Golden fool, p.55
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       Golden Fool, p.55

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “Healer sewed you up. He said to tell you, don’t move any more than you have to. ” I grunted an assent and the man grinned and said, “Hardly needed to tell you that, right?”

  I grunted again. Now that I was fully awake, the extent of my pain was making itself known. I wondered what my situation was, but my mouth was too dry to speak. The chatty fellow seemed affable; perhaps he was the healer’s assistant? I moved my mouth and, when I could, took a deep breath and croaked out, “Water?”

  “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. He went to the door. I followed him with my eyes. I now noticed the small window in the stout door was barred. He shouted through it, “Hey! The hurt fellow is awake. He wants water!”

  If anyone replied, I didn’t hear. He came away from the window and sat down on a stool beside my pallet. I was gradually becoming more aware of my surroundings. Stone walls. A pot in the corner. A scattering of straw on the floor. Aha. My friend was my fellow prisoner. Before I could follow that thought any further, he began talking again. “Well. You killed three men and a horse, eh? Pretty good fight, I bet. Wish I could have seen it. Me, I got in a fight last night, too. But I didn’t kill no one. Got in a fight with a tall skinny guy, all scarred like the Pocked Man. Wasn’t no fault of mine. I was talking, perhaps a bit loud, and you know what he said to me? He said, ‘Shut your mouth and don’t say nothing. That’s always the best advice for a fellow like you. Fellow like you talks and thinks he’s explaining things, but he’s just making a mess of it. He should leave the talking to his friends. ’ Then he hit me, and I hit him back. And the guards came and arrested me and here I am, in the same fix as you. ”

  I managed to nod that I understood his message. He was one of Chade’s little birds. Chade wanted me to keep my mouth shut and wait. I wondered if he knew how badly hurt I was. I wondered if Civil had gone back to Buckkeep Castle. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t need to wonder. I let my eyes sag shut, gathered my pitiful strength, and reached out feebly. Dutiful?

  Tom! Are you all right? His Skilling wavered through my mind like words inked on wet paper. The thought ran and faded even as I tried to grip it.

  I tried to take a deep breath and center myself. Pain jabbed deep. I breathed more shallowly and reached out hesitantly. No. Laudwine stabbed me in the back, and I’m in jail. I killed him and someone named Padget. And, this is important. Tell Chade I saw Henja in the crowd. She’s still in Buckkeep Town.

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  Yes, he knows that. I told him. It was the last thing you Skilled out, that Henja was there. Why is that important?

  I pushed his question aside. I didn’t know the answer to it, and I had more pressing questions of my own. What is going on? Why am I still here? Did Civil come back to you?

  Yes, yes he did. Listen, now, and don’t interrupt me. The boy’s excitement and fear were rattling him. His Skilling clattered at me like hooves on cobblestones. I knew he feared I’d lose consciousness again. Chade says, “Say nothing. ” He’s working out a story for you. The whole town and the castle are buzzing about what happened in Buckkeep Town. There hasn’t been a triple murder in Buckkeep Town in years, if ever, and that is how people are gossiping about it. So many people saw you kill the horse that, well, that it’s going to be impossible to say you didn’t kill Laudwine and his men. So, well, Chade’s working on a reason why it wouldn’t be murder. But he can’t just come and get you out of there. You see why, don’t you?

  I see why. There must be no connection between Chade and a bodyguard who committed a triple murder, no link between the Queen and the man who killed the Old Blood delegates, no bond between the Prince and the assassin who had done his bidding. I saw. I had always seen. Don’t worry about me. The thought was cold.

  I could tell Dutiful was trying to control his fear, but it stained his Skilling with dread. His worries whispered past his guard: what if Chade couldn’t think of a tale, what if I died of a septic wound, sweet Eda, he killed them all, men and beast, who is Tom Badgerlock, really, who was he, to kill like that. To shut off his fears I closed my walls to him. I was too weary to Skill anyway, and he’d told me all I needed to know just now. I felt myself separating, not just from Dutiful, but from all of them. I sealed myself up inside my own skin. I was Tom Badgerlock, a servant at Buckkeep, in jail, guilty of murdering three people and killing a fine horse. That was all I was.

