customs, he reflected, which common people could ill afford. Most of the folks of his acquaintance would have blanched at such senseless waste.

"Not too much," his benefactor cautioned with a wry grin. "The dead have a notoriously dull sense of taste, and this is a very rare vintage." He took another sip from his own cup, then set it aside and reached for the bowl he had brought. He lifted from it a wet, white cloth, wrung a bit of water from it, and leaned over each of Mulder's hands, then over his own, and returned it to the bowl. He then reached for a meat cake. "Now try one of these," he suggested. "I promise you, they're wonderful."

They were indeed. Some were stuffed with bits of venison, others with pork or lamb. Some were seasoned with expensive spices that Mulder had never tasted. Some were sweet, and filled with a sort of bean paste that tasted like fruit or sugar. He ate four cakes and washed them down with wine. Then he ate four more. When his belly was full, he settled back in his chair. He couldn't remember ever feeling so stuffed.

While he ate, Skinner watched him. Mulder successfully ignored him while he eased his hunger. As he munched his last cake, though, it began to bother him. Not word had been spoken during their meal. Mulder consumed his final crumb, licked his fingers, and waited patiently for his host to finish a last bite of fruit. When it was gone, Skinner leaned forward and refilled both their goblets.

"You've been very kind to me," Mulder ventured, somewhat shyly. He tasted the wine once more, then put it aside.

Skinner placed his cup on the table next to Mulder's. "Then maybe we can be honest with each other," he said, settling himself more comfortably in his chair. "Tell me about the Witch of Shanalane."

Mulder frowned. "Is that the price for kindness these days?" he flared reflexively. "Betrayal? I know why you were up all night. You were hunting for her."

Skinner nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Mulder. "I, my soldiers, my servants, any man or woman who could ride." He hesitated, then twitched his lips in a wry grin. "Except for Scully. She hates horses, so I left her here to coordinate incoming reports."

"You didn't catch her, did you?"

Skinner snorted. "Of course not. She's long gone from these parts. You and I know that, but it's tougher to convince Jeffrey." He looked away suddenly and drew a slow breath. "I'm not asking you to betray her, Fox. Just tell me about her-- how she looked, what she did, what she said. Anything you feel comfortable talking about."

Mulder regarded the man across from him, noting the change in Skinner's mood. Though he tried to disguise it, there was the subtle tension of a military man on the verge of gaining information. It was there in the way he leaned slightly forward in his chair while trying to appear relaxed, in the way he kept his hands unnaturally still. Mulder peered straight into Skinner's eyes, wondering just how much he could trust the older man.

"She was beautiful," he began cautiously.

The Lord of Whisperstone gave a barely perceptible nod.

"She glowed with an ivory light," he went on. "It almost hurt my eyes. Her lips . . ." He stopped, picked up his wine cup and took a drink. He held the liquid in his mouth for a long time, rolling it over his tongue as he thought.

"Her lips?" Skinner pressed.

Mulder swallowed. "Like a flower," he answered finally. "Like a rose."

"She touched you?"

Mulder thought back. "I think so. I don't know. Maybe, when she healed my legs." He took another drink, unmindful of the taste.

Neither said anything after that, and Mulder grew slowly aware of the silence. He turned the cup nervously between his hands, stared at the ruby contents, and waited Skinner out with his eyes closed, his lips a thin, taut line.

At last, his host spoke. "Dark-haired. Dark as the night." Skinner said it as if it were a fact.

"Blond," Mulder contradicted.

Skinner pursed his lips thoughtfully as he shook his head. "What about your legs? You say she healed you, and I believe that. I know she's a woman of great power. Yet, now you're--" He almost said crippled. Mulder saw his mouth start to form the hated word, but Skinner caught himself: "--incapacitated once more," he finished tactfully.

Mulder leaned back in his chair and bit his lip. "She said I would be whole again, that I would walk." He gripped the arms of the chair suddenly until the muscles stood out in his forearms. "She was half as good as her word. From sundown to dawn my legs are as good as any man's."

"And with the sunrise," Skinner interrupted, "you are crippled once more." He didn't dodge the word that time.

Mulder nodded.

"But no less a man," Skinner added with great seriousness.

Mulder shrugged, then bit his lip again and closed his eyes.

