Golden fool, p.54
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       Golden Fool, p.54

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  The house was well constructed, the gaps in the walls well chinked, and the windows tightly shuttered against night’s chill. I could not see in, but the sound of raised voices leaked out to me. I could not make out the words. I crouched in the deep shadows between the buildings and pressed my ear tightly to the wall. I listened.

  “Why were you so stupid as to come here? You were told never to come to me, never to seek any contact at all. ” Laudwine’s voice was deep with anger.

  “I came to tell you that our agreement is over. ” I thought I recognized Civil’s voice, but it was shrill with fear.

  “Do you think so?” This was Laudwine again, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck at the threat in his tone.

  Civil made a low-voiced reply. He must have been defiant, for Laudwine laughed and said, “Well, you think wrong. I will tell you when our agreement is over. And when our agreement is over, it will be because you have ceased to be useful to me. And you will know when you have ceased to be useful to me, because you will cease to be alive. Do you take my hint, Civil Bresinga? Be useful, boy. For your mother’s sake, if not for your own. What tidbits do you have for me?”

  “For my mother’s sake, I have nothing for you. Nor ever will again. ” Civil’s voice shook with both fear and determination.

  Laudwine was a direct man, as I well recalled. He seemed to have learned to use his left hand well. I heard Civil’s body hit the wall. Then he asked, pleasantly, “And why is that, boy?”

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  There was no answer. I wondered if he had killed the lad with one blow. “Pick him up,” Laudwine ordered someone. I heard the sound of a chair dragged across the floor, probably to receive Civil. A moment later, Laudwine continued, “I asked you a question, boy. Why are you suddenly turning traitor on me?”

  Civil’s voice was muffled. He’d probably been hit in the mouth or jaw. “Not a traitor. Don’t owe you anything. ”

  “Don’t you?” Laudwine laughed. “Your mother is still alive. Don’t you owe me for that? You are still alive. Doesn’t she owe me for that? Don’t be a fool, lad. Do you believe the Mountain Queen’s false promises? That she wants to listen to us, to make things better for us? Faugh! She wants to lure us in, like rats coming to poisoned grain. You think I’m a threat to you, that I could end your lives by betraying you. And so I could. But only if you betray me first. For now, I hold you in the palm of my hand, and I protect you. I am far more reasonable to deal with than some of the Piebalds that follow me. Be grateful that I keep them reined in. So let’s have no more foolishness. You and I, we share too much to oppose one another. ” His tone changed to one of genial inquiry. “What brought this on, anyway?”

  Civil hissed out an accusation I could not hear.

  Laudwine laughed. “So. She is a woman, boy, and one of our own. I know it’s hard for a lad to think of his own mother as a woman, but so she is, and a comely one as well. She should take it as a compliment, and as a reminder. She has lived too long apart from us, denying what she was, consorting with ‘the nobility’ as if they, or she, were better than we are. It’s going to come full circle, Bresinga. Consider yourselves fortunate that we accepted you as part of us again. For when we come to power, those of Old Blood who have denied their magic and turned their backs on their kin and even betrayed us to the Farseer filth . . . all of them will die. They’ll die in their own King’s Circle, just as that bastard Regal killed so many of us. And for what? Why did so many of our parents and their animal partners die in those circles? For the sake of creating a Witted turncoat, one that would hunt down the Witted Bastard for him. Full time and past due that the Farseers paid for that. ”

  And, ear pressed against the cold wood, I knew a familiar sickness in my bones as I crouched in the gathering cold and dark of the night. Ah yes. Once again the Farseers’ past had returned to haunt us. For what Laudwine spoke was true. Regal had so hated and feared me that he had decided the only way to bring me down was to find one of the Witted who would help him. Many a man and woman died under Regal’s torture before he found one who would hunt Old Blood for him. The painful scar in the center of my back came from that man’s arrow. Yet what I had always thought of as Regal’s wrongdoing against the Witted would still be toted up against the Farseer family account.

