Fools assassin, p.7
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       Fools Assassin, p.7

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

  As I advanced toward Molly, I noticed that her smile had become fixed. She had not missed the interplay between the girl and me. I spoke before she could, pitching my words for her ears only amid the market’s din. “Nettle Skilled to me. It’s Chade. He’s badly injured. They want me to come to Buckkeep Castle. ”

  “You have to leave tonight?”

  “No. Immediately. ”

  She looked at me. Emotions played over her face. Annoyance. Anger. And then, terribly, resignation. “You must go,” she told me.

  “I’m afraid I must. ”

  She nodded tightly, and took several of her purchases from my laden arms. Together we walked through the market toward the inn. Our little two-wheeled cart was drawn up outside. I’d stabled our horse, rather hoping that we’d spend the night there. As I put the rest of her purchases under the seat, I said, “You don’t have to rush back home, you know. You can stay and enjoy the rest of the market day. ”

  She sighed. “No. I’ll call the ostler to have our horse brought out now. I didn’t come for the market, Fitz. I came for a day with you. And that’s over now. If we go home now, you can be on your way before evening. ”

  I cleared my throat and broke the news to her. “It’s too urgent for that. I’ll have to use the stone on Gallows Hill. ”

  She stared at me, her mouth ajar. I met that gaze, trying to hide my own fear. “I wish you wouldn’t,” she said breathlessly.

  “I wish I didn’t have to. ”

  A time longer, her eyes searched my face. For an instant she folded her faded lips and I thought she would argue with me. Then she said stiffly, “Fetch the horse. I’ll drive you there. ”

  It was an easy walk, but I didn’t argue. She wanted to be there. She wanted to watch me enter the stone and disappear from her sight. She had never seen me do it, and had never wanted to see me do it. But if I must, she would watch me go. I knew her thoughts. It might be the last time she’d ever see me, if my Skill went awry. I offered her the only comfort I could. “I’ll have Nettle send a bird from Buckkeep as soon as I’m safely there. So you needn’t worry. ”

  “Oh, I’ll worry. For a day and a half, until the bird reaches me. It’s what I’m best at. ”

  The shadows had just begun to lengthen when I handed her down from the cart at the top of Gallows Hill. She held my hand as we walked the steep trail to the top. Oaksbywater didn’t boast a circle of standing stones as Buckkeep did. There was only the old gallows, the splintery gray wood baking in the summer sunlight with daisies growing incongruously and cheerfully all round the legs of it. And behind it, on the very crest of the hill, the single standing stone, gleaming black and veined with silver: memory stone. It was easily the height of three men. It had five faces, and each had a single glyph chiseled into it. Since we had discovered the true use of the standing stones, King Dutiful had sent out teams of men to clean each stone and record its glyphs and orientation. Each glyph signified a destination. Some we now knew; most we did not. Even after a decade of studying scrolls about the forgotten Skill-magic, most practitioners regarded travel via the portal stones as dangerous and debilitating.

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  Molly and I circled the stone together, looking up at it. The sun was shining into my eyes when I saw the glyph that would take me to the Witness Stones near Buckkeep. I stared at it, feeling fear form cold in my belly. I did not want to do this. I had to.

  The stone stood black and still, beckoning me like a pond of water on a hot summer day. And like a deep pool, it could pull me into its depths and drown me forever.

  “Come back to me as soon as you can,” Molly whispered. And then she flung her arms around me and held me in a fierce hug. She spoke into my chest. “I hate the days when we must be parted. I hate the duties that still tug at you, and I hate how always they seem to tear us apart. I hate your dashing off at a moment’s notice to do them. ” She spoke the words savagely and each was a small knife plunged into me. Then she added, “But I love that you are the kind of man who still does what he must do. Our daughter calls, and you go to her. As we both know you must. ” She took a deep breath and shook her head at her flash of temper. “Fitz, Fitz, I am still so jealous of every minute of your time. And as I age, it seems that I wish to cling to you more, not less. But go. Go do what you must and come back to me as quickly as ever you can. But not by the stones. Come back to me safely, my dear. ”

