Assassins quest, p.12
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       Assassins Quest, p.12
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         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  I did not sleep well, and it was not just that I was no longer accustomed to sleeping at night. What they had told me about Forged ones had put the wind up my back. The musicians all climbed up into the loft to sleep on the heaped straw there, but I found myself a corner where I could put my back to a wall and yet still have a clear view of the door. It felt strange to be inside a barn again at night. This was a good tight barn, built of river rock and mortar and timber. The inn kept a cow and a handful of chickens in addition to their hire-horses and the beasts of their guests. The homely sounds and smells of the hay and animals put me sharply in mind of Burrich’s stables. I felt suddenly homesick for them as I never had for my own room up in the keep.

  I wondered how Burrich was, and if he knew of Patience’s sacrifices. I thought of the love that had once been between them, and how it had foundered on Burrich’s sense of duty. Patience had gone on to marry my father, the very man to whom Burrich had pledged all that loyalty. Had he ever thought of going to her, attempting to reclaim her? No. I knew it instantly and without doubt. Chivalry’s ghost would stand forever between them. And now mine as well.

  It was not a far jump from pondering this to thinking of Molly. She had made the same decision for us that Burrich had made for Patience and himself. Molly had told me that my obsessive loyalty to my king meant we could never belong to one another. So she had found someone she could care about as much as I cared for Verity. I hated everything about her decision except that it had saved her life. She had left me. She had not been at Buckkeep to share my fall and my disgrace.

  I reached vaguely toward her with the Skill, then abruptly rebuked myself. Did I really want to see her as she probably was this night, sleeping in another man’s arms, his wife? I felt an almost physical pain in my chest at the thought. I did not have a right to spy on any happiness she had claimed for herself. Yet as I drowsed off, I thought of her, and longed hopelessly after what had been between us.

  Some perverse fate brought me a dream of Burrich instead, a vivid dream that made no sense. I sat across from him. He was sitting at a table by a fire, mending harness as he often did of an evening. But a mug of tea had replaced his brandy cup, and the leather he worked at was a low soft shoe, much too small for him. He pushed the awl through the soft leather and it went through too easily, jabbing him in the hand. He swore at the blood, and then looked up abruptly, to awkwardly beg my pardon for using such language in my presence.

  I woke up from the dream, disoriented and bemused. Burrich had often made shoes for me when I was small but I could not recall that he had ever apologized for swearing in my presence, though he had rapped me often enough when I was a boy if I had dared to use such language in his. Ridiculous. I pushed the dream aside, but sleep had fled with it.

  Around me, when I quested out softly, were only the muzzy dreams of the sleeping animals. All were at peace save me. Thoughts of Chade came to niggle and worry at me. He was an old man in many ways. When King Shrewd had lived, he had seen to all Chade’s needs, so that his assassin might live in security. Chade had seldom ventured forth from his concealed room, save to do his “quiet work. ” Now he was out on his own, doing El knew what, and with Regal’s troops in pursuit of him. I rubbed vainly at my aching forehead. Worrying was useless, but I could not seem to stop.

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  I heard four light foot scuffs, followed by a thud, as someone climbed down from the loft and skipped the last step on the ladder. Probably one of the women headed for the backhouse. But a moment later I heard Honey’s voice whisper, “Cob?”

  “What is it?” I asked unwillingly.

  She turned toward my voice, and I heard her approach in the darkness. My time with the wolf had sharpened my senses. Some little moonlight leaked in at a badly shuttered window. I picked out her shape in the darkness. “Over here,” I told her when she hesitated, and saw her startle at how close my voice was. She groped her way to my corner, and then hesitantly sat down in the straw beside me.

  “I daren’t go back to sleep,” she explained. “Nightmares. ”

  “I know how that is,” I told her, surprised at how much sympathy I felt. “When, if you close your eyes, you tumble right back into them. ”

  “Exactly,” she said, and fell silent, waiting.

