Fools Questpart #2 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy Series by Robin Hobb / Fantasy
Winterfest Eve at Buckkeep
I am warm and safe in the den, with my two siblings. They are both heartier and stronger than I am. Born last, I am smallest of all. My eyes were slow to open, and I have been the least adventurous of the cubs. Both my brother and my sister have dared, more than once, to follow my mother to the mouth of the den dug deep in the undercut bank of the river. Each time, she has snarled and snapped at them, driving them back. She leaves us alone when she goes out to hunt. There should be a wolf to watch over us, a younger member of the pack who remains with us. But my mother is all that is left of the pack, and so she must go out to hunt alone and we must stay where she leaves us.
There is a day when she shakes free of us, long before we have had enough of her milk. She leaves us, going to the hunt, departing the den as evening starts to creep across the land. We hear from her a single yelp. That is all.
My brother, the largest of us, is filled with both fear and curiosity. He whines loudly, trying to call her back to us, but there is no response. He starts to go to the entrance of the den and my sister follows him, but in a moment they come scrabbling back to hunker down in fear beside me. There are strange smells right outside the den, bad smells, blood and creatures unknown to us. As we hide and whimper, the blood-smell grows stronger. We do the only thing we know to do. We hunch and huddle against the far back wall.
We hear sounds. Something that is not paws digs at the mouth of our den. It sounds like a large tooth biting into the earth, biting and tearing, biting and tearing. We hunch even deeper and my brother’s hackles rise. We hear sounds and we know there is more than one creature outside. The blood-smell thickens and is mingled with the smell of our mother. The digging noises go on.
Then there is another smell. In years to come I will know what it is, but in the dream it is not smoke. It is a smell that none of us understands, and it comes in driven wafts into the den. We cry, for it stings our eyes and sucks the breath from our lungs. The den becomes hot and airless and finally my brother crawls toward the opening. We hear his wild yelping, and how it continues, and then there is the stink of fear-piss. My sister huddles behind me, getting smaller and stiller. And then she is not breathing or hiding anymore. She is dead.
I sink down, my paws over my nose, my eyes blinded by the smoke. The digging noises go on and then something seizes me. I yelp and struggle, but it holds tight to my front leg and drags me from the den.
My mother is a hide and a bloody red carcass thrown to one side. My brother huddles in terror at the bottom of a cage in the back of a two-wheeled cart. They fling me in beside him and then drag out my sister’s body. They are angry she is dead, and they kick her as if somehow their anger can make her feel pain now. Then, complaining of the cold and oncoming dark, they skin her and add her small hide to my mother’s. The two men climb onto the cart and whip up their mule, already speculating at the prices that wolf cubs will bring from the dog-fighting markets. My mother’s and sister’s bloody hides fill my nose with the stench of death.
It is only the beginning of a torment that lasts for a lifetime. Some days we are fed and sometimes not. We are given no shelter from the rain. The only warmth is that of our own bodies as we huddle together. My brother, thin with worms, dies in a pit, thrown in to whet the ferocity of the fighting dogs. And then I am alone. They feed me offal and scraps or nothing at all. My feet become sore from pawing at the cage, my claws split and my muscles ache from confinement. They beat me and poke me to provoke me to hurl myself against bars I cannot break. They speak outside my cage of their plans to sell me for the fighting-pits. I hear the words but I do not understand them.
I did understand the words. I spasmed awake, and for a moment everything was wrong, everything was foreign. I was huddled in a ball, shuddering, and my fur had been stripped away to bare skin and my legs were bent at the wrong angles and confined by something. My senses were as deadened as if I were wadded in a sack. All around me were the smells of those hated creatures. I bared my teeth and, snarling, fought my way out of my bonds.
Even after I landed on the floor, the blanket trailing after me and my body asserting that I was, indeed, one of those hated humans, I stared in confusion around the dark room. It felt as if it should be morning, but the floor beneath me was not the smooth oaken planks of my bedchamber, nor did the room smell as if it belonged to me. I came slowly to my feet, my eyes striving to adjust. My straining vision caught the blinking of tiny red eyes, and then translated them to the dying embers of a fire. In a fireplace.
As I felt my way across the chamber, the world fell into place around me. Chade’s old rooms at Buckkeep Castle emerged from the blackness when I poked at the embers and added a few sticks of wood. Numbly, I found fresh candles and kindled them, waking the room to its perpetual twilight. I looked around, letting my life catch up with me. I judged that the night had passed and that outside the thick and windowless walls, day had dawned. The dire events of the previous day—how I had nearly killed the Fool, left my child in the charge of folk I did not fully trust, and then dangerously drained Riddle of Skill-strength to bring the Fool to Buckkeep—rushed over me in a sweeping tide. They met the engulfing memories of all the evenings and nights I’d spent in this windowless chamber, learning the skills and secrets of being the king’s assassin. When finally the sticks caught flame, enriching the thin candlelight in the room, I felt as if I had made a long journey to return to myself. The wolf’s dream of his horrific captivity was fading. I wondered briefly why it had come back with such intensity, and then let it go. Nighteyes, my wolf, my brother, was long gone from this world. The echoes of him lived on in my mind, my heart, and my memories, but in what I faced now, he was no longer at my back. I stood alone.