  Simple words, and to this day, I do not know why they bolstered my courage as they did. I held her closer to me and stiffened my own spine. “I’ll be fine,” I assured her. “The time I was lost in the stones, it was only because I’d used them so often in the days before. This will be easy. I’ll step in here and stumble out by the Witness Stones above Buckkeep Town. And first thing I’ll have a bird sent to Withywoods to tell you I’m there. ”

  “And it will take at least a day to get here. But I’ll be watching for it. ”

  I kissed her again, and then stepped free of her. My knees were shaking and abruptly I wished I had pissed earlier. Facing a sudden and unknown danger is different from deliberately plunging oneself into a previously experienced and known to be life-threatening task. Imagine deliberately walking into a bonfire. Or stepping over the railing of a ship in a storm. I could die. Or worse, not die, forever, in that cool black stillness.

  Only four steps away. I could not faint. I could not let my terror show. I had to do this. The stone was only two steps away. I lifted a hand and gave Molly a final wave, but dared not look back at her. My mouth had gone dry in purest fear. With the same hand, I set my palm to the face of the standing stone, right under the glyph that would carry me to Buckkeep.

  The stone’s face was cool. The Skill infused me in an indescribable way. I didn’t step into the stone; it engulfed me. A moment of black and sparkling nothing. An indefinable sense of well-being caressed and tempted me. I was on the cusp of understanding something wonderful; in a moment I would grasp it fully. I would not just comprehend it. I would be it. Complete. Unheeding of anything, or anyone, ever again. Fulfilled.

  Then I tumbled out. The first coherent thought I had on falling out of the stone onto the wet and grassy hillside above Buckkeep was the same as my last thought before I entered. I wondered what Molly had seen as I left her.

  I had dropped to my quivering knees as I emerged. I didn’t try to move. I looked out, breathing air that carried a hint of brine from Buckkeep Bay. It was cooler here, and the air was moister. Rain had fallen recently. Sheep grazed the hillside before me. One had lifted its head to regard me; now it dropped it back to the grass. I could see the back walls of Buckkeep Castle across a rumpled distance of stony pasture and wind-gnarled trees. The fortress of black stone stood as it seemed it always had, its towers giving it a sweeping view of the sea. I could not see it, but I knew that on the steep cliffs below it Buckkeep Town clung like a creeping lichen of people and structures. Home. I was home.

  Slowly my heartbeat returned to normal. A creaking cart crested the hill and made its way toward the castle gates. With a critical eye, I approved the slow pace of a sentry along the castle walls above it. We were at peace now, but still Dutiful maintained the watch. Good. Chalced might seem to be preoccupied with its own civil war, but rumor said the duchess now controlled most of her wayward provinces. And as soon as it was at peace with itself, doubtless Chalced would once more seek war with its neighbors.

  I looked back at the Skill-pillar. The sudden desire to reenter it, to bathe again in that unsettling pleasure of sparkling darkness, seized me. There was something there that was immense and wonderful, something that I longed to join. I could step back inside and find it. It waited for me.

  I drew a deep breath and reached out with the Skill to Nettle. Let fly a bird to Withywoods. Let Molly know I am here and safe. Choose the swiftest bird that will home there.

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  Done. And why didn’t you let m
e know before you entered the stone? I heard her speak to someone in the room. “He’s here. Send a lad with a horse for him, now. ” Then she focused on me again. What if you had emerged senseless and without words as you did all those years ago?

  I let her rebuke flow past me. She was right, of course, and Chade would be furious with me. No. The thought came with freezing dismay. Chade might never be furious with me again. I started walking toward the keep, and then could not prevent myself from breaking into a trot. I Skilled to Nettle again. Do the guards on the gate know I’m coming?

  King Dutiful himself ordered them to expect Holder Badgerlock, with an important message for me from my mother. No one will delay you. I’ll send a boy with a horse.

  I’ll be there before he clears the stables. I broke into a run.