  But I had nothing more to say, and so sat silent in the darkness.

  “What kind of nightmares do you have?” she asked me quietly.

  “Bad ones,” I said dryly. I had no wish to summon them by speaking of them.

  “I dream Forged ones are chasing me, but my legs have turned to water and I cannot run. But I keep trying and trying as they come closer and closer. ”

  “Uhm,” I agreed. Better than dreaming of being beaten and beaten and beaten . . . I reined my mind away from that.

  “It’s a lonely thing, to wake up in the night and be afraid. ”

  I think she wants to mate with you. Will they accept you into their pack so easily?

  “What?” I asked startled, but it was the girl who replied, not Nighteyes.

  “I said, it’s lonely to awake at night and be afraid. One longs for a way to feel safe. Protected. ”

  “I know of nothing that can stand between a person and the dreams that come at night,” I said stiffly. Abruptly I wanted her to go away.

  “Sometimes a little gentleness can,” she said softly. She reached over and patted my hand. Without intending to, I snatched it away.

  “Are you shy, prentice-boy?” she asked coyly.

  “I lost someone I cared for,” I said bluntly. “I’ve no heart to put another in her place. ”

  “I see. ” She rose abruptly, shaking straw from her skirts. “Well. I’m sorry to have disturbed you. ” She sounded insulted, not sorry.

  She turned and groped her way back to the loft ladder. I knew I had offended her. I did not feel it was my fault. She went up the steps slowly, and I thought she expected me to call her back. I didn’t. I wished I had not come to town.

  That makes two of us. The hunting is poor, this close to all these men. Will you be much longer?

  I fear I must travel with them for a few days, at least as far as the next town.

  You would not mate her, she is not pack. Why must you do these things?

  I did not try to form it into words for him. All I could convey was a sense of duty, and he could not grasp how my loyalty to Verity bound me to help these travelers on the road. They were my people because they were my king’s. Even I found the connection so tenuous as to be ridiculous, but there it was. I would see them safely to the next town.

  I slept again that night, but not well. It was as if my words with Honey had opened the door to my nightmares. No sooner had I dipped down into sleep than I experienced a sense that I was being watched. I cowered low inside my cell, praying that I could not be seen, keeping as still as I possibly could. My own eyes were clenched tight shut, like a child who believes that if he cannot see, he cannot be seen. But the eyes that sought me had a gaze I could feel; I could sense Will looking for me as if I were hiding under a blanket and hands were patting at it. He was that close. The fear was so intense that it choked me. I could not breathe, I could not move. In a panic, I went out of myself, sideways, slipping into someone else’s fear, someone else’s nightmare.

  I crouched behind a barrel of pickled fish in old man Hook’s store. Outside, the darkness was splintered by the rising flames and shrieks of the captured or dying. I knew I should get out. The Red Ship Raiders were certain to loot and torch the store. It was not a good place to hide. But there was no good place to hide, and I was only eleven, and my legs were shaking beneath me so that I doubted I could stand, let alone run. Somewhere out there was Master Hook. When the first cries arose, he had grabbed his old sword down and rushed out the door. “Watch the store, Chad!” he had called after him, as if he were just going next door to hobnob with the baker. At first I had been happy to o
bey him. The uproar was far down the town, downhill by the bay, and the store seemed safe and strong around me.

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  But that had been an hour ago. Now the wind from the harbor carried the taint of smoke, and the night was no longer dark, but a terrible torchlit twilight. The flames and the screams were coming closer. Master Hook had not come back.

  Get out, I told the boy in whose body I hid. Get out, run away, run as far and as fast as you can. Save yourself. He did not hear me.

