Golden fool, p.67
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       Golden Fool, p.67

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 248

 

  “Thick. Stop your music. How can I concentrate with your music running continually in the back of my mind?” Dutiful demanded after our latest effort had yielded naught.

  Thick flinched to his prince’s rebuke. As his eyes filled with tears, I suddenly realized how deep and powerful a bond he had formed with Dutiful. I think the Prince realized his error also, for an instant later he shook his head at himself and commented, “It’s the loveliness of the music that distracts me, Thick. I don’t wonder that you always want to share it with the world. But for now, we must focus on our lessons. Do you see?”

  Chade’s eyes suddenly kindled to green sparks. “No!” he exclaimed. “Thick, do not stop your music. For I have never heard it, though I have often heard from Dutiful and Tom how lovely it is. Let me hear your music, Thick, just this once. Put your hand on Dutiful’s shoulder and send your music to me. Please. ”

  Dutiful and I gawked at Chade, but Thick beamed. He did not hesitate for an instant. Almost before Dutiful had dropped his hand from Thick’s shoulder, the little man had seized Dutiful’s in a firm grip. Eyes fixed on Chade, mouth wide open with delight, he gave Dutiful no time to focus. Music filled us all like a flood. Vaguely, I saw Chade reel with the impact of it. His eyes widened, and even though triumph dawned on his features, I also saw a shadow of fear.

  I had not underestimated Thick’s strength. Never had I witnessed such an outpouring of Skill. Up to now, Thick’s music had been always in the undercurrent of his thoughts, as unconscious as his breathing or the beating of his heart. Now he flung himself out wide to the world, rejoicing in his mothersong.

  As a muddy river in flood time can color the whole bay it drains into, so did Thick’s song dye the great Skill current. His song entered the flow and changed it. I had never imagined anything like it. Gripped by it as I was myself, I found myself powerless to take command of my body. The overwhelming fascination of Thick’s music drew me into it and wrapped me in his rhythm and melody. Somewhere, I sensed that Dutiful and Chade were with me, but I could not discern them for the curtain of beckoning music. Nor was I the only one so drawn. I sensed others in the Skill curtain. Some were single threads, a trailing tendril of magic from those barely Skilled at all. Perhaps somewhere a fisherman wondered at the odd tune running in the back of his mind, or a mother changed the lullaby she hummed. Others were more engaged. I sensed folk who halted in the midst of what they were doing and looked round blindly, trying to locate the source of the whispering music.

  There were not many, but some were there, their awareness of the Skill a constant in their lives, a background hush of muted voices that they had schooled themselves to ignore. But this rush of music broke through all such habitual barriers, and I sensed them turn toward us. Some likely shouted aloud in shock; others may have fallen to the ground. Only one voice did I hear, clear and unencumbered by fear: What is this? Nettle demanded. Whence comes this waking dream?

  From Buckkeep, Chade answered joyously. From Buckkeep comes this call, oh ye Skilled ones! Awake and come to Buckkeep, so that your magic may be awakened and you may serve your Prince!

  To Buckkeep? Nettle echoed.

  And then, like a trumpet call from the distance, a far voice: I know you now. I see you now.

  Perhaps nothing else could have broken me from those shackles of Skill fascination. I parted Dutiful from Thick with a force that astonished all three of us. With a crash, the music halted. For a second I was blinded and deafened by the absence of the Skill. My heart went yearning after it. It was a far purer connection to the world than my feeble senses. But I soon came back to myself. I offered Dutiful my hand, for my shove had sent him sprawling to the floor. Dazedly he gripped my hand and came to his feet, asking as he did so, “Did you hear that girl? Who was she?”

  “Oh, just that girl that cries all the time,” Thick dismissed her and I felt gratitude that his answer filled the gap. Then, “Did you hear my music? Did you like it?” he was demanding of Chade.

  Chade didn’t answer immediately. I turned to see him slumped in his chair. He wore a foolish smile yet his brow was furrowed. “Oh, yes, Thick,” he managed. “I heard it. And I liked it very much. ” He put his elbows on the table and propped his head in them. “We did it,” he breathed. He lifted his eyes to me. “Does it always feel like that? The exuberance, the sense of completeness, of joining oneself to the world?”