  The guard came to the window, warned my fellow prisoner back from the door, and then ventured inside with a bucket and a dipper. He set it down by my pallet. I looked at his boots through my lowered eyelashes. “He doesn’t look like he’s awake. ”

  “Well, he was for a minute there. Didn’t say much, only ‘water. ’ ”

  “If he wakes up again, you call out. Sergeant wants to talk to him. ”

  “To be sure, I will. But hasn’t my wife come yet to pay my fine? You sent a boy to tell her, didn’t you?”

  “I told you we did. Yesterday. If she comes with the coin, you’ll be out. ”

  “Any chance of some food here?”

  “You’ve been fed. This isn’t an inn. ”

  The guard went out, slamming the door behind him. I heard several bolts shot into place. My friend went to the door and watched the guard depart down the hallway. Then he came back to my side. “Think you can drink?”

  I didn’t answer but I managed to wobble my head up off the straw. He held the brimming ladle near my mouth and I carefully sucked in a mouthful. He was patient, crouching there and holding the ladle steady as I drank. I had to go slow. I’d never realized that the muscles in my back could be involved in sucking water into my mouth and holding my head up. After a time, I let my head sag back down and he took the water away. I lay softly panting. Blackness hovered at the edges of my vision, then gradually receded. “Is it night?”

  “It’s always night in these places,” he answered mournfully, and for a moment I glimpsed the real man, one who had spent far too much time in situations such as this. I wondered how long he’d been Chade’s, then doubted that he knew anything of who employed him this way. He scooted his stool closer and spoke softly. “It’s afternoon. You’ve been in here two days now. When they first brought me in, the healer was working on you. I thought you were awake then. Don’t you remember it?”

  “No. ” Perhaps I could have, if I had tried, but I was suddenly queasily certain I didn’t want to recall that. Two days. My heart sank. If Chade were going to get me out of here swiftly, he would have done so by now. That two days had already passed could indicate that I should expect to be here for a time. A sudden jab of pain broke that chain of thought. I tried to focus my mind again. “No one has come to see me, or offered to pay my fine?”

  He goggled at me. “Fine? Man, you murdered three people. There’s no fine for that. ” Then he abruptly gentled his voice. I was still absorbing that I could die on a gallows when he added, “There was a man who came after the healer got done with you. Some high lord, dressed all fancy and foreign. You were unconscious and they wouldn’t let him come in here. He demanded to know what had become of a purse you were carrying for him. The guards said they didn’t know anything about it. He got really angry then, and told them to think well what they were saying, that if his property was not restored to him intact, he would take extreme measures. He said you had a little red purse, embroidered with a bird, a, um, a pheasant, on it. He wouldn’t say what was in it, only that it was very valuable and it was his and he wanted it back. ”

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  “Lord Golden?” I asked softly.

  “Yes, that was his name. ”

  I had no idea what the Fool had been talking about. “I don’t remember the purse,” I said. The pain was rising like an engulfing tide. I tried to hold on to my thoughts but could not. I pushed back my fear and discovered that it cloaked my anger. I didn’t deserve this. Why had they left me here? I could die here.

  I could feel Dutiful
fumbling at the edges of my mind. “I’m so tired,” I said, meaning to Skill it but saying it instead. The pain from my wound was thudding down my leg, making my hip and knee ache. My right arm had no strength in it. I closed my eyes, centered myself, and tried to reach out to the Prince. Instead I plunged into blackness.

  The next several days passed for me like images glimpsed by lightning during a thunderstorm. The few memories I have are starkly and strongly etched, yet they are so momentary as to be nearly meaningless. A man I suspect was a healer looked into a basin of my blood and proclaimed it too dark. My cellmate complained bitterly to someone at the door grate that the stench was enough to choke a goat. I stared at an odd pattern of straw on the floor and listened to Hap scream obscenities at someone. I desperately wanted him to be quiet, lest they decide to hurt him, too. To be conscious was to be afraid. Sick, hurt, and afraid. Alone. They’d left me alone here to die, so I would not embarrass them. Sleep brought Nighteyes’ old nightmares of a filthy cage and a keeper who beat him.