As before, the silence grew between them. Mulder heard the rustle of the lord's crisp tunic and the sound of pouring wine as Skinner refilled his cup. The breeze whispered ever so lightly through the vines that grew on the gazebo. In the sky, a pair of birds fluttering over the courtyard called to each other, their song sweet and distant.

"You think you love her, don't you?"

The words cut the stillness and Mulder's heart like a fine bronze edge. He opened his eyes, and his gaze locked with Skinner's. "I know it," he answered firmly. "I can't help myself."

Something flickered in Skinner's eyes. Mulder froze, held himself perfectly still, not daring to move for a long moment. Then, slowly, he let our a breath. With a sudden insight, he understood the bond he shared with Whisperstone's lord.

"You love her, too," he said softly. "She's the lady from your past, the one Scully told me about."

"Scully talks too much," Skinner answered, rising. He leaned against the side of the gazebo, and it gave a small creak under the burden of his weight. Abruptly, he changed the subject. "What do you plan to do, Fox, now that your father is gone?"

"My name is Mulder," he calmly corrected. Then he put his chin into one palm and thought. "I've got to find her," he announced. "I don't think she knows that her magic went wrong, that I can't walk by day." He scratched the line of his jaw. "And she said something about seeing my destiny in a bowl of water. I think I want to find out what she saw."

Skinner folded his arms across his chest as he regarded Mulder. "What about your father?"

Mulder looked away. "I guess I have to find him, too."

Skinner picked up his wine cup, drained it, and set it back on the table. "Wait here," he instructed, as if forgetting how unlikely it was that Mulder would go anywhere. He left the gazebo without another word, crossed the courtyard with firm strides, and disappeared inside.

Mulder folded his hands in his lap and stared at them. He hadn't told Skinner everything. He hadn't told him about the dancing, how he had to dance to keep the Witch's spell intact. That was as much dishonesty as lying, wasn't it? He had never lied before he met the Witch. Since then, he'd told many lies, and one lie just seemed to lead to another. Could it be true, as William had tried to warn him? Could her dark magic corrupt him so easily?

He gazed upward, watching the pale moon drift across the sky through a lacework canopy of ivied trellis. The copper-bright sun dappled through the fluttering leaves, warming his upturned face, shifting in chiaroscuro patterns on his closed lids. He blinked his eyes open against the bright sun, staring straight up into the endless blue, just wisps and patches through the ivy. It went on forever, the sky, like opening, like soaring, and staring into the palest of blues he wished for nothing more than the blackness of night. For life to return to his legs. Why hadn't the Witch told him about the sun? Had she even known? So many questions plagued him.

And now to find that he and Skinner were rivals!

He looked at the table with its platters of food, the goblets, the oinochoe jug, and the bowl containing the cloth with which Skinner had washed his hands, and it was too much, it was all so . . . complete, and he shoved it away with a sudden sweeping thrust. The table toppled over, spilling everything, scattering the food across the boards. Wine pumped from the jug, a scarlet stream that spread over the floor and seeped between the cracks of the floorboards, soaking the tumbled fruit and the meat cakes, which lay like clots from hideous wounds.

Mulder slammed his fists on his unfeeling legs. `Why? Why?' He squeezed his eyes shut, but not to stop any tears. He was done with weeping, had pressed that down into a little box in his mind. There was no room for it, else. It was anger that filled him instead, burned him from the inside out, churned up into a talon-fisted rage that clawed impotently at his own flesh, and when the fire was spent he leaned his head back wearily and sighed.

He didn't know how long Skinner was gone. But a shadow settled over him, and when he opened his eyes the Lord of Whisperstone stood there. "You fell asleep," Skinner said, his tone equal measures reproach and amusement.

Mulder blinked as he righted himself in the chair. "I guess I did." He cast a glance at the mess on the gazebo floor. "I must have knocked the table over, too. Forgive me."

Skinner shrugged as he sat down. "The servants will take care of it." He looked away for a moment, then faced Mulder again. "Do you have any idea at all who your mother was, boy, or whether she had any family? Did your father ever speak of her?"

Mulder shook his head and answered with only a trace of bitterness. "William would only say that she died bearing me. I never, he never said that he blamed me, but I . . ." The words choked in his throat, and he looked down. There was an intensity in Skinner's face that made it hard to meet his gaze.

"Now William is gone," Skinner said, hesitating as if expecting some comment, but Mulder said nothing. "You say you want to search for the Witch. But how will you do that? You have no money, no one to look after you."