  “It’s a thing to be wary of,” I warned him immediately. “If you go into the Skill seeking that sense of connection, it may sweep you away entirely. A Skill-user must always keep his purpose in the forefront of his mind. Otherwise you can be swept away and lost—”

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  “Yes, yes,” Chade interrupted me impatiently. “I haven’t forgotten what happened to me last time. But I do think that this is an event that deserves a celebration. ”

  The others seemed to share his sentiments. I am sure they thought me curmudgeonly and grumpy for my silence. Still, I brought forth the covered basket I had concealed beneath the table, and within it even Thick found enough to be satisfied. We had brandy all round, though I think Chade was the only one who truly needed restoring. The old man’s hands shook as he lifted the glass to his mouth, but nonetheless he smiled and offered a toast before he drank: “To those who may come, to form a true coterie for Prince Dutiful!” He gave me no sly glances and I joined with the others in drinking, even as I hoped Burrich would firmly keep Nettle at home.

  Then I asked warily, “What do you think that other voice was? The one that said, ‘I know you now. ’ ”

  Thick ignored me and went on nibbling raisins with his front teeth. Dutiful gave me a puzzled glance. “Another voice?”

  “Do you mean the girl who Skilled so clearly?” Chade asked, plainly shocked that I would call her to their attention. I think he had already deduced that she was Nettle.

  “No,” I said. “That other voice, so foreign and strange. So. . . different. ” I could not find words to express the wariness it had roused in me. It was like a dark premonition.

  A moment of silence followed my words. Then Dutiful said, “I only heard the girl who said, ‘To Buckkeep?’

  “And I the same,” Chade assured me. “There was no coherent thought after hers. I thought she was why you broke our linking. ”

  “Why would he do that?” Dutiful demanded.

  “No,” I insisted, ignoring the Prince’s question. “Something else spoke. I tell you, I heard. . . something. Some kind of a being. Not human. ”

  This was an extraordinary enough statement to distract Dutiful from prying for Nettle’s identity. But as the other three all vowed they had sensed nothing, my claims were not taken seriously, and by the end of the session, I had begun to wonder if I had deceived myself.

  Chapter XXV

  CONVOCATION

  . . . and nothing would do but that the Princess would have the dancing bear for her very own. Such a begging has not been heard for many a year, but at last she prevailed and her father gave the bear’s keeper a whole handful of gold coins for the beast. And the Princess herself took hold of the chain that went to the bear’s ring, and led the great, hulking creature up to her own bedchamber. But in the depth of the night, while all else in the keep slept, the boy rose up and threw off his bearskin. And when he showed himself to the Princess, she found him as comely a youth as she had ever seen. And it was not so much that he had his way with her, as that she had hers with him.

  —“ THE BEAR-BOY AND THE PRINCESS”

  One afternoon, the birches flushed pink and the packed snow of the courtyard turned to slush. Spring came that quickly to Buckkeep that year. By the time the sun went down, there were bare patches of earth showing on some of the best-trodden tracks. It was cold that night, and winter stilled everything with its touch, but the next morning the land awoke to the sound of trickling water and a warm sweeping wind.

  I h
ad slept in the barracks and slept well despite the snoring and night shifting of two dozen other men. I rose with the others, ate a hearty breakfast in the guardroom, and then returned to the barracks to don the purple and white of the Queen’s Guard. We buckled on our swords, collected our horses, and gathered in the courtyard.

  Then there was the inevitable wait for the Prince to emerge. When he did come out, Councilor Chade and Queen Kettricken accompanied him. The Prince looked both polished and uncomfortable. Perhaps a dozen lesser nobles were there to see him off. Amongst the well-wishers were the six representatives the Six Duchies had originally sent to the Queen for her discussion of the Witted problem. I could tell by their faces that they had never expected to be involved in a face-to-face confrontation with the Witted, and they did not look forward to it. Lord Civil Bresinga was among those who stood in the slushing snow to bid the Prince farewell. From the back rank of the Queen’s Guard, I watched his still face and wondered how he felt about what was happening. By the Queen’s express command, no one would leave Buckkeep save the Guard and the Prince. She would take no chances of frightening away the already cautious Old Blood delegation.