  Chade’s bedchamber was grand. And still as death. It was on the same floor as Dutiful’s royal apartments, and I doubted that my King’s chambers were as indulgent as those of the old assassin-turned-advisor. My feet sank into the thick moss-green rugs. The heavy hangings over the windows admitted not a ray of daylight. Instead flickering candles filled the room with the scent of melting beeswax. In a gleaming brass brazier beside his bed a smoke of restorative herbs thickened the air. I coughed and groped my way to the bedside. There was a pitcher there and a filled cup. “Only water?” I asked of the hovering healers, and someone assented. I drained the cup, and coughed again. I was still trying to catch my breath from my dash up the wide stairways of the castle.

  King Dutiful was coming somewhere behind me, as was Nettle. Thick sat on a stool in the corner, the tip of his tongue resting on his lower lip and his simpleton’s face welling sadness and tears. His Skilled music was a muted dirge. He squinted at me for a long moment, and then his froggy mouth spread in a smile of welcome. “I know you,” he told me.

  And I know you, old friend, I Skilled to him. I pushed from my thoughts that he had not aged well; those of his kind seldom did. He had already lived longer than any of the Buckkeep healers had expected.

  Old Chade is acting dead, he conveyed to me anxiously.

  We’ll do what we can to wake him, I assured the little man.

  Steady, half-brother to my Nettle and part of the King’s Skill-coterie now, stood at Thick’s side. I nodded a quick greeting to him. I had pushed my way through hovering healers and their various assistants to reach Chade’s bedside. The room was thick with the smells of anxious people; they pressed on my Wit-sense as if I were wading through a pen of beasts awaiting slaughter.

  I did not hesitate. “Open those curtains and the windows as well. Get some light and air in here!”

  One of the healers spoke. “We have judged that dark and quiet may best encourage—”

  “Open them!” I snapped, for a sudden rush of memories of my first King, King Shrewd, in a stuffy room full of tonics and medicines and the smoke of drugs filled me with fear.

  The healers stared at me, hostile and unmoving. Who was this stranger to enter Lord Chade’s chamber, drink from his cup, and then order them about? Resentment simmered.

  “Open them,” Dutiful echoed as he entered the chamber, and the healers and their assistants leapt to obey.

  I turned to him and asked, “Can you get them all out of here?”

  Someone gasped. “My King, if you please,” I hastily added. In the pressure of the moment, I had forgotten that they saw me merely as Tom Badgerlock, Holder for Withywoods. Quite possibly, they had no idea as to why I might be called in to consult on Chade’s health. I tried to compose myself and saw a wry and weary smile twitch the corner of Dutiful’s mouth as he issued the orders that would clear the room of the clustering healers. As light and air refreshed the room and the number of folk diminished, the pressure on my senses eased. I asked no permission as I dragged the hangings on the bed wide open. Nettle helped me. The last light of sunset fell across the bed and the features of my old mentor, my old friend, my great-uncle Chade Fallstar. Despair rose in me.

  He looked cadaverous. His mouth had fallen open, his lower jaw hanging to one side. His closed eyes were sunken. The bruise I had glimpsed in my Skill-session with Nettle had spread and darkened half his face. I took his hand and was rewarded with a Wit-sense of his life. Not strong, but it was there. It had been masked by the huddle of mourning healers when I first entered. His lips looked parched, his tongue a grayish pad in his mouth. I found a clean cloth by the bedside, moistened it from the pitcher, and touched it to his lips, pushing his mouth closed as I did so. I dabbed it over his lined face. He had used his Skill to slow the erosion of years, but no magic could reverse time’s tread or the tracks it left on his body. I tried to guess his true age. I’d thought him an old man when he first took me as his apprentice some forty years ago. I decided I didn’t want to know and put my mind to more useful tasks. As I wet the cloth again and set it gently against the bruising, I asked, “Did you already try to heal this? Even if we cannot reach him with the Skill, healing his body may free his mind to return to us. ”

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  “Of course we tried. ” I forgave Dutiful for the irritation in his voice. It was an obvious question, and he gave me the obvious answer. “We tried to reach into him, to no avail. ”

  I set the cloth aside and sat down on the edge of the bed. Chade’s hand in mine was warm. I closed my eyes. With my fingers, I sensed the bones and the muscles and the flesh. I tried to push past my physical awareness of him to Skill-sensations I had not felt in years. I tried to enter his body with my thoughts, to be aware of what was right in the flow of his blood and the rush of his breath. I could not. I pushed, but the barriers did not yield.

