Fools assassin, p.71
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       Fools Assassin, p.71

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

  The scribe looked alarmed. “Stay here. I’ll be back shortly. ”

  And with that he left us, striding at first—and then we all heard his footsteps increase to a run. We exchanged glances. Larkspur fidgeted and then stood up. He took two steps toward the door. “He said to stay here,” Perseverance reminded him. We remained as we were, listening to muffled shouts. Perseverance looked at me and then said, “I’m going to go see what’s going on. ”

  “Me, too,” I insisted.

  “No,” he forbade me, and then as I bared my teeth at him, he added in a more conciliatory tone, “You don’t want the scribe to be angry with you, Lady Bee. I’ll go quickly and come right back. ”

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  I cocked my head at him and replied pleasantly, “And so shall I. ”

  “They’re going to get in trouble,” Lea confided to Elm in a hopeful voice.

  I gave the girls the most scathing look I could muster and then went with Perseverance to peer around the corner of the door. No one was in sight, but the sounds of men shouting was louder. There was a kitcheny sound, as of metal clashing on metal. Perseverance looked at me and mouthed, Swords? His expression was incredulous.

  I thought him silly but could think of nothing else it might be. “Perhaps something about Winterfest?” I suggested.

  His eyes lit with anticipation. “Maybe. ” Then a man yelled angrily. “Maybe not,” he said, his smile fading.

  “Stay here and be quiet,” I said to the others who had gathered in the doorway behind me. We stepped out into the corridor. I felt to be sure my mother’s knife was still in my belt. My heart was thundering as I followed Perseverance soft-footed down the corridor. When we reached the bend in the corridor where it joined to the halls of the main house, I felt a great rush of relief to see Revel hurrying toward us. He was carrying something clutched to his middle, something very heavy from the way it made him stagger along. As we both scurried up to him, I called out to the house steward, “Is something going on? We heard shouting and Scribe FitzVigilant left us to go see …”

  Revel swayed to one side, his shoulder striking the wall. His knees bent and he sank down. He had lifted a hand when he hit the wall, and it left a long bloody streak as he collapsed. The object he had been carrying turned into a shaft sticking out of him. He’d been clutching at it as he lurched along. He looked at us both. His mouth moved, forming words with no breath behind them. Run. Hide. Go!

  Then he died. Just like that, in a moment: gone. I stared at him, fully aware that he was dead and wondering why Perseverance stooped and put a hand on his shoulder and peered into his face, saying, “Steward? Steward, what happened?” He set a shaky hand on Revel’s hand that still clutched the shaft in his chest. He drew it back red.

  “He’s dead,” I said, and I clutched at Perseverance’s shoulder. “We’ve got to do as he said. We have to warn the others. We have to run and hide. ”

  “From what?” Perseverance demanded angrily.

  I was equally furious. “Revel came here, dying, to give us that message. We don’t make it useless by acting stupid. We obey. Come on!”

  I had hold of his shirt and I dragged on it, pulling him with me. We started at a walk and then burst into a run. I could barely keep up with him. We reached the schoolroom and dashed inside. “Run. Hide!” I told them all and they stared at me as if I were mad.

  “It’s something bad. The steward’s dead in the hall, an arrow or something through his chest. Don’t go back to the main house. We need to get out of here and away. ”

  Lea looked at me with flat eyes. “She’s just trying to get us all in trouble,” she said.

  “No, she’s not,” Perseverance half-shouted. “There’s no time. Just before he died, he told us to run and hide. ” He thrust out his hand, scarlet with Revel’s blood. Elm screamed and Larkspur sprang backward and fell over.

  My mind was racing. “We go back through the south wing to the conservatory. Then out into the kitchen garden and across into the kitchens. I know a place we can hide there. ”

  “We should get away from the house,” Perseverance said.

  “No. It’s a good place, no one will find us there,” I promised him, and Elm finished it for us by saying, “I want my mother!”

  And that was that. We fled the schoolroom.

