Golden fool, p.17
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       Golden Fool, p.17

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
“The apprentices’ quarters are behind Master Gindast’s workshop. It makes it easy for them to rise, wash, eat, and be at work by dawn. Did you not board with your master?”

  At that, I supposed that I had. I had just never perceived it that way. “I was never formally apprenticed,” I lied casually. “So all of this is new. I had assumed I had to provide Hap’s room and board while he was taught. Which is why I brought this with me. ” I opened my pouch and spilled coins on her table.

  And there they lay in a heap between us, and suddenly I felt awkward. Would she think this was intended as payment for something else?

  She stared at me silently for a moment, and then said, “Tom, I’ve scarcely touched what you sent down before. How much do you think it costs to feed a boy?”

  I managed an apologetic shrug. “Another town thing that I don’t know. At home, we raised what we needed, or hunted for it. I know Hap eats a great deal after a day’s work. I had assumed it would be expensive to feed him. ” Chade must have arranged for a purse to be sent to her. I had no idea how much it had contained.

  “Well. When I need more, I’ll tell you. The use of the pony and cart has meant a great deal to my niece. It’s something she has always wanted but you know how hard it is to set aside coin for something like that. ”

  “You are more than welcome to that. As Hap told you, it is much better for Clover to move about than to be stabled constantly. Oh. Feed for the pony. ”

  “That’s easy enough for us to come by, and it seems only fair that we provide for an animal we use. ” She paused, and glanced about us. “Then you’ll see Hap today?”

  “Of course. It’s why I came to town today. ” I began to stack the coins, preparatory to returning them to my pouch. It felt awkward.

  “I see. So that was why you came by here,” she observed, but she smiled teasingly as she said it. “Well, then. I’ll let you be on your way. ”

  And it suddenly dawned on me that she was letting me know it was time for me to leave. I chinked the coins into my purse again and stood. “Well. Thank you for the tea,” I said and then halted. She laughed aloud at me and my cheeks burned but I managed to smile. She made me feel young and foolish, at a disadvantage to her. I did not see why that should be so, but I knew I did not care for it. “Well. I had best go see Hap. ”

  “You do that,” she agreed, and handed me my cloak. Then I had to stop and get my boots on. I had just finished that when there was a rap at her door. “A moment!” Jinna called, and then I was exiting, nodding to her customer in passing. It was a young man with an anxious expression on his face. He sketched a bow to me and then hastened inside. The door shut on the sound of Jinna greeting him, and I was alone once more in the windy street.

  I trudged off to Gindast’s shop. The day grew colder as I walked, and I began to smell snow in the air. Summer had lingered late, but now winter would have her way. Looking up at the sky, I decided it would be a heavy fall. It woke mixed feelings in me. A few months ago, such a sight would have made me check my woodstack, and do a final, critical consideration of what I had gathered for the winter. Now the Farseer throne provided for me. I no longer had to consider my own well-being, only that of the reign. The harness still sat uncomfortably on my shoulders.

  Gindast was well known in Buckkeep Town and I had no difficulty finding his shop. His signboard was elaborately carved and framed, as if to be sure his skill were properly displayed. The front of his building held a cozy sitting room, with comfortable chairs and a large table. A fire fueled with scraps of well-dried wood burned hotly in the hearth. Several pieces of his finest work were displayed in the room for the perusal of potential customers. The fellow in charge of this room listened to my request, then waved me on through to the shop.

  This was a barn of a structure, with a number of projects in various stages of completion. An immense bedstead squatted next to a series of fragrant cedar chests emblazoned with someone’s owl sigil. A journeyman knelt, putting stain on the owls. Gindast was not in his shop. He had ridden out with three of his journeymen to Lord Scyther’s manor, to take measurements and consult over the construction of an elaborate mantel, with chairs and tables to match. One of his senior journeymen, a man not much younger than myself, allowed that I could speak with Hap for a time. He also gravely suggested that I might wish to call again, to make an appointment with Master Gindast to discuss my boy’s progress. The journeyman made such a meeting sound ominous.

