Assassins quest, p.13
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       Assassins Quest, p.13

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  It was still early when we left the inn, and if we did not march like soldiers, Harper Josh still set a respectable pace for us. I had thought he would have to be led, but he made his walking staff his guide. Sometimes he did walk with a hand on Honey’s or Piper’s shoulder, but it seemed more companionship than necessity. Nor was our journey boring, for as we walked he lectured, mostly to Piper, on the history of this region, and surprised me with the depth of his knowledge. We stopped for a bit when the sun was high and they shared with me the simple food they had. I felt uncomfortable taking it, yet there was no way I could excuse myself to go hunt with the wolf. Once the town was well behind us, I had sensed Nighteyes shadowing us. It was comforting to have him near, but I wished it were just he and I traveling together. Several times that day we were passed by other travelers, on horses or mules. Through gaps in the trees we occasionally glimpsed boats beating their way upriver against the current. As the morning passed, well-guarded carts and wagons overtook us. Each time Josh called out to ask if we might ride on the wagons. Twice we were politely refused. The others answered not at all. They moved hurriedly, and one group had several surly-looking men in a common livery who I surmised were hired guards.

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  We walked the afternoon away to the reciting of “Crossfire’s Sacrifice,” the long poem about Queen Vision’s coterie and how they laid down their lives that she might win a crucial battle. I had heard it before, several times, in Buckkeep. But by the end of the day, I had heard it two score times, as Josh worked with infinite patience to be sure that Piper sang it perfectly. I was grateful for the endless recitations, for it prevented talk.

  But despite our steady pace, the falling of evening still found us far short of the next river town. I saw them all become uneasy as the light began to fail. Finally, I took command of the situation and told them we must leave the road at the next stream we crossed, and find a place to settle for the evening. Honey and Piper fell back behind Josh and me, and I could hear them muttering worriedly to one another. I could not reassure them, as Nighteyes had me, that there was not even a sniff of another traveler about. Instead, at the next crossing I guided them upstream and found a sheltered bank beneath a cedar tree where we might rest for the night.

  I left them on the pretense of relieving myself, to spend time with Nighteyes assuring him all was well. It was time well spent, for he had discovered a place where the swirling creek water undercut the bank. He watched me intently as I lay on my belly and eased my hands into the water, and then slowly through the curtain of weeds that overhung it. I got a fine fat fish on my first try. Several minutes later, another effort yielded me a smaller fish. When I gave up, it was almost full dark, but I had three fish to take back to camp, leaving two, against my better judgment, for Nighteyes.

  Fishing and ear scratching. The two reasons men were given hands, he told me genially as he settled down with them. He had already gulped down the entrails from mine as fast as I had cleaned them.

  Watch out for bones, I warned him yet again.

  My mother raised me on a salmon run, he pointed out. Fish bones don’t bother me.

  I left him shearing through the fish with obvious relish and returned to camp. The minstrels had a small fire burning. At the sound of my footsteps, all three leaped to their feet brandishing their walking staffs. “It’s me!” I told them belatedly.

  “Thank Eda. ” Josh sighed as he sat down heavily, but Honey only glared at me.

  “You were gone a long time,” Piper said by way of explanation. I held up the fish threaded through the gills onto a willow stick.

  “I found dinner,” I told them. “Fish,” I added, for Josh’s benefit.

  “Sounds wonderful,” he said.

  Honey took out waybread and a small sack of salt as I found a large flat stone and wedged it into the embers of the fire. I wrapped the fish in leaves and set them on the stone to bake. The smell of the cooking fish tantalized me even as I hoped it would not draw any Forged ones to our campfire.

  I’m keeping watch still, Nighteyes reminded me, and I thanked him.

  As I watched over the cooking fish, Piper muttered “Crossfire’s Sacrifice” to herself at my elbow.

  “ “Hist the halt, and Cleave the blind,’ ” I corrected her distractedly as I tried to turn the fish over without breaking it.

  “I had it right!” she contradicted me indignantly.