  The Queen gave brief instructions to her commander. I could not hear her words to Marshcroft, our leader, but I saw his face change. He made a sincere bow but disapproval was in every line of his face. And I was shocked to the core when a woman on horseback suddenly joined us leading the Queen’s mount. It took me a moment to recognize Laurel. She had cropped her hair short and dyed it black. Chade stepped forward, remonstrating, but the Queen looked adamant. She spoke briefly to him. I could not hear her words, but I saw the set line of the Queen’s jaw and Chade’s rising color. With a final curt nod to her councilor, she mounted, and signaled her readiness to Marshcroft. At his command, we all mounted, and then we followed our prince and Marshcroft as they led us out of the gates of Buckkeep. I glanced back to find Chade staring after us in horror. Why is she going with us? I Skilled frantically to Chade, but if he received my thought, he made no response.

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  I asked the same question of the Prince.

  I do not know. She merely told Chade there had been a change in plans, and that she left it up to him to be certain that no one followed us. I do not like this.

  Nor do I.

  I watched as the Prince said something to his mother. She only shook her head at him. Her lips were firmly closed. Laurel rode looking straight ahead. My brief glimpse of her had shown me that there were new lines in her brow, and less flesh to her face. So, she had been the Queen’s emissary to the Witted. Was that how she fought the Piebalds? Trying to win more political power for a more temperate group? It made sense, but it could not have been an easy task for her, or a safe one. I wondered when she had last slept soundly.

  The melting slush gave way unevenly beneath our horses’ hooves. We left by the west gate. Ostensibly, only the Prince and Marshcroft knew our destination. The bird with the message had arrived yesterday. In reality, I shared that knowledge. There had been mutterings and discontent about the Queen’s consenting to meet with emissaries of Old Blood. It had been judged wiser to keep our rendezvous location a secret lest any of the more intractable nobles sabotage our plans.

  The wind promised either rain or wet snow to come. Sap had flushed the leafless trees to life. We did not take the fork of the road that led down to the river but instead took the branch that led into the forested hills behind Buckkeep Castle. A lone hawk patrolled the sky, perhaps in search of venturesome mice. Or perhaps not, I thought to myself. As the trees drew closer to the road, Marshcroft gave us the order to re-form so that the Prince and the Queen rode now in our midst instead of before us. My dread grew. Not by any word or sign had Dutiful indicated that he was aware that I rode at his back, but I was glad of the tight Skill awareness that hung between us.

  We rode on through the morning, and at each fork in the road, we took the less trafficked one. I was not pleased that the narrowing passage through the trees forced us into a long and straggling line. Myblack detested keeping a steady pace following the horse in front of her. I had a constant battle to keep her from moving up on him. Her willfulness was an unwelcome distraction as I tried to expand my Wit awareness of the forest around us. Given the men and horses around me, it was a near impossible task to be aware of anything beyond them, much like trying to listen for the squeaking of a mouse while surrounded by barking dogs. Nonetheless, I cursed myself and sent a sharp Skill warning to the Prince when I first became aware of the outriders flanking us. They had done a wonderful job. I was suddenly aware of two of them, and before I could draw breath, noticed three more ghosting alongside us through the trees. They were on foot, their faces hooded against recognition. They carried bows.

  This is not where we were told they’d await us, Dutiful Skilled anxiously as Marshcroft called an abrupt halt. We formed up as well as we could around the Prince. The Witted I could see had arrows nocked, but the bows were not drawn.

  Then, “Old Blood greets you!” a voice rang through the forest.

  “Dutiful Farseer returns greeting,” Dutiful replied clearly when the Queen kept silent. He sounded very calm, but I could almost feel the hammering of his heart.