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  I found Hap behind the shop with four other apprentices. All appeared younger and smaller than he was. They were engaged in moving a stack of drying wood, turning and shifting each timber in the process. The trampled earth told me this was the third such stack to be turned. The other two were draped with roped-down canvas. There was a scowl on Hap’s face as if this mindless yet necessary task affronted him. I watched him for a time before he was aware of me, and what I saw troubled me. Hap had always been a willing worker when he toiled alongside me. Now I saw suppressed anger in the way he handled himself, and his impatience at working with lads younger and weaker than he was. I stood silently, watching him until he noticed me. He straightened from the plank he had just set down, said something to the other apprentices, and then stalked over to me. I watched him come, wondering how much of his manner was expression of what he truly felt and how much was show for the younger boys. I didn’t much care for the disdain he expressed toward his current task.

  “Hap,” I greeted him gravely, and “Tom,” he responded. He clasped wrists with me, and then said in a low voice, “You see now what I was talking about. ”

  “I see you turning wood so it dries well,” I responded. “That seems a necessary task for a woodworker’s shop. ”

  He sighed. “I would not mind it so much, if it were an occasional thing. But every task they put me to demands a lot of my back and little of my brain. ”

  “And are the other apprentices treated differently?”

  “No,” he replied begrudgingly. “But as you can see, they are just boys. ”

  “Makes no difference, Hap,” I told him. “It’s not a matter of age, but of knowledge. Be patient. There’s something to learn here, even if it’s only how to stack the wood properly, and what you learn from seeing it at this stage. Besides, it’s a thing that must be done. Who else should they put to doing it?”

  He stared at the ground while I spoke, silent but unconvinced. I took a breath. “Do you think you might do better if you lived here with the other apprentices, instead of with Jinna?”

  He met my eyes suddenly with a look full of outrage and dismay. “No! Why do you suggest such a thing?”

  “Well, because I have learned it is customary. Perhaps if you lived here, close by your work, it would be easier. Not so far to go to be on time in the morning, and—”

  “I’d go crazy if I had to live here as well as apprentice here! The other boys have told me what it is like. Every meal the same as the last one, and Gindast’s wife counts the candles, to be sure they are not burning them late at night. They must air their bedding and wash their own blankets and small clothes weekly, not to mention that he keeps them at extra chores after the day’s work is done, shoveling sawdust to mulch his wife’s rose garden and picking up scraps for the kindling heap and—”

  “It does not sound so terrible to me,” I interrupted, for I could see he was but building himself to more heat. “It sounds disciplined. Rather like what a man-at-arms goes through in his training. It wouldn’t hurt you, Hap. ”

  He flung his arms wide in an angry gesture. “It wouldn’t help me, either. If I had wanted to break heads for a living, then, yes, I’d expect to be trained like a dumb animal. But I didn’t expect my apprenticeship to be like this. ”

  “Then you’ve decided that this isn’t what you want?” I asked, and near held my breath awaiting the answer. For if he had changed his mind, I had no idea what I would do with him. I could not have
him up at Buckkeep with me, or send him back to the cabin alone.

  His answer came grudgingly. “No. I haven’t changed my mind. This is what I want. But they had better start actually teaching me something soon, or . . . ”

  I waited for him to say “or what” but his words ran out. He too had no idea what he would do if he left Gindast. I decided to take that as a positive sign. “I’m glad this is still what you want. Try to be humble, to be patient, to work well, and listen and learn. I think that if you do so, and show yourself a sharp lad, you will soon progress to more challenging tasks. And I’ll try to meet you tonight, but I dare not make any promises. Lord Golden keeps me very busy, and it’s been hard for me to get this much time free. Do you know where Three Sails Tavern is?”

  “Yes, but don’t meet me there. Come to the Stuck Pig instead. It’s very near Jinna’s. ”

  “And?” I pressed, knowing there was another reason.

  “And you can meet Svanja, too. She lives nearby, and watches for me. If she can, she joins me there. ”

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  “If she can sneak away from her home?”