"I'll find a way," Mulder answered roughly. "You don't have to remind me that I'm crippled. I'm not! I'll walk by night to find her, and sleep by day. I'm not that much different from normal men. You live your life in the sunlight, but when night comes and you take to your bed, you might as well be crippled. The world doesn't begin and end with the sun."

Skinner gave him a hard look, and Mulder wondered if he had dared too much to speak with such anger. Yet he did not repent, nor did Skinner reproach him. "I have no son," the lord said slowly. "No children at all." His gaze never left Mulder as he took a ring from his finger. "I will adopt you, Mulder, if you agree."

Mulder just blinked for a moment. Then he stuttered, "But I can't stay here! I have to find the Witch and William!"

"I know," Skinner replied calmly, "and as my son, you'll have money, prestige, everything you need to help you. You'll have status and position. That will get you into places you could never go alone. You'll find my name is known in some lands even beyond Ispor." Skinner leaned back, bracing his hands on the arms of his chair as he smiled faintly. "Besides, I like you, and I sense that I can trust you."

Mulder looked at the ring in Skinner's palm as he considered such an unexpected proposal. He liked Skinner, too. There was a bond between them. He'd felt it from their first meeting. Was it because they both loved the Witch? Was she the thread that drew them together?

It was as if Skinner knew his thoughts. "I don't blame you for loving her," he said gently. "She makes you love her. Not just you, either, but all men. It's like a power." He took the ring between his thumb and forefinger and held it out. "Take it," he urged. "Wear it, and be my son."

Son. William had called him that. Mulder repeated the word several times in his mind, trying it on. He wasn't entirely sure about calling Skinner father, either. William had been his father, but he had . . . Son. He liked the sound of the word on Skinner's lips. He bit his lip, trembling a bit as he extended his hand. Skinner took it and slipped the band on his finger. "Son," Skinner said aloud, like a pronouncement.

The sunlight glinted brilliantly on the ring. It was exquisitely worked gold, fashioned in the manner of a bird whose wings enwrapped his finger. Father, Mulder thought, trying to connect the word to Skinner, but he couldn't quite bring himself to speak it.

"Wherever you go in Ispor, that ring will be recognized," Skinner said. "And in many of the surrounding nations the great nobles will know it. I ask only that you wear it with honor."

Mulder turned it one his finger, studying the careful workmanship, the detail of the feathers, the textured breast, the tiny fierce eyes. Almost, it seemed to breathe upon his finger, and he felt its warmth. `But it's only metal,' he told himself, `and Skinner's warmth from wearing it.'

"You'll find the Witch," the Lord of Whisperstone said. "Then you'll come to me and tell me where she is." He hesitated, observing the stillness that suddenly filled Mulder, and the mistrustful expression that flickered over his face. "I would not hurt her," he added. "I promised you that. Trust me. But like you, I need to know."

Mulder thought for a long time, and Skinner did not break the silence. "I'll find her," he said at last, " for both of us. But first, you'll teach me things. I'll have to learn to rise, and you'll have to teach me at night. There are other things, too. There's much I have to learn about the world outside Shandisti." He ran his palms over his thighs. "And my legs. Even at night I have trouble walking. These are sticks, twigs, but not legs. It's the Witch's magic that makes me walk, otherwise these wouldn't support me. Help me put some muscle on them."

Skinner grinned fondly. "I think I'd better get used to sleeping days."

"You were used to it once," Mulder said. "When you rode from Whisperstone every night to meet your secret lady." He leaned suddenly forward. "You know her name, Skinner," he whispered intensely. "Tell me her name!"

A mask of stone would have betrayed more emotion. Skinner regarded him evenly, his face half in shadow as the sunlight streamed down through the latticed roof of the gazebo.

"We love the same woman!" Mulder insisted. "Give me a name to call her by!"

Skinner slowly rose. "Wear my ring with honor, Mulder, as my father wore it, and his father." He nudged one of the goblets with his sandaled toe. It rolled across the floor and stopped against a soggy meat cake. "I'll send for servants to return you to your room. You'll want to rest before we start your education." He turned his back and started to leave. Then he stopped. Without turning, he spoke once more to Mulder: "Scully talks too much."

There was pain in those last words, too much pain. Mulder relented and lowered his head. He didn't watch as Skinner left him, but twisted the ring around and around on his finger, and listened to the sound of retreating footsteps.
 

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