Fools assassin, p.72
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       Fools Assassin, p.72

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

  I didn’t know. “Yes,” I lied.

  “Stay here,” he told me again, and then he was gone.

  I remained where I was, behind rhododendrons whose drooping green leaves were encased in ice and snow. After a long time, I lifted my eyes and peered about. Nothing moved. I could no longer hear the huddled captives, but the angry voices still teased at the edges of my hearing.

  Revel was dead. My father was gone. Riddle was not here. FitzVigilant was dead. At any moment Perseverance could be dead.

  And at that thought, I could not sit still. I was terrified of being killed, but even more terrified that my only ally might be dead and I would not even know it. How long would I sit here under a bush while his life was leaking out somewhere? I started panting, trying to get enough air to keep the blackness at bay. I was cold and thirsty and alone. I tried to think, to not do something stupid simply because I wanted to do something.

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  I took the dirtied cloak out of my jerkin front. I had not forgotten it. But I knew its limitations. It needed time to take on the colors and shadows. I could not fling it about my shoulders and run and hope to be unseen. Except that snow was white. It would not be perfect camouflage, I thought to myself as I spread it out on the snowy ground beside the bushes. I would be more like a white rabbit or a white fox; anyone with half an eye would see my movement, would see my feet and the tracks I would leave. But it would give me a better chance at reaching the stable than I’d had before.

  The angry voices from the other side of the house grew louder, the man threatening, the woman unhappy but not pleading. Insistent, I thought to myself. She would have her way. I heard a scream, a man’s scream this time, and I wondered who had been hurt or killed. It was followed by a woman wailing. And wailing. And all the while, the cloak lay on the snow and mutated from the color of the darkness inside my jerkin to the color of the shaded and rumpled snow. I had never before paused to think that truly, all snow was not white. Now I saw that it was gray and dirty pale blue and speckled with bird droppings and bits of fallen leaves.

  I crawled under it, not wishing to pull it back under the bushes and risk it taking on the colors of leaves and branches. It was sized for an adult, so there was ample fabric to wrap round me and drape my face. I clutched it at my waist and chin, leaving a small space for my eyes. I looked all around, and saw no one on this side of the manor. I darted from my shelter to the cluster of holly bushes where we had previously sheltered, taking care not to get to close to them. I froze where I was, considering the terrain between me and the stable. Should I crawl slowly across it? Make one fast dash? Earlier, the snow had been a smooth blanket over the low sward. Now I clearly saw the tracks that meant Perseverance had managed to cross it. Suddenly I knew he had waited for them to be distracted, perhaps by the man’s scream. I did not want to look at the captives. Their situation frightened me and made it hard for me to think. But I had to analyze my chances. The woman was still wailing. Was that enough of a distraction? I stood perfectly still and shifted only my eyes to look at the herded prisoners.

  The wailing woman was Shun. She was bareheaded and her gown was torn from one shoulder. She stood before the angry man on his horse and wailed like a mourner. No words, no sobbing, just a high-pitched keening. The fog man was not far from her, and the plump woman seemed to be trying to ask her questions. I could not help her in any way. Much as I disliked Shun, I still would have helped her if I could, because she belonged to me, in the same way the black cat did or the goose children did. They were all the folk of Withywoods, and in the absence of my father and Nettle they were my folk. My folk, huddled and bleating in terror.

  A moment before, I had been a child fleeing danger. Something changed in me. I would reach the stables, and with Perseverance I would ride for help. I needed to get there quickly, before he needlessly exposed himself by riding a horse back toward the manor where he thought I was hiding. The fear that had been crippling me melted away and became a wolf-fierceness. I crouched and the next time the woman asked Shun a question, I ran, keeping low and following Perseverance’s trail in hopes of leaving less evidence of my passage.

  I reached the corner of the stable and whisked around it and crouched, breathing hard. What next, what next? Go to the back door, I decided, where the stable boys trundled out the barrows of dirty straw. That would be where Perseverance would come out with the horses. It was the door farthest from the house.

