The Farseer Trilogy 3-Book Bundle: Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin's Quest
The Farseer Trilogy 3-Book Bundle: Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin's Quest
Since Robin Hobb’s debut novel took the fantasy world by storm, the adventures of her beloved assassin FitzChivalry Farseer have spawned a sweeping epic that spans more than a dozen books—and counting. Discover the phenomenon from the beginning with this eBook bundle of the original trilogy:
#1 - Assassin's Apprentice Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom. #2 - Royal Assassin Fitz has survived his first hazardous mission as king’s assassin, but is left little more than a cripple. Battered and bitter, he vows to abandon his oath to King Shrewd, remaining in the distant mountains. But love and events of terrible urgency draw him back to the court at Buckkeep, and into the deadly intrigues of the royal family. Renewing their vicious attacks on the coast, the Red-Ship Raiders leave burned-out villages and demented victims in their wake. The kingdom is also under assault from within, as treachery threatens the throne of the ailing king. In this time of great danger, the fate of the kingdom may rest in Fitz’s hands—and his role in its salvation may require the ultimate sacrifice. #3 - Assassin's Quest King Shrewd is dead at the hands of his son Regal. As is Fitz—or so his enemies and friends believe. But with the help of his allies and his beast magic, he emerges from the grave, deeply scarred in body and soul. The kingdom also teeters toward ruin: Regal has plundered and abandoned the capital, while the rightful heir, Prince Verity, is lost to his mad quest—perhaps to death. Only Verity’s return—or the heir his princess carries—can save the Six Duchies. But Fitz will not wait. Driven by loss and bitter memories, he undertakes a quest: to kill Regal. The journey casts him into deep waters, as he discovers wild currents of magic within him—currents that will either drown him or make him something more than he was.
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Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest are works of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A Del Rey eBook Edition
Assassin’s Apprentice copyright © 1995 by Robin Hobb
Royal Assassin copyright © 1996 by Robin Hobb
Assassin’s Quest copyright © 1997 by Robin Hobb
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
The novels contained in this omnibus were each published separately by Spectra, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York, in 1995, 1996, and 1997.
eBook ISBN: 9780804180597
THE FARSEER: ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE
A Del Rey eBook
Copyright © 1995 by Robin Hobb
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 9780553897487
Master - Table of Contents
The Earliest History
A History of the Six Duchies is of necessity a history of its ruling family, the Farseers. A complete telling would reach back beyond the founding of the First Duchy and, if such names were remembered, would tell us of Outislanders raiding from the sea, visiting as pirates a shore more temperate and gentler than the icy beaches of the Out Islands. But we do not know the names of these earliest forebears.
And of the first real King, little more than his name and some extravagant legends remain. Taker his name was, quite simply, and perhaps with that naming began the tradition that daughters and sons of his lineage would be given names that would shape their lives and beings. Folk beliefs claim that such names were sealed to the newborn babes by magic, and that these royal offspring were incapable of betraying the virtues whose names they bore. Passed through fire and plunged through salt water and offered to the winds of the air; thus were names sealed to these chosen children. So we are told. A pretty fancy, and perhaps once there was such a ritual, but history shows us this was not always sufficient to bind a child to the virtue that named it.…
My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip, leaving a worm’s trail of ink across Fedwren’s paper. I have spoiled another leaf of the fine stuff, in what I suspect is a futile endeavor. I wonder if I can write this history, or if on every page there will be some sneaking show of a bitterness I thought long dead. I think myself cured of all spite, but when I touch pen to paper, the hurt of a boy bleeds out with the sea-spawned ink, until I suspect each carefully formed black letter scabs over some ancient scarlet wound.
Both Fedwren and Patience were so filled with enthusiasm whenever a written account of the history of the Six Duchies was discussed that I persuaded myself the writing of it was a worthwhile effort. I convinced myself that the exercise would turn my thoughts aside from my pain and help the time to pass. But each historical event I consider only awakens my own personal shades of loneliness and loss. I fear I will have to set this work aside entirely, or else give in to reconsidering all that has shaped what I have become. And so I begin again, and again, but always find that I am writing of my own beginnings rather than the beginnings of this land. I do not even know to whom I try to explain myself. My life has been a web of secrets, secrets that even now are unsafe to share. Shall I set them all down on fine paper, only to create from them flame and ash? Perhaps.
My memories reach back to when I was six years old. Before that, there is nothing, only a blank gulf no exercise of my mind has ever been able to pierce. Prior to that day at Moonseye, there is nothing. But on that day they suddenly begin, with a brightness and detail that overwhelms me. Sometimes it seems too complete, and I wonder if it is truly mine. Am I recalling it from my own mind, or from dozens of retellings by legions of kitchen maids and ranks of scullions and herds of stable boys as they explained my presence to each other? Perhaps I have heard the story so many times, from so many sources, that I now recall it as an actual memory of my own. Is the detail the result of a six-year-old’s open absorption of all that goes on around him? Or could the completeness of the memory be the bright overlay of the Skill, and the later drugs a man takes to control his addiction to it, the drugs that bring on pains and cravings of their own? The last is most possible. Perhaps it is even probable. One hopes it is not the case.
The remembrance is almost physical: the chill grayness of the fading day, the remorseless rain that soaked me, the icy cobbles of the strange town’s streets, even the callused roughness of the huge hand that gripped my small one. Sometimes I wonder about that grip. The hand was hard and rough, trapping mine within it. And yet it was warm, and not unkind as it held mine. Only firm. It did not let me slip on the icy streets, but it did not let me escape my fate, either. It was as implacable as the icy gray rain that glazed the trampled snow and ice of the graveled pathway outside the huge wooden doors of the fortified building that stood like a fortress within the town itself.
The doors were tall, not just to a six-year-old boy, but tall enough to admit giants, to dwarf even the rangy old man who towered over me. And they looked strange to me, although I cannot summon up what type of door or dwelling would have looked familiar. Only that these, carved and bound with black iron hinges, decorated with a buck’s head and knocker of gleaming brass, were outside of my experience. I recall that slush had soaked through my clothes, so my feet and legs were wet and cold. And yet, again, I cannot recall that I had walked far through winter’s last curses, nor that I had been carried. No, it all starts there, right outside the doors of the stronghouse, with my small hand trapped inside the tall man’s.
Almost, it is like a puppet show beginning. Yes, I can see it thus. The curtains parted, and there we stood before that great door. The old man lifted the brass knocker and banged it down, once, twice, thrice on the plate that resounded to his pounding. And then, from offstage, a voice sounded. Not from within the doors, but from behind us, back the way we had come. “Father, please,” the woman’s voice begged. I turned to look at her, but it had begun to snow again, a lacy veil that clung to eyelashes and coat sleeves. I can’t recall that I saw anyone. Certainly, I did not struggle to break free of the old man’s grip on my hand, nor did I call out, “Mother, Mother.” Instead I stood, a spectator, and heard the sound of boots within the keep, and the unfastening of the door hasp within.
One last time she called. I can still hear the words perfectly, the desperation in a voice that now would sound young to my ears. “Father, please, I beg you!” A tremor shook the hand that gripped mine, but whether of anger or some other emotion, I shall never know. As swift as a black crow seizes a bit of dropped bread, the old man stooped and snatched up a frozen chunk of dirty ice. Wordlessly he flung it, with great force and fury, and I cowered where I stood. I do not recall a cry, nor the sound of struck flesh. What I do remember is how the doors swung outward, so that the old man had to step hastily back, dragging me with him.
And there is this. The man who opened the door was no house servant, as I might imagine if I had only heard this story. No, memory shows me a man-at-arms, a warrior, gone a bit to gray and with a belly more of hard suet than muscle, but not some mannered house servant. He looked both the old man and me up and down with a soldier’s practiced suspicion, and then stood there silently, waiting for us to state our business.
I think it rattled the old man a bit, and stimulated him, not to fear, but to anger. For he suddenly dropped my hand and instead gripped me by the back of my coat and swung me forward, like a whelp offered to a prospective new owner. “I’ve brought the boy to you,” he said in a rusty voice.
And when the house guard continued to stare at him, without judgment or even curiosity, he elaborated. “I’ve fed him at my table for six years, and never a word from his father, never a coin, never a visit, though my daughter gives me to understand he knows he fathered a bastard on her. I’ll not feed him any longer, nor break my back at a plow to keep clothes on his back. Let him be fed by him what got him. I’ve enough to tend to of my own, what with my woman getting on in years, and this one’s mother to keep and feed. For not a man will have her now, not a man, not with this pup running at her heels. So you take him, and give him to his father.” And he let go of me so suddenly that I sprawled to the stone doorstep at the guard’s feet. I scrabbled to a sitting position, not much hurt that I recall, and looked up to see what would happen next between the two men.
The guard looked down at me, lips pursed slightly, not in judgment but merely considering how to classify me. “Whose get?” he asked, and his tone was not one of curiosity, but only that of a man who asks for more specific information on a situation, in order to report well to a superior.
“Chivalry’s,” the old man said, and he was already turning his back on me, taking his measured steps down the graveled pathway. “Prince Chivalry,” he said, not turning back as he added the qualifier. “Him what’s King-in-Waiting. That’s who got him. So let him do for him, and be glad he managed to father one child, somewhere.”
For a moment the guard watched the old man walking away. Then he wordlessly stooped to seize me by the collar and drag me out of the way so he could close the door. He let go of me for the brief time it took him to secure the door. That done, he stood looking down on me. No real surprise, only a soldier’s stoic acceptance of the odder bits of his duty. “Up, boy, and walk,” he said.
So I followed him, down a dim corridor, past rooms spartanly furnished, with windows still shuttered against winter’s chill, and finally to another set of closed doors, these of rich, mellow wood embellished with carvings. There he paused and straightened his own garments briefly. I remember quite clearly how he went down on one knee to tug my shirt straight and smooth my hair with a rough pat or two, but whether this was from some kindhearted impulse that I make a good impression, or merely a concern that his package look well tended, I will never know. He stood again and knocked once at the double doors. Having knocked, he did not wait for a reply, or at least I never heard one. He pushed the doors open, herded me in before him, and shut the doors behind him.
This room was as warm as the corridor had been chill, and alive as the other chambers had been deserted. I recall a quantity of furniture in it, rugs and hangings, and shelves of tablets and scrolls overlaid with the scattering of clutter that any well-used and comfortable chamber takes on. There was a fire burning in a massive fireplace, filling the room with heat and a pleasantly resinous scent. An immense table was placed at an angle to the fire, and behind it sat a stocky man, his brows knit as he bent over a sheaf of papers in front of him. He did not look up immediately, and so I was able to study his rather bushy disarray of dark hair for some moments.
