Assassins quest, p.16
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       Assassins Quest, p.16

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “I drink too much when I come to town,” he said hollowly.

  I nodded to that. “Will you be all right now?”

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  He nodded back. I could see his tongue move inside his mouth, checking for cuts and loose teeth. The memory of old pain rolled over restlessly inside me. I wanted to be away from any reminders of that.

  “Good luck, then,” I told him. I stooped, upstream of him, and drank and refilled my waterskin. Then I rose, hefted my pack again, and turned to leave. A prickling of the Wit swiveled my head suddenly toward the woods. A stump shifted, then suddenly reared up as a brown bear. She snuffed the air, then dropped to all fours again and shambled toward us. “Rolf,” I said quietly as I started to slowly back up. “Rolf, there’s a bear. ”

  “She’s mine,” he said as quietly. “You’ve nothing to fear from her. ”

  I stood stock-still as she shuffled out of the woods and down the grassy bank. As she drew close to Rolf, she gave a low cry, oddly like a cow’s bawl for her calf. Then she nudged her big head against him. He stood up, leaning a hand on her sloping front shoulders to do so. I could sense them communicating with one another, but had no notion of their messages. Then she lifted her head to look directly at me. Old Blood, she acknowledged me. Her little eyes were deep set above her muzzle. As she walked, the sunlight sleeked her glossy, rolling hide. They both came toward me. I did not move.

  When they were very close, she lifted her nose and pressed her snout firmly against me and began to take long snuffs.

  My brother? Nighteyes queried in some alarm.

  I think it is all right. I scarcely dared to breathe. I had never been this close to a live bear.

  Her head was the size of a bushel basket. Her hot breath against my chest reeked of river fish. After a moment she stepped away from me, huffing an uh, uh, uh sound in her throat as if considering all she had scented on me. She sat back on her haunches, taking air in through her open mouth as if tasting my scent on it. She wagged her head slowly from side to side, then seemed to reach a decision. She dropped to all fours again and trundled off. “Come,” Rolf said briefly, and motioned me to follow. They set off toward the woods. Over his shoulder, he added, “We have food to share. The wolf is welcome, too. ”

  After a moment, I set out after them.

  Is this wise? I could sense that Nighteyes was not far away and was moving toward me as swiftly as he could, eeling between trees as he came down a hillside.

  I need to understand what they are. Are they like us? I have never spoken to any like us.

  A derisive snort from Nighteyes. You were raised by Heart of the Pack. He is more like us than these. I am not certain I wish to come close to a bear, or to the man who thinks with the bear.

  I want to know more, I insisted. How did she sense me, how did she reach out to me? Despite my curiosity, I stayed well back from the strange twosome. Man and bear shambled along ahead of me. They wended their way through the willow woods beside the river, avoiding the road. At a place where the forest drew densely down to the opposite side of the road, they crossed hastily. I followed. In the deeper shadow of these larger trees, we soon struck a game trail that cut across the face of a hill. I sensed Nighteyes before he materialized beside me. He was panting from his haste. My heart smote me at how he moved on three legs. Too often he had taken injuries on my behalf. What right did I have to ask that of him?

  It is not as bad as all that.

  He did not like to walk behind me, but the trail was too narrow for both of us. I ceded him the path and walked alongside, dodging branches and trunks, closely watching our guides. Neither of us were easy about that bear. A single swipe from one of her paws could cripple or kill, and my small experience of bears did not indicate they had even temperaments. Walking in the flow of her scent kept Nighteyes’ hackles erect and my skin aprickle.

  In time we came to a small cabin set snug against the side of the hill. It was made of stone and log, chinked with moss and earth. The logs that roofed it were overlaid with turf. Grasses and even small bushes sprouted from the roof of the cabin. The door was unusually wide and gaped open. Both man and bear preceded us inside. After a moment of hesitation, I ventured near to peer inside. Nighteyes hung back, hackles half-raised, ears pricked forward.

  Black Rolf stepped back to the door to look out at us. “Come in and be welcome,” he offered. When he saw that I hesitated, he added, “Old Blood does not turn on Old Blood. ”

  Slowly I entered. There was a low slab table in the center of the room with a bench to either side of it, and a river rock hearth in a corner between two large comfortable chairs. Another door led to a smaller sleeping room. The cabin smelled like a bear’s den, rank and earthy. In one corner was a scattering of bones and the walls there bore the marks of claws.

