Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Fools Errand, Page 3

Robin Hobb

  His reply was frank. “I manage. And my current apprentice is proving both quick and adept. The time will not be long before I can set those old tasks completely into younger hands. ”

  I knew an unsettling moment of jealousy that he had taken another in my place. An instant later, I recognized how foolish that was. The Farseers would ever have need of a man capable of quietly dispensing the King's Justice. I had declared I would no longer be a royal assassin; that did not mean the need for one had disappeared. I tried to recover my aplomb. “Then the old experiments and lessons still continue in the tower. ”

  He nodded once, gravely. “They do. As a matter of fact. . . ” He rose suddenly from his seat by the fire. Out of long habit reawakened, we had resumed our old postures, him sitting in a chair before the fire and me on the hearth by his feet. Only at that moment did I realize how odd that was, and wonder at how natural it had seemed. I shook my head at myself as Chade rummaged through the saddlebags on the table. He came out with a stained flask of hard leather. “I brought this to show to you, and then in all our talk, I nearly forgot it. You recall my fascination with unnatural fires and smokes and the like?”

  I rolled my eyes. His “fascination” had scorched us both more than once. I refused the memory of the last time I had witnessed his fire magic: he had made the torches of Buckkeep burn blue and sputter on the night Prince Regal falsely declared himself the immediate heir to the Farseer crown. That night had also seen the murder of King Shrewd and my subsequent arrest for it.

  If Chade made that connection, he gave no sign of it. He returned eagerly to the fireside with his flask. “Have you a twist of paper? I didn't bring any. ”

  I found him some, and watched dubiously as he took a long strip of my paper, folded it lengthwise, and then judiciously tapped a measure of powder down the groove of the fold. Carefully he folded the paper over it, folded it again, and then secured it with a spiraling twist. “Now watch this!” he invited me eagerly.

  I watched with trepidation as he set the paper into the fire on the hearth. But whatever it was supposed to do, flash or sparkle or make a smoke, it didn't. The paper turned brown, caught fire, and burned. There was a slight stink of sulfur. That was all. I raised an eyebrow at Chade.

  “That's not right!” he protested, flustered. Working swiftly, he prepared another twist of paper, but this time he was more generous with the powder from the small flask. He set the paper in the hottest part of the fire. I leaned back from the hearth, braced for the effect, but again we were disappointed. I rubbed my mouth to cover a grin at the chagrin on his face.

  “You'll think I've lost my touch!” he declared.

  “Oh, never that,” I responded, but it was hard to keep the mirth from my voice. This time the paper he prepared was more like a fat tube, and powder leaked from it as he twisted it closed. I stood up and retreated from the fireplace as he set it onto the flames. But as before, it only burned.

  He gave a great snort of disgust. He peered down the dark neck of the small flask, then shook it. With an exclamation of disgust, he stoppered it. “Damp got into it somehow. Well. That's spoiled my show. ” He tossed the flask into the fire, a mark of high dudgeon for Chade.

  As I sat back down by the hearth, I sensed the keenness of his disappointment and felt a touch of pity for the old man. I tried to take the sting from it. “It reminds me of the time I confused the smoke powder with the powdered lancet root. Do you remember that? My eyes watered for hours. ”

  Page 9


  He gave a short laugh. “I do. ” He was silent for a time, smiling to himself. I knew his mind wandered back to our old days together. Then he leaned forward to set his hand to my shoulder. “Fitz,” he demanded earnestly, his eyes locking with mine. “I never deceived you, did I? I was fair. I told you what I was teaching you, from the very beginning. ”

  I saw then the lump of the scar between us. I put my hand up to cover his. His knuckles were bony, his skin gone papery thin. looked back into the flames as I spoke to him. “You were always honest with me, Chade. If anyone deceived me, it was myself. We each served our King, and did what we must in that cause. I won't come back to Buckkeep. But it's not because of anything you did, but only because of who I've become. I bear you no ill will, for anything. ”