  Barriers. I drew back from them and opened my eyes. I spoke aloud my consternation.

  “He’s walled off. Deliberately sealed against the Skill. Like Chivalry did to Burrich. ”

  Thick was rocking in the corner. I looked at him, and he hunched his blunt head closer between his shoulders. His small eyes met mine. “Yah. Yah. Closed like a box. Can’t get in. ” He shook his head solemnly, the tip of his tongue curled over his upper lip.

  I looked around the room. The King stood quietly by Chade’s bed, his young wolfhound leaning comfortingly against his knee. Of the King’s coterie only Nettle and Steady were there. That told me that his formal Skill-assemblage had already joined their strength and attempted to batter a way into Chade. And failed. That Nettle had resorted to calling on me and bringing Thick spoke volumes. As Skillmistress, she had decided that all conventional uses of the magic had been ineffective. Those of us gathered now were those who would, if commanded, venture into dangerous and unknown applications of Skill.

  Thick, our beloved half-wit, was prodigiously strong with the magic, though not creative with it. The King himself possessed a goodly amount of ability for it, while Nettle’s strongest talent was the Skill-manipulation of dreams. Her half-brother, Steady, was a reservoir of strength for her, one who could be completely trusted with any secret. But they were all looking at me, the Solo, the bastard Farseer with a wild and erratic talent, as if I were the one who would know what to do.

  But I didn’t. I didn’t know any more about it than the last time we had attempted to use Skill to heal a sealed man. We hadn’t succeeded. Burrich had died. In Burrich’s youth he had been Chivalry’s right-hand man and a source of strength for the King-in-Waiting. And so Burrich had been sealed by his king, lest enemies of the Farseers use him as a conduit to discover Chivalry’s secrets. Instead that wall had kept out the magic that might have saved him.

  “Who did this?” I tried and failed to keep accusation from my voice. “Who sealed him from the Skill like this?” Treachery from within the coterie was the most likely explanation. It chilled me to think of it. Already my assassin’s mind had linked the sealing with his fall. Double treachery to kill the old man. Cut him off from his magic so he could not cry for help, and then see that he was badly injured. If Chade had
been the target of such treachery, was the King the next mark?

  King Dutiful puffed his lips out in an exclamation of surprise and dismay. “It’s the first I’ve heard of it, if you are right. But you can’t be right. Just a few days ago, he and I conducted a small experiment with the Skill. I reached him without effort. He certainly wasn’t sealed then! Even with all his practice, he’s never become exceptionally strong with the Skill, though he’s very competent with what talent he has. But strong enough to wall us all out? I doubt that he …” I saw my own suspicions take root in his mind. Dutiful drew up a chair on the other side of Chade’s bed. He sat down and looked across the bed at me. “Someone did this to him?”

  “What was the ‘small experiment’?” I demanded. All eyes were on our king.

  “Nothing dark! He had a small block of the black stone, the memory stone, brought from the ancient Elderling stronghold on Aslevjal Island. He pressed a thought into it, and then gave it to a messenger who brought it to me. I was able to retrieve his message. It was just a simple little rhyme, something about where to find violets in Buckkeep Castle. I used the Skill to confirm with him that I was correct. He was certainly able to Skill well enough to impress it into memory stone, and receive my response to it. So he wasn’t sealed on that day. ”

  A tiny motion caught my eye. It wasn’t much. Steady had opened his mouth and then shut it again. It was not much of a trail but I’d pursue it. I looked at him suddenly, pointed my finger, and demanded, “What did Chade tell you not to tell anyone?”

 
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