Golden fool, p.56
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       Golden Fool, p.56

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “I can see the damage, Chade. The muscles are like snapped cords that have pulled back on themselves. And where the blade cut him, there is rot and poison leaking from his own guts. His blood carries it through his body. It is not just this wound that is toxic. The wrongness gleams throughout his whole body, like dye spreading through water or decay that has reached up through a tree. It has overwhelmed him, Chade. The trouble is not just here, where the blade went in, but in other places where his own body tries to make it right and instead succumbs to the poison. ”

  “Can you repair it? Can you heal his body?” Chade’s voice seemed choked and weak, but it could have been because the Fool’s thoughts seemed so thunderously loud.

  “No. I can see what is wrong but perceiving damage does not mend it. He is not a chunk of wood, so I cannot simply carve the rot away from what is sound. ” The Fool fell silent, but I felt how he struggled within that silence. Then he spoke in a voice full of despair. “We have failed him. He’s dying. ”

  “No, oh no. Not my boy, not my Fitz. Please, no. ” Light as leaves, the old man’s hands settled on me. I knew how terribly he desired to make me right. Then his hands seemed to sink into me and the heat of his touch burned like liquor running through my veins. Someone gasped, and then I felt, I felt the Fool join his mind to Chade’s. They linked in me. It was a feeble thing, this Skilling effort. The old man’s voice cracked as he cried out, “Dutiful. Take my hand. Lend me strength. ”

  Dutiful joined them. It disrupted everything. Light exploded into blackness. “Get Thick!” someone shouted. It didn’t matter. I fell for a long time, getting smaller and smaller as I fell. I heard the howling of wolves. It grew louder.

  Then I became aware of a light. The light was not hot, but it was terribly penetrating. I fell into it and became it. It seemed to come from inside my eyes themselves. There was no avoiding it. It was light that seared but did not illuminate. I could see nothing. It was unbearably bright, and then suddenly, the brilliance increased. I screamed, my whole body screamed with the force of the light surging through me. I was a broken limb jerked straight, a dammed river released, snarled hair roughly combed. Rightness tore through me. The cure was worse than the malady. My heart stopped. Voices cried out in dismay. Then my heart slammed into motion again. Air scorched into my lungs.

  I passed through an instant of wild wakefulness in which I saw all, knew all, felt all. They surrounded me in a circle. The Fool’s Skill-fingers were pressed to my back. Chade gripped his free hand, and in turn his hand held Dutiful’s. Dutiful clenched Thick’s chubby wrist in his hand and Thick stood, stock-still and stolid, immobile and yet roaring like a bonfire. Chade’s eyes were wide, showing the whites all round, and his clenched teeth were bared in a snarl of joy. Dutiful’s face was white with fear, his eyes squeezed shut. And the Fool, the Fool was gold gleaming and joy and a flight of jeweled dragons across a pure blue sky. And the Fool screamed suddenly, shrill as a woman, “Stop! Stop! Stop! It’s too much, we’ve gone too far!”

  They let me go. I raced on without them. I couldn’t stop now. As a flash flood cuts down a ravine, clearing all debris along with the live trees that it tears up from the banks, so I raced. Healing? It was not a healing. Healing is gentleness and recovery and time. Healing, I suddenly knew, was not a thing that one man did to another. Healing was what a body did for itself, given the rest and time and sustenance to do it. If a man set fire to his feet to warm his hands, that would be like this healing was. My body sloughed rotted flesh and purged poisonous fluids from itself. Yet one cannot tear away from a structure without replacing it, and building bricks must come from somewhere. My body stole from itself and I felt it do it, but could not stop the process. And so I was made whole, but at a cost to the strength of that whole. Like a wall built without sufficient mortar, strength was sacrificed to the paucity of materials. When all was done and the world thundered to stillness around me, I lay looking up at them from the wash of filth and poison that my body had ejected, and I had not even the strength to blink.