  The sounds from the main house were terrifying, muffled cries and crashes and men shouting. Some of the younger children were squeaking or sobbing as we left the schoolroom. We seized hands and fled. When we reached the conservatory, I thought that perhaps we could all hide there, but decided that few if any of the others could keep still and concealed if armed men entered. No. There was only one hiding place where their sobs would go unheard, and loath as I was to share it with them, I had no other choice. I reminded myself. I was my father’s daughter, and in his absence I was the lady of Withywoods. When I had helped the beggar in town, I thought I had been brave. But that had been for show, for my father to see. Now I had to truly be brave.

  “Outside and across to the kitchens,” I told them.

  “But it’s snowing!” Elm wailed.

  “We should get to the stables and hide there!” Perseverance insisted.

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  “No. The tracks in the snow would show where we’d gone. The kitchen gardens are already trampled. Our passage won’t show as much. Come on. Please!” The last I flung out in despair as I saw the stubborn look on his face.

  “I’ll help you get them there, but then I’m going to the stables to warn my da and the fellows. ”

  There was no arguing with him, I saw, so I jerked my head in a nod. “Come on!” I said to the others.

  “And be quiet!” Perseverance ordered to them.

  He broke trail for us. The kitchen gardens had been idle for a month, and snow banked the mounded straw-covered beds of rhubarb and dill and fennel. Never had the garden seemed so large to me. Elm and Lea were clutching hands and making small complaints about the snow in their house shoes. As we approached the kitchen door, Perseverance waved us back fiercely. He crept to the snow-laden sill, put an ear to the door, listened, and then dragged it open against the fresh mounded snow.

  A moment only I stared in at the chaos of the kitchens. Something terrible had happened here. Loaves of freshly baked bread were scattered across the floor, a joint of meat was burning over the fire, and no one was there. No one. The kitchens were never empty, not during the day. Elm gasped in horror at her mother’s absence and Lea startled me by having the presence of mind to slap her hand over her friend’s mouth before the scream could escape. “Follow me!” I whispered.

  As I led them toward the pantry, Perseverance said softly, “That’s no good! There won’t be room for all of us. We should have hidden in the conservatory. ”

  “Wait,” I told him, and dropped to my knees to crawl behind the stacked boxes of salt fish. To my great relief, the hatch stood very slightly ajar as I had left it for the cat. I pushed my fingertips into the crack and pulled it open. I crawled back out. “There are secret corridors behind the walls. Go in there. Quickly. ”

  Larkspur dropped to all fours and crawled back. I heard his muffled whisper of, “It’s pitch black in there!”

  “Go in! Trust me. I’ll get a candle for you. We need to get inside there and hide. ”

  “What are these places?” Elm demanded suddenly.

  “Old spy-ways,” I told her, and “Oh,” she replied knowingly. Not even danger could curb that one’s spiteful tongue.

  Then, somewhere in the far chambers of Withywoods, a woman screamed. We all froze, staring round at one another. “That was my ma,” Elm whispered. I thought it had sounded like Shun. We waited but no more sounds reached us. “I’ll get some candles,” I said. The children crouched down, and some ventured behind the stacked crates.

  It took all my courage to go back to the kitchen. I knew where
the extra tapers were kept. I lit one at the hearth and turned. I nearly shrieked when I found Perseverance and Spruce standing behind me. Ivy clung to a handful of her brother’s sleeve. I looked at Perseverance. His face was white with determination.

  “I have to go find my da. I have to warn him. Or help him. I’m sorry. ” He stooped and hugged me awkwardly. “Go hide, Lady Bee. I’ll come back here and shout for you when it’s safe to come out. ”

  “Not yet!” I begged him. Once he left, I would have only myself to depend on. I couldn’t face that. He had to help me stay and hide the others.

  He wasn’t listening to me. He was staring at the snow and wet we had tracked across the kitchen floor. “Oh, sweet Eda! We’ve left tracks everywhere. They’ll find you all. ”

  “No. They won’t!” I shoved the candles at Spruce, and he took them dumbly. I stooped and snatched up loaves of bread. I pushed them into Ivy’s hands. “Take these. Go behind the crates and into the wall with the others. Don’t shut the door. I’ll be there in a minute. Tell everyone to crawl along the passage and to be quiet. Quiet as mice. Don’t light more than one candle!”

