Is time the wheel that turns, or the track it leaves behind?
--- Kelstar's Riddle
He came one late, wet spring, and brought the wide world back to my doorstep. I was thirty-five that year. When I was twenty, I would have considered a man of my current age to be teetering on the verge of dotage. These days, it seemed neither young nor old to me, but a suspension between the two. I no longer had the excuse of callow youth, and I could not yet claim the eccentricities of age. In many ways, I was no longer sure what I thought of myself. Sometimes it seemed that my life was slowly disappearing behind me, fading like footprints in the rain, until perhaps I had always been the quiet man living an unremarkable life in a cottage between the forest and the sea.
I lay abed that morning, listening to the small sounds that sometimes brought me peace. The wolf breathed steadily before the softly crackling hearth fire. I quested toward him with our shared Wit magic, and gently brushed his sleeping thoughts. He dreamed of running over snow-smooth rolling hills with a pack. For Nighteyes, it was a dream of silence, cold, and swiftness. Softly I withdrew my touch and left him to his private peace.
Outside my small window, the returning birds sang their challenges to one another. There was a light wind, and whenever it stirred the trees, they released a fresh shower of last night's rain to patter on the wet sward. The trees were silver birches, four of them. They had been little more than sticks when I had planted them. Now their airy foliage cast a pleasant light shade outside my bedroom window. I closed my eyes and could almost feel the flicker of the light on my eyelids. I would not get up, not just yet.
I had had a bad evening the night before, and had had to face it alone. My boy, Hap, had gone off gallivanting with Starling almost three weeks ago, and still had not returned. I could not blame him. My quiet reclusive life was beginning to chafe his young shoulders. Starling's stories of life at Buckkeep, painted with all the skill of her minstrel ways, created pictures too vivid for him to ignore. So I had reluctantly let her take him to Buckkeep for a holiday, that he might see for himself a Springfest there, eat a carris-seed-topped cake, watch a puppet show, mayhap kiss a girl.
Hap had grown past the point where regular meals and a warm bed were enough to content him. I had told myself it was time I thought of letting him go, of finding him an apprenticeship with a good carpenter or joiner. He showed a knack for such things, and the sooner a lad took to a trade, the better he learned it. But I was not ready to let him go just yet. For now I would enjoy a month of peace and solitude, and recall how to do things for myself. Nighteyes and I had each other for company. What more could we need?
Yet no sooner were they gone than the little house seemed too quiet. The boy's excitement at leaving had been too reminiscent of how I myself had once felt about Springfests and the like. Puppet shows and carris-seed cakes and girls to kiss all brought back vivid memories I thought I had long ago drowned.
Perhaps it was those memories that birthed dreams too vivid to ignore. Twice I had awakened sweating and shaking with my muscles clenched. I had enjoyed years of respite from such unquiet, but in the past four years, my old fixation had returned. Of late, it came and went, with no pattern I could discern. It was almost as if the old Skill magic had suddenly recalled me and was reaching to drag me out of my peace and solitude. Days that had been as smooth and alike as beads on a string were now disrupted by its call. Sometimes the Skill-hunger ate at me as a canker eats sound flesh. Other times, it was no more than a few nights of yearning, vivid dreams. If the boy had been home, I probably could have shaken off the Skill's persistent plucking at me. But he was gone, and so yesterday evening I had given in to the unvanquished addiction such dreams stirred. I had walked down to the sea cliffs, sat on the bench my boy had made for me, and stretched out my magic over the waves. The wolf had sat beside me for a time, his look one of ancient rebuke. I tried to ignore him. "No worse than your penchant for bothering porcupines," I pointed out to him.
Excerpted from Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb Copyright 2002 by Robin Hobb. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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