Fools assassin, p.26
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       Fools Assassin, p.26
 

         Part #1 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
Page 94

 

  Taffy I feared. He was nine, bigger and heavier than Elm and Lea. He was the meat boy for the kitchen, bringing a freshly slaughtered chicken or lugging a butchered and skinned lamb. To me, he seemed massive. He was boyishly blunt and direct in his dislike of me. Once, when I followed the kitchen children down to the creek where they intended to sail some walnut-shell boats, Taffy turned on me and pelted me with pebbles until I fled. He had a way of saying “Bee-ee” that made my name an insult and a synonym for “stupid. ” The two girls did not dare join in his mockery of me, but oh, how they enjoyed it.

  If I had told my mother, she would have told my father, and I am certain that all the children would have been banned from Withywoods. So I did not. As much as they disliked and scorned me, all the more I longed for their company. It was true I could not play with them, but I could watch them and learn how to play. Climbing trees, setting walnut boats with leaf sails afloat, contests of jumping and skipping and tumbling, little mocking songs, how to catch a frog … all of these things children learn from other children. I watched Taffy walk on his hands, and in the privacy of my bedroom bruised myself in a hundred places until I could cross the room without falling. I did not know to beg for a spinning top from the market until I had spied Taffy’s red one. From a distance, I learned to whistle with my lips or with a blade of grass between my thumbs. I hid and waited until they had departed before I tried to swing on a rope tied to a tree branch or venture into a secret bower built from fallen branches.

  I think my father suspected how I spent my time. When my mother told him of my desire, he bought me not just the spinning top but a jumping jack, a little tumbler fastened to two sticks with a twist of string suspending him. Of an evening, when I would sit by the hearth and play with those simple toys, he would watch me from lowered eyes. I felt in his gaze the same hunger I felt when I watched the other children play.

  I felt I stole from them when I spied on them. And they felt the same, for whenever they discovered me watching them, they would drive me away with their shouts and name-calling. Taffy was the only one who dared pelt me with pinecones and acorns, but the others shouted and cheered when he hit me. My silence and timidity made them bold in their attacks.

  Such a mistake. Or not. When I could not join them, I followed, and played where they had played after they had left. There was a place by a creek where slender willows grew thick. In early spring they wove the little trees together, and by summer the trees had grown into a shady arch of leafy branches. It became their playhouse, where they brought bread and butter from the kitchen and ate it on plates of big leaves. Their cups were leaves, too, spindled to hold a bit of water from the stream. And Taffy was Lord Taffy there, and the girls were ladies with necklaces of golden dandelions and white daisies.

  How I longed to join them at that game! I had thought that a lacy pink dress might win me admittance to their circle. It had not. So that day I followed them stealthily and I waited until they were called away to their chores before I ventured in. I sat on their mounded moss chairs. I fanned myself with a fan of fern fronds that Elm had made and left there. They had built a little bed of pine boughs in the corner, and on a warm and sunny day I lay down upon it. The sun beat down but the bent branches of the shelter let in only a dappling of it. I closed my eyes and watched the light on my eyelids and smelled the fragrance of the broken boughs and sweet smell of the earth itself. I must have dozed. When I opened my eyes, it was too late. All three of them stood in the entrance, looking down at me. I sat up slowly. Against the sunshine outside, they were silhouettes. I tried to find a smile and could not. I sat very still, looking up at them. Then, as if the sun had come out from behind clouds, I remembered this day. I had dreamed it, and all of the many paths that could diverge from it. I could not remember when I had dreamed it, and then it seemed that perhaps it was a dream I was going to have. Or a dream of … something. A dream of a crossroads, a place not of two roads intersecting but of thousands. I folded my legs under me and stood up slowly.