  “I’m afraid you did not, my lass. Cob is correct. Hist was the clubfoot and Cleave was blind from birth. Can you name the other five, Cob?” He sounded just like Fedwren hearing a lesson.

  I had burned my finger on a coal and I stuck it in my mouth before answering. “ “Burnt Crossfire led, and those around—were like him, not of body sound, but strong of heart. And true of soul. And herein let me count their roll—for you. ’Twas Hist the halt, and Cleave the blind, and Kevin of the wandering mind, hare-lipped Joiner, Sever was deaf, and Porter, who the foe men left—for dead, without his hands or eyes. And if you think you would despise such ones as these, then let me say . . . ’ ”

  “Whoa!” Josh exclaimed with pleasure, and then asked, “Had you bard’s training, Cob, when you were small? You’ve caught the phrasing as well as the words. Though you make your pauses a bit too plain. ”

  “I? No. I’ve always had a quick memory, though. ” It was hard not to smile at his praise of me, even though Honey sneered and shook her head at it.

  “Could you recite the whole thing, do you think?” Josh asked challengingly.

  “Perhaps,” I hedged. I knew I could. Both Burrich and Chade had drilled my memory skills often. And I’d heard it so often today I could not drive it from my head.

  “Try it then. But not spoken. Sing it. ”

  “I have no voice for singing. ”

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  “If you can speak, you can sing. Try it. Indulge an old man. ”

  Perhaps obeying old men was simply too deep a habit with me for me to defy it. Perhaps it was the look on Honey’s face that told me plainly she doubted I could do it.

  I cleared my throat and began it, singing softly until he gestured at me to raise my voice. He nodded his head as I worked my way through it, wincing now and then when I soured a note. I was about halfway through when Honey observed dryly, “The fish is burning. ”

  I dropped the song and sprang to poke stone and wrapped fish from the fire. The tails were scorched, but the rest was fine, steaming and firm. We portioned it out and I ate too rapidly. Twice as much would not have filled me, and yet I must be content with what I had. The waybread tasted surprisingly good with the fish, and afterward Piper made a kettle of tea for us. We settled on our blankets about the fire.

  “Cob, do you do well as a scribe?” Josh suddenly asked me.

  I made a deprecating sound. “Not as well as I’d like. But I get by. ”

  “Not as well as he’d like,” Honey muttered to Piper in mocking imitation.

  Harper Josh ignored her. “You’re old for it, but you could be taught to sing. Your voice is not so bad; you sing like a boy, not knowing you’ve a man’s depth of voice and lungs to call on now. Your memory is excellent. Do you play any instruments?”

  “The sea-pipes. But not well. ”

  “I could teach you to play them well. If you took up with us . . . ”

  “Father! We scarcely know him!” Honey objected.

  “I could have said the same to you when you left the loft last night,” he observed to her mildly.

  “Father, all we did was talk. ” She flashed a look at me, as if I had betrayed her. My tongue had turned to leather in my mouth.

  “I know,” Josh agreed. “Blindness seems to have sharpened my hearing. But if you have judged him someone safe to talk to, alone, at night, then perhaps I have judged him someone safe to offer our company to as well. What say you, Cob?”

  I shook my head slow
ly; then, “No,” I said aloud. “Thank you all the same. I appreciate what you are offering, and to a stranger. I will travel with you as far as the next town, and I wish you well in finding other companions to travel with you from there. But . . . I have no real wish for . . . ”

  “You lost someone dear to you. I understand that. But total solitude is not good for any man,” Josh said quietly.

  “Who did you lose?” Piper asked in her open way.

  I tried to think how to explain without leaving myself open for more questions. “My grandfather,” I said at last. “And my wife. ” Saying those words was like tearing a wound open.

  “What happened?” Piper asked.

  “My grandfather died. My wife left me. ” I spoke shortly, wishing they’d let it be.

  “The old die in their time,” Josh began gently, but Honey cut in brusquely with, “That was the love you lost? What can you owe to a woman who left you? Unless you gave her cause to leave you?”