When he did look up, he seemed to take in both myself and the guard in one quick glance of his black eyes. “Well, Jason?” he asked, and even at that age I could sense his resignation to a messy interruption. “What’s this?”
The guard gave me a gentle nudge on the shoulder that propelled me a foot or so closer to the man. “An old plowman left him, Prince Verity, sir. Says it’s Prince Chivalry’s bastid, sir.”
For a few moments the harried man behind the desk continued to regard me with some confusion. Then something very like an amused smile lightened his features and he rose and came around the desk to stand with his fists on his hips, looking down on me. I did not feel threatened by his scrutiny; rather it was as if something about my appearance pleased him inordinately. I looked up at him curiously. He wore a short dark beard, as bushy and disorderly as his hair, and his cheeks were weathered above it. Heavy brows were raised above his dark eyes. He had a barrel of a chest, and shoulders that strained the fabric of his shirt. His fists were square and work-scarred, yet ink stained the fingers of his right hand. As he stared at me his grin gradually widened, until finally he gave a snort of laughter.
“Be damned,” he finally said. “Boy does have Chiv’s look to him, doesn’t he? Fruitful Eda. Who’d have believed it of my illustrious and virtuous brother?”
The guard made no response at all, nor was one expected from him. He continued to stand alertly, awaiting the next command. A soldier’s soldier.
The other man continued to regard me curiously. “How old?” he asked the guard.
“Plowman says six.” The guard raised a hand to scratch at his cheek, then suddenly seemed to recall he was reporting. He dropped his hand. “Sir,” he added.
The other didn’t seem to notice the guard’s lapse in discipline. The dark eyes roved over me, and the amusement in his smile grew broader. “So make it seven years or so, to allow for her belly to swell. Damn. Yes. That was the first year the Chyurda tried to close the pass. Chivalry was up this way for three, four months, chivying them into opening it to us. Looks like it wasn’t the only thing he chivied open. Damn. Who’d have thought it of him?” He paused, then: “Who’s the mother?” he demanded suddenly.
The guardsman shifted uncomfortably. “Don’t know, sir. There was only the old plowman on the doorstep, and all him said was that this was Prince Chivalry’s bastid, and he wasn’t going to feed him ner put clothes on his back no more. Said him what got him could care for him now.”
The man shrugged as if the matter were of no great importance. “The boy looks well tended. I give it a week, a fortnight at most, before she’s whimpering at the kitchen door because she misses her pup. I’ll find out then if not before. Here, boy, what do they call you?”
His jerkin was closed with an intricate buckle shaped like a buck’s head. It was brass, then gold, then red as the flames in the fireplace moved. “Boy,” I said. I do not know if I was merely repeating what he and the guardsman had called me, or if I truly had no name besides the word. For a moment the man looked surprised and a look of what might have been pity crossed his face. But it disappeared as swiftly, leaving him looking only discomfited, or mildly annoyed. He glanced back at the map that still awaited him on the table.
“Well,” he said into the silence. “Something’s got to be done with him, at least until Chiv gets back. Jason, see the boy’s fed and bedded somewhere, at least for tonight. I’ll give some thought to what’s to be done with him tomorrow. Can’t have royal bastards cluttering up the countryside.”
“Sir,” said Jason, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, but merely accepting the order. He put a heavy hand on my shoulder and turned me back toward the door. I went somewhat reluctantly, for the room was bright and pleasant and warm. My cold feet had started to tingle, and I knew if I could stay a little longer, I would be warmed through. But the guardsman’s hand was inexorable, and I was steered out of the warm chamber and back into the chill dimness of the drear corridors.
They seemed all the darker after the warmth and light, and endless as I tried to match the guard’s stride as he wound through them. Perhaps I whimpered, or perhaps he grew tired of my slower pace, for he spun suddenly, seized me, and tossed me up to sit on his shoulder as casually as if I weighed nothing at all. “Soggy little pup, you,” he observed, without rancor, and then bore me down corridors and around turns and up and down steps and finally into the yellow light and space of a large kitchen.
There, half a dozen other guards lounged on benches and ate and drank at a big scarred table before a fire fully twice as large as the one in the study had been. The room smelled of food, of beer and men’s sweat, of wet wool garments and the smoke of the wood and drip of grease into flames. Hogsheads and small casks ranged against the wall, and smoked joints of meats were dark shapes hung from the rafters. The table bore a clutter of food and dishes. A chunk of meat on a spit was swung back from the flames and dripping fat onto the stone hearth. My stomach clutched suddenly at my ribs at the rich smell. Jason set me rather firmly on the corner of the table closest to the fire’s warmth, jogging the elbow of a man whose face was hidden by a mug.
“Here, Burrich,” Jason said matter-of-factly. “This pup’s for you, now.” He turned away from me. I watched with interest as he broke a corner as big as his fist off a dark loaf, and then drew his belt knife to take a wedge of cheese off a wheel. He pushed these into my hands, and then stepping to the fire, began sawing a man-sized portion of meat off the joint. I wasted no time in filling my mouth with bread and cheese. Beside me, the man called Burrich set down his mug and glared around at Jason.
“What’s this?” he asked, sounding very much like the man in the warm chamber. He had the same unruly blackness to his hair and beard, but his face was angular and narrow. His face had the color of a man much outdoors. His eyes were brown rather than black, and his hands were long-fingered and clever. He smelled of horses and dogs and blood and leathers.
“He’s yours to watch over, Burrich. Prince Verity says so.”
“You’re Chivalry’s man, ain’t you? Care for his horse, his hounds, and his hawks?”
“So, you got his little bastid, at least until Chivalry gets back and does otherwise with him.” Jason offered me the slab of dripping meat. I looked from the bread to the cheese I gripped, loath to surrender either, but longing for the hot meat, too. He shrugged at seeing my dilemma, and with a fighting man’s practicality, flipped the meat casually onto the table beside my hip. I stuffed as much bread into my mouth as I could and shifted to where I could watch the meat.
Jason shrugged, busy with getting himself bread and meat and cheese of his own. “So said the old plowman what left him here.” He layered the meat and cheese onto a slab of bread, took an immense bite, and then spoke through it. “Said Chivalry ought to be glad he’d seeded one child, somewhere, and should feed and care for him himself now.”
An unusual quiet bloomed suddenly in the kitchen. Men paused in their eating, gripping bread or mugs or trenchers, and turned eyes to the man called Burrich. He himself set his mug carefully away from the edge of the table. His voice was quiet and even, his words precise. “If my master has no heir, ’tis Eda’s will, and no fault of his manhood. The Lady Patience has always been delicate, and—”
“Even so, even so,” Jason was quickly agreeing. “And there sits the very proof that there’s nowt wrong with him as a man, as is all I was saying, that’s all.” He wiped his mouth hastily on his sleeve. “As like to Prince Chivalry as can be, as even his brother said but a while ago. Not the Crown Prince’s fault if his Lady Patience can’t carry his seed to term.…”
But Burrich had stood suddenly. Jason backed a hasty step or two before he realized I was Burrich’s target, not him. Burrich gripped my shoulders and turned me to the fire. When he firmly took my jaw in his hand and lifted my face to his, he startled me, so that I dropped both bread and cheese. Yet he paid no mind to this as he turned my face toward the fire and studied me as if I were a map. His eyes met mine, and there was a sort of wildness in them, as if what he saw in my face were an injury I’d done him. I started to draw away from that look, but his grip wouldn’t let me. So I stared back at him with as much defiance as I could muster, and saw his upset masked suddenly with a sort of reluctant wonder. And lastly he closed his eyes for a second, hooding them against some pain. “It’s a thing that will try her lady’s will to the edge of her very name,” Burrich said softly.
He released my jaw and stooped awkwardly to pick up the bread and cheese I’d dropped. He brushed them off and handed them back to me. I stared at the thick bandaging on his right calf and over his knee that had kept him from bending his leg. He reseated himself and refilled his mug from a pitcher on the table. He drank again, studying me over the rim of his mug.
“Who’d Chivalry get him on?” a man at the other end of the table asked incautiously.
Burrich swung his gaze to the man as he set his mug down. For a moment he didn’t speak, and I sensed that silence hovering again. “I’d say it was Prince Chivalry’s business who the mother was, and not for kitchen talk,” Burrich said mildly.
“Even so, even so,” the guard agreed abruptly, and Jason nodded like a courting bird in agreement. Young as I was, I still wondered what kind of man this was who, with one leg bandaged, could quell a room full of rough men with a look or a word.
“Boy don’t have a name,” Jason volunteered into the silence. “Just goes by ‘boy.’ ”
This statement seemed to put everyone, even Burrich, at a loss for words. The silence lingered as I finished bread and cheese and meat, and washed it down with a swallow or two of beer that Burrich offered me. The other men left the room gradually, in twos and threes, and still he sat there, drinking and looking at me. “Well,” he said at long last. “If I know your father, he’ll face up to it square and do what’s right. But Eda only knows what he’ll think is the right thing to do. Probably whatever hurts the most.” He watched me silently a moment longer. “Had enough to eat?” he asked at last.
I nodded, and he stood stiffly, to swing me off the table and onto the floor. “Come on, then, Fitz,” he said, and moved out of the kitchen and down a different corridor. His stiff leg made his gait ungainly, and perhaps the beer had something to do with it as well. Certainly I had no trouble in keeping up. We came at last to a heavy door, and a guard who nodded us through with a devouring stare at me.
Outside, a chill wind was blowing. All the ice and snow that had softened during the day had gone back to sharpness with the coming of night. The path cracked under my feet, and the wind seemed to find every crack and gap in my garments. My feet and leggings had been warmed by the kitchen’s fire, but not quite dried, so the cold seized on them. I remember darkness, and the sudden tiredness that came over me, a terrible weepy sleepiness that dragged at me as I followed the strange man with the bandaged leg through the chill, dark courtyard. There were tall walls around us, and guards moved intermittently atop them, dark shadows visible only as they blotted the stars occasionally from the sky. The cold bit at me, and I stumbled and slipped on the icy pathway. But something about Burrich did not permit me to whimper or beg quarter from him. Instead I followed him doggedly. We reached a building and he dragged open a heavy door.
Warmth and animal smells and a dim yellow light spilled out. A sleepy stable boy sat up in his nest of straw, blinking like a rumpled fledgling. At a word from Burrich he lay down again, curling up small in the straw and closing his eyes. We moved past him, Burrich dragging the door to behind us. He took the lantern that burned dimly by the door and led me on.
I entered a different world then, a night world where animals shifted and breathed in stalls, where hounds lifted their heads from their crossed forepaws to regard me with lambent eyes green or yellow in the lantern’s glow. Horses stirred as we passed their stalls. “Hawks are down at the far end,” Burrich said as we passed stall after stall. I accepted it as something he thought I should know.
