Golden fool, p.18
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       Golden Fool, p.18

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  No one was inside. It was cold and dark. It reminded me of something, and then a prickling of foreboding helped me seize the memory; it reminded me of when I had returned to a cabin that had been raided by Forged Ones. The failing daylight showed me the muddy tracks of a pig’s trotters on the floor. Several curious animals had investigated the cabin. There were muddy boot tracks as well, a crisscrossing passage that indicated someone had made many trips in and out.

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  Everything portable and useful had been taken. The blankets from the beds, the smoked and preserved foods from the rafters, the pots from the cooking hearth; all were gone. Some scrolls had been used to kindle a fire in the hearth. Someone had eaten here, probably enjoying the supplies Hap and I had laid in for the winter. There was a scatter of fish bones still on the hearth. I felt I knew who had come here. The pig tracks were my best clue.

  My desk still remained; my unlettered neighbor would have little use for a writing desk. In my little study, inkpots had been overset, scrolls opened and then tossed aside. This gave me concern. In the current disorder, it was impossible for me to tell if any scrolls had been carried off. I could not tell if Piebalds had scavenged here as well as my pigkeeper neighbor. Verity’s map still hung crookedly on the wall; I was shocked at how my heart leapt with relief to find it intact. I had not realized I valued it so. I took it down and rolled it up, carrying it about with me as I explored the plundering of my home. I forced myself to make a careful survey of each room, and the stable and chicken house as well, before I allowed myself to gather what I would take away with me.

  The small store of grain and all the tools had been taken from the stable shed. My workshed was a jumble of rejected plunder. It seemed unlikely that was the work of Piebalds. My suspicion of an unpleasant neighbor who lived in the next valley was all but certain now. He kept pigs, and had once accused me of stealing piglets from him. When I had so hastily left here, I had directed Hap to take our chickens to the man, not out of kindness to the neighbor but knowing that he would feed and keep them for the sake of the eggs. That had seemed a better course than letting predators slaughter them. But, of course, it would have let him know that we expected to be gone for an extended period. I stood with my fists clenched, looking about the small stable. I doubted that I would ever return here. Even if the tools had been here still, I would have left without them. What use had I now for a mattock or a hoe? But the theft was a violation that was hard to ignore. I ached for revenge even as I told myself that I had no time for it, that the thief had perhaps done me a favor in ransacking my home before Piebalds could.

  I put Myblack in the stable and gave her what poor hay had been left. I hauled a bucket of water for her as well. Then I began my salvage and destruction.

  The heap of possessions under the snow proved to be a bedstead, my table and chairs, and several shelves. Probably he intended to come back with a cart for them. I’d burn them. I knocked some of the snow from the heap, gazed regretfully on the charging buck that the Fool had carved into my table for me, and then went into the cabin for tinder to start the fire. The straw-stuffed mattress from my bed, discarded inside, worked admirably. In a very short time, I had a nice blaze going.

  I tried to be methodical. While daylight served me, I painstakingly gathered every scattered scroll that had been flung into the yard. Some were hopelessly ruined with damp, others torn and trampled with muddy hooves, and some were no more than fragments. Mindful of Chade’s words, some I tried to smooth and roll up, even when they were but fragments, but most I ruthlessly consigned to the fire. I kicked through the snow until I was as certain as I could possibly be that no writing of mine remained in the yard.

  Dusk was deep by then. Inside the cabin, I kindled a fire in the hearth, for light as well as heat. I began on the inside of the cabin. Most of my possessions went straight into the fire. Old work clothes, my writing tools, my bootjack, and other clutter and possessions burned in the hearth. I was kinder to Hap’s things, knowing that a spinning top, long outgrown as a plaything, could still have meaning to him. I made a sack of an old cloak and filled it with those sorts of items. Then I sat down by the flames and painstakingly went through the scrolls from my rack. There were far more of them than I had expected, and far more than I could have carried back with me.