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  They looked down at me, the four who had reconstructed my body. The old man, the golden lord, the Prince, and the idiot stared down at me, and in their gazes awe mingled with fear and satisfaction vied with regret. Thus was Dutiful’s coterie formed, and it was as poor a way for any five folk to be joined as I could imagine. Not since Crossfire’s Coterie of cripples had there been such a sadly mismatched assortment of Skill-users. The Fool had no true Skill of his own, only the silver shadows on his fingertips and the thread of Skill awareness we had shared for so long. Thick possessed it in ample quantity but had neither knowledge nor any ambition to gain knowledge to use it well. I had Skill, but as always it faded and then fountained unpredictably, untrained and unreliable. And Chade, gods help us all, had discovered his own talent in the waning of his years. He flourished it like a boy waving a wooden sword, with no concept of what a true edge could do. He had knowledge, and ambition like a floodtide, and yet he did not have the intrinsic understanding that Thick did. Only in our prince did Skill balance intellect and ambition both, and there it was Wit-tainted. I stared up at what I had wrought merely by virtue of nearly dying, and my courage left me. Catalyst indeed. A coterie should be able to lend its strength to the Farseer monarch in time of need. This one could not function without him. And it should have been built on the camaraderie of mutually chosen companions. This was more like an accidental meeting of travelers in a tavern.

  Some of the woe I felt must have shown in my eyes, for Chade knelt down by my bedside and took my hand. “It’s all right, boy,” he said reassuringly. “You’re going to live. ”

  I knew he meant it well. I closed my eyes to shut out the unholy glee shining in his face.

  I slept for four days and four nights. I slept through them bathing my wasted body and clothing me anew. They told me later that I drank broth and wine and gruel in those days. Someone kept me clean. I don’t recall it, and for that I am glad. Perhaps I drank in my sleep. I was later told that Starling checked on me several times, and that Wim came by and delivered a restorative potion from his grandmother’s recipe. None of them were allowed to see me. I remember none of that, I am ashamed to say. Instead, I recalled memories I had not known I held. I ran with a pack of wolves, shadowing them over the hills. I watched their lives and longed to join them. But always, somewhere, a thread tugged at me, reminding me that eventually I would have to come back.

  I do recall one interlude. Someone put her arm around my shoulders and hauled me up and held a mug of warm milk to my mouth. I have never cared for warmed milk, and I tried to turn aside from it when I smelled it, but she was determined. It was drink or drown, and most of it went down my throat. It was only when she lowered me back to my pillows that I recognized that strength of will as my queen’s. I opened my eyes to slits. “Sorry,” I croaked as Kettricken wiped the spilled milk from my scruff of beard and nightshirt.

  She smiled at me and I saw relief in her eyes. “That’s the first time you’ve had the strength to be difficult. Should I take it that you are recovering and will soon be your old self?” She asked the question teasingly, but for all that relief quivered in her words. She set the cloth aside and gathered my hands in hers. I felt my bones rub together in her gentle grip; all flesh had fallen from my hands, leaving them like talons. I could not bear to look at them, or at the tenderness in her blue gaze. I glanced past her and frowned, not recognizing my surroundings. Her eyes followed my gaze. “I changed it,” she said. “I could not abide for you to lie in this cell as it was. ”

  There was a thick rug of Mountain weave on the floor. I lay on a low couch, while my exalted queen sat cross-legged on a plump cushion on the floor beside me. In the corner, a spiraling rack held tiers of fat scented candles that warmed and lit the room. A chest of drawers, the front ornamented with carving, supported a graceful ewer and washbowl. I saw the lacy edge of some piece of weaving benea
th the pitcher. A low table beside the bed held the empty mug and a bowl of torn bread softened in broth. The smell of it made me hungry. Kettricken must have seen my eyes go toward it, for she immediately took it up and lifted a spoonful from it.