“Here,” he said finally. “This’ll do. For now, anyway. I’m jigged if I know what else to do with you. If it weren’t for the Lady Patience, I’d be thinking this a fine god’s jest on the master. Here, Nosy, you just move over and make this boy a place in the straw. That’s right, you cuddle up to Vixen, there. She’ll take you in, and give a good slash to any that think to bother you.”
I found myself facing an ample box stall, populated with three hounds. They had roused and lay, stick tails thumping in the straw at Burrich’s voice. I moved uncertainly in amongst them and finally lay down next to an old bitch with a whitened muzzle and one torn ear. The older male regarded me with a certain suspicion, but the third was a half-grown pup, and Nosy welcomed me with ear lickings, nose nipping, and much pawing. I put an arm around him to settle him, and then cuddled in amongst them as Burrich had advised. He threw a thick blanket that smelled much of horse down over me. A very large gray horse in the next stall stirred suddenly, thumping a heavy hoof against the partition, and then hanging his head over to see what the night excitement was about. Burrich absently calmed him with a touch.
“It’s rough quarters here for all of us at this outpost. You’ll find Buckkeep a more hospitable place. But for tonight, you’ll be warm here, and safe.” He stood a moment longer, looking down at us. “Horse, hound, and hawk, Chivalry. I’ve minded them all for you for many a year, and minded them well. But this by-blow of yours; well, what to do with him is beyond me.”
I knew he wasn’t speaking to me. I watched him over the edge of the blanket as he took the lantern from its hook and wandered off, muttering to himself. I remember that first night well, the warmth of the hounds, the prickling straw, and even the sleep that finally came as the pup cuddled close beside me. I drifted into his mind and shared his dim dreams of an endless chase, pursuing a quarry I never saw, but whose hot scent dragged me onward through nettle, bramble, and scree.
And with the hound’s dream, the precision of the memory wavers like the bright colors and sharp edges of a drug dream. Certainly the days that follow that first night have no such clarity in my mind.
I recall the spitting-wet days of winter’s end as I learned the route from my stall to the kitchen. I was free to come and go there as I pleased. Sometimes there was a cook in attendance, setting meat onto the hearth hooks or pummeling bread dough or breaching a cask of drink. More often there was not, and I helped myself to whatever had been left out on the table, and shared generously with the pup that swiftly became my constant companion. Men came and went, eating and drinking, and regarding me with a speculative curiosity that I came to accept as normal. The men had a sameness about them, with their rough wool cloaks and leggings, their hard bodies and easy movements, and the crest of a leaping buck that each bore over his heart. My presence made some of them uncomfortable. I grew accustomed to the mutter of voices that began whenever I left the kitchen.
Burrich was a constant in those days, giving me the same care he gave to Chivalry’s beasts; I was fed, watered, groomed, and exercised, said exercise usually coming in the form of trotting at his heels as he performed his other duties. But those memories are blurry, and details, such as those of washing or changing garments, have probably faded with a six-year-old’s calm assumptions of such things as normal. Certainly I remember the hound pup, Nosy. His coat was red and slick and short, and bristly in a way that prickled me through my clothes when we shared the horse blanket at night. His eyes were green as copper ore, his nose the color of cooked liver, and the insides of his mouth and tongue were mottled pink and black. When we were not eating in the kitchen, we wrestled in the courtyard or in the straw of the box stall. Such was my world for however long it was I was there. Not too long, I think, for I do not recall the weather changing. All my memories of that time are of raw days and blustery wind, and snow and ice that partially melted each day but were restored by night’s freezes.
One other memory I have of that time, but it is not sharp-edged. Rather it is warm and softly tinted, like a rich old tapestry seen in a dim room. I recall being roused from sleep by the pup’s wriggling and the yellow light of a lantern being held over me. Two men bent over me, but Burrich stood stiffly behind them and I was not afraid.
“Now you’ve wakened him,” warned the one, and he was Prince Verity, the man from the warmly lit chamber of my first evening.
“So? He’ll go back to sleep as soon as we leave. Damn him, he has his father’s eyes as well. I swear, I’d have known his blood no matter where I saw him. There’ll be no denying it to any that see him. But have neither you nor Burrich the sense of a flea? Bastard or not, you don’t stable a child among beasts. Was there nowhere else you could put him?”
The man who spoke was like Verity around the jaw and eyes, but there the resemblance ended. This man was younger by far. His cheeks were beardless, and his scented and smoothed hair was finer and brown. His cheeks and forehead had been stung to redness by the night’s chill, but it was a new thing, not Verity’s weathered ruddiness. And Verity dressed as his men dressed, in practical woolens of sturdy weave and subdued colors. Only the crest on his breast showed brighter, in gold and silver thread. But the younger man with him gleamed in scarlets and primrose, and his cloak drooped with twice the width of cloth needed to cover a man. The doublet that showed beneath it was a rich cream, and laden with lace. The scarf at his throat was secured with a leaping stag done in gold, its single eye a winking green gem. And the careful turn of his words was like a twisted chain of gold compared to the simple links of Verity’s speech.
“Regal, I had given it no thought. What do I know of children? I turned him over to Burrich. He is Chivalry’s man, and as such he’s cared for.…”
“I meant no disrespect to the blood, sir,” Burrich said in honest confusion. “I am Chivalry’s man, and I saw to the boy as I thought best. I could make him up a pallet in the guardroom, but he seems small to be in the company of such men, with their comings and goings at all hours, their fights and drinking and noise.” The tone of his words made his own distaste for their company obvious. “Bedded here, he has quiet, and the pup has taken to him. And with my Vixen to watch over him at night, no one could do him harm without her teeth taking a toll. My lords, I know little of children myself, and it seemed to me—”
“It’s fine, Burrich, it’s fine,” Verity said quietly, cutting him off. “If it had to be thought about, I should have done the thinking. I left it to you, and I don’t find fault with it. It’s better than a lot of children have in this village, Eda knows. For here, for now, it’s fine.”
“It will have to be different when he comes back to Buckkeep.” Regal did not sound pleased.
“Then our father wishes him to return with us to Buckkeep?” The question came from Verity.
“Our father does. My mother does not.”
“Oh.” Verity’s tone indicated he had no interest in further discussing that. But Regal frowned and continued.
“My mother the Queen is not at all pleased about any of this. She has counseled the King long, but in vain. Mother and I were for putting the boy … aside. It is only good sense. We scarcely need more confusion in the line of succession.”
“I see no confusion in it now, Regal.” Verity spoke evenly. “Chivalry, me, and then you. Then our cousin August. This bastard would be a far fifth.”
“I am well aware that you precede me; you need not flaunt it at me at every opportunity,” Regal said coldly. He glared down at me. “I still think it would be better not to have him about. What if Chivalry never does get a legal heir on Patience? What if he chooses to recognize this … boy? It could be very divisive to the nobles. Why should we tempt trouble? So say my mother and I. But our father the King is not a hasty man, as well we know. Shrewd is as Shrewd does, as the common folk say. He forbade any settling of the matter. ‘Regal,’ he said, in that way he has. ‘Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it.’ Then he laughed.” Regal himself gave a short, bitter laugh. “I weary so of his humor.”
“Oh,” said Verity again, and I lay still and wondered if he were trying to sort out the King’s words, or refraining from replying to his brother’s complaint.
“You discern his real reasons, of course,” Regal informed him.
“He still favors Chivalry.” Regal sounded disgusted. “Despite everything. Despite his foolish marriage and his eccentric wife. Despite this mess. And now he thinks this will sway the people, make them warmer toward him. Prove he’s a man, that Chivalry can father a child. Or maybe prove he’s a human, and can make mistakes like the rest of them.” Regal’s tone betrayed that he agreed with none of this.
“And this will make the people like him more, support his future kingship more? That he fathered a child on some wild woman before he married his queen?” Verity sounded confused by the logic.
I heard the sourness in Regal’s voice. “So the King seems to think. Does he care nothing for the disgrace? But I suspect Chivalry will feel differently about using his bastard in such a way. Especially as it regards dear Patience. But the King has ordered that the bastard be brought to Buckkeep when you return.” Regal looked down on me as if ill-satisfied.
Verity looked briefly troubled, but nodded. A shadow lay over Burrich’s features that the yellow lamplight could not lift.
“Has my master no say in this?” Burrich ventured to protest. “It seems to me that if he wants to settle a portion on the family of the boy’s mother, and set him aside, then, why surely for the sake of my Lady Patience’s sensibilities, he should be allowed that discretion—”
Prince Regal broke in with a snort of disdain. “The time for discretion was before he rolled the wench. The Lady Patience is not the first woman to have to face her husband’s bastard. Everyone here knows of his existence; Verity’s clumsiness saw to that. There’s no point to trying to hide him. And as far as a royal bastard is concerned, none of us can afford to have such sensibilities, Burrich. To leave such a boy in a place like this is like leaving a weapon hovering over the King’s throat. Surely even a houndsman can see that. And even if you can’t, your master will.”
An icy harshness had come into Regal’s voice, and I saw Burrich flinch from his voice as I had seen him cower from nothing else. It made me afraid, and I drew the blanket up over my head and burrowed deeper into the straw. Beside me, Vixen growled lightly in the back of her throat. I think it made Regal step back, but I cannot be sure. The men left soon after, and if they spoke any more than that, no memory of it lies within me.
Time passed, and I think it was two, or perhaps three weeks later that I found myself clinging to Burrich’s belt and trying to wrap my short legs around a horse behind him as we left that chill village and began what seemed to me an endless journey down to warmer lands. I suppose at some point Chivalry must have come to see the bastard he had sired and must have passed some sort of judgment on himself as regarded me. But I have no memory of such a meeting with my father. The only image I carry of him in my mind is from his portrait on the wall in Buckkeep. Years later I was given to understand that his diplomacy had gone well indeed, securing a treaty and peace that lasted well into my teens and earning the respect and even fondness of the Chyurda.
In truth, I was his only failure that year, but I was a monumental one. He preceded us home to Buckkeep, where he abdicated his claim to the throne. By the time we arrived, he and Lady Patience were gone from court, to live as the Lord and Lady of Withywoods. I have been to Withywoods. Its name bears no relationship to its appearance. It is a warm valley, centered on a gently flowing river that carves a wide plain that nestles between gently rising and rolling foothills. A place to grow grapes and grain and plump children. It is a soft holding, far from the borders, far from the politics of court, far from anything that had been Chivalry’s life up to then. It was a pasturing out, a gentle and genteel exile for a man who would have been King. A velvet smothering for a warrior and a silencing of a rare and skilled diplomat.
