Assassins quest, p.15
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       Assassins Quest, p.15

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  “A sword,” Piper said.

  Josh turned his hazy eyes to me. “There was a third man up in the woods with a sword?”

  “Yes. ”

  “And you took it away from him and killed him?”

  “Yes. ”

  He snorted softly and shook his head at himself. “When we shook hands, I knew well it was no scriber’s hand I gripped. A pen does not leave calluses such as you bear, nor does it muscle a forearm that way. You see, Honey, he did not run away. He but went to . . . ”

  “If he had killed the man attacking us first, it would have been wiser,” she insisted stubbornly.

  I undid my bundle and shook out my blanket. I lay down on it. I was hungry, but there was nothing to be done about that. I could do something about how tired I was.

  “Are you going to sleep?” Piper asked. Her face reflected as much alarm as she could muster in her drugged state.

  “Yes. ”

  “What if more Forged ones come?” she demanded.

  “Then Honey can kill them in whatever order she deems wise,” I suggested sourly. I shifted on my blanket until my sword was clear and handy, and closed my eyes. I heard Honey rise slowly and begin to put out bedding for the rest of them.

  “Cob?” Josh asked softly. “Did you take any coin for yourself?”

  “I do not expect to have need of coin again,” I told him as quietly. I did not explain that I no longer planned to have much to do with humans. I never wanted to explain myself again to anyone. I did not care if they understood me or not.

  I closed my eyes and groped out, to touch briefly with Nighteyes. Like me, he was hungry but had chosen to rest instead. By tomorrow evening, I shall be free to hunt with you again, I promised him. He sighed in satisfaction. He was not that far away. My fire was a spark through the trees below him. He rested his muzzle on his forepaws.

  I was wearier than I had realized. My thoughts drifted, blurred. I let it all go and floated free, away from the pains that niggled at my body. Molly, I thought wistfully. Molly. But I did not find her. Somewhere Burrich slept on a pallet made up before a hearth. I saw him, and it felt almost as if I Skilled him but I could not hold the vision. The firelight illuminated the planes of his face; he was thinner, and burnt dark with hours of field work. I spun slowly away from him. The Skill lapped against me, but I could find no control of it.

  When my dreams brushed up against Patience, I was shocked to find her in a private chamber with Lord Bright. He looked like a cornered animal. A young woman in a lovely gown was evidently as startled as he to have Patience intrude on them. Patience was armed with a map, and she was speaking as she pushed aside a tray of dainties and wine to unfurl it on the table. “I have found you neither stupid nor craven, Lord Bright. So I must assume you are ignorant. I intend that your education shall no longer be neglected. As this map by the late Prince Verity will prove to you, if you do not take action soon, all the coast of Buck will be at the mercy of the Red Ships. And they have no mercy. ” She lifted those piercing hazel eyes and stared at him as she had so often stared at me when she expected to be obeyed. I almost pitied him. I lost my feeble grip on the scene. Like a leaf borne by wind, I swirled away from them.

  I did not know if I next went higher or deeper, only that I felt all that bound me to my body was a tenuous thread. I turned and spun in a current that tugged at me, encouraging me to let go. Somewhere a wolf whined in anxiety. Ghostly fingers plucked at me as if seeking my attention.

  Fitz. Be careful. Get back.

  Verity. But his Skilling had no more force than a puff of wind, despite the effort I knew it cost him. Something was between us, a cold fog, yielding yet resisting, entangling like brambles. I tried to care, tried to find enough fear to send me fleeing back to my body. But it was like being trapped inside a dream and trying to awaken. I could not find a way to struggle out of it. I could not find the will to try.

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  A whiff of dog-magic stench in the air, and look what I find. Will hooked into me like cat claws, drew me tight against him. Hello, Bastard. His deep satisfaction reawakened every nuance of my fear. I could feel his cynical smile. Neither of them dead, not the Bastard with his perverted magic nor Verity the Pretender. Tsk, tsk. Regal will be chagrined to find he was not as successful as he had thought. This time, though, I shall make sure of things for him. My way. I felt an insidious probing of my defenses, more intimate than a kiss. As if he kneaded a whore’s flesh, he felt me over for weaknesses. I dangled like a rabbit in his grasp, waiting only for the twist and jerk that would end my life. I felt how he had grown in strength and cunning.