  I crawled toward the door that still swung open and wide as Master Hook had left it. I peered out of it. A man ran past in the street and I cowered back. But he was probably a townsman, not a Raider, for he ran without looking back, with no other thought than to get as far away as he could. Mouth dry, I forced myself to my feet, clinging to the doorjamb. I looked down on the town and harbor. Half the town was aflame. The mild summer night was choked with smoke and ash rising on the hot wind off the flames. Ships were burning in the harbor. In the light from the flames, I could see figures darting, fleeing and hiding from the Raiders who strode almost unchallenged through the town.

  Someone came about the corner of the potter’s store at the end of the street. He was carrying a lantern and walking so casually I felt a sudden surge of relief. Surely if he could be so calm, then the tide of the battle must be turning. I half rose from my crouch, only to cringe back as he blithely swung the oil lantern against the wooden storefront. The splashing oil ignited as the lamp broke, and fire raced gaily up the tinder-dry wood. I shrank back from the light of the leaping flames. I knew with a sudden certainty that there was no safety to be gained by hiding, that my only hope was in fleeing, and that I should have done it as soon as the alarms sounded. The resolution gave me a small measure of courage, enough that I leaped to my feet and dashed out and around the corner of the store.

  For an instant, I was aware of myself as Fitz. I do not think the boy could sense me. This was not my Skilling out but his reaching to me with some rudimentary Skill sense of his own. I could not control his body at all, but I was locked into his experience. I was riding this boy and hearing his thoughts and sharing his perceptions just as Verity had once ridden me. But I had no time to consider how I was doing it, nor why I had been so abruptly joined to this stranger. For as Chad darted into the safety of the shadows, he was snatched back suddenly by a rough hand on his collar. For a brief moment he was paralyzed with fear, and we looked up into the bearded grinning face of the Raider who gripped us. Another Raider flanked him, sneering evilly. Chad went limp with terror in his grasp. He gazed up helplessly at the moving knife, at the wedge of shining light that slid down its blade as it came toward his face.

  I shared, for an instant, the hot-cold pain of the knife across my throat, the anguished moment of recognition as my warm wet blood coursed down my chest that it was over, it was already too late, I was dead now. Then as Chad tumbled heedlessly from the Raider’s grasp into the dusty street, my consciousness came free of him. I hovered there, sensing for one awful moment the thoughts of the Raider. I heard the harshly guttural tones of his companion who nudged the dead boy with his booted foot, and knew that he rebuked the killer for wasting one who could have been Forged instead. The killer gave a snort of disdain, and replied something to the effect that he had been too young, not enough of a life behind him to be worth the Masters’ time. Knew too, with a queasy swirling of emotions, that the killer had desired two things: to be merciful to a lad, and to enjoy the pleasure of a personal kill.

  I had looked into the heart of my enemy. I still could not comprehend him.

  I drifted down the street behind them, bodiless and substanceless. I had felt an urgency the moment before. Now I could not recall it. Instead, I roiled like fog, witnessing the fall and the sacking of Grimsmire Town in Bearns Duchy. Time after time, I was drawn to one or another of the inhabitants, to witness a struggle, a death, a tiny victory of escape. Still I can close my eyes and know that night, recall a dozen horrendous moments in lives I briefly shared. I came finally to where one man stood, great sword in hand, before his blazing home. He held off three Raiders, while behind him his wife and daughter fought to lift a burning beam and free a trapped son, that they might all flee together. None of them would forsake the others, and yet I knew the man was weary, too weary and weakened by blood loss to lift his sword, let alone wield it. I sensed, too, how the Raiders toyed with him, baiting him to exhaust himself, that they might take and Forge the whole family. I could feel the creeping chill of death seeping through the man. For an instant his head nodded toward his chest.

  Suddenly the beleaguered man lifted his head. An oddly familiar light came into his eyes. He gripped the sword in both hands and with a roar suddenly sprang at his attackers. Two went down before his first onslaught, dying with amazement still printed plain on their features. The third met his sword blade to blade, but could not overmatch his fury. Blood dripped from the townsman’s elbow and sheened his chest, but his sword rang like bells against the Raider’s, battering down his guard and then suddenly dancing in, light as a feather, to trace a line of red across the Raider’s throat. As his assailant fell, the man turned and sprang swiftly to his wife’s side. He seized the burning beam, heedless of the flames, and lifted it off his son’s body. For one last time, his eyes met those of his wife. “Run!” he told her. “Take the children and flee. ” Then he crumpled into the street. He was dead.