  A short, dark woman came striding through her archers to stand before us. Unlike the others, she was unarmed and her face uncovered. She looked up at the Prince. Then she turned her gaze to the Queen. Her eyes widened and a tenuous smile came to her face. Then, “FitzChivalry,” she said clearly. I stiffened but Dutiful relaxed.

  He nodded to Marshcroft as he said, “That was the agreed-upon password. These are the folk we promised to meet and escort. ” He turned back to the woman. “But why are you here rather than at our arranged rendezvous?”

  She laughed lightly, but bitterly. “We have learned a measure of caution in the past, my lord, in dealing with Farseers. You will forgive us if we still employ it. It has saved many a life here. ”

  “You have not always been fairly dealt with, so I will excuse your suspicion. I am here, as you requested, to assure you that we offer the emissaries safe passage to Buckkeep Castle. ”

  The woman nodded. “And have you brought for us a hostage, one nobly born, as we requested?”

  For the first time, the Queen spoke. “He is here. I give you my son. ”

  Dutiful went white. Marshcroft burst out, “My queen, I beg you, no!” He turned back to the Old Blood woman. “Lady, if it please you, I was told nothing of a hostage. Do not take my prince from my protection. Take me instead!”

  Did you know of this? I demanded of Dutiful.

  No. But I understand her reasoning. His response was oddly calm. He spoke his next words aloud, but they were for me as much as for the guard. “Peace, Marshcroft. This is my mother’s decision, and I will obey it. No one will fault you for following your queen’s will. For in this, I am Sacrifice for my people. ” He turned to look at his mother. His face was still pale, but his voice was firm. He was proud of this moment, I suddenly knew. Proud to serve in this way, proud that she had thought him mature enough to face this challenge. “If it is my queen’s will, then I put my life in your hands. And if any of your folk are harmed, then I am willing forfeit. ”

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  “And I too will remain as surety for my queen’s word. ” Laurel’s soft voice rang clear in the shocked silence that followed his words. The Old Blood woman nodded gravely to this announcement. Laurel was obviously well known to her.

  My thoughts raced as I tried to put it all together. Of course the Old Blood folk would have asked for a hostage. Safe passage and hidden identities would not protect their chosen leaders once they were inside Buckkeep’s walls. Despite Chade’s dismissal of their request, I should have known that someone would have to serve. But why did it have to be the Prince? And why could not the Queen have chosen me to remain at his side instead of Laurel? I looked at my queen with
new eyes. The subterfuge surprised me, as did her circumvention of Chade. Well I knew he would never have agreed to this. How had she arranged it all? Through Laurel?

  Marshcroft flung himself from his horse and knelt at her feet in the sogging snow, begging her not to do this, to let him be hostage instead, or at least to let him and five chosen men remain with the Prince. But she was adamant. My prince stepped down from his mount and drew Marshcroft to his feet. “No one will ever fault you for this, even if it goes awry,” he sought to assure him. “My mother queen is here to give me over; that was why she came. All will know it was her will, not yours, that this be done. I beg you, good man, remount and take our queen safely home. ” He raised his voice. “Yes, and all who ride back with you, hear me. Guard these folk as if my life depended on it, for I assure you that it does. That is how you can best serve me. ”

  The Old Blood woman spoke then to Marshcroft, saying, “I promise both you and his mother that he will be treated well, so long as our own are treated similarly. On this you have my word. ”

  Marshcroft looked little comforted by it.

  I was in a quandary as I sat and watched the exchange happen. I will double back and follow, I promised the Prince.

  No. My mother has given her word that we will treat fairly with them, and so we shall. If I have need of you, I shall let you know. This I promise you. But for now, let me do this thing she has entrusted to me.

  By then our emissaries were trickling in from the forest in twos and threes. Some brought their Wit-beasts. I heard the high cry of a hawk overhead, and knew that I had guessed correctly earlier that day. Another man rode with a spotted dog at his stirrup. One woman came toward us leading a milk cow heavy with calf. But of the dozen folk, faces swathed and variously mounted, who came to join us, most were alone. I wondered if they had left their animals behind or were currently unpaired.

 
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