  Verity, I whimpered, but my king could neither hear nor respond.

  He weighed me in his grip. What use to you this strength you have never learned to master? None at all. But to me, ah, to me it shall give wings and claws. You shall make me strong enough to seek out Verity no matter how he may hide himself.

  Suddenly I was leaking strength like a punctured waterskin. I had no idea how he had penetrated my defenses, and knew of no way to ward him off. He clutched my mind greedily to his and leeched at me. This was how Justin and Serene had killed King Shrewd. He had gone swiftly, like a bubble popping. I could find neither will nor strength to struggle as Will forced down all walls between us. His foreign thoughts were a pressure inside my mind as he scrabbled at my secrets, all the while drawing off my substance.

  But within me, a wolf was waiting for him. My brother! Nighteyes declared, and launched at him, tooth and nail. Somewhere in the vast distance, Will shrieked in horror and dismay. However strong he might be in the Skill, he had no knowledge at all of the Wit. He was as powerless before Nighteyes’ attack as I had been before his. Once, when Justin had Skill-attacked me, Nighteyes had responded. I had watched as Justin had gone down just as if he were being physically savaged by a wolf. He had lost all concentration and control over his Skill and I had been able to break free of him. I could not see what was happening to Will, but I sensed Nighteyes’ snapping jaws. I was buffeted by the strength of Will’s horror. He fled, breaking the Skill link between us so suddenly that for a moment I was unsure of my identity. Then I was back, wide-awake, inside my own body.

  I sat up on my blanket, sweat streaming down my back, and slammed up every wall about myself that I could remember how to erect.

  “Cob?” Josh asked in some alarm, and I saw him sit up sleepily. Honey was staring at me from her own blanket where she sat keeping watch. I choked back a panting sob.

  “A nightmare,” I managed huskily. “Just a nightmare. ” I staggered to my feet, horrified at how weakened I was. The world spun around me. I could barely stand. Fear of my own weakness spurred me. I caught up my small kettle, and carried it off with me as I headed for the river. Elfbark tea, I promised myself, and hoped it would be potent enough. I veered wide of the heaped stones that covered the Forged ones’ bodies. Before I reached the bank of the river, Nighteyes was beside me, hitching along on three legs. I dropped my kettle and sank down beside him. I threw my arms around him, mindful of the slash on his shoulder, and buried my face in his ruff.

  I was so scared. I nearly died.

  I understand now why we must kill them all, he said calmly. If we do not, they will never let us be. We must hunt them down to their own lair and kill them all.

  It was the only comfort he could offer me.

  6

  The Wit

  and the Skill

  MINSTRELS AND WANDERING scribes hold special places in the society of the Six Duchies. They are repositories of knowledge, not only of their own crafts, but of so much more. The minstrels hold the histories of the Six Duchies, not just the general history that has shaped the kingdom, but the particular histories of the small towns and even the families who make them up. Although it is the dream of every minstrel to be sole witness to some great event, and thus gain the authoring of a new saga, their true and lasting
importance lies in their constant witnessing of the small events that make up life’s fabric. When there is a question of a property line, or family lineage, or even of a long-term promise made, the minstrels are called upon to supply the details that others may have forgotten. Supporting them, but not supplanting them, are the wandering scribes. For a fee, they will provide written record of a wedding, a birth, of land changing hands, of inheritances gained or dowries promised. Such records may be intricate things, for every party involved must be identified in a way that is unmistakable. Not just by name and profession, but by lineage and location and appearance. As often as not, a minstrel is then called to make his mark as witness to what the scribe has written, and for this reason, it is not unusual to find them traveling in company together, or for one person to profess both trades. Minstrels and scribes are by custom well treated in the noble houses, finding their winter quarters there and sustenance and comfort in old age. No lord wishes to be ill remembered in the tellings of minstrels and scribes, or worse yet, not remembered at all. Generosity to them is taught as simple courtesy. One knows one is in the presence of a miser when one sits at table in a keep that boasts no minstrels.