  Civil’s voice was low but clear as he said, “She does not take it ‘as a compliment’ but as insult and assault most vile. You have forced me to live in Buckkeep, to spy for you here, leaving her alone and vulnerable. You have driven from her side every trusted servant and true friend she has ever known. And now your folk have dishonored her, all in the name of taking her back into your ‘piebald’ legacy. Well, she does not want it, and neither do I. If this is what you mean when you speak of the fellowship of Old Blood, then I’d rather not be one of you. ”

  Laudwine’s voice was almost lazy as he said, “Well, boy, either you are foolish or you do not listen well. Answer me this. What are you if you are not one of us?”

  “Free,” Civil snarled.

  “Wrong. Dead. Kill him, Padget. ”

  It was a bluff. I was sure it was a bluff, but I was also certain that Civil would believe it. They would terrorize him back into obedience. Nor did I have any compelling reason to protect him from them, regardless of whether they only beat him or killed him. Save, perhaps, that he was a boy, coerced and cornered by circumstance. So it was that my belly was cold and my teeth gritted against what must next befall him.

  Then the Skill onslaught from Dutiful nearly dropped me to my knees. Find Civil Bresinga. He is in great danger. Please, Tom, go now. I think he’s down in Buckkeep Town. The Prince sent the urgent demand out like a flood. Somewhere, I was dimly aware that Thick’s music stopped in astonishment.

  I found my wits and channeled a thought back to him. I am not far from him. He is in danger, but it is not as great as you think. How did you know?

  An agonized outpouring of thought trampled my brain. His cat told me. Civil brought him to me tied in a sack and asked me to keep him in my room and not let him out, no matter what. That was the favor he wanted earlier. He said he had to do something where he could not take the cat along. Tom, don’t wait. The cat says the danger is real, very real. They’ll kill him.

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  I’ll protect him. I made the promise and then slammed my Skill walls up to keep him out. Then I was off and running, circling the small house. Odd, how one’s perceptions change in an instant. Civil had gone into this confrontation expecting to die. He had planned it. That was why he had taken his Wit-beast to Dutiful, to save the small cat’s life lest he go down fighting for his partner. My ugly sword was in my hand as I shouldered the cottage door open. A man went down, his entrails spilling out between his fingers. He had not been armed or threatening me, merely in my way. I blocked against the rebounding pain of his injury as I charged into the room.

  In a single glance, I knew Civil was right. Laudwine sat at the table, a glass of wine before him, watching Padget strangle the boy. Padget was enjoying it. He was a powerful enough man to have made a quick end of the boy if he had so desired. Instead he gripped Civil’s throat from behind him, and held the boy off the ground, feet kicking, as he slowly squeezed. Civil’s face was bright red, his eyes standing out, as his fingernails tore hopelessly at Padget’s leather-bound forearms. A nasty little dog, a shorthaired feist of some kind, was jigging merrily around them, snapping at Civil’s dangling feet. The sight woke the red rage of battle in me. In an instant, I felt my chest swell with it and heard the thunder of my own heart. All other considerations fled. I’d kill them both.

  Laudwine had been leaning back in his chair, watching the performance, when I made my abrupt entrance. With no panic in his voice, he ordered Padget tersely to “Finish him,” and rose, drawing a short sword in one smooth motion to meet my attack. Then he recognized me and his face changed. From the corner of my eye, I saw Padge
t’s fingers clamp in the flesh of the boy’s throat.

  I could have deflected Laudwine’s sword-lunge or saved Civil’s life, but not both. The table was between Civil and me. I took a running stride, pushed off, and landed on top of the table on one knee. I shoved my bloodied blade past Civil and deep into Padget’s chest. Simultaneously, I felt the bite of Laudwine’s sword. It went into the muscles on the right side of my back between my hip and my ribs. I screamed and rolled away from it, tearing my flesh from his blade. I struck back at him, but there was no strength to my blow. I wallowed off the table, my right leg folding under me. It was fortuitous, for it meant that Laudwine’s follow-up thrust was high and missed me. I took breath and shrieked, “Run!” at Civil. The boy had folded bonelessly to the floor when Padget let go of him to clutch at his chest. Civil still sprawled there, clutching at his neck and whistling frantic breaths into his lungs. Padget had gone to his knees, clutching at the flow of bright blood from his chest while his Wit-beast yipped brainlessly around him.