  I could not see the children for the overlay of dreams and shadows around them. I tried to study the myriad paths. One, I felt, led to something I desperately wanted. But which one? What must I do to put my feet on that path? If I went along another path, I died. There, they mocked me. There, my mother came running when I screamed. And there …

  I could not make it happen. I had to allow it. I had to let the path form around me from the words I tried to say and the taunts they flung at me. The moment came when I could have fled but I was both too afraid to move and aware that only this path led to where I longed to go. The girls held me, their fingers biting into my thin wrists until the flesh stood up in ridges that were red, and then white. They shook me, and my head snapped back and forth on my neck, so hard that I saw flashes of light behind my eyes. I tried to speak, and it came out as gobbling. They shrieked with laughter, and gobbled back at me. Tears sprang into my eyes.

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  “Do it again, Bee-ee. Make the turkey noise. ” Taffy stood over me, so tall he had to crouch inside the bower. I looked up at him and shook my head.

  Then Taffy slapped me. Hard. Once and it rocked my head one direction, and then again almost instantly, from the other side, and I knew this was how his mother slapped him sometimes, rocking his head back and forth so that his ears rang. When the blood flooded salt into my mouth, I knew it was done. I was on the path. And now it was time to twist free of them and run, run, run, because from that point there were so many paths that led to my lying on the earth, broken in ways that could never be mended. And so I snapped my wrists from their grips and pushed through the willow trunks and out through a gap none of them could negotiate. I fled, not toward the manor, but into the wild part of the woods. In a moment they were after me. They chased me, but a small person can run doubled over and use the trails made by rabbits and foxes. And when the trail led into a thick and prickly bramble, I went where they were far too large to follow me without tearing their clothes and skin.

  In the middle of a briar patch, I found a hollow, a place where soft grass grew and the brambles shielded me all around. I hunkered down in it and froze there, shaking with fright and pain. I’d done it, but oh, the cost. I heard them shouting and beating the edges of the bramble with branches. As if I would be foolish enough to leave its shelter! They called me vile names but could not see me, nor tell for certain that I still hid there. I made no sound as I opened my mouth and tipped my face down to let the blood run out. Something in my mouth had torn, a piece that went from the underside of my tongue to the bottom of my mouth. It hurt. It bled a lot.

  Later, when they were gone, and I tried to spit out the blood, it hurt even more. My tongue moved in my mouth now, flapping like a piece of leather on an old shoe. When the afternoon was ending and the shadows deepening, I crawled out of my briar bower. I went back to the manor by a long and winding way. I stopped at the creek and washed the blood from my mouth. When I went in to the evening meal, both my parents were horrified at the spreading blue bruises on my cheeks and my blackened left eye. My mother asked me how it had happened, but I only shook my head and did not even try to speak. I ate little. My free-flopping tongue got in the way. Twice I bit myself before I gave up and sat staring at the food I longed for. For the next five days, it was hard to eat, and my tongue felt like a strange object that flapped in my mouth.

  And yet, and yet, it was the path I had chosen. And when the pain lessened, I was shocked at how freely I could move my tongue. Alone in my room, after my mother thought me asleep, I practiced my words aloud. The sounds that had eluded me before, the sudden starts and sharp endings of words, I now could make. I still did not converse, but now it was because I chose not to, not because I could not. To my mother, I began to speak more clearly, but only in a very soft voice. Why? Because I feared the change I had wrought in myself. Already my father looked at me differently since he had seen I could ho
ld a pen. And dimly I knew that the girls had dared to attack me because I had worn the pink dress that declared a status higher than theirs, one they felt I did not deserve. If I began to speak, would all the servants retreat from me, kindly Cook Nutmeg and our grave steward? I feared that speech would only make me more of a pariah than I already was. I longed so for companionship of some kind. It was to be my downfall.

  I should have learned my lesson from what had befallen me. I did not. I was lonely, and the lonely heart has hungers that can overpower both common sense and dignity. Summer advanced, my mouth healed, and I began again to spy on the other children. At first I kept my distance, but it was too frustrating to view them from afar where I could not hear what they said or see what they did. So I learned to go ahead of them and shinny up a tree to look down on their games. I thought myself very clever.