  The Skill is a magic that demands physical strength, a clear mental focus, and a strong will to perform. I had none of those. Waves of Skill sendings from Dutiful struck me and washed through me, leaving no clear residue of thought. I knew only that he tried to reach me, and I wished heartily that he would stop. I wanted silence and stillness so I could hide from my pain. Sometimes I was aware of Nettle, also. I doubt that she sensed she had reached me.

  In between those glimpses of waking life and nightmare-plagued sleep, I lived another life. The rounded hillsides were smooth and white with snow under a gray sky. There were no trees, no bushes, and not even an upthrust of stone. Only the snow, the whispering wind, and the ever-twilight. The only break in the smoothness of the snow were Nighteyes’ tracks going on before me. I followed them doggedly. I would find him and I would join him. He could not be that far ahead of me. Once the wind turned to wolves howling in the distance, and I tried to hurry. That effort only woke me to the cold stink of the prison cell. I had moved and something hot and foul was trickling from my wound. I closed my eyes again and sought for the peace of the snowy hills.

  It would be weeks before I pieced together the whole sequence of events. Lord Golden’s missing purse of raw gemstones was found in Laudwine’s cottage. Not that he was known as Laudwine in Buckkeep Town. Starling had been correct. To his neighbors, the one-armed man was known as Keppler. A witness attested that he had seen a man that might have been me pursue someone who might have been Padget into Keppler’s cottage. Obviously, I had been robbed of my master’s purse on my way to taking them to a gem cutter for him. I had followed the thieves, they had fought me, and I’d killed them all, taking a grievous injury myself. Then I had valiantly killed the rabid horse before it could break free of the shed and injure people in the street. From being an accused triple-murderer, I was suddenly elevated to the status of loyal servant willing to risk his life for his master’s property. As no one came forward to contradict this fabrication, or even to claim the bodies of “Keppler” and Padget, it became the acknowledged truth in Buckkeep Town. The goatherd’s neighbors soon spoke of how it seemed to them that Keppler had many visitors who came and went at odd hours.

  And so Lord Golden was allowed to claim what was left of me. He sent two serving men to fetch me home. Stinking and semiconscious, I was loaded onto a litter for a cold and jolting trip up to Buckkeep Castle. I did not know the men who came to fetch me, and they cared little for me. I felt each step they took, and would have wept if I had had the strength. The pain was such that it kept jolting me back to wakefulness. The stoutly muscled men who trudged up the hill commented that they were grateful for the cold still air, for it made the smell of my pus-running wound less. They delivered me to Lord Golden’s door. He held a scented handkerchief over his mouth and nose as he commanded them to put me on my bed. Then he paid the men generously and thanked them for bringing me home to die. In the blackness of my closed room, I shut my eyes and tried to do just that.

  Fragments of speech whirled like falling leaves in my memory. They flowed into my head and filled it up like other people’s furniture moved into a once-familiar room. I could not disengage from them. Something held me there as firmly as the hand that gripped mine.

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  “. . . can’t move him again, even if you could get a litter up those stairs. You’ll have to do it here. ”

  “I don’t know how. I don’t know how. I don’t know how!” This from Dutiful. “Eda and El, Chade, I’m not being stubborn. Don’t you think I’d save him if I could? But I don’t know how; I’m not even sure what you’re asking me to do. ”

  Stinks worse than dogshit now. Thick was bored and wished he were anywhere else.

  Chade, patiently explaining it yet again. “It doesn’t matter that you don’t know how. He’s going to die if we don’t do anything. If you try and it kills him, well, at least it will be quicker than what he’s enduring now. Now, I want you to look at these drawings carefully. They are my own work, from years ago. This shows you what those organs should look like, intact . . . ”

  I fell away from them. Blessed blackness for a time. Just as I found the snow-rounded hills, they tugged me back. Their hands were on me. My clothing was cut away. Someone retched, and Chade, tight-breathed, told them to get out of the room until called for. Then, harsh rags, water both cold and hot on my wound, and close at hand a woman said sadly, “It’s hopelessly foul. Can’t we just let him go peacefully?”