  My path took me past the cote where our messenger birds had been kept. Had been. Feathers and bodies, their necks wrenched and tossed to the ground inside their fly-pen. No time to stare at all those small deaths. It was coming to me that whoever these people were, they were completely ruthless and this attack had been planned. No birds had flown to say we were being attacked. The invaders had killed them first.

  When I reached the stable doors, I peered around them. A sickening sight met my eyes. Had the raiders come here first, as they had with the birds? Horses shifted uneasily in their stalls, for the smell of blood reached even my poor nose. I was grateful they had not taken the time to kill the horses. Possibly they had not wanted to risk the sound. Someone sprawled in the passageway between the stalls. He wore Withywoods colors. He was one of ours, facedown and unmoving. One of mine. I tightened my throat against a sob. No time to mourn. If anyone was to survive, Perseverance and I had to ride for help. We were my people’s last hope. I was not sure how many folk there were in little Withy village but there would be messenger birds there and someone would gallop for the King’s Patrol.

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  I was finding my nerve to step past the body when I heard a sound and looked up to see Perseverance coming my way. He was mounted bareback on a sturdy bay but had taken the time to saddle and bridle Priss for me. Tears were streaming down his cheeks but his jaw was a hard mannish jut from his boy’s face. He gasped when he saw me, and I quickly let the big hood of the cloak fall back from my face. “It’s me!” I whispered.

  Anger flashed in his eyes. “I told you to stay where you were!”

  He slid down from his horse, muffled his nostrils, and led him past the body. He gave me the reins to hold and when back for Priss, doing the same to get her past. When he stood beside me, he seized me around the waist and without ceremony flung me up on my horse. I scrabbled into place, gathering my cloak in handfuls and stuffing it once more down the front of my jerkin. I didn’t want it flapping and spooking Priss. I was already dreading a hard ride.

  He did not trust me with Priss’s reins but kept them as he mounted his own horse. He looked at me over his shoulder and spoke quietly. “We’re leaving at a gallop,” he warned me. “It’s our only chance. We ride at full speed and we do not stop. Not for anything. Do you understand me?”

  “Yes. ”

  “If someone stands before us, I will ride him down. And you will stay on Priss and follow. Do you understand?”

  “Yes. ”

  “And this time, you obey me!” he added fiercely.

  I had no time to respond to that for, with a sudden lurch, we were in motion. We went out the back doors of the stable and across the open sward, keeping the stable between us and the house, heading at a gallop toward the long winding carriageway. The unbroken and drifted snow beneath the leafless trees slowed us but perhaps muffled somewhat the sound of our passage. It was not enough. As we moved from the cover of the stable and into the open, I heard a startled shout. Strange, how a wordless shout can still be in a foreign tongue. Perseverance did something, and our horses suddenly increased their pace, stretching their legs out and running as I’d never ridden before.

  I hung on tight with everything I had, ankles, knees, and thighs, my hands gripping the front of my saddle as if I’d never before sat a horse. I heard myself keening and could not stop. There were shouts from behind us, and I heard something, as if a summer bee had suddenly buzzed past me. Then there were two m
ore, and I knew that an archer was shooting at us. I shrank to a burr on my horse’s back and we rode on. The carriageway curved and I felt a moment of relief that the invaders at the manor house could no longer see us. We galloped on.

  Then Perseverance fell. He went down from his horse, hitting the road and then rolling into the deep snow, and the beast galloped on. He still gripped Priss’s lead and she turned hard and nearly trampled him before she sidled to a sudden halt that flung me far to one side. One of my feet lost its stirrup and I hung there, half-off, before I freed my other foot and leapt clear of her to run to Perseverance. There was no arrow sticking out of him, and I thought for a moment that he had merely fallen and we could both be up and away on Priss. Then I saw the blood. The shaft had passed right through him, tearing through his right shoulder. Blood was drenching him and his face was white. He rolled onto his back as I reached him and thrust Priss’s lead rope at me. “Get up and ride!” he commanded me. “Run away! Get help!” Then he shuddered all over, and closed his eyes.