  Even in the kitchen I could hear the others muttering and mewling behind the wall. Then I heard men’s voices, distant but even so I recognized they were shouting to one another in a language I didn’t know.

  “Who are they?” Spruce demanded in an agonized voice. “Why are they here? What are they doing? Who was that screaming?”

  “That doesn’t matter. Living does. Go now!” I physically pushed them toward the door. As Spruce and Ivy vanished into the pantry, I seized a stack of napkins from the table and dropped to begin smearing the watery footprints. Perseverance saw my intent and did the same. In a trice we had changed the tracks to a wandering wet swath.

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  “Leave the door open. They may think we came in and went out again,” Perseverance suggested.

  I pulled it open as he suggested. “You’d better go now,” I told him. I tried to keep my voice from shaking.

  “First, you hide. I’ll push the boxes against the wall to cover where you went. ”

  “Thank you,” I whispered. I fled to the pantry, dropped to my knees, and crawled behind the crates.

  The entrance was closed. I tapped on the door, and then knocked. I put my ear to it. Not a sound. They had obeyed me and gone up the corridors. And somehow the door had latched when someone had closed it behind her.

  I couldn’t get in. Perseverance stuck his head around the corner. “Hurry up! Go in!”

  “I can’t. They shut it behind them and it latched. I can’t open it from this side. ”

  For a long moment, we stared at each other. Then he spoke softly. “We’ll move the boxes to cover where they went. Then you come to the stables with me. ”

  I nodded, trying not to let either tears or sobs break from me. More than anything, I longed to be safely hidden in the walls. It was my place, my special hiding place, and now that I needed it most it had been taken from me. Somehow my hurt at that unfairness was almost as great as my fear. Perseverance was the one who pushed the crates snug against the wall. I stood staring at them, fear strengthening in me. When I’d had a plan, a bolt-hole to flee to, I had been focused and calm. Now all I could think of was that Revel was dead and some sort of battle was going on in the house. In Withywoods. Pleasant, calm Withywoods. Where my father was not. Had blood ever been shed here before?

  Then, as if I were his little sister, Perseverance took my hand in his. “Come along. My da will know what to do. ”

  I didn’t point out that it was a long run through the open to reach the stables, nor that I wore only low shoes fit for the corridors of Withywoods. I followed him as we left the kitchen door open behind us and went out into the snow. We ran across the open garden, following our tracks back to the conservatory but not reentering it. Instead I followed Perseverance silently as he hugged the wall of the manor. We moved behind the bushes, trying not to disturb the weight of snow that mounded upon their branches.

  We could hear things out here. A man was shouting in an accent I didn’t recognize, commanding someone to “Sit down, sit down, don’t move!” I know Perseverance heard it and knew that he realized he was leading me closer to that voice. It seemed the worst thing we could do, but still I followed him.

  We rounded the end of the wing and halted. Holly bushes grew thick there, their prickly green leaves and bright-red berries a sharp contrast with the snow. The layer of prickly dead leaves where we crouched bit right through my thin house shoes. We huddled like rabbits and stared at the sight before us.

  There were the folk of Withywoods, gathered like a flock of befuddled sheep in the open drive before the main door of the house. They stood in the snowy carriageway in their indoor clothes, hugging themselves and one another, bleating like frightened sheep. Most were people I had known all my life. Cook Nutmeg held Tavia at her side and stared defiantly at her captors. I knew the minstrels by their gaudy garb. They crouched together, staring about in astonishment. Careful hugged herself, rocking back and forth in misery. Shun’s maid was there beside her, clutching the torn front of her dress closed. She was barefoot. Three burly men on horseback were looking down at the people they had herded together. I thought I had seen one of them before but I wasn’t sure where. Two were not speaking at all, but all three had drawn and bloody swords in their hands. One was still shouting at everyone to sit down, sit down. Only a few were obeying him. Off to one side, two bodies lay facedown, unmoving, red melting the snow around them.

  One was FitzVigilant. I knew that fine jacket, I knew those tailored trousers. I had seen them just that morning and I knew it was him, but my mind would not accept it.