  “No!” I thought the voice was King Shrewd’s. Then I knew it could not be. It must be Chade, sounding so like his brother. “Get the Prince back in here. It’s time. ”

  Then I felt the Prince’s icy hands on my hot flesh, set to either side of the wound. “Just Skill into his body,” Chade told him. “Skill into him, look at what is wrong, and fix it. ”

  “I don’t know how,” Dutiful repeated, but I felt him try. His mind battered against mine like a moth against a lamp’s chimney. He was trying to reach my thoughts, not my body. I pushed feebly at him. That was a mistake.

  For a moment, our minds touched and linked. No, I told him. No. Leave me alone.

  His hands went away. “He doesn’t want us to do this,” Dutiful reported uncertainly.

  “I don’t care!” Chade’s voice was furious. “He isn’t allowed to die. I won’t permit it. ” Suddenly, the words were louder, shouted right by my ear. “Fitz, do you hear me? Do you hear me, boy? I’m not going to let you die, so you might as well cooperate. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and fight to live. ”

  “Fitz?” There was wonder and horror in Dutiful’s voice.

  A crack of silence opened. Then, harshly, Chade explained. “He was born a bastard, just as I was. It’s long been a joke between us, that the word only stings when it comes from someone who doesn’t wear it also. ”

  Feeble, Chade. Feeble, I wanted to tell him, and Dutiful knows you too well to be taken in by it.

  Someone stroked the hair back from my brow and took my hand. I thought it was the Fool. I tried to tighten my hand on his slender one, to somehow let him know that I would beg his pardon if I could. I suddenly thought of all the persons to whom I hadn’t bid farewell. Hap. Kettricken. Burrich and Molly. I’d always meant to make everything right with everyone before I died. “Patience, Mother,” I said, but no one heard me. Perhaps I didn’t even speak the words aloud.

  “Show me the picture,” Lord Golden said. He let go of my hand and I swung abruptly into the blackness. I fell until I died. From the pillowed brow of a snowy hill, I glimpsed the summerland. A flash of gray moved in the tall grasses. Nighteyes! I called to him. He turned and looked back at me. He showed his teeth in a snarl, warning me back. I tried to move forward but again I was drawn back up to the surface. I thrashed helplessly, a fish on a line, but my body moved not at all.

  “. . . done it before. At least, something like it. I was there when he used the Skill to he
al his wolf. And years ago, I studied how a man’s body is put together. And I don’t have the Skill, myself, but I know Fi . . . Tom. If you can use the Skill through me, I’m willing to allow that. ” The Fool was insistent.

  “I have to use the privy. ”

  “Go, then, Thick, but come right back. Understand me? Come right back here when you’re done. ” I could hear annoyance in Chade’s voice. And uncertainty. “Well, what can it hurt? Go ahead. Try. ”

  Then I felt the Fool’s touch on my back. If Dutiful’s hands had been cold to my fevered skin, then the Fool’s fingers were as icicles. Their jabbing ice probed me. All eternity paused in anticipation of that dreaded, desired touch.

  Long ago, the Fool had accompanied me into the Mountains on the quest to find Verity. In helping me tend our exhausted king, he had carelessly let his fingers come into contact with Verity’s Skill-silvered hands. That physical manifestation of the Skill magic had gleamed like quicksilver. The contact with the pure magic had jolted the Fool and forever marked him. The silvering magic had faded with time, yet enough of it remained on his fingertips that I had seen the Fool use it in his woodcarving. It allowed him to know, intimately, whatever those fingers touched, be it wood or plant or beast. Or me. Long ago, he had left his fingerprints on my wrist. Lord Golden’s gloves always kept his Skill-fingers covered, protected from casual contact. Yet now the hands that touched the skin of my back were bared.

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  I knew the instant that his Skill-coated fingers contacted my skin. Like little cold knives, his touch plunged into me, cutting more sharply than the sword that had stirred my guts. It was neither pain nor pleasure; it was connection, pure and simple, as if we shared a skin. I lay still under that scrutiny, lacking even the strength to tremble, as I prayed he would go no further. I need not have feared. I felt the Fool’s honor in that touch, an honor that was like armor between us. It was only my body he probed, not my heart or mind. I knew then with terrible guilt how my earlier accusations had wronged my friend. He would never seek anything from me that I did not first offer him. I heard him speak, and the words Skill-echoed through me even as they washed against my ears.

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