Authors: Robin Hobb
HER LOYAL STRIPERS,
Is time the wheel that turns, or the track it leaves behind?
He came one late, wet spring, and brought the wide world back to my doorstep. I was thirty-five that year. When I was twenty, I would have considered a man of my current age to be teetering on the verge of dotage. These days, it seemed neither young nor old to me, but a suspension between the two. I no longer had the excuse of callow youth, and I could not yet claim the eccentricities of age. In many ways, I was no longer sure what I thought of myself. Sometimes it seemed that my life was slowly disappearing behind me, fading like footprints in the rain, until perhaps I had always been the quiet man living an unremarkable life in a cottage between the forest and the sea.
I lay abed that morning, listening to the small sounds that sometimes brought me peace. The wolf breathed steadily before the softly crackling hearth fire. I quested toward him with our shared Wit magic, and gently brushed his sleeping thoughts. He dreamed of running over snow-smooth rolling hills with a pack. For Nighteyes, it was a dream of silence, cold, and swiftness. Softly I withdrew my touch and left him to his private peace.
Outside my small window, the returning birds sang their challenges to one another. There was a light wind, and whenever it stirred the trees, they released a fresh shower of last night’s rain to patter on the wet sward. The trees were silver birches, four of them. They had been little more than sticks when I had planted them. Now their airy foliage cast a pleasant light shade outside my bedroom window. I closed my eyes and could almost feel the flicker of the light on my eyelids. I would not get up, not just yet.
I had had a bad evening the night before, and had had to face it alone. My boy, Hap, had gone off gallivanting with Starling almost three weeks ago, and still had not returned. I could not blame him. My quiet reclusive life was beginning to chafe his young shoulders. Starling’s stories of life at Buckkeep, painted with all the skill of her minstrel ways, created pictures too vivid for him to ignore. So I had reluctantly let her take him to Buckkeep for a holiday, that he might see for himself a Springfest there, eat a carris-seed-topped cake, watch a puppet show, mayhap kiss a girl. Hap had grown past the point where regular meals and a warm bed were enough to content him. I had told myself it was time I thought of letting him go, of finding him an apprenticeship with a good carpenter or joiner. He showed a knack for such things, and the sooner a lad took to a trade, the better he learned it. But I was not ready to let him go just yet. For now I would enjoy a month of peace and solitude, and recall how to do things for myself. Nighteyes and I had each other for company. What more could we need?
Yet no sooner were they gone than the little house seemed too quiet. The boy’s excitement at leaving had been too reminiscent of how I myself had once felt about Springfests and the like. Puppet shows and carris-seed cakes and girls to kiss all brought back vivid memories I thought I had long ago drowned. Perhaps it was those memories that birthed dreams too vivid to ignore. Twice I had awakened sweating and shaking with my muscles clenched. I had enjoyed years of respite from such unquiet, but in the past four years, my old fixation had returned. Of late, it came and went, with no pattern I could discern. It was almost as if the old Skill magic had suddenly recalled me and was reaching to drag me out of my peace and solitude. Days that had been as smooth and alike as beads on a string were now disrupted by its call. Sometimes the Skill-hunger ate at me as a canker eats sound flesh. Other times, it was no more than a few nights of yearning, vivid dreams. If the boy had been home, I probably could have shaken off the Skill’s persistent plucking at me. But he was gone, and so yesterday evening I had given in to the unvanquished addiction such dreams stirred. I had walked down to the sea cliffs, sat on the bench my boy had made for me, and stretched out my magic over the waves. The wolf had sat beside me for a time, his look one of ancient rebuke. I tried to ignore him. “No worse than your penchant for bothering porcupines,” I pointed out to him.
Save that their quills can be pulled out. What stabs you only goes deeper and festers.
His deep eyes glanced past mine as he shared his pointed thoughts.
Why don’t you go hunt a rabbit?
You’ve sent the boy and his bow away.
“You could run it down yourself, you know. Time was when you did that.”
Time was when you went with me to hunt. Why don’t we go and do that, instead of this fruitless seeking? When will you accept that there is no one out there who can hear you?