  “I don’t see my da. ” Perseverance barely breathed the words. I nodded. Now I noticed a few folk from the stables, but his father was not among them. Dead or hiding, I wondered.

  A woman emerged from Withywoods and walked toward the captives. She looked so ordinary, just a plump woman of middle years, dressed warmly for the snow. She had fur boots, a thick wool cape, and a fur hat pulled down over her ears. Her round face and bouncing brown curls made her look almost cheery. She walked up to the man who was shouting at people to sit down and looked up at him. Her voice carried clearly when she asked him something, but it was in a language I did not know. His denial was plain in any language.

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  She lifted her voice and spoke to the captives. Her accent was odd but I understood what she said. “A boy was brought here, recently. Possibly within the last five years but more likely within the last few months. His skin will be as pale as snow, his hair as white. Give him to us, and we are gone. He might be as young as a child, or a man grown to middle years. We will know him when we see him. He isn’t here, but you must know who we are talking about. ” She paused, waiting for a reply, then added reassuringly, “He isn’t one of yours; he has always belonged to us, and we only want to take him home. No harm will come to him, and if you but tell us, no more harm will befall you. ”

  Her words were measured and calm, almost kind. I saw my house people exchanging glances. Tavia shrugged free of Cook’s arm and lifted her voice. “There is no one here like that. The only newcomer here was the man you killed, the scribe. Everyone else has worked here for years, or was born to us, in the village. You already seen the minstrels; they’re the only strangers here!” Her words tumbled into a sob. The minstrels, already terrified, huddled closer together.

  “You are lying!” the shouting man accused her. Her face crumpled with fear and she lifted her hands to cover her ears, as if his words were a threat by themselves.

  The unexpected son. I knew it with a sudden certainty. These were the trackers the pale messenger had warned us about. They had followed her here, and for some reason they thought to find the boy here. Perhaps they thought my father had already found him and brought him here for shel
ter.

  “She’s not lying!” Cook yelled at him, and a few others were brave enough to shout, “It’s true!” “There’s no one here that wasn’t born here!” and similar outbursts.

  “Can you stay here by yourself and hide?” Perseverance whispered next to my ear. “I need to get to the stables and find Da. If he’s not there … I’m getting a horse and riding down to Withy for help. ”

  “Take me with you,” I begged.

  “No. I have to cross all that open space to get to the stables. If they see us …” He shook his head. “You have to stay here, Bee. Hide. ” He bit his lower lip and then said, “If my da … if I can’t find him, I’ll come back for you. We’ll go for help together. ”

  I knew that was a foolish plan, for him. If he got to the stables, he should just ride like the wind for Withy. But I was terrified. I gave a sharp nod. He pushed me down lower. “Stay here,” he hissed, as if I could forget to do so.

  He moved to the edge of the holly bushes and waited. The round woman seemed to be arguing with the man on horseback. She pointed angrily at the bodies and gesticulated wildly. Plainly she did not like how he was conducting his search. He was gesturing with his sword and shouting. Then, out of the house came the fog man. I recognized him from my trip to town. There he had been a gleaming light in the alley that people avoided. Today he was a pearlescent mist and, in the center of it, a plump man pale as a ghost. He turned his head slowly from side to side as he walked, and either my eyes deceived me or his eyes were the color of fog. A strange chill went through me and I shrank as small as I could, pulling my awareness back into myself. Putting up my walls, my father would have called it. I felt blind but if that was the price of invisibility I was willing to pay it.

  “Bee?” Perseverance whispered, but I shook my head and kept my face turned in toward my belly. I do not know what he sensed but abruptly he took my wrist in a grip like ice. “Come with me. Come on. We’re going now. Together. ”

  But he did not take me toward the stables. Rather, we crept back the way we had come, remaining behind and under the bushes that landscaped that wing of Withywoods. I did not look up but merely followed where he dragged me. “Here,” he panted at last. “Stay right here. I’ll go to the stables. If I can’t find my da, I’ll bring the horses here. I’ll be moving fast and you’ll have to run out and jump for Priss’s back. Can you do that?”

 
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