  I turned to look up at him. His face was very grave, and I saw in his eyes what he had not said to me. He missed me. His asking me to return to Buckkeep was as much for himself as for any other reason. I discovered then a small share of healing and peace. I was still loved, by Chade at least. It moved me and I felt my throat tighten with it. I tried to find lighter words. “You never claimed that being your apprentice would give me a calm, safe life. ”

  As if to confirm those words, a sudden flash erupted from my fire. If my face had not been turned toward Chade, I suppose I might have been blinded. As it was, a blast like lightning and thunder together deafened me. Flying coals and sparks stung me, and the fire roared suddenly like an angry beast. We both sprang to our feet and scrambled back from the fireplace. An instant later, a fall of soot from my neglected chimney put out most of the hearth fire. Chade and I scurried about the room, stamping out the glowing sparks and kicking pieces of burning flask back onto the hearth before the floor could take fire. The door burst open under Nighteyes' assault on it. He flew into the room, claws scrabbling for purchase as he slid to a halt.

  “I'm fine, I'm fine,” I assured him, and then realized I was yelling past the ringing in my ears. Nighteyes gave a disgusted snort at the smell in the room. Without even sharing a thought with me, he stalked back into the night.

  Chade suddenly slapped me several times on the shoulder. “Putting out a coal,” he assured me loudly. It took us some time to restore order and renew the fire in its rightful place. Even so, he pulled his chair back from it, and I did not sit down on the hearth. “Was that what the powder was supposed to do?” I asked belatedly when we were resettled with more Sandsedge brandy.

  “No! El's balls, boy, do you tnink I'd deliberately do that in your hearth? What I'd been producing before was a sudden flash of white light, almost blinding. The powder shouldn't have done that. Still. I wonder why it did. What was different? Damn. I wish I could remember what I last stored in that flask . . . ” He knit his brows and stared fiercely into the flames, and I knew his new apprentice would be put to puzzling out just what had caused that blast. I did not envy him the series of experiments that would undoubtedly follow.

  He spent the night at my cottage, taking my bed while I made do with Hap's. But when we arose the next morning, we both knew the visit was at an end. There suddenly seemed to be nothing else to discuss, and little point to talking about anything. A sort of bleakness rose in me. Why should I ask after folk I'd never see again; why should he tell me of the current crop of political intrigues when they had no touch on my life at all? For one long afternoon and evening, our lives had meshed again, but now as the gray day dawned, he watched me go about my homely tasks; drawing water and throwing feed to my poultry, cooking breakfast for us and washing up the crockery. We seemed to grow more distant with every awkward silence. Almost I began to wish he had not come.

  After breakfast, he said he must be on his way and I did not try to dissuade him. I promised him he should have the game scroll when it was finished. I gave him several vellums I had written on dosages for sedative teas, and some roots for starts of the few herbs in my garden that he did not already know. I gave him several vials of differentcolored ink. The closest he came to trying to change my mind was when he observed that there was a better market for such things in Buckkeep. I only nodded, and said I might send Hap there sometimes. Then I saddled and bridled the fine mare and brought her around for him. He hugged me goodbye, mounted, and left. I watched as he rode down the path. Beside me, Nighteyes slipped his head under my hand.

  You regret this?

  I regret many things . But I know that if I went wi
th him and did as he wishes, would eventually regret that much more. Yet I could not move from where I stood, staring after him. It wasn't too late, I tempted myself. One shout, and he'd turn about and come back. I clenched my jaws.

  Page 10


  Nighteyes flipped my hand with his nose. Come on. Let's go hunting. No boy, no bows. Just you and I.

  “Sounds good,” I heard myself say. And we did, and we even caught a fine spring rabbit. It felt good to stretch my muscles and prove that I could still do it. I decided I was not an old man, not yet, and that I, as much as Hap, needed to get out and do some new things. Learn something new. That had always been Patience's cure for boredom. That evening as I looked about my cottage, it seemed suffocating rather than snug. What had been familiar and cozy a few nights ago now seemed threadbare and dull. I knew it was just the contrast between Chade's stories of Buckkeep and my own staid life. But restlessness, once awakened, is a powerful thing.