I just have to . . . try.
Why? Is my companionship not enough for you?
It is enough for me. You are always enough for me.
I opened myself wider to the Wit-bond we shared and tried to let him feel how the Skill tugged at me.
It is the magic that wants this, not me.
Take it away. I do not want to see that.
And when I had closed that part of myself to him, he asked piteously,
Will it never leave us alone?
I had no answer to that. After a time, the wolf lay down, put his great head on his paws, and closed his eyes. I knew he would stay by me because he feared for me. Twice the winter before last, I had overindulged in Skilling, burning physical energy in that mental reaching until I had been unable even to totter back to the house on my own. Nighteyes had had to fetch Hap both times. This time we were alone.
I knew it was foolish and useless. I also knew I could not stop myself. Like a starving man who eats grass to appease the terrible emptiness in his belly, so I reached out with the Skill, touching the lives that passed within my reach. I could brush their thoughts and temporarily appease the great craving that filled me with emptiness. I could know a little of the family out for a windy day’s fishing. I could know the worries of a captain whose cargo was just a bit heavier than his ship would carry well. The mate on the same ship was worried about the man her daughter wished to marry; he was a lazy fellow for all of his pretty ways. The ship’s boy was cursing his luck; they’d get to Buckkeep Town too late for Springfest. There’d be nothing left but withered garlands browning in the gutters by the time he got there. It was always his luck.
There was a certain sparse distraction to these knowings. It restored to me the sense that the world was larger than the four walls of my house, larger even than the confines of my own garden. But it was not the same as true Skilling. It could not compare to that moment of completion when minds joined and one sensed the wholeness of the world as a great entity in which one’s own body was no more than a mote of dust.
The wolf’s firm teeth on my wrist had stirred me from my reaching.
Come on. That’s enough. If you collapse down here, you’ll spend a cold wet night. I am not the boy, to drag you to your feet. Come on, now.
I had risen, seeing blackness at the edges of my vision when I first stood. It had passed, but not the blackness of spirit that came in its wake. I had followed the wolf back through the gathering dark beneath the dripping trees, back to where my fire had burned low in the hearth and the candles guttered on the table. I made myself elfbark tea, black and bitter, knowing it would only make my spirit more desolate, but knowing also that it would appease my aching head. I had burned away the nervous energy of the elfbark by working on a scroll describing the stone game and how it was played. I had tried several times before to complete such a treatise and each time given it up as hopeless. One could only learn to play it by playing it, I told myself. This time I was adding to the text a set of illustrations, to show how a typical game might progress. When I set it aside just before dawn was breaking, it seemed only the stupidest of my latest attempts. I went to bed more early than late.
I awoke to half the morning gone. In the far corner of the yard, the chickens were scratching and gossiping among themselves. The rooster crowed once. I groaned. I should get up. I should check for eggs and scatter a handful of grain to keep the poultry tamed. The garden was just sprouting. It needed weeding already, and I should reseed the row of fesk that the slugs had eaten. I needed to gather some more of the purple flag while it was still in bloom; my last attempt at an ink from it had gone awry, but I wanted to try again. There was wood to split and stack. Porridge to cook, a hearth to sweep. And I should climb the ash tree over the chicken house and cut off that one cracked limb before a storm brought it down on the chicken house itself.
And we should go down to the river and see if the early fish runs have begun yet. Fresh fish would be good.
Nighteyes added his own concerns to my mental list.
Last year you nearly died from eating rotten fish.
All the more reason to go now, while they are fresh and jumping. You could use the boy’s spear.
And get soaked and chilled.
Better soaked and chilled than hungry.
I rolled over and went back to sleep. So I’d be lazy one morning. Who’d know or care? The chickens? It seemed but moments later that his thoughts nudged me.
My brother, awake. A strange horse comes.
I was instantly alert. The slant of light in my window told me that hours had passed. I rose, dragged a robe over my head, belted it, and thrust my feet into my summer shoes. They were little more than leather soles with a few straps to keep them on my feet. I pushed my hair back from my face. I rubbed my sandy eyes. “Go see who it is,” I bade Nighteyes.