And so I came to Buckkeep, sole child and bastard of a man I’d never know. Prince Verity became King-in-Waiting and Prince Regal moved up a notch in the line of succession. If all I had ever done was to be born and discovered, I would have left a mark across all the land for all time. I grew up fatherless and motherless in a court where all recognized me as a catalyst. And a catalyst I became.
There are many legends about Taker, the first Outislander to claim Buckkeep as the First Duchy and the founder of the royal line. One is that the raiding voyage he was on was his first and only foray out from whatever cold harsh island bore him. It is said that upon seeing the timbered fortifications of Buckkeep, he had announced, “If there’s a fire and a meal there, I shan’t be leaving again.” And there was, and he didn’t.
But family rumor says that he was a poor sailor, made sick by the heaving water and salt-fish rations that other Outislanders throve upon. That he and his crew had been lost for days upon the water, and if he had not managed to seize Buckkeep and make it his own, his own crew would have drowned him. Nevertheless, the old tapestry in the Great Hall shows him as a well-thewed stalwart grinning fiercely over the prow of his vessel as his oarsmen propel him toward an ancient Buckkeep of logs and poorly dressed stone.
Buckkeep had begun its existence as a defensible position on a navigable river at the mouth of a bay with excellent anchorage. Some petty landchief, whose name has been lost in the mists of history, saw the potential for controlling trade on the river and built the first stronghold there. Ostensibly, he had built it to defend both river and bay from the Outislander raiders who came every summer to plunder up and down the river. What he had not figured on were the raiders that infiltrated his fortifications by treachery. The towers and walls became their toehold. They moved their occupations and domination up the river, and rebuilding his timber fort into towers and walls of dressed stone, finally made Buckkeep the heart of the First Duchy, and eventually the capital of the kingdom of the Six Duchies.
The ruling house of the Six Duchies, the Farseers, were descended from those Outislanders. They had, for several generations, kept up their ties with the Outislanders, making courting voyages and returning home with plump dark brides of their own folk. And so the blood of the Outislanders still ran strong in the royal lines and the noble houses, producing children with black hair and dark eyes and muscled stocky limbs. And with those attributes went a predilection for the Skill, and all the dangers and weaknesses inherent in such blood. I had my share of that heritage, too.
But my first experience of Buckkeep held nothing of history or heritage. I knew it only as an end place for a journey, a panorama of noise and people, carts and dogs and buildings and twisting streets that led finally to an immense stone stronghold on the cliffs that overlooked the city sheltered below it. Burrich’s horse was weary, and his hooves slipped on the often slimy cobbles of the city streets. I held on grimly to Burrich’s belt, too weary and aching even to complain. I craned my head up once to stare at the tall gray towers and walls of the keep above us. Even in the unfamiliar warmth of the sea breeze, it looked chill and forbidding. I leaned my forehead against his back and felt ill in the brackish iodine smell of the immense water. And that was how I came to Buckkeep.
Burrich had quarters over the stables, not far from the mews. It was there he took me, along with the hounds and Chivalry’s hawk. He saw to the hawk first, for it was sadly bedraggled from the trip. The dogs were overjoyed to be home and were suffused with a boundless energy that was very annoying to anyone as weary as I. Nosy bowled me over a half-dozen times before I could convey to his thick-skulled hound’s mind that I was weary and half-sick and in no mood for play. He responded as any pup would, by seeking out his former littermates and immediately getting himself into a semiserious fight with one of them that was quelled by a shout from Burrich. Chivalry’s man he might be, but when he was at Buckkeep, he was the master for hounds, hawks, and horses.
His own beasts seen to, he proceeded to walk through the stables, surveying all that had been done, or left undone, in his absence. Stable boys, grooms, and falconers appeared as if by magic to defend their charges from any criticisms. I trotted at his heels for as long as I could keep up. It was only when I finally surrendered, and sank wearily onto a pile of straw, that he appeared to notice me. A look of irritation, and then great weariness, passed across his face.
“Here, you, Cob. Take young Fitz there to the kitchens and see that he’s fed, and then bring him back up to my quarters.”
Cob was a short, dark dog boy, perhaps ten years old, who had just been praised over the health of a litter that had been whelped in Burrich’s absence. Moments before he had been basking in Burrich’s approval. Now his grin faltered, and he looked at me dubiously. We regarded one another as Burrich moved off down the line of stalls with his entourage of nervous caretakers. Then the boy shrugged and went into a half crouch to face me. “Are you hungry, then, Fitz? Shall we go find you a bite?” he asked invitingly, in exactly the same tone as he had used to coax his puppies out where Burrich could see them. I nodded, relieved that he expected no more from me than from a puppy, and followed him.
He looked back often to see if I was keeping up. No sooner were we outside the stables than Nosy came frolicking up to join me. The hound’s evident affection for me raised me in Cob’s estimation, and he continued to speak to both of us in short encouraging phrases, telling us there was food just ahead, come along now, no, don’t go off sniffing after that cat, come along now, there’s some good fellows.
The stables had been bustling, with Verity’s men putting up their horses and gear and Burrich finding fault with all that had not been done up to his standards in his absence. But as we drew closer to the inner keep, the foot traffic increased. Folk brushed by us on all manner of errands: a boy carrying an immense slab of bacon on his shoulder, a giggling cluster of girls, arms heavy with strewing reeds and heather, a scowling old man with a basket of flopping fish, and three young women in motley and bells, their voices ringing as merrily as their chimes.
My nose informed me that we were getting closer to the kitchens, but the traffic increased proportionately, until we drew near a door with a veritable crush of people going in and out. Cob stopped, and Nosy and I paused behind him, noses working appreciatively. He regarded the press of folk at the door and frowned to himself. “Place is packed. Everyone’s getting ready for the welcoming feast tonight, for Verity and Regal. Anyone who’s anyone has come into Buckkeep for it; word spread fast about Chivalry ducking out on the kingship. All the Dukes have come or sent a man to counsel about it. I hear even the Chyurda sent someone, to be sure Chivalry’s treaties will be honored if Chivalry is no longer about—”
He halted, suddenly embarrassed, but whether it was because he was speaking of my father to the cause of his abdication, or because he was addressing a puppy and a six-year-old as if they had intelligence, I am not sure. He glanced about, reassessing the situation. “Wait here,” he told us finally. “I’ll slip in and bring something out for you. Less chance of me getting stepped on … or caught. Now stay.” And he reinforced his command with a firm gesture of his hand. I backed up to a wall and crouched down there, out of traffic’s way, and Nosy sat obediently beside me. I watched admiringly as Cob approached the door and slipped between the clustered folk, eeling smoothly into the kitchens.
With Cob out of sight, the more general populace claimed my attention. Largely the folk that passed us were serving people and cooks, with a scattering of minstrels and merchants and delivery folk. I watched them come and go with a weary curiosity. I had already seen too much that day to find them of great interest. Almost more than food I desired a quiet place away from all this activity. I sat flat on the ground, my back against the sun-warmed wall of the keep, and put my forehead on my knees. Nosy leaned against me.
Nosy’s stick tail beating against the earth roused me. I lifted my face from my knees to perceive a tall pair of brown boots before me. My eyes traveled up rough leather pants and over a coarse wool shirt to a shaggy bearded face thatched with pepper-gray hair. The man staring down at me balanced a small keg on one shoulder.
“You the bastid, hey?”
I had heard the word often enough to know it meant me, without grasping the fullness of its meaning. I nodded slowly. The man’s face brightened with interest.
“Hey,” he said loudly, no longer speaking to me but to the folk coming and going. “Here’s the bastid. Stiff-as-a-stick Chivalry’s by-blow. Looks a fair bit like him, don’t you say? Who’s your mother, boy?”
To their credit, most of the passing people continued to come and go, with no more than a curious stare at the six-year-old sitting by the wall. But the cask man’s question was evidently of great interest, for more than a few heads turned, and several tradesmen who had just exited from the kitchen drew nearer to hear the answer.
But I did not have an answer. Mother had been Mother, and whatever I had known of her was already fading. So I made no reply, but only stared up at him.
“Hey. What’s your name then, boy?” And turning to his audience, he confided, “I heard he ain’t got no name. No high-flown royal name to shape him, nor even a cottage name to scold him by. That right, boy? You got a name?”
The group of onlookers was growing. A few showed pity in their eyes, but none interfered. Some of what I was feeling passed to Nosy, who dropped over onto his side and showed his belly in supplication while thumping his tail in that ancient canine signal that always means, “I’m only a puppy. I cannot defend myself. Have mercy.” Had they been dogs, they would have sniffed me over and then drawn back. But humans have no such inbred courtesies. So when I didn’t answer, the man drew a step nearer and repeated, “You got a name, boy?”
I stood slowly, and the wall that had been warm against my back a moment ago was now a chill barrier to retreat. At my feet, Nosy squirmed in the dust on his back and let out a pleading whine. “No,” I said softly, and when the man made as if to lean closer to hear my words, “NO!” I shouted, and repelled at him, while crabbing sideways along the wall. I saw him stagger a step backward, losing his grip on his cask, so that it fell to the cobbled path and cracked open. No one in the crowd could have understood what had happened. I certainly didn’t. For the most part, folk laughed to see a grown man cower back from a child. In that moment my reputation for both temper and spirit was made, for before nightfall the tale of the bastard standing up to his tormentor was all over the town. Nosy scrabbled to his feet and fled with me. I had one glimpse of Cob’s face, taut with confusion as he emerged from the kitchen, pies in hands, and saw Nosy and I flee. Had he been Burrich, I probably would have halted and trusted my safety to him. But he was not, and so I ran, letting Nosy take the lead.
We fled through the trooping servants, just one more small boy and his dog racing about in the courtyard, and Nosy took me to what he obviously regarded as the safest place in the world. Far from the kitchen and the inner keep was a hollow Vixen had scraped out under a corner of a rickety outbuilding where sacks of peas and beans were stored. Here Nosy had been whelped, in total defiance of Burrich, and here she had managed to keep her pups hidden for almost three days. Burrich himself had found her there. His smell was the first human smell Nosy could recall. It was a tight squeeze to get under the building, but once within, the den was warm and dry and semidark. Nosy huddled close to me and I put my arm around him. Hidden there, our hearts soon eased down from their wild thumpings, and from calmness we passed into the deep dreamless sleep reserved for warm spring afternoons and puppies.
I came awake shivering, hours later. It was full dark and the tenuous warmth of the early-spring day had fled. Nosy was awake as soon as I was, and together we scraped and slithered out of the den.
There was a high night sky over Buckkeep, with stars shining bright and cold. The smell of the bay was stronger as if the day smells of men and horses and cooking were temporary things that had to surrender each night to the ocean’s power. We walked down deserted pathways, through exercise yards and past granaries and the winepress. All was still and silent. As we drew closer to the inner keep I saw torches still burning and heard voices still raised in talk. But it all seemed tired somehow, the last vestiges of revelry winding down before dawn came to lighten the skies. Still, we skirted the inner keep by a wide margin, having had enough of people.