  I tried to think when I had last slept anywhere other than my own bed. Mine was a settled life. At harvesttime each year, I took to the road for a month, hiring out to work the hayfields or the grain harvest or as an apple picker. Theextra coins were welcome. I had used to go into Howsbay twice a year, to trade my inks and dyes for fabric for clothing and pots and things of that ilk. The last two years, I had sent the boy on his fat old pony. My life had settled into routine so deeply that I had not even noticed it.

  So. What do you want to do? Nighteyes stretched and then yawned in resignation.

  I don't know, I admitted to the old wolf. Something different. How would you feel about wandering the world for a bit?

  For a time, he retreated into that part of his mind that was his alone. Then he asked, somewhat testily, Would we both be afoot, or do you expect me to keep pace with a horse all day?

  That's a fair question. If we both went afoot?

  If you must, he conceded grudgingly. You're thinking about that place, back in the Mountains, aren't you?

  The ancient city? Yes.

  He did not oppose me. Will we be taking the boy?

  I think we'll leave Hap here to do for himself for a bit. It might be good for him. And someone has to look after the chickens.

  So I suppose we won't be leaving until the boy comes back?

  I nodded to that. I wondered if I had taken complete leave of my senses.

  I wondered if we would ever come back at all.

  The Tawny Man 2 - Golden Fool

  The Tawny Man 2 - Golden Fool

  The Tawny Man 1 - Fools Errand

  Chapter II


  Starling Birdsong, minstrel to Queen Kettricken, has inspired as many songs as she has written. Legendary as Queen Kettricken's companion on her quest for Elderling aid during the Red Ship War, she extended her service to the Farseer throne for decades during the rebuilding of the Six Duchies. Gifted with the knack of being at home in any company, she was indispensable to the Queen in the unsettled years that followed the Cleansing of Buck. The minstrel was trusted not only with treaties and settlements between nobies, but with offers of amnesty to robber bands and smuggler families. She herself made songs of many of these missions, but one can be sure that she had other endeavors, carried out in secret for the Farseer reign, and far too sensitive to ever become the subject of verse.

  Starling kept Hap with her for a full two months. My amusement at his extended absence changed first to irritation and then annoyance. The annoyance was mostly with myself. I had not realized how much I had come to depend on the boy's strong back until I had to bend mine to the tasks I'd delegated to him. But it was not just the boy's ordinary chores that I undertook during that extra month of his absence. Chade's visit had awakened something in me. I had no name for it, but it seemed a demon that gnawed at me, showing me every shabby aspect of my small holding. The peace of my isolated home now seemed idle complacency. Had it truly been a year since I had shoved a rock under the sagging porch step and promised myself I'd fix it later? No, it had been closer to a year and a half.

  I put the porch to rights, and then not only shoveled out the chicken house but washed it down with lyewater before gathering fresh reeds to floor it. I fixed the leaking roof on my work shed, and finally cut the hole and put in the greased skin window I'd been promising myself for two years. I gave the cottage a more thorough springcleaning than it had had in years. I cut down the cracked ash limb, dropping it neatly through the roof of the freshly cleaned chicken house. I reroofed the chicken house. I was just finishing that task when Nighteyes told me he heard horses. I clambered down, picked up my shirt, and walked around to the front of the cottage to greet Starling and Hap as they came up the trail.

  I do not know if it was our time apart, or my newly seeded restlessness, but I suddenly saw Hap and Starling as if they were strangers. It was not just the new garb Hap wore, although that accentuated his long legs and broadening shoulders. He looked comical atop the fat old pony, a fact I am sure he appreciated. The pony was as illsuited to the growing youth as the child's bed in my cottage and my sedate lifestyle. I suddenly perceived that I could not rightfully ask him to stay home and watch the chickens while I went adventuring. In fact, if I did not soon send him out to seek his own fortune, the mild discontent I saw in his mismatched eyes at his homecoming would soon become bitter disappointment in his life. Hap had been a good companion for me; the foundling I had taken in had, perhaps, rescued me as much as I had rescued him. It would be far better for me to send this young man out into the world while we both still liked one another rather than wait until I was a burdensome duty to his young shoulders.