  “It was more that I did not give her cause to stay,” I admitted unwillingly. Then, “Please,” I said bluntly. “I do not wish to speak of these things. At all. I will see you to the next town, but then my way is my own. ”

  “Well. That’s clearly spoken,” Josh said regretfully. Something in his tone made me feel I had been rude, but there were no words I wished to call back.

  There was little talk the rest of that evening, for which I was grateful. Piper offered to take first watch and Honey second. I did not object, as I knew Nighteyes would prowl all about us this night. Little got past that one. I slept better out in the open air, and came awake quickly when Honey stooped over me to shake me. I sat up, stretched, then nodded to her that I was awake and she could get more sleep. I got up and poked at the fire, then took a seat by it. Honey came to sit beside me.

  “You don’t like me, do you?” she asked quietly. Her tone was gentle.

  “I don’t know you,” I said as tactfully as I could.

  “Um. And you don’t wish to,” she observed. She looked at me levelly. “But I’ve wanted to know you since I saw you blush in the inn. Nothing challenges my curiosity quite as much as a man who blushes. I’ve known few men who turn scarlet like that, simply because they’re caught looking at a woman. ” Her voice went low and throaty, as she leaned forward confidentially. “I would love to know what you were thinking that brought the blood to your face like that. ”

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  “Only that I had been rude to stare,” I told her honestly.

  She smiled at me. “That was not what I was thinking as I was looking back at you. ” She moistened her mouth and hitched closer.

  I suddenly missed Molly so acutely it was painful. “I have no heart for this game,” I told Honey plainly. I rose. “I think I shall get a bit more wood for the fire. ”

  “I think I know why your wife left you,” Honey said nastily. “No heart, you say? I think your problem was a bit lower. ” She rose and went back to her blankets. All I felt was relief that she had given up on me. I kept my word and went to gather more dry wood.

  The first thing I asked Josh the next morning when he arose was “How far is it to the next town?”

  “If we keep the same pace we struck yesterday, we should be there by tomorrow noon,” he told me.

  I turned aside from the disappointment in his voice. As we shouldered our packs and set off, I reflected bitterly that I had walked away from people I had known and cared about to avoid the very situation I was now in with comparative strangers. I wondered if there was any way to live amongst other people and refuse to be harnessed by their expectations and dependencies.

  The day was warm, but not unpleasantly so. If I had been alone, I would have found it pleasant hiking along the road. In the woods to one side of us, birds called to one another. To the other side of the road, we could see the river through the scanty trees, with occasional barges moving downstream, or oared vessels moving slowly against the current. We spoke little, and after a time, Josh put Piper back to reciting “Crossfire’s Sacrifice. ” When she stumbled, I kept silent.

  My thoughts drifted. Everything had been so much easier when I had not had to worry about my next meal or a clean shirt. I had thought myself so clever in dealing with people, so skilled at my profession. But I had had Chade to plot with, and time to prepare what I would say and do. I did not do so well when my resources were limited to my own wits and what I could carry on my back. Stripped of everything I had once unthinkingly relied on, it was not just my courage I had come to doubt. I questioned all my abilities now. Assassin, King’s Man, warrior, man . . . was I any of them anymore? I tried to recall the brash youngster who had pulled an oar on Verity’s warship Rurisk, who had flung himself unthinkingly into battle wielding an axe. I could not grasp he had been me.

  At noon Honey distributed the last of their waybread. It was not much. The women walked ahead of us, talking quietly to one another as they munched the dry bread and sipped from their waterskins. I ventured to suggest to Josh that we might camp earlier tonight, to give me a chance to do a bit of hunting or fishing.

  “It would mean we would not get to the next town by noon tomorrow,” he pointed out gravely.

  “Tomorrow evening would be soon enough,” I assured him quietly. He turned his head toward me, perhaps to hear me better, but his hazed-over eyes seemed to look inside me. It was hard to bear the appeal I saw there, but I made no reply to it.