  I chose first to save those I had not written myself. Verity’s map went into the case, of course, and was soon joined by scrolls I had acquired in my travels and some brought to me by Starling. A few of these were quite old and rare. I was grateful to find them intact and resolved to make copies of them when I returned to Buckkeep. But aside from those, my culling was fierce. Nothing that was the work of my pen was immune to my scrutiny. Scrolls of herbal knowledge with my meticulous illustrations fed the fire. That information was still in my head; if it was that important, I could write it down again. I kept only a few of those. Into the bag, against my better judgment, went those scrolls that dealt not only with my time in the mountains, but with my personal musings on my own life. A swift perusal of some of those left my cheeks burning. Juvenile and mawkish, self-pitying and full of grand assumptions about my own significance and declarations of things that I would never do again were these treatises. I wondered who I had been when I wrote them.

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  My writing on the Skill and the Wit went into the case, as did my lengthy account of our journey through the Mountain Kingdom and into the realm of the Elderlings and the rise of Verity-as-Dragon. My attempts at poetry about Molly went into the flames, to burn in a final burst of passion. Writing I had done to help Hap learn his letters and numbers went after them. I winnowed my writings, and still there were too many. They underwent a second, harsher culling, and finally the scroll case would close.

  Then I stood, closed my eyes, and tried to think: were there any still unaccounted for? I told myself it was a hopeless task. Some scrolls I had had the sense to destroy within days of writing them. Others I had given Starling to carry back to Chade. I could not decide if any were missing. Let any man try to recall all he might have written down over fifteen years of his life, and there would doubtless be some gaps. Had I ever committed to paper an account of my time with Black Rolf and the Old Bloods? I was sure I had written of those months, but had they been in a separate scroll, or was I recalling bits that had interjected themselves into other writings? I wasn’t sure. And I could not know what scrolls the pigkeeper had used to kindle his cookfire. I sighed. Surrender it. I had done as much as I could. In the future, I would be far more careful of what I entrusted to letters.

  I went back out into the yard, and flipped the ends of the burning furniture into the fire. The rising wind and falling snow would soon smother it, but the charging buck was scorched to obliteration. The rest of it little mattered. I walked again through the little cabin that had been my home for so many years. I had left intact no personal article of my own. My presence here was erased. I thought of burning the cabin itself, and decided against it. It had stood here before I had come; let it still stand after I was gone. Perhaps some other needy man might come to make use of it.

  I saddled Myblack again and led her out of the paddock. I loaded onto her the scroll case and Hap’s bundled possessions. The last items I included were two tightly stoppered pots, one of ground elfbark and the other of carryme. Then I mounted and rode away from that piece of my life. The fire of my burning past sent odd shadows snaking ahead of us as we made our way into the storm’s resurgence.

  Chapter VII

  LESSONS

  In this manner are the best coteries formed. Let the Skillmaster assemble together those he would train. Let them be at least six in number, though a greater number is preferable if sufficient students are available. Let the Skillmaster bring them together daily, not just for lessons, but for meals and amusements, and even to a shared sleeping chamber, if he judge that will not be a cause for distraction and riva
lries amongst them. Give them time together, let them form their own bonds, and at the end of the year, the coterie will have formed itself. Those who have not formed bonds, let them serve the King as Solos.

  It may be difficult for some Skillmasters to restrain themselves from directing the formation of a coterie. It is tempting to put the best with the best, and dismiss those who seem slow or difficult of temperament. The wisest Skillmaster will refrain from this, for only a coterie can know what strengths it will take from each member. He who seems dull may provide steadiness and temper impulse with caution. The difficult member can also be the one who displays flashes of inspiration. Let each coterie find its own membership, and choose its own leader.

  — TREEKNEE’S TRANSLATION OF SKILLMASTER OKLEF’S “COTERIES”

  “Where have you been?” Dutiful demanded as he strode into the tower room. He shut the door firmly behind himself and then came to the middle of the room, his arms crossed on his chest. I stood up slowly from Verity’s chair. I had been watching the white tips of the waves. There was impatience and annoyance in my prince’s voice and a scowl on his face. It did not seem the most auspicious beginning to our relationship as tutor and student. I took a breath. A light hand, first. I spoke in a pleasant, neutral voice.