  It had to end badly, and it did. That day is as vivid as a dream to me still. They had caught me watching them when I sneezed. For a time they had me treed, and I was fortunate that acorns and pinecones were the best ammunition that Taffy could find. At last I thought of climbing higher up the tree, out of his range. But a tree slender enough for a small child to shinny up is thin enough for three hearty children to shake. For a time I rode the whipping top, and then I fell, flung in a wide arc to land flat on my back. Airless and stunned, I lay helpless. They were silenced and awestruck as they crept up on me.

  “Did we kill her?” Elm asked. I heard Lea suck in a terrified breath and then Taffy shouted boldly, “Let’s be sure of it, then!”

  That brought me out of my daze. I staggered to my feet and ran. They stared after me, and I thought they would let me go. Then, with a roar from Taffy of “Get her!” they came after me, as eager as rabbit-hounds on a trail. My legs were short, my fall had dazed me, and they came close behind me, yammering and shrieking. I ran blindly, my head down, my hands clasped over it to shield myself from the rocks that Taffy scooped up and flung with ever-increasing accuracy. I did not plan to flee toward the lambing shelter. I ran silent as a hare, but when a large body suddenly stepped in front of me and snatched me up high, I shrieked as if I were being killed.

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  “Quiet, girl!” Lin the shepherd barked at me. As quickly as he’d picked me up, he dropped me, and his dog came up to block my pursuers as Lin turned on them. They had been close on my heels; if he had not been there, they would have caught me that day, and I still wonder if they would have left me alive.

  Lin seized Taffy by the back of his collar and swung him up, one-handed, while delivering such a powerful smack to his bottom with his free hand that Taffy’s whole body arched to the blow. Lin dropped him and spun on the little girls. They had not been as close, and they nearly managed to get away, but Lin caught one by the pigtail and the other by the edge of her skirts. Both crumpled before his wrath, as he demanded of them, “What be you doing, chasing a tiny child, you great bullies? Shall I teach you what it is to have someone larger than you give you a thrashing?”

  Both girls began to wail. Taffy’s chin quivered, but he stood up and clenched his fists at his side. I sat flat where Lin had dropped me. It was only when he stooped to help me to my feet that he exclaimed, “Oh, by Eda and El, it’s worse than fools you are! This is the little mistress, sister to Lady Nettle herself! Do you think she’ll forget what you’ve done to her this day? Do you imagine that when you are men and women grown, you’ll work in the kitchens or fields as your parents have done for generations before you? Or your children after you? If Holder Badgerlock or Lady Molly does not send your parents and you packing from their lands this very day, I’ll be shocked!”

  “She spied on us!” wailed Lea.

  “She follows us about!” Elm accused me.

  “She’s witless, a moron, and she stares at us with ghost eyes!” This last from Taffy. It was the first time I knew that he feared me.

  Lin only shook his head. “She is the daughter of the house, you ninnies! She can go where she will and do as she wishes. Poor little mite! What else is she to do? She only wants to play. ”

  “She can’t talk!” Elm objected, and Taffy added, “She’s dumb as a post and simple as a stone. Who can play with an idiot? They should keep her tethered inside, they should, and out from underfoot. ” I knew he repeated something overheard from adults.

  Lin looked from them to me. After my first shriek, I hadn’t made a sound. His dog came back to me, and I put an arm across her shaggy back. My finger sank deep into her silky coat, and I felt her comfort flow up into me. She sat down beside me, and our heads were on a level. The shepherd looked from his dog back to the children. “Well. Whatever she be, it costs you nothing to be kind to her. Now you’ve put me in a bind here. I should tell the Holder, that I should, but I’ve no desire to see your folks turned out of the places they’ve held for years. I will speak to your parents. You’ve all three of you too much time on your hands if this is what you get up to. Now, little mistress, let’s look at you. Have they hurt you?”

  “We didn’t touch her!” they shouted.

  “Don’t tell the Holder! I swear, we’ll never chase her again,” Taffy bargained.