  When the day finally began to cool, I began to look for likely stopping places. Nighteyes had ranged ahead of us to scout when I sensed a sudden prickling of his hackles. There are men here, smelling of carrion and their own filth. I can smell them, I can see them, but I cannot sense them otherwise. The distress he always felt in the presence of Forged ones drifted back to me. I shared it. I knew they had once been human, and shared that Wit spark that every living creature does. To me, it was passing strange to see them move and speak when I could not sense they were alive. To Nighteyes, it was as if stones walked and ate.

  How many? Old, young?

  More than us, and bigger than you. A wolf’s perception of odds. They hunt the road, just around the bend from you.

  “Let’s stop here,” I suggested suddenly. Three heads swiveled to regard me in puzzlement.

  Too late. They’ve scented you, they are coming.

  No time to dissemble, no time to come up with a likely lie.

  “There are Forged ones ahead. More than two of them. They’ve been watching the road, and they’re headed toward us now. ” Strategy? “Get ready,” I told them.

  “How do you know this?” Honey challenged me.

  “Let’s run!” suggested Piper. She didn’t care how I knew. The wideness of her eyes told me how much she had feared this.

  “No. They’ll overtake us, and we’ll be winded when they do. And even if we did outrun them, we’d still have to get past them tomorrow. ” I dropped my bundle to the road, kicked it clear of me. Nothing in it was worth my life. If we won, I’d be able to pick it up again. If we didn’t, I wouldn’t care. But Honey and Piper and Josh were musicians. Their instruments were in their bundles. None of them moved to free themselves from their burdens. I didn’t waste my breath suggesting they do so. Almost instinctively, Piper and Honey moved to flank the old man. They gripped their walking sticks too tightly. Mine settled in my hands and I held it balanced and at the ready, waiting. For an instant I stopped thinking entirely. My hands seemed to know what to do of their own accord.

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  “Cob, take care of Honey and Piper. Don’t worry about me, just don’t let them get hurt,” Josh ordered me tersely.

  His words broke through to me, and suddenly terror flooded me. My body lost its easy ready stance, and all I could think of was the pain defeat would bring me. I felt sick and shaky and wanted more than anything to simply turn and run, with no thought for the minstrels. Wait, wait, I
wanted to cry to the day. I am not ready for this, I do not know if I will fight or run or simply faint where I stand. But time knows no mercy. They come through the brush, Nighteyes told me. Two come swiftly and one lags behind. I think he shall be mine.

  Be careful, I warned him. I heard them crackling through the brush and scented the foulness of them. A moment later, Piper cried out as she spotted them, and then they rushed out of the trees at us. If my strategy was stand and fight, theirs was simply run up and attack. They were both larger than I was, and seemed to have no doubts at all. Their clothing was filthy but mostly intact. I did not think they had been Forged long. Both carried clubs. I had little time to comprehend more than that.

  Forging did not make folk stupid, nor slow. They could no longer sense or feel emotions from others, nor, it seemed, recall what those emotions might make an enemy do. That often made their actions almost incomprehensible. It did not make them any less intelligent than they had been when whole, or any less skilled with their weapons. They did, however, act with an immediacy in satisfying their wants that was wholly animal. The horse they stole one day they might eat the next, simply because hunger was a more immediate want than the convenience of riding. Nor did they cooperate in a battle. Within their own groups, there was no loyalty. They were as likely to turn on one another to gain plunder as to attack a common enemy. They would travel together, and attack together, but not as a concerted effort. Yet they remained brutally cunning, remorselessly clever in their efforts to get what they desired.

  I knew all this. So I was not surprised when both of them tried to get past me to attack the smaller folk first. What surprised me was the cowardly relief I felt. It paralyzed me like one of my dreams, and I let them rush past me.

  Honey and Piper fought like angry and frightened minstrels with sticks. There was no skill, no training there, not even the experience to fight as a team and thus avoid clubbing each other or Josh in the process. They had been schooled to music, not battle. Josh was paralyzed in the middle, gripping his staff, but unable to strike out without risking injury to Honey or Piper. Rage contorted his face.

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