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  I bid the musicians farewell at the door of an inn in a shoddy little town called Crowsneck the next afternoon. Rather, I bid Josh farewell. Honey stalked into the inn without a backward glance at me. Piper did look at me, but the look was so puzzled that it conveyed nothing to me. Then she followed Honey in. Josh and I were left standing in the street. We had been walking together and his hand was still on my shoulder. “Bit of a step here at the inn door,” I warned Josh quietly.

  He nodded his thanks. “Well. Some hot food will be welcome,” he observed, and pushed his chin toward the door.

  I shook my head, then spoke my refusal. “Thank you, but I won’t be going in with you. I’m moving on. ”

  “Right now? Come, Cob, at least have a mug of beer and a bite to eat. I know that Honey is . . . difficult to tolerate sometimes. But you needn’t assume she speaks for all of us. ”

  “It’s not that. I simply have something that I must do. Something I have put off for a long, long time. Yesterday I realized that until I have done it, there will be no peace for me. ”

  Josh sighed heavily. “Yesterday was an ugly day. I would not base any life decision on it. ” He swung his head to look toward me. “Whatever it is, Cob, I think time will make it better. It does most things, you know. ”

  “Some things,” I muttered distractedly. “Other things don’t get better until you . . . mend them. One way or another. ”

  “Well. ” He held out his hand to me, and I took it. “Good luck to you then. At least this fighter’s hand has a sword to grip now. That can’t be bad fortune for you. ”

  “Here’s the door,” I said, and opened it for him. “Good luck to you as well,” I told him as he passed me, and closed it behind him.

  As I stepped out into the open street again, I felt as if I had tossed a burden aside. Free again. I would not soon weigh myself down with anything like that again.

  I’m coming, I told Nighteyes. This evening, we hunt.

  I’ll be watching for you.

  I hitched my bundle a bit higher on my shoulder, took a fresh grip on my staff, and strode down the street. I could think of nothing in Crowsneck that I could possibly desire. My path took me straight through the market square, however, and the habits of a lifetime die hard. My ears pricked up to the grumbles and complaints of those who had come to bargain. Buyers demanded to know why prices were so high; sellers replied that the trade from downriver was scarce, and whatever goods came upriver as far as Crowsneck were dear. Prices were worse upriver, they assured them. For all those who complained about the high prices, there were as many who came looking for what was simply not there. It was not just the ocean fish and the thick wool of Buck that no longer came up the river. It was as Chade had predicted: there were no silks, no brandies, no fine Bingtown gemwork, nothing from the Coastal Duchies, nor from the lands beyond. Regal’s attempt to strangle the Mountain Kingdom’s trade routes had also deprived the Crowsneck merchants of Mountain amber and furs and other goods. Crowsneck had been a trading town. Now it was stagnant, choking on a surplus of its own goods and naught to trade them for.

  At least one shambling drunk knew where to put the blame. He wove his way through the market, caroming off stalls and staggering through the wares lesser merchants had displayed on mats. His shaggy black hair hung to his shoulders and merged with his beard. He sang as he came, or growled, more truly, for his voice was louder than it was musical. There was little melody to fix the tune in my mind, and he botched whatever rhyme had once been to the song, but the sense of it was clear. When Shrewd had been King of the Six Duchies, the river had run with gold, but now that Regal wore the crown, the coasts all ran with blood. There was a second verse, saying it was better to pay taxes to fight the Red Ships than pay them to a king that hid, but that one was interrupted by the arrival of the City Guard. There were a pair of them, and I expected to see them halt the drunk and shake him down for coins to pay for whatever he’d broken. I should have been forewarned by the silence that came over the market when the guards appeared. Commerce ceased, folk melted out of the way or pressed back against the stalls to allow them passage. All eyes followed and fixed on them.

  They closed on the drunk swiftly, and I was one of the silent crowd watching as they seized him. The drunk goggled at them in dismay, and the look of appeal he swept over the crowd was chilling in its intensity. Then one of the guards drew back a gauntleted fist and sank it into his belly. The drunk looked to be a tough man, gone paunchy in the way that some thickly set men do as they age. A soft man would have collapsed at that blow. He curled himself forward over the guard’s fist, his breath whistling out, and then abruptly spewed out a gush of soured ale. The guards stepped back in distaste, one giving the drunk a shove that sent him tottering off balance. He crashed against a market stall, sending two baskets of eggs splatting into the dirt. The egg merchant said nothing, only stepped back deeper into his stall as if he did not wish to be noticed at all.