  “I think I can feed myself,” I said hastily. I tried to sit up and shamed myself by needing her assistance. When I did so, I became aware of the tapestry on the wall facing me. It had been freshly cleaned and mended, but as ever an elongated King Wisdom stared down at me as he made treaty with the Elderlings. My shock must have shown on my face, for Kettricken smiled and said, “Chade said you would be astonished and pleased. It seemed a rather dismal tapestry to me but he said it was an old favorite of yours. ”

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  It took up the entire wall. Just as it had when it hung on the wall of my childhood bedroom, it struck me as nightmarish. And the old man knew that full well. Despite how weak I was, his rough jest brought a smile to my face. Still I protested, “But this chamber should be kept as the humble room of a serving man. Except for the size and lack of windows, you have fitted it out as if for a prince. ”

  Kettricken sighed. “Chade too rebuked me for that, but I refused to listen. Bad enough that you must be ill in such a small and gloomy chamber. I will not leave it pauperish and cold as well. ”

  “But your chamber is simple and sparse, in the Mountain fashion. I don’t—”

  “When you are well enough to have visitors, then you may have it all taken away if you wish. But for now, I will have you comfortable. In the Six Duchies style. ” She spoke with asperity, then sighed. “As usual, a lie has explained it away. Lord Golden rewards his serving man for loyalty. So. Tolerate it. ”

  And there was no arguing with her tone. She propped me up with pillows and I ate the sodden bread. I could have eaten more, but she took the empty bowl from me and told me to take my recovery slowly. And then I was suddenly tired. I lay back, overcome with weariness yet astounded there was no pain. And I suddenly realized that I was on my back. My face must have changed, for Kettricken anxiously asked me if I was all right.

  I rolled to my side and reached a cautious hand to my back. “There is no pain,” I told her.

  There were no bandages.

  I felt the smooth flesh, and then the knobs of my spine and my ribs that stuck out like a starved dog’s. I started to tremble, and my teeth to chatter. Kettricken pulled blankets closer around me. “The wound is completely gone. ” I rattled out the words.

  “Yes,” she agreed. “The flesh is closed and sound. Of the sword thrust, there is no sign. It is one reason we have kept visitors away from you. Surely they would wonder at that, and also wonder why you are thin and wasted as from a weeks-long illness. ” She paused then, and I thought she would say more, but she did not. She smiled at me tenderly. “Don’t be concerned about anything right now. You need to rest, Fitz, not to worry. Rest, and eat, and soon you’ll be up and about. ” My queen touched my whiskery cheek and then smoothed back my hair.

  A thousand questions suddenly crowded my mind. “Does Hap know I’m all right? Has he come to see me; is he worried?”

  “Hush. You are not all right, not yet. He has come here, but we judged it best not to let him see you. Lord Golden has spoken with him, assuring him that you will recover and are receiving the best of care. He told him how grateful he was for how Tom Badgerlock had attempted to defend his treasure at such a cost to himself, and made Hap promise that if he had any need while you are recuperating, he would let Golden know of it. And a woman named Jinna has come to visit, but also been turned aside. ”

  I understood the wisdom of it. Both Hap and Jinna would have been astounded at my present appearance, but I hoped my boy had not been made too anxious. And then, as if a gate had been opened, all my other questions assaulted me. “Were there other Piebalds, beside Laudwine and Padget? And Henja. I saw Henja there, and I do not think it was coincidence. And, I got the impression that Civil’s mother was living under a threat. Chade should send someone to aid her. And there is a spy still, the one who took Thick to see Laudwine, Chade must—”

  “You must rest,” she said firmly. “Others are dealing with all of that just now. ” She stood fluidly. It only took two steps to cross my tiny room. She blew out all the candles save one, and she took that one from the holder. I became aware that my queen was in a nightrobe and wrapper. Her hair hung in a thick gold braid down her back.

  “It’s night,” I said stupidly.

  “Yes. Very late at night. Go to sleep now, Fitz. ”

  “What are you doing here so late at night?”

  “Watching you sleep. ”

  That didn’t make sense. She had deliberately waked me. “But the milk and the bread?”