  Laudwine towered over me as he stepped around the table, sword in his left hand. I rolled under the table, yelping when my injury hit the floor. On the other side, I scrabbled to my feet. The table was between us, but Laudwine was a tall man and had a long reach even with the short sword. I leaned back to avoid the first pass of his blade. “I’m going to kill you, you traitor bastard,” he promised with savage satisfaction.

  The words woke the wolf in me. The pain was not banished; it simply became unimportant. Kill first; lick your wounds later. And make your snarl larger than his. “I won’t kill you,” I promised pleasantly. “I’m just going to lop off your other hand and let you live. ” The look of horror that flickered through his eyes told me that my words had bitten to the bone. I caught the edge of the table and flipped it up on end, then shoved it into him. The tabletop leaned against him and I slammed against it. He stumbled backward over something, Padget or his yapping Wit-dog. He would have to drop his sword to break his fall. Foolishly, though, he held on to it as he went down. I pressed my advantage, shoving the table onto him so that his legs were trapped under it as he fell. On his back, with Padget’s body under his, he swung his sword at me, but the cut had no strength behind it. I avoided it and his backslash, then I jumped on top of the table and pinned him to the floor with it. With a two-handed grip, I shoved my sword down into his chest. He screamed, and I heard the battle scream of a warhorse echo him. The sword slipped and then twisted as I leaned my body weight on it, sliding it between his ribs and into his vitals. He was still yelling, so I pulled it out and stabbed him again. This time I put it in his throat.

  Outside in the street, I heard people shouting questions and something like distant thunder. A horse neighed furiously. Someone cried out, “That horse has gone crazy!” and someone else yelled, “Call the City Guard!” From the sounds, I decided that Laudwine’s horse was kicking the wall out of the shed in an attempt to get loose and reach Laudwine’s side. He was dying on the floor, his heart still pumping his life’s blood out of his throat, his eyes still full of fury and fear. I had a sudden flash of insight. I turned to Civil. “No time to help you. Get up and get out, through the back. Avoid the guard and get back to Buckkeep. Tell Dutiful everything. Everything, you understand?”

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  The boy’s eyes were wide and running tears, but whether that was fear, shock, or his recent strangulation, I could not tell. Padget’s feist came after me as I headed toward the door. I steeled my heart, turned, and crushed the little animal with a stomp of my foot. It yelped sharply and was still. Did Padget depart with its death? I wasn’t sure. But as I staggered into the street, I saw Laudwine’s warhorse lunge against the framework of the shed that entrapped it. Across the narrow street, the goatherd’s children were clustered in his open doorway, staring. The horse’s huge shod hooves had splintered the planks in his fury to escape. It had weakened the structure of the old shed, so that it was now collapsing sideways around him, actually making it more difficult for the horse to fight his way through the wall.

  But he wasn’t just a horse. Not anymore. My Wit-sense of him was confusing, a sensation of both man and horse embodied in one. I saw the stallion pull back from the opening he had made and suddenly appraise his situation with a man’s intelligence. I couldn’t give him time to figure out an escape. I ignored the people gawking in the street and ran toward the horse, yelling wordlessly. The warhorse tried to rear up and bring his deadly front hooves into use, but the shed was low-roofed, never intended to stable an animal of that size. The action only exposed his chest and I braced the hilt of my weapon against my own chest as I thrust it into him and rammed it as deep as I could make it go.

  The animal screamed and a wash of Wit-fury and hatred near breached my walls, repelling me. I was flung backward, leaving my blade trapped in his chest. He surged forward against the splintered walls, screaming his fury. But for the shed entrapping him, I know he would have killed me before he died. As it was, he finally collapsed, blood coursing from his mouth and nostrils as the City Guard arrived. Their torches streamed in the winter night and sent confusing shadows leaping over me like springing wolves.

  “What’s going on here?” the sergeant demanded, and then as we recognized one another, he snarled, “This is the second time you’ve caused trouble in my streets. I don’t like it. ”

  I tried to think of an explanation, but my right leg abruptly folded under me. I collapsed into the trampled snow. “There’s two dead in here!” someone shouted. I rolled my head to see a white-faced girl in a guard’s uniform emerge from Laudwine’s cottage. I blinked my eyes and then strained to see through the darkened streets. Civil’s horse had gone. It had either bolted, or the boy had made his escape. I tried to move, and was suddenly aware of the hot, wet flow of blood down my side. I clutched at my injury.