I found myself following Nosy back to the stables. As we drew near the heavy doors I wondered how we would get in. But Nosy’s tail began to wag wildly as we got closer, and then even my poor nose picked up Burrich’s scent in the dark. He rose from the wooden crate he’d been seated on by the door. “There you are,” he said soothingly. “Come along then. Come on.” And he stood and opened the heavy doors for us and led us in.
We followed him through darkness, between rows of stalls, past grooms and handlers put up for the night in the stables, and then past our own horses and dogs and the stable boys who slept amongst them, and then to a staircase that climbed the wall that separated the stables from the mews. We followed Burrich up its creaking wooden treads, and then he opened another door. Dim yellow light from a guttering candle on a table blinded me temporarily. We followed Burrich into a slant-roofed chamber that smelled of Burrich and leather and the oils and salves and herbs that were part of Burrich’s trade. He shut the door firmly behind us, and as he came past us to kindle a fresh candle from the nearly spent one on the table, I smelled the sweetness of wine on him.
The light spread, and Burrich seated himself on a wooden chair by the table. He looked different, dressed in fine thin cloth of brown and yellow, with a bit of silver chain across his jerkin. He put his hand out, palm up, on his knee and Nosy went to him immediately. Burrich scratched his hanging ears and then thumped his ribs affectionately, grimacing at the dust that rose from his coat. “You’re a fine pair, the two of you,” he said, speaking more to the pup than to me. “Look at you. Filthy as beggars. I lied to my king today for you. First time ever in my life I’ve done that. Appears as if Chivalry’s fall from grace will take me down as well. Told him you were washed up and sound asleep, exhausted from your journey. He was not pleased he would have to wait to see you, but luckily for us, he had weightier things to handle. Chivalry’s abdication has upset a lot of lords. Some are seeing it as a chance to push for an advantage, and others are disgruntled to be cheated of a king they admired. Shrewd’s trying to calm them all. He’s letting it be noised about that Verity was the one who negotiated with the Chyurda this time. Those as will believe that shouldn’t be allowed to walk about on their own. But they came, to look at Verity anew, and wonder if and when he’d be their next king, and what kind of a king he would be. Chivalry’s dumping it over and leaving for Withywoods has stirred all the Duchies as if he’d poked a stick in a hive.”
Burrich lifted his eyes from Nosy’s eager face. “Well, Fitz. Guess you got a taste of it today. Fair scared poor Cob to death, your running off like that. Now, are you hurt? Did anyone rough you up? I should have known there would be those would blame all the stir on you. Come here, then. Come on.”
When I hesitated, he moved over to a pallet of blankets made up near the fire and patted it invitingly. “See. There’s a place here for you, all ready. And there’s bread and meat on the table for both of you.”
His words made me aware of the covered platter on the table. Flesh, Nosy’s senses confirmed, and I was suddenly full of the smell of the meat. Burrich laughed at our rush to the table and silently approved how I shared a portion out to Nosy before filling my own jaws. We ate to repletion, for Burrich had not underestimated how hungry a pup and a boy would be after the day’s misadventures. And then, despite our long nap earlier, the blankets so close to the fire were suddenly immensely inviting. Bellies full, we curled up with the flames baking our backs and slept.
When we awoke the next day, the sun was well risen and Burrich already gone. Nosy and I ate the heel of last night’s loaf and gnawed the leftover bones clean before we descended from Burrich’s quarters. No one challenged us or appeared to take any notice of us.
Outside, another day of chaos and revelry had begun. The keep was, if anything, more swollen with people. Their passage stirred the dust and their mixing voices were an overlay to the shushing of the wind and the more distant muttering of the waves. Nosy drank it all in, every scent, every sight, every sound. The doubled sensory impact dizzied me. As I walked I gathered from snatches of conversation that our arrival had coincided with some spring rite of merriment and gathering. Chivalry’s abdication was still the main topic, but it did not prevent the puppet shows and jugglers from making every corner a stage for their antics. At least one puppet show had already incorporated Chivalry’s fall from grace into its bawdy comedy, and I stood anonymous in the crowd and puzzled over dialogue about sowing the neighbor’s fields that had the adults roaring with laughter.
But very soon the crowds and the noise became oppressive to both of us, and I let Nosy know I wished to escape it all. We left the keep, passing out of the thick-walled gate past guards intent upon flirting with the merrymakers as they came and went. One more boy and dog leaving on the heels of a fishmongering family were nothing to notice. And with no better distraction in sight, we followed the family as they wound their way down the streets away from the keep and toward the town of Buckkeep. We dropped farther and farther behind them as new scents demanded that Nosy investigate and then urinate at every corner, until it was just he and I wandering in the city.
Buckkeep then was a windy, raw place. The streets were steep and crooked, with paving stones that rocked and shifted out of place under the weight of passing carts. The wind blasted my inland nostrils with the scent of beached kelp and fish guts, while the keening of the gulls and seabirds was an eerie melody above the rhythmic shushing of the waves. The town clings to the rocky black cliffs much like limpets and barnacles cling to the pilings and quays that venture out into the bay. The houses were of stone and wood, with the more elaborate wooden ones built higher up the rocky face and cut more deeply into it.
Buckkeep Town was relatively quiet compared with the festivity and crowds up in the keep. Neither of us had the sense or experience to know the waterfront town was not the best place for a six-year-old and a puppy to wander. Nosy and I explored eagerly, sniffing our way down Bakers’ Street and through a near-deserted market and then along the warehouses and boat sheds that were the lowest level of the town. Here the water was close, and we walked on wooden piers as often as we did sand and stone. Business here was going on as usual with little allowance for the carnival atmosphere up in the keep. Ships must dock and unload as the rising and falling of the tides allow, and those who fish for a living must follow the schedules of the finned creatures, not those of men.
We soon encountered children, some busy at the lesser tasks of their parents’ crafts, but some idlers like ourselves. I fell in easily with them, with little need for introductions or any of the adult pleasantries. Most of them were older than I, but several were as young or younger. None of them seemed to think it odd I should be out and about on my own. I was introduced to all the important sights of the city, including the swollen body of a cow that had washed up at the last tide. We visited a new fishing boat under construction at a dock littered with curling shavings and strong-smelling pitch spills. A fish-smoking rack left carelessly untended furnished a midday repast for a half dozen of us. If the children I was with were more ragged and boisterous than those who passed at their chores, I did not notice. And had anyone told me I was passing the day with a pack of beggar brats denied entrance to the keep because of their light-fingered ways, I would have been shocked. At the time I knew only that it was suddenly a lively and pleasant day, full of places to go and things to do.
There were a few youngsters, larger and more rambunctious, who would have taken the opportunity to set the newcomer on his ear had Nosy not been with me and showing his teeth at the first aggressive shove. But as I did not show any signs of wanting to challenge their leadership, I was allowed to follow. I was suitably impressed by all their secrets, and I would venture to say that by the end of the long afternoon, I knew the poorer quarter of town better than many who had grown up above it.
I was not asked for a name, but simply was called Newboy. The others had names as simple as Dirk or Kerry, or as descriptive as Netpicker and Nosebleed. The last might have been a pretty little thing in better circumstances. She was a year or two older than I, but very outspoken and quick-witted. She got into one dispute with a big boy of twelve, but she showed no fear of his fists, and her sharp-tongued taunts soon had everyone laughing at him. She took her victory calmly and left me awed with her toughness. But the bruises on her face and thin arms were layered in shades of purple, blue, and yellow, while a crust of dried blood below one ear belied her name. Even so, Nosebleed was a lively one, her voice shriller than the gulls that wheeled above us. Late afternoon found Kerry, Nosebleed, and me on a rocky shore beyond the net menders’ racks, with Nosebleed teaching me to scour the rocks for tight-clinging sheel. These she levered off expertly with a sharpened stick. She was showing me how to use a nail to pry the chewy inmates out of their shells when another girl hailed us with a shout.
The neat blue cloak that blew around her and the leather shoes on her feet set her apart from my companions. Nor did she come to join our harvesting, but only came close enough to call, “Molly, Molly, he’s looking for you, high and low. He waked up near sober an hour ago, and took to calling you names as soon as he found you gone and the fire out.”
A look mixed of defiance and fear passed over Nosebleed’s face. “Run away, Kittne, but take my thanks with you. I’ll remember you next time the tides bare the kelp-crab beds.”
Kittne ducked her head in a brief acknowledgment and immediately turned and hastened back the way she had come.
“Are you in trouble?” I asked Nosebleed when she did not go back to turning over stones for sheels.
“Trouble?” She gave a snort of disdain. “That depends. If my father can stay sober long enough to find me, I might be in for a bit of it. More than likely he’ll be drunk enough tonight that not a one of whatever he hurls at me will hit. More than likely!” she repeated firmly when Kerry opened his mouth to object to this. And with that she turned back to the rocky beach and our search for sheel.
We were crouched over a many-legged gray creature that we found stranded in a tide pool when the crunch of a heavy boot on the barnacled rocks brought all our heads up. With a shout Kerry fled down the beach, never pausing to look back. Nosy and I sprang back, Nosy crowding against me, teeth bared bravely as his tail tickled his cowardly little belly. Molly Nosebleed was either not so fast to react or resigned to what was to come. A gangly man caught her a smack on the side of the head. He was a skinny man, red-nosed and rawboned, so that his fist was like a knot at the end of his bony arm, but the blow was still enough to send Molly sprawling. Barnacles cut into her wind-reddened knees, and when she crabbed aside to avoid the clumsy kick he aimed at her, I winced at the salty sand that packed the new cuts.
“Faithless little musk cat! Didn’t I tell you to stay and tend to the dipping! And here I find you mucking about on the beach, with the tallow gone hard in the pot. They’ll be wanting more tapers up at the keep this night, and what am I to sell them?”
“The three dozen I set this morning. That was all you left me wicking for, you drunken old sot!” Molly got to her feet and stood bravely despite her brimming eyes. “What was I to do? Burn up all the fuel to keep the tallow soft so that when you finally gave me wicking, we’d have no way to heat the kettle?”
The wind gusted and the man swayed shallowly against it. It brought us a whiff of him. Sweat and beer, Nosy informed me sagely. For a moment the man looked regretful, but then the pain of his sour belly and aching head hardened him. He stooped suddenly and seized a whitened branch of driftwood. “You won’t talk to me like that, you wild brat! Down here with the beggar boys, doing El knows what! Stealing from the smoke racks again, I’ll wager, and bringing more shame to me! Dare to run, and you’ll have it twice when I catch you.”