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  A woman was just setting aside a broom after sweeping the dirt floor. She was dressed in brown, and her short brown hair was sleeked to her head like an acorn’s cap. She turned her head quickly toward me and fixed me with an unblinking stare from brown eyes. Rolf gestured toward me. “Here are the guests I was telling you about, Holly,” he announced.

  “I thank you for your hospitality,” I said.

  She looked almost startled. “Old Blood always welcomes Old Blood,” she asserted.

  I brought my eyes back to confront the glittering blackness of Rolf’s gaze. “I have never heard of this “Old Blood’ before,” I ventured.

  “But you know what it is. ” He smiled at me, and it seemed a bear’s smile. He had the bear’s posture: his lumbering walk, a way of slowly wagging his head from side to side, of tucking his chin and looking down as if a muzzle divided his eyes. Behind him, his woman slowly nodded. She lifted her eyes and exchanged a glance with someone. I followed her gaze to a small hawk perched on a cross rafter. His eyes bored into me. The beams were streaked white with his droppings.

  “You mean the Wit?” I asked.

  “No. So it is named by those who have no knowing of it. That is the name it is despised by. Those of us who are of the Old Blood do not name it so. ” He turned away to a cupboard set against the stout wall and began to take food from it. Long thick slabs of smoked salmon. A loaf of bread heavy with nuts and fruit baked into it. The bear rose on her hind legs, then dropped again to all fours, snuffing appreciatively. She turned her head sideways to take a side of fish from the table; it looked small in her jaws. She lumbered off to her corner with it and turned her back as she began on it. The woman had silently positioned herself on a chair from which she could watch the whole room. When I glanced at her she smiled and motioned her own invitation to the table. Then she resumed her stillness and her watching.

  I found my own mouth watering at the sight of the food. It had been days since I had eaten to repletion and I’d had almost nothing in the last two days. A light whine from outside the cottage reminded me that Nighteyes was in the same condition. “No cheese, no butter,” Black Rolf warned me solemnly. “The City Guard took all the coin I’d traded for before I got around to buying butter and cheese. But we’ve fish and bread in plenty, and honeycomb for the bread. Take what you wish. ”

  Almost inadvertently, my eyes flickered toward the door.

  “Both of you,” he clarified for me. “Among the Old Blood, two are treated as one. Always. ”

  “Sleet and I welcome you as well,” the woman added softly. “I am Holly. ”

  I nodded gratefully to her invitation, and reached for my wolf.

  Nighteyes? Will you come in?

  I will come to the door.

  A moment later a gray shadow slunk past the door opening. I sensed him prowling about outside the cabin, taking up the scents of the place, registering bear, over and over. He passed the door again, peered in briefly, then made another circuit of the cabin. He discovered a partially devoured carcass of a deer, with leaves and dirt scuf
fed over it, not too far from the cabin. It was a typical bear’s cache. I did not need to warn him to leave it alone. Finally he came back to the door and settled before it, sitting alertly, ears pricked.

  “Take food to him if he does not wish to come inside,” Rolf urged me. He added, “None of us believes in forcing a fellow against his natural instincts. ”

  “Thank you,” I said, a bit stiffly, but I did not know what manners were called for here. I took a slab of the salmon from the table. I tossed it to Nighteyes and he caught it deftly. For a moment he sat with it in his jaws. He could not both eat and remain totally wary. Long strings of saliva began to trail from his mouth as he sat there gripping the fish. Eat, I urged him. I do not think they wish us any harm.

  He needed no more urging than that. He dropped the fish, pinned it to the ground with his forepaw, and then tore off a large hunk of it. He wolfed it down, scarcely chewing. His eating awoke my hunger with an intensity I had been suppressing. I looked away from him to find that Black Rolf had cut me a thick slab of the bread and slathered it with honey. He was pouring a large mug of mead for himself. Mine was already beside my plate.

  “Eat, don’t wait for me,” he invited me, and when I looked askance at the woman, she smiled.

  “Be welcome,” she said quietly. She came to the table and took a platter for herself, but put only a small portion of fish and a fragment of bread on it. I sensed she did so to put me at ease rather than for her own hunger. “Eat well,” she bade me, and added, “We can sense your hunger, you know. ” She did not join us at table, but carried her food off to her chair by the hearth.

