Assassins Apprentice: Page2

Robin Hobb (1996)

Page 2

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.