  “I had my page fetch them for me, telling him I could not sleep. Because, in truth, I could not. And then I brought them here, for you. ” She sounded almost defensive. “There is a good amidst all this evil that has befallen you. It has made me recall vividly just how much I owe you, and how much I value you. ” She looked down at me for a moment. “If I lost you,” she said unwillingly, “I would lose the only one who knows the whole of my story. The only one who looks at me and knows all I went through with my king. ”

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  “But Starling was there. And Lord Golden. ”

  She shook her head. “Not for all of it. And neither of them loved him as we did. ” Then, candle in hand, she stooped and kissed my brow. “Go to sleep, FitzChivalry. ” And when she kissed my mouth, it was like a long drink of cool water, and I knew the kiss was not for me, but for the man we both had lost. “Rest and grow strong again,” she admonished me, then rose and left by the secret doorway. She took the mug and the bowl with her, leaving behind no trace of herself save her lingering scent in the darkness. I sighed, and sank into a sleep that was deep, but almost normal.

  Chapter XXI


  The Witness Stones have stood on the cliffs near Buckkeep Castle for as long as Buckkeep Castle has existed, and likely for longer. Tall and black, the four Stones thrust up in a quadrangle from the rocky earth. Either time or the hands of men have obscured the markings that once graced each side of each standing Stone. The runes are unreadable now. The stone itself appears very similar to the black blocks of Buckkeep Castle, save for silvery threads that run like flaws through each pillar. No one knows whence came the tradition of calling the Stones to witness either a vow or the truth of what a man was saying. Sometimes combats are fought before the Stones, in the belief that invoking their presence will enable the fighter whose cause is just to prevail. Many superstitions are associated with the space at the center of the four. Some say that a barren woman can conceive a child there; others, that there a woman can ask the Stones to take away that which grows in her womb.


  I rose from my sickbed the next day. In the blackness of my closed chamber, I walked the three steps to my clothing chest. Then I fell and could not find the strength to get up. I lay still, resolving not to call out for help but to wait until I could muster the energy to return to my bed. But almost immediately, the door to my room opened, admitting light and air and Lord Golden. He stood limned in the doorway and looked down on me with aristocratic disapproval. “Tom, Tom,” he said, shaking his head. “Must you always be so annoyingly stubborn? Back to your bed until Lord Chade says you are free of it. ”

  As always, the strength in his slender body surprised me. He did not help me to my feet but lifted me bodily and set me back on my bed. I groped for my blanket. He caught up the corner of one and flipped it over me. “I can’t just lie here for days and days,” I complained.

  Lord Golden looked amused. “I’d like to see you try to do anything else, for obviously you can’t. I’ll leave the door open so you have some light. Do you wish a candle as well?”

  I shook my head slowl
y, chilled by his impersonal yet tolerantly kindly manner. He left me, but the door remained open. I could see the fire burning in his tidily swept hearth. He resumed his seat at a small writing desk and took up his quill again. It scratched energetically over the paper.

  In a short time, there was a tap at the door, and at his invitation to enter, his serving boy came in bearing a breakfast tray. Char set it down on the table and carefully unloaded it. When he was finished, there remained several bowls and a mug on the tray. He picked it up and started toward my door but Lord Golden, without looking away from his writing, said, “Leave it on the table, Char. ” The boy left, and still Lord Golden scribbled at his writing. A short time later, there was another knock on the door. This time, the boy carried in buckets of water. A man with him had an armload of firewood. Lord Golden ignored them both as they went about their tasks. When they had both left, he sighed, stood up from his desk, and went to the door and latched it. Then he spoke to me again.

  “Will you eat in your room or at the table, Tom?”

  For answer, I sat up in my bed. There was a new blue woolen robe across the foot of my bed. I pulled it on over my head, and then stood up. The low bed made this more difficult than it should have been, and for a moment I stood still, my head reeling. Then I began my cautious walk to the table. I paused once in the doorway, clinging to the jamb as I caught my breath, then moved on to the table. Lord Golden had already seated himself and was uncovering the dishes the boy had set out for him. After a moment, I lowered myself into the chair opposite him.

  They had given me an invalid’s meal, of broth and runny porridge and bread in milk. On Lord Golden’s side of the table, there were shirred eggs and sausages, bread and butter and preserves and everything else I desired. I knew a moment of irrational fury at him. Then I ate everything they had given me, and washed it down with a cup of lukewarm chamomile tea. Afterward, I rose and went back to my bed. We had not exchanged a single word. After a time, boredom lulled me into sleep.

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