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  The guards advanced on the unfortunate man. The first one there gripped him by the shirtfront and dragged him to his feet. He struck him a short, straight blow to the face that sent him crashing into the other guard’s arms. That one caught him, and held him up for his partner’s fist to find his belly again. This time the drunk dropped to his knees and the guard behind him casually kicked him down.

  I did not realize I had started forward until a hand caught at my shoulder. I looked back into the wizened face of the gaunt old woman who clutched at me. “Don’t make them mad,” she breathed. “They’ll let him off with a beating, if no one makes them angry. Make them angry, and they’ll kill him. Or worse, take him off for the King’s Circle. ”

  I locked eyes with her weary gaze, and she looked down as if ashamed. But she did not take her hand from my shoulder. Like her, then, I looked aside from what they did, and tried not to hear the impacts on flesh, the grunts and strangled cries of the beaten man.

  The day was hot, and the guards wore more mail than I was accustomed to seeing on City Guards. Perhaps that was what saved the drunk. No one likes to sweat in armor. I looked back in time to see one stoop and cut loose the man’s purse, heft it, and then pocket it. The other guard looked about at the crowd as he announced, “Black Rolf has been fined and punished for the treasonous act of making mock of the King. Let it be an example to all. ”

  The guards left him lying in the dirt and litter of the market square and continued their rounds. One guard watched over his shoulder as they strode away, but no one moved until they turned a corner. Then gradually the market stirred back to life. The old woman lifted her hand from my shoulder and turned back to haggling for turnips. The egg merchant came around the front of his stall, to stoop and gat
her the few unbroken eggs and the yolky baskets. No one looked directly at the fallen man.

  I stood still for a time, waiting for a shaky coldness inside me to fade. I wanted to ask why City Guards should care about a drunkard’s song, but no one met my querying glance. I suddenly had even less use for anyone or anything in Crowsneck. I hitched my pack a notch higher and resumed my trek out of town. But as I drew near the groaning man, his pain lapped against me. The closer I came, the more distinct it was, almost like forcing my hand deeper and deeper into a fire. He lifted his face to stare at me. Dirt clung to the blood and vomit on it. I tried to keep walking.

  Help him. My mind rendered thus the sudden mental urging I felt.

  I halted as if knifed, nearly reeling. That plea was not from Nighteyes. The drunk got a hand under himself and levered himself higher. His eyes met mine in dumb appeal and misery. I had seen such eyes before; they were those of an animal in pain.

  Maybe we should help him? Nighteyes asked uncertainly.

  Hush, I warned him.

  Please, help him. The plea had grown in urgency and strength. Old Blood asks of Old Blood. The voice in my mind spoke more clearly, not in words but images. I Witted the meaning behind it. It was a laying on of clan obligation.

  Are they pack with us? Nighteyes asked wonderingly. I knew he could sense my confusion, and did not reply.

  Black Rolf had managed to get his other hand under himself. He pushed himself up onto one knee, then mutely extended a hand to me. I clasped his forearm and drew him slowly to his feet. Once he was upright, he swayed slightly. I kept hold of his arm and let him catch his balance against me. As dumb as he, I offered him my walking staff. He took it, but did not relinquish my arm. Slowly we left the marketplace, the drunk leaning on me heavily. Entirely too many people stared after us curiously. As we walked through the streets, people glanced up at us, and then away. The man said nothing to me. I kept expecting him to point out some direction he wished to go, some house claimed as his, but he said nothing.

  As we reached the outskirts of town, the road meandered down to the riverbank. The sun shone through an opening in the trees, glinting silver on the water. Here a shoal of the river swept up against a grassy bank framed by willow woods. Some folk carrying baskets of wet washing were just leaving. He gave me a slight tug on the arm to indicate he wished to get to the river’s edge. Once there, Black Rolf sank to his knees, then leaned forward to plunge not just his face but his entire head and neck into the water. He came up, rubbed at his face with his hands, and then ducked himself again. The second time he came up, he shook his head as vigorously as a wet dog, sending water spraying in all directions. He sat back on his heels, and looked up at me blearily.

 
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