  Page 11


  Not just Hap had changed in my eyes. Starling was vibrant as ever, grinning as she flung a leg over her horse and slid down from him. Yet as she came toward me with her arms flung wide to hug me, I realized how little I knew of her present life. I looked down into her merry dark eyes and noted for the first time the crow'sfeet beginning at the comers. Her garb had become richer over the years, the quality of her mounts better, and her jewelry more costly. Today her thick dark hair was secured with a clasp of heavy silver. Clearly, she prospered. Three or four times a year, she would descend on me, to stay a few days and overturn my calm life with her stories and songs. For the days she was there, she would insist on spicing the food to her taste, she would scatter an overlay of her possessions upon my table and desk and floor, and my bed would no longer be a place to seek when was exhausted. The days that immediately followed her departure would remind me of a country road with dust hanging heavy in the air in the wake of a puppeteer's caravan. I would have the same sense of choked breath and hazed vision until I once more settled into my humdrum routine.

  I hugged her back, hard, smelling both dust and perfume in her hair. She stepped away from me, looked up into my face, and immediately demanded, “What's wrong? Something's different. ”

  I smiled ruefully. “I'll tell you later,” I promised, and we both knew that it would be one of our latenight conversations.

  “Go wash,” she agreed. “You smell like my horse. ” She gave me a slight push, and I stepped clear of her to greet Hap. “So, lad, how was it? Did a Buckkeep Springfest live up to Starling's tales?”

  “It was good,” he said neutrally. He gave me one full look, and his mismatched eyes, one brown, one blue, were full of torment.

  “Hap?” I began concernedly, but he shrugged away from me before I could touch his shoulder.

  He walked away from me, but perhaps he regretted his surly greeting, for a moment later he croaked, “I'm going to the stream to wash. I'm covered in road dust. ”

  Go with him. I'm not sure what's wrong, but he needs a friend.

  Preferably one that can't ask questions, Nighteyes agreed.

  Head low, tail straight out, he followed the boy. In his own way, he was as fond of Hap as I was, and had had as much to do with his raising.

  When they were out of eyeshot, I turned back to Starling. “Do you know what that was about?”

  She shrugged, a twisted smile on her lips. “He's fifteen. Does a sullen mood have to be about anything at that age? Don't bother yourself over it. It could be anything: a girl at Springfest who didn't kiss him, or one who did. Leaving Buckkeep or coming home. A bad sausage for breakfast. Leave him alone. He'll be fine. ”

  I looked after him as he and the wolf vanished into the trees. “Perhaps I remember being fifteen a bit differently from you,” I commented.

  I saw to her horse and Clover the pony while Starling went into the cottage, reflecting as I did so that no matter what my mood, Burrich would have ordered me to see to my horse before I wandered off. Well, I was not Burrich, I thought to myself. I wondered if he held the same line of discipline with Nettle and Chivalry and Nim as he had with me, and then wished I had asked Chade the rest of his children's names. By the time the horses were comfortable, I was wishing that Chade had not come. His visit had stirred too many old memories to the surface. Resolutely, I pushed them away. Bones fifteen years old, the wolf would have told me. I touched minds with him briefly. Hap had splashed some water on his face, and strode off into the woods, muttering and walking so carelessly that there was no chance they'd see any game. I sighed for them both, and went into the cottage.

  Inside, Starling had dumped the contents of her saddlebags on the table. Her discarded boots were lying across the doorsill; her cloak festooned a chair. The kettle was just starting to boil. She stood on a stool before my cupboard. As I came in, she held out a small brown crock to me. “Is this tea any good still? It smells odd. ”

  “It's excellent, when I'm in enough pain to choke it down. Come down from there. ” I set my hands to her waist and lifted her easily, though the old scar on my back gave a twinge as I set her on the floor. “Sit. I'll make the tea. Tell me about Springfest. ”