  “Well . . . somewhat. Her mother doesn’t much mind, but her father hates me. ”

  “Not the best start for a courtship, Hap. What have you done to deserve his hatred?”

  “Kissed his daughter. ” Hap grinned a devil-may-care grin, and I smiled in spite of myself.

  “Well. That is a thing we will discuss this evening as well. I think you are young to begin a courtship. Better to wait until you have some solid prospects and a way to keep a wife. Perhaps then her father would not mind a stolen kiss or two. If I can get free tonight, I will meet you there. ”

  Hap seemed somewhat mollified as he waved me a farewell and went back to his stacking work. But I walked away from him with a heavier heart than I had come with. Jinna was right. Town life was changing my boy, and in ways I had not foreseen. I did not feel that he had truly listened to my counsel, let alone that he would act on it. Well. Perhaps tonight I could take a firmer line with him.

  As I walked back through the town, the first flakes of snow began to fall. When I reached the steeper road that wound its way up to Buckkeep Castle, it began to fall thick and soft. Several times I paused and stepped aside from the road, to watch back the way I had come, but I saw no sign that anyone followed me. For the Piebalds to threaten me, and then vanish completely, made no sense. They should have either killed me or taken me hostage. I tried to put myself in their position, to imagine a reason to leave your prey walking freely about. I could think of nothing. By the time I reached the gates of the keep, there was a thick carpet of snow on the road, and the wind had begun to whistle in the treetops. The weather brought an early darkness. It was going to be a foul night. I would be glad to spend it inside.

  I stamped the clinging wet snow from my feet outside the entrance to the hall that went past the kitchens and the guardroom. I smelled hot beef soup and fresh bread and wet wool as I went past the guardroom. I was tired and wished I could enter and share their simple food and rough jokes and casual manners. Instead I straightened my shoulders and hastened past and up to Lord Golden’s chambers. He was not there, and I recalled he said he might be gaming with the Queen’s favored. I supposed I should seek him there. I went into my chamber to be rid of my damp cloak and found a scrap of parchment on my bed. There was a single word on it. “Up. ”

  A few moments later, I emerged in Chade’s tower chamber. There was no one there. But on my chair waited a set of warm clothing, and a green cloak of heavy wool with an overlarge hood. The outside bore the otter badge, unfamiliar to me. An unusual feature of the cloak was that it reversed to plain homespun, in servant blue. Beside it was a leather travel bag with food and a flask of brandy in it. Beneath it, folded flat, was a leather scroll case. This heap of gear was topped with a note in Chade’s hand. “Heffam’s troop rides out on highway patrol tonight from the north gate at sunset. Join them and then divert to your own goal. I hope you will not mind missing the Harvest Fest. Return as swiftly as possible, please. ”

  I snorted at myself. Harvest Fest. I had so looked forward to it as a boy. Now I had not even recalled that it was nigh. Doubtless the Prince’s betrothal ceremony had been intentionally scheduled to precede Buckkeep’s celebration of plenty. Well, I had missed it for the last fifteen years. Once more would not bother me.

  On the end of the worktable was a hearty meal of cold meat, cheese, bread, and ale. I decided to trust that Chade had arranged my disappearance from Lord Golden’s service. I had no time to seek him out and relay the information, nor did I feel comfortable leaving him a note of any kind. I thought regretfully of my delayed-again meeting with Hap, and decided that I’d already warned him I might not be there. And the sudden opportunity to take some action on my own appealed mightily to me. I wanted to banish the hanging suspicion that the Piebalds had located my den. Even to discover that they had would be better than wondering fearfully.

  I ate, and changed clothes. By the time the sun was setting, I was mounted on Myblack and approaching the north gate. My hood was pulled well forward to exclude the biting wind and blinding snow. Other anonymous green-cloaked riders were gathering there, some complaining bitterly about drawing road patrol while the betrothal festivities and harvest celebration were at their height. I drew closer and then nodded silent commiseration to one talkative fellow who was regaling the night with his woes. He began a long tale of a woman, the warmest and most willing woman imaginable, who would wait in vain for him at a Buckkeep Town tavern tonight. I was content to sit my horse beside him and let him talk. Others congregated about us. In the gathering dark and swirling snow, indistinct riders huddled in their cloaks and hoods. Scarves and darkness swathed our faces.