  “Get up!” the sergeant barked at me.

  “I can’t,” I managed to gasp. I lifted my hands and showed him the blood on them. “I’m hurt. ”

  He shook his head in angry frustration, and I knew he longed to add to my injuries. He was a man who took his duties personally. “What happened here?”

  I gasped for breath, and blessed the goatherd’s son who ran barefoot out of his door, shouting confusedly that the horse went crazy and tried to kick his way out of the shed and then I came out and killed it. The snow grew wet and warm under my back and I felt the night closing in from the edges of my vision.

  Tom? The Prince’s frantic Skill trickled through my crumbling walls. Tom, are you hurt?

  Go away!

  The sergeant leaned over me, demanding, “What went on in there?”

  I couldn’t think of a lie. I told the truth. “The horse went crazy. I had to kill it. ”

  “Yes, we know that. But what happened to the men in the house?”

  Tom? Are you hurt?

  I tried to Skill back to the Prince, but pain was running over me in pounding waves now. I tried to move away from it, but a great spike of it nailed me down to the snowy street. A crowd was gathering around us. I scanned their faces, looking in vain for someone who would help me. They all just stared, eyes and mouths wide as they pointed and shouted explanations to one another. Then I glimpsed a face I did know. For just an instant, she stepped closer to me, and the look on her face seemed genuinely concerned. Henja, the Narcheska’s servant, scowled down at me. Then, as my eyes met hers, she turned away suddenly from me and melted back into the crowd.

  Tell Chade! Henja’s still here, she’s here in Buckkeep Town. For an instant I knew how important that was. It was essential that Chade know it. Then pain washed all other concerns away from me. I was dying.

  Stop. Make it stop. You’re ruining the music. Thick’s distress pounded me like surf on a beach.

  “Answer me!”

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  No lies left, no truth left. I looked up at the sergeant and tried to sp
eak. Then I was slipping, sliding away from them all into the dark. Keep watch, Nighteyes, I begged him, but there was no answer and no wolf stood over me.

  Chapter XX

  COTERIE

  The people of the Six Duchies have always been an independent folk. The very fact that the kingdom remains divided into six separate duchies, all loyal to the Farseer monarchy but presided over by their own nobles, speaks to that autonomous spirit. Each duchy represents the separate annexation of a piece of territory, usually by warfare. In many instances, the Farseer conqueror was wise enough to leave some of the indigenous nobility in place. This is particularly true of both Farrow and Bearns. An advantage to this system is that laws are adapted to the particular situation of each duchy, as well as to the long-standing custom of the inhabitants. One example of this concession to self-rule is that the larger cities and towns frequently have not only their own city guards to keep order, but finance this militia by a system of taxes on commerce and punitive fines on lawbreakers.

  — FEDWREN, “SIX DUCHIES GOVERNANCE”

  Tom.

  Tom.

  Tom.

  At first it didn’t bother me. I was down so deep that the sea itself could not reach me. All was dark and as long as I stayed still, the pain couldn’t find me. Then the word crept slowly into the forefront of my mind. It was like a hammer thudding dully in my skull.

  Not Tom, I told it in annoyance. Go away.

  Not Tom? And the avid interest in Dutiful’s thought pushed me to the edge of wakefulness. Reflexively I slammed up my walls against the boy’s curiosity. An instant later, extreme discomfort drained away all my will and strength for Skilling. I was lying on my belly on what was supposed to be a straw mattress. There wasn’t enough straw in it to matter. The cold of the stone floor seeped up through it. I was stiff and cold everywhere except on the small of my back. That burned. And when I tried to move, the pain savaged me. I groaned weakly and heard the scuff of footsteps.

  “You awake?”

  I moved a hand vaguely and opened my eyes to slits. Even the dim light seemed like an assault. I peered at the man above me. A short man, dressed in scruffy clothes with his hair wild about his face, stared down at me. His nose and cheeks were the red of the perpetual drinker.

 
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