She must have believed him, for she only cowered as he advanced on her, putting up her thin arms to shield her head and then seeming to think better of it, and hiding only her face with her hands. I stood transfixed in horror while Nosy yelped with my terror and wet himself at my feet. I heard the swish of the driftwood knob as the club descended. My heart leaped sideways in my chest and I pushed at the man, the force jerking out oddly from my belly.
He fell, as had the keg man the day before. But this man fell clutching at his chest, his driftwood weapon spinning harmlessly away. He dropped to the sand, gave a twitch that spasmed his whole body, and then was still.
An instant later Molly unscrewed her eyes, shrinking from the blow she still expected. She saw her father collapsed on the rocky beach, and amazement emptied her face. She leaped toward him, crying, “Papa, Papa, are you all right? Please, don’t die, I’m sorry I’m such a wicked girl! Don’t die, I’ll be good, I promise I’ll be good.” Heedless of her bleeding knees, she knelt beside him, turning his face so he wouldn’t breathe in sand, and then vainly trying to sit him up.
“He was going to kill you,” I told her, trying to make sense of the whole situation.
“No. He hits me, a bit, when I am bad, but he’d never kill me. And when he is sober and not sick, he cries about it and begs me not be too bad and make him angry. I should take more care not to anger him. Oh, Newboy, I think he’s dead.”
I wasn’t sure myself, but in a moment he gave an awful groan and opened his eyes a bit. Whatever fit had felled him seemed to have passed. Dazedly he accepted Molly’s self-accusations and anxious help, and even my reluctant aid. He leaned on the two of us as we wove our way down the rocky beach over the uneven footing. Nosy followed us, by turns barking and racing in circles around us.
The few folk who saw us pass paid no attention to us. I guessed that the sight of Molly helping her papa home was not strange to any of them. I helped them as far as the door of a small chandlery, Molly sniffling apologies every step of the way. I left them there, and Nosy and I found our way back up the winding streets and hilly road to the keep, wondering every step at the ways of folk.
Having found the town and the beggar children once, they drew me like a magnet every day afterward. Burrich’s days were taken up with his duties, and his evenings with the drink and merriment of the Springfest. He paid little mind to my comings and goings, as long as each evening found me on my pallet before his hearth. In truth, I think he had little idea of what to do with me, other than see that I was fed well enough to grow heartily and that I slept safe within doors at night. It could not have been a good time for him. He had been Chivalry’s man, and now that Chivalry had cast himself down, what was to become of him? That must have been much on his mind. And there was the matter of his leg. Despite his knowledge of poultices and bandaging, he could not seem to work the healing on himself that he so routinely served to his beasts. Once or twice I saw the injury unwrapped and winced at the ragged tear that refused to heal smoothly but remained swollen and oozing. Burrich cursed it roundly at first and set his teeth grimly each night as he cleaned and redressed it, but as the days passed he regarded it with more of a sick despair than anything else. Eventually he did get it to close, but the ropy scar twisted his leg and disfigured his walk. Small wonder he had little mind to give to a young bastard deposited in his care.
So I ran free in the way that only small children can, unnoticed for the most part. By the time Springfest was over, the guards at the keep’s gate had become accustomed to my daily comings and goings. They probably thought me an errand boy, for the keep had many of those, only slightly older than I. I learned to pilfer early from the keep’s kitchen enough for both Nosy and myself to breakfast heartily. Scavenging other food—burned crusts from the bakers, sheel and seaweed from the beach, smoked fish from untended racks—was a regular part of my day’s activities. Molly Nosebleed was my most frequent companion. I seldom saw her father strike her after that day; for the most part he was too drunk to find her, or to make good on his threats when he did. To what I had done that day, I gave little thought, other than to be grateful that Molly had not realized I was responsible.
The town became the world to me, with the keep a place I went to sleep. It was summer, a wonderful time in a port town. No matter where I went, Buckkeep Town was alive with comings and goings. Goods came down the Buck River from the Inland Duchies, on flat river barges manned by sweating bargemen. They spoke learnedly about shoals and bars and landmarks and the rising and falling of the river waters. Their freight was hauled up into the town shops or warehouses, and then down again to the docks and into the holds of the sea ships. Those were manned by swearing sailors who sneered at the rivermen and their inland ways. They spoke of tides and storms and nights when not even the stars would show their faces to guide them. And fishermen tied up to Buckkeep docks as well, and were the most genial of the group. At least so they were when the fish were running well.
Kerry taught me the docks and the taverns, and how a quick-footed boy might earn three or even five pence a day, running messages up the steep streets of the town. We thought ourselves sharp and daring, to thus undercut the bigger boys who asked two pence or even more for just one errand. I don’t think I have ever been as brave since as I was then. If I close my eyes, I can smell those glorious days. Oakum and tar and fresh wood shavings from the dry docks where the shipwrights wielded their drawknives and mallets. The sweet smell of very fresh fish, and the poisonous odor of a catch held too long on a hot day. Bales of wool in the sun added their own note to the scent of oak kegs of mellow Sandsedge brandy. Sheaves of fevergone hay waiting to sweeten a forepeak mingled scents with crates of hard melons. And all of these smells were swirled by a wind off the bay, seasoned with salt and iodine. Nosy brought all he scented to my attention as his keener senses overrode my duller ones.
Kerry and I would be sent to fetch a navigator gone to say good-bye to his wife, or to bear a sampling of spices to a buyer at a shop. The harbormaster might send us running to let a crew know some fool had tied the lines wrong and the tide was about to abandon their ship. But I liked best the errands that took us into the taverns. There the storytellers and gossips plied their trades. The storytellers told the classic tales, of voyages of discovery and crews who braved terrible storms and of foolish captains who took down their ships with all hands. I learned many of the traditional ones by heart, but the tales I loved best came not from the professional storytellers but from the sailors themselves. These were not the tales told at the hearths for all to hear, but the warnings and tidings passed from crew to crew as the men shared a bottle of brandy or a loaf of yellow pollen bread.
They spoke of catches they’d made, nets full to sinking the boat almost, or of marvelous fish and beasts glimpsed only in the path of a full moon as it cut a ship’s wake. There were stories of villages raided by Outislanders, both on the coast and on the outlying islands of our Duchy, and tales of pirates and battles at sea and ships taken by treachery from within. Most gripping were the tales of the Red-Ship Raiders, Outislanders who both raided and pirated, and attacked not only our ships and towns but even other Outislander ships. Some scoffed at the notion of the red-keeled ships, and mocked those who told of Outislander pirates turning against other pirates like themselves.
But Kerry and I and Nosy would sit under the tables with our backs braced against the legs, nibbling penny sweet loaves, and listen wide-eyed to tales of red-keeled ships with a dozen bodies swinging from their yardarms, not dead, no, but bound men who jerked and shrieked when the gulls came down to peck at them. We would listen to deliciously scary tales until even the stuffy taverns seemed chilling cold, and then we would race down to the docks again, to earn another penny.
Once Kerry, Molly, and I built a raft of driftwood logs and poled it about under the docks. We left it tied up there, and when the tide came up, it battered loose a whole section of dock and damaged two skiffs. For days we dreaded that someone would discover we were the culprits. And one time a tavern keeper boxed Kerry’s ears and accused us both of stealing. Our revenge was the stinking herring we wedged up under the supports of his tabletops. It rotted and stank and made flies for days before he found it.
I learned a smattering of trades in my travels: fish buying, net mending, boat building, and idling. I learned even more of human nature. I became a quick judge of who would actually pay the promised penny for a message delivered, and who would just laugh at me when I came to collect. I knew which baker could be begged from, and which shops were easiest to thieve from. And through it all, Nosy was at my side, so bonded to me now that I seldom separated my mind completely from his. I used his nose, his eyes, and his jaws as freely as my own, and never thought it the least bit strange.
So the better part of the summer passed. But one fine day, with the sun riding a sky bluer than the sea, my good fortune came at last to an end. Molly, Kerry, and I had pilfered a fine string of liver sausages from a smokehouse and were fleeing down the street with the rightful owner in pursuit. Nosy was with us, as always. The other children had come to accept him as a part of me. I don’t think it ever occurred to them to wonder at our singleness of mind. Newboy and Nosy we were, and they probably thought it but a clever trick that Nosy would know before I threw where to be to catch our shared bounty. Thus there were actually four of us, racing down the cluttered street, passing the sausages from grubby hand to damp jaws and back to hand again while behind us the owner bellowed and chased us in vain.
Then Burrich stepped out of a shop.
I was running toward him. We recognized one another in a moment of mutual dismay. The blackness of the look that appeared on his face left me no doubts about my conduct. Flee, I decided in a breath, and dodged away from his reaching hands, only to discover in sudden befuddlement that I had somehow run right into him.
I do not like to dwell on what happened next. I was soundly cuffed, not only by Burrich but by the enraged owner of the sausages. All my fellow culprits save Nosy evaporated into the nooks and crannies of the street. Nosy came bellying up to Burrich, to be cuffed and scolded. I watched in agony as Burrich took coins from his pouch to pay the sausage man. He kept a grip on the back of my shirt that nearly lifted me off my feet. When the sausage man had departed and the little crowd who had gathered to watch my discomfiture was dispersing, he finally released me. I wondered at the look of disgust he gave me. With one more backhanded cuff on the back of my head, he commanded, “Get home. Now.”
We did, more speedily than ever we had before. We found our pallet before the hearth and waited in trepidation. And waited, and waited, through the long afternoon and into early evening. Both of us got hungry, but knew better than to leave. There had been something in Burrich’s face more frightening than even the anger of Molly’s papa.
When Burrich did come, the full night was in place. We heard his step on the stair, and I did not need Nosy’s keener senses to know that Burrich had been drinking. We shrank in on ourselves as he let himself into the dimmed room. His breathing was heavy, and it took him longer than usual to kindle several tapers from the single one I had set out. That done, he dropped onto a bench and regarded the two of us. Nosy whined and then fell over on his side in puppy supplication. I longed to do the same, but contented myself with looking up at him fearfully. After a moment he spoke.
“Fitz. What’s to come of you? What’s to come of us both? Running with beggar thieves in the streets, with the blood of kings in your veins. Packing up like animals.”
I didn’t speak.
“And me as much to blame as you, I suppose. Come here, then. Come here, boy.”
I ventured a step or two closer. I didn’t like coming too close.
Burrich frowned at my caution. “Are you hurt, boy?”
I shook my head.
“Then come here.”
I hesitated, and Nosy whined in an agony of indecision.