  “Good morning, Prince Dutiful. ”

  Just as a young colt might, he bridled. Then, I watched him gather himself. He took a breath and visibly began anew. “Good morning, Tom Badgerlock. It has been some time since I last saw you. ”

  “Important business of my own took me away from Buckkeep for a time. It is settled now, and I fully expect that the rest of this winter, most of my time will be at your disposal. ”

  “Thank you. ” Then, as if the last of his annoyance had to find vent somewhere, “I do not suppose I can ask more than that of you. ”

  I suppressed a smile and told him, “You could. But you would not get it. ”

  And then Verity’s smile broke on the boy’s face and he exclaimed, “Where did you come from? No one else in this keep would dare speak to me so. ”

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  I purposely misunderstood his question. “I had to spend a bit of time at my old home, packing up or disposing of my possessions. I hate to leave loose ends. It’s settled now. I’m here at Buckkeep, and I’m to teach you. So. Where shall we begin?”

  The question seemed to unnerve him. He glanced around the room. Chade had added furnishings and clutter to the Seawatch tower since Verity had manned it as his Skill outpost against the Red Ship raiders. This morning I had made my own contribution, in the form of Verity’s map of the Six Duchies newly hung on the wall. In the center of the room there was a large table of dark heavy wood. Four massive chairs crouched around it. I pitied whatever men had had to haul all that up the narrow, winding steps. Against one of the curved tower walls there was a scroll rack stuffed with scrolls. I knew that Chade would claim they were in perfect order, but I had never been able to understand the logic behind how he grouped his scrolls. There were also several trunks, securely locked, that held a selection of Skillmistress Solicity’s scrolls on the Skill. Both Chade and I had judged them too dangerous to be left where the curious might paw through them. Even now, a man stood watch at the bottom of the tower steps. Access to this room was limited to Councilor Chade and the Prince and Queen. We would not chance losing control of this library again.

  Long years ago, when Skillmistress Solicity had died, all these scrolls had passed into the control of Galen, her apprentice. He had claimed her post as Skillmaster, even though his training had been incomplete. He had supposedly “completed” the training of both Prince Chivalry and Prince Verity, but Chade and I suspected that he had deliberately truncated their education in the Skill. Thereafter, he had trained no others, until the time when King Shrewd had demanded that he create a coterie. And during all Galen’s time as Skillmaster, access to those scrolls had been denied to all. Eventually, he disputed that such a library had ever even existed. When he died, no trace of them had been found.

  Somehow, possession of them had been passed to Regal the Pretender. Eventually, with Regal’s death, they were recovered and had been returned to the Queen and thence into Chade’s safekeeping. Both Chade and I suspected that once the library had been substantially larger. Chade had advanced the theory that many of the choicest scrolls that had to do with Skill, dragons, and Elderlings had been sold off to Out Island traders in the early days of the Red Ship raids. Certainly neither Regal nor Galen had felt any great loyalty to the Coastal Duchies that suffered from the raiders. Perhaps they would not have scrupled to traffic with our tormentors, or their go-betweens. The scrolls would undoubtedly have brought a good sum of coin into Regal’s hands. At a time when the Six Duchies treasury had come close to being depleted, Regal had never seemed to lack money with which to entertain himself and court the loyalty of the Inland dukes. And the Red Ship raiders had gained their knowledge of the Skill and the possible uses of the black Skill stone from somewhere. It was even possible that somewhere, in one of those straying scrolls, they had found the knowledge of how to Forge folk. But it was not likely that Chade or I would ever be able to prove it.

  The Prince’s voice pulled my straying attention back to the present. “I thought you would have planned it all out. Where to begin and all. ” The uncertainty in the boy’s voice was wrenching. I longed to reassure him, but decided to be honest with him instead.

  “Pull up a chair and join me here,” I suggested to him. I resumed Verity’s old seat.