  Lin had gone down on one knee. He picked a dried leaf and a burr from my tunic, and dared to smooth back my tangle of curls. “Well, she’s not weeping. Maybe not much hurt, then. Maybe? Not hurt, little one?”

  I drew myself up straight and met his eyes. I put my hands behind me and tightened them into fists, my nails biting hard into my palms to give me courage. I found my voice. With my newly loosened tongue, I formed each word as if it was a gift. “Thank you kindly, Shepherd Lin. I am not injured. ” His eyes grew round. Then I shifted my stare to the gaping children. I fought to keep my new voice steady, speaking each word precisely. “I will not tell my father or my mother. Nor do you need to do so, I think. These children have realized their error. ”

  They stared. I focused my gaze on Taffy and tried to burn holes in him with my eyes. He glared back at me sullenly. Slowly, very slowly, I cocked my head at him. Hatred met hatred in our gazes, but his was greater than mine. What would he fear, if not my hate? I knew. I had to remember each muscle in my face, but slowly I constructed and then let blossom a fawning smile upon my face. I spoke in a gentle whisper. “Dear Taffy. ”

  His eyes bulged at my fond gaze. Then Taffy screamed, more shrilly than I had, and turned and fled. The little girls ran after him. I glanced up at Lin. His eyes were measuring me, but I did not see disapproval. He turned to watch the fleeing children. I think he was speaking more to the dog than to me as he said, “They’ll beat you and mistreat you if they think you’re a dumb brute. Doesn’t matter if you’re a mule, or a dog, or a child. And when they find out there’s a mind beneath the flesh they’ve been battering, they fear you. And leave you alone. Sometimes. ” He took a deeper breath and turned an appraising eye on me. “You’ll need to watch your back now, mistress. Time ye had a dog, is what I’m thinking. You speak to your da about that. Daisy and I, we could find a good pup for you. A smart pup. ”

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  I shook my head and he shrugged in response. I stood, staring after the wailing children until they rounded the corner of the herb-garden wall. As soon as they were out of sight I turned to the dog and buried my face in her coat. I did not cry. But I shook and held tight to her. She stood steady under my grip, and turned her head to whine and then nuzzle my ear.

  “You take care of her, Daisy. ” Lin’s voice was deep, and perhaps something more passed between him and the dog than what I heard. I only knew that she was warm and unthreatening and seemed to have no desire to move away from my desperate hug.

  When finally I lifted my face from her coat, Lin was gone. I will never know what he made of that encounter. I gave Daisy a final hug and she licked my hand. Then, seeing that I no longer needed her, she trotted off to find her owner. And I made my way back to the house and up to my chambe
r. I thought of what I had done. None of the children would dare speak of it to their parents: They would have to explain why I said what I said. Shepherd Lin would, I decided, keep it to himself. How did I know? He had told me to watch my own back, and advised me to get a dog. He expected me to handle this myself. And I would.

  I considered his advice about the dog. No. My father would want to know why I wanted one. I could not tell him, not even through my mother.

  After my encounter with the children, I took Lin’s advice. I stopped following them and avoided them when I could. Instead I began to shadow my father, to see what he did all day while my mother was about her familiar routine. I flattered myself that he did not notice his small shadow, but later I would discover he had been aware of me. His long hikes about the estate to check on things were taxing for my small legs. If he took a horse, I gave up at once. I feared horses, with their long knobby legs and sudden snorting breaths. Years ago, when I was five, he had put me on one, to teach me to ride. In my terror and distress at his invasive touch and at the height of the animal’s back, I had snapped myself out of his grip and vaulted over the animal and onto the hard-packed earth. My father had been terrified he had injured me, and had never attempted the experiment again. In my garbled way, I had made excuse to my mother that it had felt rude to sit on someone and expect her to carry me about. And when my mother gave my father that explanation, he had become even more pensive and reluctant to expose me to horses. As I followed him now, I began to regret that. While I dreaded my father’s touch and the overwhelming surge of his thoughts into my mind, I still wished to know more of him. If I had been able to ride a horse, I could have followed him. But letting him know that presented difficulties.

 
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