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  As the stony-faced woman seized her children’s hands and raced off with them, I felt a wraith rise from the body of the man who had died. It’s me, I thought to myself, and then knew it was not. It sensed me and turned, his face so like my own. Or it had been, when he had been my age. It jolted me to think this was how Verity still perceived himself.

  You, here? He shook his head in rebuke. This is dangerous, boy. Even I am a fool to attempt this. And yet what else can we do, when they call us to them? He considered me, standing so mute before him. When did you gain the strength and talent to Skill-walk?

  I made no reply. I had no answers, no thoughts of my own. I felt I was a wet sheet flapping in the night wind, no more substantial than a blowing leaf.

  Fitz, this is a danger to both of us. Go back. Go back now.

  Is there truly a magic in the naming of a man’s name? So much of the old lore insists there is. I suddenly recalled who I was, and that I did not belong here. But I had no concept of how I had come here, let alone how to return to my body. I gazed at Verity helplessly, unable to even formulate a request for help.

  He knew. He reached a ghostly hand toward me. I felt his push as if he had placed the heel of his hand on my forehead and given a gentle shove.

  My head bounced off the wall of the barn, and I saw sudden sparks of light from the impact. I was sitting there, in the barn behind the Scales inn. About me was only peaceful darkness, sleeping beasts, tickling straw. Slowly I slid over onto my side as wave after wave of giddiness and nausea swept over me. The weakness that often possessed me after I had managed to use the Skill broke over me like a wave. I opened my mouth to call for help, but only a wordless caw escaped my lips. I closed my eyes and sank into oblivion.

  I awoke before dawn. I crawled to my pack, pawed through it, and then managed to stagger to the back door of the inn, where I quite literally begged a mug of hot water from the cook there. She looked on in disbelief as I crumbled strips of elfbark into it.

  “S’not good for you, you know that,” she warned me, and then watched in awe as I drank the scalding, bitter brew. “They give that to slaves, they do, down in Bingtown. Mix it in their food and drink, to keep them on their feet. Makes them despair as much as it gives them staying power, or so I’ve heard. Saps their will to fight back. ”

  I scarcely heard her. I was waiting to feel the effect. I had harvested my bark from young trees and feared it would lack potency. It did. It was some time before I felt the
steeling warmth spread through me, steadying my trembling hands and clearing my vision. I rose from my seat on the kitchen’s back steps, to thank the cook and gave her back her mug.

  “It’s a bad habit to take up, a young man like you,” she chided me, and went back to her cooking. I departed the inn to stroll the streets as dawn broke over the hills. For a time, I half expected to find burned storefronts and gutted cottages, and empty-eyed Forged ones roaming the streets. But the Skill nightmare was eroded by the summer morning and the river wind. By daylight, the shabbiness of the town was more apparent. It seemed to me there were more beggars than we had had in Buckkeep Town, but I did not know if that was normal for a river town. I considered briefly what had happened to me last night; then with a shudder I set it aside. I did not know how I had done it. Like as not, it would not happen to me again. It heartened me to know Verity was still alive, even as it chilled me to know how rashly still he expended his Skill-strength. I wondered where he was this morning, and if, like me, he faced the dawn with the bitterness of elfbark all through his mouth. If only I had mastered the Skill, I would not have had to wonder. It was not a thought to cheer one.

  When I returned to the inn, the minstrels were already up and inside the inn breakfasting on porridge. I joined them at table, and Josh bluntly told me he had feared I had left without them. Honey had no words at all for me, but several times I caught Piper looking at me appraisingly.

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