See for yourself. He’s nearly to the door.
I was expecting no one. Starling came thrice or four times a year, to visit for a few days and bring me gossip and fine paper and good wine, but she and Hap would not be returning so soon. Other visitors to my door were rare. There was Baylor who had his cot and hogs in the next vale, but he did not own a horse. A tinker came by twice a year. He had found me first by accident in a thunderstorm when his horse had gone lame and my light through the trees had drawn him from the road. Since his visit, I’d had other visits from similar travelers. The tinker had carved a curled cat, the sign of a hospitable house, on a tree beside the trail that led to my cabin. I had found it, but left it intact, to beckon an occasional visitor to my door.
So this caller was probably a lost traveler, or a road-weary trader. I told myself a guest might be a pleasant distraction, but the thought was less than convincing.
I heard the horse halt outside and the small sounds of a man dismounting.
The Gray One,
the wolf growled low.
My heart near stopped in my chest. I opened the door slowly as the old man was reaching to knock at it. He peered at me, and then his smile broke forth. “Fitz, my boy. Ah, Fitz!”
He reached to embrace me. For an instant, I stood frozen, unable to move. I did not know what I felt. That my old mentor had tracked me down after all these years was frightening. There would be a reason, something more than simply seeing me again. But I also felt that leap of kinship, that sudden stirring of interest that Chade had always roused in me. When I had been a boy at Buckkeep, his secret summons would come at night, bidding me climb the concealed stair to his lair in the tower above my room. There he mixed his poisons and taught me the assassin’s trade and made me irrevocably his. Always my heart had beaten faster at the opening of that secret door. Despite all the years and the pain, he still affected me that way. Secrets and the promise of adventure clung to him.
So I found myself reaching out to grasp his stooping shoulders and pull him to me in a hug. Skinny, the old man was getting skinny again, as bony as he had been when I first met him. But now I was the recluse in the worn robe of gray wool. He was dressed in royal blue leggings and a doublet of the same with slashed insets of green that sparked off his eyes. His riding boots were black leather, as were the soft gloves he wore. His cloak of green matched the insets in his doublet and was lined with fur. White lace spilled from his collar and sleeves. The scattered scars that had once shamed him into hiding had faded to a pale speckling on his weathered face. His white hair hung loose to his shoulders and was curled above his brow. There were emeralds in his earrings, and another one set squarely in the center of the gold band at his throat.
The old assassin smiled mockingly as he saw me take in his splendor. “Ah, but a queen’s councillor must look the part, if he is to get the respect both he and she deserve in his dealings.”
“I see,” I said faintly, and then, finding my tongue, “Come in, do come in. I fear you will find my home a bit ruder than what you have obviously become accustomed to, but you are welcome all the same.”
“I did not come to quibble about your house, boy. I came to see you.”
“Boy?” I asked him quietly as I smiled and showed him in.
“Ah, well. To me, always, perhaps. It is one of the advantages of age, I can call anyone almost anything I please, and no one dares challenge me. Ah, you have the wolf still, I see. Nighteyes, was it? Up in years a bit now; I don’t recall that white on your muzzle. Come here now, there’s a good fellow. Fitz, would you mind seeing to my horse? I’ve been all morning in the saddle, and spent last night at a perfectly wretched inn. I’m a bit stiff, you know. And just bring in my saddlebags, would you? There’s a good lad.”
He stooped to scratch the wolf’s ears, his back to me, confident I would obey him. And I grinned and did. The black mare he’d ridden was a fine animal, amiable and willing. There is always a pleasure to caring for a creature of that quality. I watered her well, gave her some of the chickens’ grain, and turned her into the pony’s empty paddock. The saddlebags that I carried back to the house were heavy and one sloshed promisingly.
I entered to find Chade in my study, sitting at my writing desk, poring over my papers as if they were his own. “Ah, there you are. Thank you, Fitz. This, now, this is the stone game, isn’t it? The one Kettle taught you, to help you focus your mind away from the Skill-road? Fascinating. I’d like to have this one when you are finished with it.”