  I stood still. I heard the hoofbeats of his fleeing horse, and other hoofbeats. They were coming. The invaders were coming. They would catch us. I knew I could not lift him, let alone get him up on Priss. Hide him. He was still breathing. Hide him and come back for him. It was the best I could do.

  I tore the butterfly cloak free and spread it over him, tucking it round him. Its colors were adapting, but not fast enough. I kicked snow over him and then, as the pursuer’s hoofbeats grew louder, I led Priss to the other side of the carriageway. I leapt at her, clawing my way up to the saddle as she jigged and danced in alarm. I got on her back, found the stirrups, and kicked her hard. “Go, go, go!” I shrieked at her.

  And she went, lurching into a terrified lope. I leaned down, holding tight, not using my reins at all but only hoping she’d follow the road. “Please, please, please,” I begged of the horse, of the world, of everything that possibly existed. And then we were galloping, galloping so fast that I was certain they could not possibly catch us.

  The cold wind bit me and tears streamed from the corners of my eyes. Her mane whipped my face. I saw only the open road before me. I would get away, I would bring help, somehow it would all turn out all right …

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  Then, on either side of me, two huge horses appeared. They breasted Priss, and one rider leaned down, seized her headstall, and pulled us round in a tight circle. I started to fall off her, and the other rider grabbed me by the back of my jerkin. With one hand he pulled me off my horse and dropped me. I hit the ground and rolled, nearly going under his horse’s hooves, and someone shouted angrily as white lights flashed all around me.

  There was a moment when I knew nothing, and then I was hanging, my mouth full of snow, my head lolling as someone gripped the front of my jerkin. I thought he was shaking me, and then it was the world shaking around me and then it was still. I blinked and blinked, and finally I could see him, a big angry bearded man. He was old, his hair between gray and white, his eyes as blue as a white gander’s. He was roaring at me, furious shouts in a language I didn’t know. He suddenly paused and then, in a thick accent, demanded, “Where other one? Where he go?”

  I found my tongue and the wit to lie. “He left me!” I shrieked and I did not need to pretend my distress. I lifted a shaking hand and pointed where Perseverance’s horse had bolted. “He ran away and left me!”

  Then I heard a woman’s voice. She was shouting remonstrances breathlessly as she ran down the long carriageway toward us. At a distance behind her, the fog man was coming. He was walking fast but not hurrying. They were quite a distance away. Still clutching my shirtfront, the gray-haired man began to walk back toward her, dragging me and leading his horse, while the other man followed us mounted. He held my jerkin front so tight I could scarcely breathe. We past the spot where I had concealed Perseverance. I knew the area only by my footprints in the snow. I did not look toward the spot. I lifted all my walls and did not even think of him lest somehow they know my deceit. I was his only chance, and the only help I could give him was ignoring him. I kicked feebly and tried to shout, hoping to keep the man’s attention fixed on me.

  Then we were past and closing the distance between us and the hurrying woman. She called something over her shoulder to the fog man. He pointed at me and warbled back at her happily. The man dragging me shouted something at her, and she responded in a rebuke. He halted abruptly, and then shifted his grip on me so that he held me by the back of my jerkin collar. He swung me up off my feet so that I hung dangling from his hand and shook me at her. She cried out in horror and he dropped me and laughed. When I tried to scrabble away, he put his foot on me and pressed me down into the snow. He said something to her, something mocking and threatening. Her cries turned to entreaties.

  I tried to breathe. It was as much as I could do with his foot pressing down on me. She reached us, and her entreaties suddenly became threats. He laughed again, and lifted his foot. She knelt in the snow beside me.

  “Oh, my dear, my darling one!” she exclaimed. “Here you are at last. You poor, poor thing! How frightened you must have been! But it’s all over now. We’re here. You’re safe now, and we’ve come to take you home. ” She helped me to sit up. She looked at me so kindly, her round face full of anxiety and fondness. She smelled like lilacs. I tried to take a breath, to say something, and instead I burst into tears.