  For a moment he stared at me as if puzzled. Then he crossed the room, seized one of the heavy chairs, and lugged it over to place it beside mine. I said nothing as he sat in it. I had not forgotten our relative ranks, but I had already decided that within this room, I would treat him as my student rather than my prince. For an instant I hesitated, wondering if my candid words might not undermine my authority over him. Then I took a breath and spoke them.

  “My prince, roughly a score of years ago, I sat in this room on the floor by your father’s feet. He sat here, in this chair, and he looked out over the water and Skilled. He used his talents mercilessly, against both the enemy and the health of his own body. From here, he used the strength of his mind to reach out, to find Red Ships and their crews before they could touch our shores, and confound them. He made the sea and the weather our ally against them, confusing navigators to send the enemy ships onto rocks, or persuading captains to a false confidence that bid them steer straight into storms.

  “I am sure that you have heard of Skillmaster Galen. He was supposed to create and train a Skill coterie, a unified group of Skill-users who would provide their strength and talent to aid King-in-Waiting Verity against the Red Ships. Well, he did create a coterie, but they were false, their loyalty bound to Regal, Verity’s ambitious younger brother. Instead of aiding your father’s efforts, they hindered him. They delayed messages, or failed to deliver them at all. They made your father look incompetent. For the sake of breaking the loyalty of his dukes to him, they delivered our people into the hands of the raiders, to be killed or Forged. ”

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  The Prince’s eyes were locked on to my face. I could not meet his earnest gaze. I stared past him, out the tall windows and over the gray and billowing sea. Then I steeled myself and trod the precipice path between deadly truth and cowardly falsehood. “I was one of Galen’s students. Because of my illegitimate birth, he despised me. I learned what I could from him, but he was a cruel and unjust master to me, driving me away from the knowledge he did not wish to share with me. Under his brutal tutelage, I learned the basics of Skilling, but no more than that. I could not predictably master my talent, and so I failed. He sent me away with the other students who did not meet his standards.

  “I continued to work as a servant here in the keep. When your father labored most heavily here, he had his meals brought up to him; that was my task. And it
was here that we discovered, most providentially, that even though I could not Skill on my own, he could draw Skill strength from me. And later, in the brief times he was able to give me, he taught me what he could of Skilling. ”

  I turned to face Dutiful and waited. His dark eyes probed mine. “When he left on his quest, did you go with him?”

  I shook my head and answered truthfully. “No. I was young and he forbade it. ”

  “And you didn’t try to follow him later?” He was incredulous, his imagination fired with what he was sure he would himself have done in my place.

  It was hard to say the next words. “No one knew where he had gone, or by what paths. ” I held my breath, hoping that would still his questions. I didn’t want to lie to him.

  He turned away from me and looked out over the sea. He was disappointed in me. “I wonder how different things might have been if you had gone with him. ”

  I had often told myself that if I had, Queen Kettricken would never have survived Regal’s reign at Buckkeep. But I said, “I’ve often pondered that question myself, my prince. But there is no knowing what might have happened. I might have helped him, but looking back on those days, I think it just as likely I would have been a hindrance to him. I was very young, quick-tempered, and impetuous. ” I took a breath and steered the conversation as I wished it to go. “I tell you these things to be sure you understand well that I am no Skillmaster. I have not studied all those scrolls . . . I have read only a few of them. So. In a sense we are both students here. I will do my best to educate myself from the scrolls, even as I teach you the basics of what I know. It is a hazardous path that we will tread together. Do you understand this?”

  “I understand. And of the Wit?”

  I had not wanted to discuss that today. “Well. I came to my Wit magic much as you did yours, stumbling into it by chance when I bonded with a puppy. I was a man grown before I met anyone who tried to put my random knowledge of my magic into a coherent framework. Again, time was my enemy. I learned much from him, but not all there was to know . . . far short of that, to be truthful. So, again, I will teach you what I know. But you will be learning from a flawed instructor. ”

 
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