Burrich glanced down at him in puzzlement. I could see his mind working through a wine-induced haze. His eyes went from the pup to me and back again, and a sickened look spread across his face. He shook his head. Slowly he stood and walked away from the table and the pup, favoring his damaged leg. In the corner of the chamber there was a small rack, supporting an assortment of dusty tools and objects. Slowly Burrich reached up and took one down. It was made of wood and leather, stiff with disuse. He swung it, and the short leather lash smacked smartly against his leg. “Know what this is, boy?” he asked gently, in a kind voice.
I shook my head mutely.
I looked at him blankly. There was nothing in my experience or Nosy’s to tell me how to react to this. He must have seen my confusion. He smiled genially and his voice remained friendly, but I sensed something hidden in his manner, something waiting.
“It’s a tool, Fitz. A teaching device. When you get a pup that won’t mind—when you say to a pup, ‘Come here,’ and the pup refuses to come—well, a few sharp lashes from this, and the pup learns to listen and obey the first time. Just a few sharp cuts is all it takes to make a pup learn to mind.” He spoke casually as he lowered the whip and let the short lash dance lightly over the floor. Neither Nosy nor I could take our eyes off it, and when he suddenly flipped the whole object at Nosy, the pup gave a yelp of terror and leaped back from it, and then rushed to cower behind me.
And Burrich slowly sank down, covering his eyes as he folded himself onto a bench by the fireplace. “Oh, Eda,” he breathed, between a curse and a prayer. “I guessed, I suspected, when I saw you running together like that, but damn El’s eyes, I didn’t want to be right. I didn’t want to be right. I’ve never hit a pup with that damn thing in my life. Nosy had no reason to fear it. Not unless you’d been sharing minds with him.”
Whatever the danger had been, I sensed that it had passed. I sank down to sit beside Nosy, who crawled up into my lap and nosed at my face anxiously. I quieted him, suggesting we wait and see what happened next. Boy and pup, we sat, watching Burrich’s stillness. When he finally raised his face, I was astounded to see that he looked as if he had been crying. Like my mother, I remember thinking, but oddly I cannot now recall an image of her weeping. Only of Burrich’s grieved face.
“Fitz. Boy. Come here,” he said softly, and this time there was something in his voice that could not be disobeyed. I rose and went to him, Nosy at my heels. “No,” he said to the pup, and pointed to a place by his boot, but me he lifted onto the bench beside him.
“Fitz,” he began, and then paused. He took a deep breath and started again. “Fitz, this is wrong. It’s bad, very bad, what you’ve been doing with this pup. It’s unnatural. It’s worse than stealing or lying. It makes a man less than a man. Do you understand me?”
I looked at him blankly. He sighed and tried again.
“Boy, you’re of the royal blood. Bastard or not, you’re Chivalry’s own son, of the old line. And this thing you’re doing, it’s wrong. It’s not worthy of you. Do you understand?”
I shook my head mutely.
“There, you see. You’re not talking anymore. Now talk to me. Who taught you to do this?”
I tried. “Do what?” My voice felt creaky and rough.
Burrich’s eyes grew rounder. I sensed his effort at control. “You know what I mean. Who taught you to be with the dog, in his mind, seeing things with him, letting him see with you, telling each other things?”
I mulled this over for a moment. Yes, that was what had been happening. “No one,” I answered at last. “It just happened. We were together a lot,” I added, thinking that might explain it.
Burrich regarded me gravely. “You don’t speak like a child,” he observed suddenly. “But I’ve heard that was the way of it, with those who had the old Wit. That from the beginning, they were never truly children. They always knew too much, and as they got older they knew even more. That was why it was never accounted a crime, in the old days, to hunt them down and burn them. Do you understand what I’m telling you, Fitz?”
I shook my head, and when he frowned at my silence, I forced myself to add, “But I’m trying. What is the old Wit?”
Burrich looked incredulous, then suspicious. “Boy!” he threatened me, but I only looked at him. After a moment he conceded my ignorance.
“The old Wit,” he began slowly. His face darkened, and he looked down at his hands as if remembering an old sin. “It’s the power of the beast blood, just as the Skill comes from the line of kings. It starts out like a blessing, giving you the tongues of the animals. But then it seizes you and draws you down, makes you a beast like the rest of them. Until finally there’s not a shred of humanity in you, and you run and give tongue and taste blood, as if the pack were all you had ever known. Until no man could look on you and think you had ever been a man.” His voice had gotten lower and lower as he spoke, and he had not looked at me, but had turned to the fire and stared into the failing flames there. “There’s some as say a man takes on the shape of a beast then, but he kills with a man’s passion rather than a beast’s simple hunger. Kills for the killing …
“Is that what you want, Fitz? To take the blood of kings that’s in you, and drown it in the blood of the wild hunt? To be as a beast among beasts, simply for the sake of the knowledge it brings you? Worse yet, think on what comes before. Will the scent of fresh blood touch off your temper, will the sight of prey shut down your thoughts?” His voice grew softer still, and I heard the sickness he felt as he asked me, “Will you wake fevered and asweat because somewhere a bitch is in season and your companion scents it? Will that be the knowledge you take to your lady’s bed?”
I sat small beside him. “I do not know,” I said in a little voice.
He turned to face me, outraged. “You don’t know?” he growled. “I tell you where it will lead, and you say you don’t know?”
My tongue was dry in my mouth and Nosy cowered at my feet. “But I don’t know,” I protested. “How can I know what I’ll do, until I’ve done it? How can I say?”
“Well, if you can’t say, I can!” he roared, and I sensed then in full how he had banked the fires of his temper, and also how much he’d drunk that night. “The pup goes and you stay. You stay here, in my care, where I can keep an eye on you. If Chivalry will not have me with him, it’s the least I can do for him. I’ll see that his son grows up a man, and not a wolf. I’ll do it if it kills the both of us!”
He lurched from the bench, to seize Nosy by the scruff of the neck. At least, such was his intention. But the pup and I sprang clear of him. Together we rushed for the door, but the latch was fastened, and before I could work it, Burrich was upon us. Nosy he shoved aside with his boot; me he seized by a shoulder and propelled me away from the door. “Come here, pup,” he commanded, but Nosy fled to my side. Burrich stood panting and glaring by the door, and I caught the growling undercurrent of his thoughts, the fury that taunted him to smash us both and be done with it. Control overlaid it, but that brief glimpse was enough to terrify me. And when he suddenly sprang at us, I repelled at him with all the force of my fear.
He dropped as suddenly as a bird stoned in flight and sat for a moment on the floor. I stooped and clutched Nosy to me. Burrich slowly shook his head as if shaking raindrops from his hair. He stood, towering over us. “It’s in his blood,” I heard him mutter to himself. “From his damned mother’s blood, and I shouldn’t be surprised. But the boy has to be taught.” And then, as he looked me full in the eye, he warned me, “Fitz. Never do that to me again. Never. Now give me that pup.”
He advanced on us again, and as I felt the lap of his hidden wrath, I could not contain myself. I repelled at him again. But this time my defense was met by a wall that hurled it back at me, so that I stumbled and sank down, almost fainting, my mind pressed down by blackness. Burrich stooped over me. “I warned you,” he said softly, and his voice was like the growling of a wolf. Then, for the last time, I felt his fingers grip Nosy’s scruff. He lifted the pup bodily and carried him, not roughly, to the door. The latch that had eluded me he worked swiftly, and in moments I heard the heavy tromp of his boots down the stair.
In a moment I had recovered and was up, flinging myself against the door. But Burrich had locked it somehow, for I scrabbled vainly at the catch. My sense of Nosy receded as he was carried farther and farther from me, leaving in its place a desperate loneliness. I whimpered, then howled, clawing at the door and seeking after my contact with him. There was a sudden flash of red pain, and Nosy was gone. As his canine senses deserted me completely I screamed and cried as any six-year-old might, and hammered vainly at the thick wood planks.
It seemed hours before Burrich returned. I heard his step and lifted my head from where I lay panting and exhausted on the doorstep. He opened the door and then caught me deftly by the back of my shirt as I tried to dart past him. He jerked me back into the room and then slammed the door and fastened it again. I flung myself wordlessly against it, and a whimpering rose in my throat. Burrich sat down wearily.
“Don’t even think it, boy,” he cautioned me, as if he could hear my wild plans for the next time he let me out. “He’s gone. The pup’s gone, and a damn shame, for he was good blood. His line was nearly as long as yours. But I’d rather waste a hound than a man.” When I did not move, he added, almost kindly, “Let go of longing after him. It hurts less, that way.”
But I did not, and I could hear in his voice that he hadn’t really expected me to. He sighed, and moved slowly as he readied himself for bed. He didn’t speak to me again, just extinguished the lamp and settled himself on his bed. But he did not sleep, and it was still hours short of morning when he rose and lifted me from the floor and placed me in the warm place his body had left in the blankets. He went out again and did not return for some hours.
As for me, I was heartsick and feverish for days. Burrich, I believe, let it be known that I had some childish ailment, and so I was left in peace. It was days before I was allowed out again, and then it was not on my own.
Afterward, Burrich took pains to see that I was given no chance to bond with any beast. I am sure he thought he’d succeeded, and to some extent he did, in that I did not form an exclusive bond with any hound or horse. I know he meant well. But I did not feel protected by him, but confined. He was the warden that ensured my isolation with fanatical fervor. Utter loneliness was planted in me then, and sent its deep roots down into me.
The original source of the Skill will probably remain forever shrouded in mystery. Certainly a penchant for it runs remarkably strong within the royal family, and yet it is not solely confined to the King’s household. There does seem to be some truth to the folk saying, “When the sea blood flows with the blood of the plains, the Skill will blossom.” It is interesting to note that the Outislanders seem to have no predilection for the Skill, nor the folk descended solely from the original inhabitants of the Six Duchies.
Is it the nature of the world that all things seek a rhythm, and in that rhythm a sort of peace? Certainly it has always seemed so to me. All events, no matter how earthshaking or bizarre, are diluted within moments of their occurrence by the continuance of the necessary routines of day-to-day living. Men walking a battlefield to search for wounded among the dead will still stop to cough, to blow their noses, still lift their eyes to watch a V of geese in flight. I have seen farmers continue their plowing and planting, heedless of armies clashing but a few miles away.
So it proved for me. I look back on myself and wonder. Separated from my mother, dragged off to a new city and clime, abandoned by my father to the care of his man, and then bereft of my puppy companion, I still rose from my bed one day and resumed a small boy’s life. For me, that meant rising when Burrich awoke me, and following him to the kitchens, where I ate beside him. After that, I was Burrich’s shadow. He seldom allowed me out of his sight. I’d dog his heels, watching him at his tasks, and eventually assisting him in many small ways. Evening brought a meal where I sat at his side on a bench and ate, my manners supervised by his sharp eyes. Then it was up to his quarters, where I might spend the rest of the evening watching the fire in silence while he drank, or watching the fire in silence awaiting his return. He worked while he drank, mending or making harness, compounding a salve, or rendering down a physic for a horse. He worked, and I learned, watching him, though few words passed between us that I recall. Odd to think of two years, and most of another one, passed in such a way.