  “Oh, my poor boy!” she exclaimed. “Be calm now. You’ll be fine. You’re safe with us now. You’re finally safe. ”

  The fog man had drawn closer. He pointed at me and joy suffused his face. “There. That one!” His voice was high and boyish. “The unexpected son. My brother. ” His happiness at finding me washed over me, suffused me and filled me. I could not prevent the smile that broke out on my face. It came to me in a wave of joy. They’d come for me, the ones I belonged with. They were here and I would be safe, never lonely, never frightened again. His lolling foolish smile and his wide open arms welcomed me. I opened my arms to him, so glad to finally be gathered in.

  Epilogue

  A child is bitten by a rat. The parent rushes to comfort him. But the bite on the hand becomes septic and the child’s hand must be taken to preserve his life. That day, the child’s life changes forever.

  Or a child is bitten by a rat. The parent rushes to comfort him. The wound heals well without a scar and all is well.

  But it isn’t. The memory of the bite and the rat will be carried by the child for the rest of his life. Even as a grown man, the sound of scuttling in the night will make him waken bathed in sweat. He cannot work in barns or around granaries. When his dog brings him a dead rat, he starts back in terror.

  Such is the power of memory. It is fully as strong as the most feverish infection, and it lingers not just for a period of sickness but for all the days of a man’s life. As dye soaks fibers, drawn into them to change their color forever, so does a memory, stinging or sweet, change the fiber of a man’s character.

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  Years before I knew that a man’s memories could be pressed into stone and waken as a dragon, I still trembled before their power, and hid from them. Oh, the memories I denied and concealed from myself, for they were too fraught with pain for me to consider, as a child or as a man. And the memories I bled away from myself into a dragon, thinking that I freed myself of a poison that would weaken me. For years I walked, dulled to my life, unaware of what I had stripped away from myself. The day the Fool restored those memories to me it was like blood pulsing through a numbed limb, wakening it, yes, but bringing with it tingling pain and debilitating cramps.

  Memories of joy etch just as deeply into a man’s heart as those of pain or terror. And they, too, soak and pervade his awareness of the world. And so the memories of my first day with Molly, and our first night together, and the day we vowed ourselves to each other have flavored my life and in my darkest days they gave me a
light to remember. In times of sickness or sorrow or bleakness of spirit, I could recall how I ran with the wolf through the snowy twilight with no thought beyond the game we pursued. There are cherished memories of firelight, and brandy, and a friend who knew me, perhaps, better than any other could. Those are the memories from which a man builds the fortress that protects his heart. They are the touchstones that tell him he is worthy of respect, and his life has a meaning beyond mere existence. I have all those memories still, the ones of hurt and the ones of comfort and the ones of exultation. I can touch them still, even if they are faded now like a tapestry left to harsh light and dust.

  But one day I will carry forward as if it were tattooed with sharp needles of both pleasure and pain into the very core of my being. There is a day I recall with colors so bright and scents so strong that I have only to close my eyes and be there again. It is a bright winter day, a day of blue sky and glistening white snow and the wrinkled gray sea beyond the roofs and roads of Buckkeep Town. Always that day will be the day before Winterfest eve. Always I will hear merry greetings and the luring calls of peddlers and tinkers and the gulls high overhead crying, crying in the wind. The crisp breeze carried the scents of hot cooked foods both sweet and savory mixed with the iodine and rot of the low tide. I walked the streets alone, buying small gifts for the daughter I had left behind at Withywoods and necessary things for my injured friend, herbs to make the salves Burrich had taught me and clean clothing and a warm cloak and shoes for his crippled, frostbitten feet.

  The gulls wheel and cry, the merchants beseech me to buy, the wind whispers of the changing tide, and below in the slight bay, the ships creak and tug restively at their lines. It is a choice day, a lapis day in a silver setting.

  It is the day my life changed forever. It is the day my child was stolen, and flames and smoke and the screams of horses rose to the skies over Withywoods, unheard, unseen by me. Neither my Wit nor my Skill told me of snow melted scarlet there, of women with bruised faces and men with pierced bodies. Nothing warned me on that bright day that the darkest time of my life had begun.

 

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