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  The sun was down and the night dark before Heffam appeared. He seemed as disgruntled as his men, and announced brusquely that we’d ride swiftly to First Ford, relieve the guard there tonight, and begin our regular tour of patrol of the highways in the morning. His men seemed very familiar with this duty. We fell in behind him in two ragged lines. I took care to take a place well to the back. Then he led us out of the gate and into the night and storm. For a time, our road led us steeply downward. Then we turned and took the river road that would lead us east along the Buck River.

  When we had left the lights of Buckkeep far behind us, I began to hold Myblack in. She was not pleased with the weather or the dark, and was just as glad to go more slowly. At one point I pulled her in completely and dismounted on the pretext of tightening a cinch. The patrol rode on without me into the cloaking storm. I mounted again and rejoined it, now the last man of the troop. As we traveled, I held my horse back, letting the distance between us and the rest of the troop gradually lengthen. When at last a bend in the road took them out of sight, I pulled Myblack to a halt. I dismounted and again began to fuss with saddle straps. I waited, hoping that my absence would go unnoticed in the foul weather. When no one returned to see why I tarried, I turned my cloak, remounted Myblack, and headed her back the way we had come.

  As Chade had bid me, I hastened, yet there were inevitable delays. I had to wait for the dawn ferry across the Buck River, and then the winds of the storm and the ice that coated the lines and the decks slowed our loading and passage. On the other side, I discovered that the road was wider and better tended, as well as more traveled, than I recalled. A prosperous little market town clustered alongside it, the taverns and houses built on pilings to be beyond the reach of both ordinary and storm tides. By midday I had left it far behind.

  My journey back to my home was uneventful in the ordinary sense. I rested several times in smaller, nondescript inns along the way. At only one was my night’s rest disturbed. At first the dream was peaceful. A warm fireside, the sounds of a family at their evening tasks.

  “Umph. Off my lap, girl. You’re far too big to sit on me now. ”

  “I’ll never be too big for my papa’s lap. ” There was laughter in her voice. “What are you making?”

  “I’m mending your mother’s shoe. Or trying to. Here. Thread this for me. The firelight makes the needle’s eye dance until I cannot find it. Younger eyes will do better. ”

  And that was what had awakened me. A sudden wash of dismay that Papa was admitting his sight was failing. I tried not to think of that as I fell back into a guarded sleep.

  No one seemed to remark my passage. I had time with Myblack to improve her manners; we tested each other’s wills in any number of small ways. The weather continued foul. The nights were blowing snow and sleet. When the storm did let up briefly during the day, the watery sun only melted enough snow to turn the roads into mud and slush that became dirty treacherous ice by the next morning. It was not pleasant traveling weather.

  Yet part of the cold that assailed me through this journey had nothing to do with the weather. No wolf ranged ahead of me to see if the road was clear or circled back to see if we were followed. My own senses and my own sword were all I could rely on for protection. I felt naked and incomplete.

  The sun broke through the clouds on the afternoon when I reached the lane to my cabin. The snow had paused, and the day’s brief warmth was turning the most recent fall into heavy wet mush. Irregular thumps from the forest were the sounds of trees dropping their heaped burdens. The lane to my cottage was smooth and undisturbed save with rabbit tracks and pits from fallen snow loads. I doubted that any had passed here since the snow had begun falling. That was reassuring.

  Yet when I reached my cabin, all of my uneasiness returned. It was obvious that someone had been here, and recently. The door stood open. Uneven lumps beneath the snow were the rounded shapes of furniture and possessions thrown out into the yard in a heap. Fragments of vellum thrust up from the snow that here was trampled and uneven beneath the smoothness of the most recent fall. The pole fence around the kitchen garden had been torn down, as had Jinna’s charm on its post. I sat my horse a time in silence, trying to be impassive as my eyes and ears gathered information. Then I dismounted silently and approached the cabin.

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