I learned to do as Molly did, stealing bits of time for myself on the days when Burrich was called away to assist in a hunt or help a mare birth. Once in a great while I dared to slip out when he had drunk more than he could manage, but those were dangerous outings. When I was free, I would hastily seek out my young companions in the city and run with them for as long as I dared. I missed Nosy with a keenness as great as if Burrich had severed a limb from my body. But neither of us ever spoke of that.
Looking back, I suppose he was as lonely as I. Chivalry had not allowed Burrich to follow him into his exile. Instead, he had been left to care for a nameless bastard and found that the bastard had a penchant for what he regarded as a perversion. And even after his leg healed, he discovered he would never ride nor hunt nor even walk as well as he once had; all that had to be hard, hard for a man such as Burrich. He never whined about it to anyone, that I heard. But again, in looking back, I cannot imagine to whom he could have made complaint. Locked into loneliness were we two, and looking at one another every evening, we each saw the one we blamed for it.
Yet all things must pass, but especially time, and with the months and then the years, I came slowly to have a place in the scheme of things. I fetched for Burrich, bringing before he had thought to ask for it, and tidied up after his ministrations to the beasts, and saw to clean water for the hawks and picked ticks off dogs come home from the hunt. Folk got used to seeing me and no longer stared. Some seemed not to see me at all. Gradually Burrich relaxed his watch on me. I came and went more freely, but still took care that he should not know of my sojourns into town.
There were other children within the keep, many about my own age. Some were even related to me, second cousins or third. Yet I never formed any real bonds with any of them. The younger ones were kept by their mothers or caretakers, the older ones had their own tasks and chores to occupy them. Most were not cruel to me; I was simply outside their circles. So, although I might not see Dirk or Kerry or Molly for months, they remained my closest friends. In my explorations of the keep, and on winter evenings when all gathered in the Great Hall for minstrels, or puppet shows or indoor games, I swiftly learned where I was welcome and where I was not.
I kept myself out of the Queen’s view, for whenever she saw me, she would always find some fault with my behavior and have Burrich reproached with it. Regal, too, was a source of danger. He had most of his man’s growth, but did not scruple to shove me out of his path or walk casually through whatever I had found to play with. He was capable of a pettiness and vindictiveness that I never encountered in Verity. Not that Verity ever took time with me, but our chance encounters were never unpleasant. If he noticed me, he would tousle my hair, or offer me a penny. Once a servant brought to Burrich’s quarters some little wooden toys, soldiers and horses and a cart, their paint much worn, with a message that Verity had found them in a corner of his clothing chest and thought I might enjoy them. I cannot think of any other possession I ever valued more.
Cob in the stables was another danger zone. If Burrich were about, he spoke me fair and treated me evenly, but had small use for me at other times. He gave me to understand he did not want me about and underfoot where he was working. I found out eventually that he was jealous of me and felt my care had replaced the interest Burrich had once taken in him. He was never overtly cruel, he never struck me or scolded me unfairly. But I could sense his distaste for me, and avoided him.
All the men-at-arms showed a great tolerance for me. After the street children of Buckkeep Town, they were probably the closest I had to friends. But no matter how tolerant men may be of a boy of nine or ten, there is precious little in common. I watched their bone games and listened to their stories, but for every hour I spent among their company, there were days when I did not go among them at all. And while Burrich never forbade me the guardroom, he did not conceal that he disapproved of the time I spent there.
So I was and was not a member of the keep community. I avoided some and I observed some and I obeyed some. But with none did I feel a bond.
Then one morning, when I was still a bit shy of my tenth year, I was at play under the tables in the Great Hall, tumbling and teasing with the puppies. It was quite early in the day. There had been an occasion of some sort the day before, and the feasting had lasted the whole day and well into the night. Burrich had drunk himself senseless. Almost everyone, noble or servants, was still abed, and the kitchen had not yielded up much to my hungry venturing that morning. But the tables in the Great Hall were a trove of broken pastries and dishes of meat. There were bowls of apples as well, slabs of cheese; in short, all a boy could wish for plundering. The great dogs had taken the best bones and retreated to their own corners of the hall, leaving various pups to scrabble for the smaller bits. I had taken a rather large meat pasty under the table and was sharing it out with my chosen favorites among the pups. Ever since Nosy, I had taken care that Burrich should not see me to have too great an affinity with any one puppy. I still did not understand why he objected to my closeness to a hound, but I would not risk the life of a puppy to dispute it with him. So I was alternating bites with three whelps when I heard slow footsteps threshing across the reed-strewn floor. Two men were speaking, discussing something in low tones.
I thought it was the kitchen servants, come to clear away. I scrabbled from beneath the table to snare a few more choice leavings before they were gone.
But it was no servant who startled at my sudden appearance but the old King, my grandfather himself. A scant step behind him, at his elbow, was Regal. His bleary eyes and rumpled doublet attested to his participation in last night’s revelries. The King’s new fool, but recently acquired, pattered after them, pale eyes agoggle in an eggshell face. He was so strange a creature, with his pasty skin and motley all of blacks and whites, that I scarce dared to look at him. In contrast, King Shrewd was clear of eye, his beard and hair freshly groomed, and his clothing immaculate. For an instant he was surprised, and then remarked, “You see, Regal, it is as I was telling you. An opportunity presents itself, and someone seizes it; often someone young, or someone driven by the energies and hungers of youth. Royalty has no leisure to ignore such opportunities, or to let them be created for others.”
The King continued his stroll past me, extolling on his theme while Regal gave me a baleful look from bloodshot eyes. A flap of his hand indicated that I should disappear myself. I indicated my understanding with a quick nod, but darted first to the table. I stuffed two apples into my jerkin and took up a mostly whole gooseberry tart when the King suddenly rounded and gestured at me. His fool mimed an imitation. I froze where I stood.
“Look at him,” the old King commanded.
Regal glared at me, but I dared not move.
“What will you make of him?”
Regal looked perplexed. “Him? It’s the Fitz. Chivalry’s bastard. Sneaking and thieving as always.”
“Fool.” King Shrewd smiled, but his eyes remained flinty. The Fool, thinking himself addressed, smiled sweetly. “Are your ears stopped with wax? Do you hear nothing I say? I asked you, not ‘what do you make of him?’ but ‘what will you make of him?’ There he stands, young, strong, and resourceful. His lines are every bit as royal as yours, for all that he was born on the wrong side of the sheets. So what will you make of him? A tool? A weapon? A comrade? An enemy? Or will you leave him lying about, for someone else to take up and use against you?”
Regal squinted at me, then glanced past me and, finding no one else in the hall, returned his puzzled gaze to me. At my ankle, a pup whined a reminder that earlier we had been sharing. I warned him to hush.
“The bastard? He’s only a child.”
The old King sighed. “Today. This morning and now he is a child. When next you turn around he will be a youth, or worse, a man, and then it will be too late for you to make anything of him. But take him now, Regal, and shape him, and a decade hence you will command his loyalty. Instead of a discontented bastard who may be persuaded to become a pretender to the throne, he will be a henchman, united to the family by spirit as well as blood. A bastard, Regal, is a unique thing. Put a signet ring on his hand and send him forth, and you have created a diplomat no foreign ruler will dare to turn away. He may safely be sent where a prince of the blood may not be risked. Imagine the uses for one who is and yet is not of the royal bloodline. Hostage exchanges. Marital alliances. Quiet work. The diplomacy of the knife.”
Regal’s eyes grew round at the King’s last words. For a pause, we all breathed in silence, regarding one another. When Regal spoke, he sounded as if he had dry bread caught in his throat. “You speak of these things in front of the boy. Of using him, as a tool, a weapon. You think he will not remember your words when he is grown?”
King Shrewd laughed, and the sound rang against the stone walls of the Great Hall. “Remember them? Of course he will. I count on it. Look at his eyes, Regal. There is intelligence there, and possibly potential Skill. I’d be a fool to lie to him. Stupider still to simply begin his training and education with no explanation. For that would leave his mind fallow for whatever seeds others might plant there. Isn’t it so, boy?”
He was regarding me steadily and I suddenly realized I was returning his look. For all of his speech our gazes had been locked as we read one another. In the eyes of the man who was my grandfather was honesty, of a rocky, bony sort. There was no comfort in it, but I knew I could always count on it to be there. I nodded slowly.
I walked to him slowly. When I reached him, he got down on one knee, to be eye to eye with me. The Fool knelt solemnly beside us, looking earnestly from face to face. Regal glared down at all of us. At the time I never grasped the irony of the old King genuflecting to his bastard grandson. So I was solemn as he took the tart from my hands and tossed it to the puppies who had trailed after me. He drew a pin from the folds of silk at his throat and solemnly pushed it through the simple wool of my shirt.
“Now you are mine,” he said, and made that claiming of me more important than any blood we shared. “You need not eat any man’s leavings. I will keep you, and I will keep you well. If any man or woman ever seeks to turn you against me by offering you more than I do, then come to me, and tell me of the offer, and I shall meet it. You will never find me a stingy man, nor be able to cite ill use as a reason for treason against me. Do you believe me, boy?”
I nodded, in the mute way that was still my habit, but his steady brown eyes demanded more.
“Good. I will be issuing some commands regarding you. See that you go along with them. If any seem strange to you, speak to Burrich. Or to myself. Simply come to the door of my chamber, and show that pin. You’ll be admitted.”
I glanced down at the red stone that winked in a nest of silver. “Yes, sir,” I managed again.
“Ah,” he said softly, and I sensed a trace of regret in his voice and wondered what it was for. His eyes released me, and suddenly I was once more aware of my surroundings, of the puppies and the Great Hall and Regal watching me with fresh distaste on his face, and the Fool nodding enthusiastically in his vacant way. Then the King stood. When he turned away from me, a chill went over me, as if I had suddenly shed a cloak. It was my first experience of the Skill at the hands of a master.
“You don’t approve, do you, Regal?” The King’s tone was conversational.
“My king may do whatever he wishes.” Sulky.
King Shrewd sighed. “That is not what I asked you.”
“My mother, the Queen, will certainly not approve. Favoring the boy will only make it appear you recognize him. It will give him ideas, and others.”
“Faugh!” The King chuckled as if amused.
Regal was instantly incensed. “My mother, the Queen, will not agree with you, nor will she be pleased. My mother—”
“Has not agreed with me, nor been pleased with me for some years. I scarcely notice it anymore, Regal. She will flap and squawk and tell me again that she wou