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  I was only too glad to obey her. I ate with much the same manners as Nighteyes. He was on his third slab of salmon, and I had finished as many pieces of bread and was eating a second piece of salmon before I recalled myself to my host. Rolf refilled my mug with mead and observed, “I once tried to keep a goat. For milk and cheese and such. But she never could become accustomed to Hilda. Poor thing was always too nervous to let down her milk. So. We have mead. With Hilda’s nose for honey, that’s a drink we can supply ourselves with. ”

  “It’s wonderful,” I sighed. I set down my mug, a quarter drained already, and breathed out. I hadn’t finished eating, but the urgent edge of my hunger was gone now. Black Rolf picked up another slab of fish from the table and tossed it casually to Hilda. She caught it, paws and jaws, then turned aside from us to resume eating. He sent another slab winging to Nighteyes, who had lost all wariness. He leaped for it, then lay down, the salmon between his front paws, and turned his head to scissor off chunks and gulp them down. Holly picked at her food, tearing off small strips of dried fish and ducking her head as she ate them. Every time I glanced her way, I found her looking at me with her sharp black eyes. I looked back at Hilda.

  “How did you ever come to bond with a she-bear?” I asked, and then added, “If it isn’t a rude question. I’ve never spoken to anyone else who was bonded to an animal, at least, no one who admitted it openly. ”

  He leaned back in his chair and rested his hands upon his belly. “I don’t “admit it openly’ to just anyone. I supposed that you knew of me, right away, as Hilda and I are always aware when there are others of the Old Blood nearby. But, as to your question . . . my mother was Old Blood, and two of her children inherited it. She sensed it in us, of course, and raised us in the ways. And when I was of an age, as a man, I made my quest. ”

  I looked at him blankly. He shook his head, a pitying smile touching his lips.

  “I went alone, out into the world, seeking my companion beast. Some look in the towns, some look in the forest, a few, I have heard tell, even go out to sea. But I was drawn to the woods. So I went out alone, senses wide, fasting save for cold water and the herbs that quicken the Old Blood. I found a place, here, and I sat down among the roots of an old tree and I waited. And in time, Hilda came to me, seeking just as I had been seeking. We tested one another and found the trust and, well, here we are, seven years later. ” He glanced at Hilda as fondly as if he spoke of a wife and children.

  “A deliberate search for one to bond with,” I mused.

  I believe that you sought me that day, and that I called out for you. Though neither of us knew at the time what we were seeking, Nighteyes mused, putting my rescuing him from the animal trader in a new light.

  I do not think so, I told him regretfully. I had bonded twice before, with dogs, and had learned too well the pain of losing such a companion. I had resolved never to bond again.

  Rolf was looking at me with disbelief. Almost horror. “You had bonded twice before the wolf? And lost both companions?” He shook his head, denying it could be so. “You are very young even for a first bonding. ”

  I shrugged at him. “I was just a child when Nosy and I joined. He was taken away from me, by one who knew something of bonding and did not think it was good for either of us. Later, I did encounter him again, but it was at the end of his days. And the other pup I bonded to . . . ”

  Rolf was regarding me with a distaste as fervent as Burrich’s was for the Wit while Holly silently shook her head. “You bonded as a child? Forgive me, but that is perversion. As well allow a little girl to be wed off to a grown man. A child is not ready to share the full life of a beast; all Old Blood parents I know most carefully shelter their children from such contacts. ” Sympathy touched his face. “Still, it must have been excruciating for your bond-friend to be taken from you. But whoever did it, did the right thing, whatever his reason. ” He looked at me more closely. “I am surprised you survived, knowing nothing of the Old Blood ways. ”

  “Where I come from, it is seldom spoken of. And when it is, it is called the Wit, and is deemed a shameful thing to do. ”

  “Even your parents told you this? For while I well know how the Old Blood is regarded and all the lies that are told about it, one usually does not hear them from one’s own parents. Our parents cherish our lines, and help us to find proper mates when the time comes, so that our blood may not be thinned. ”

  I glanced from his frank gaze to Holly’s open stare. “I did not know my parents. ” Even anonymously, the words did not come easily to me. “My mother gave me over to my father’s family when I was six years old. And my father chose not to . . . be near me. Still, I suspect the Old Blood came from my mother’s side. I recall nothing of her or her family. ”

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  “Six years old? And you recall nothing? Surely she taught you something before she let you go, gave you some knowledge to protect yourself . . . ?”

  I sighed. “I recall nothing of her. ” I had long ago grown weary of folk telling me that I must remember something of her, that most people have memories that go back to when they were three or even younger.

  Black Rolf made a low noise in his throat, between a growl and a sigh. “Well, someone taught you something. ”

  “No. ” I said it flatly, tired of the argument. I wished an end to it, and so resorted to the oldest tactic I knew for diverting people when they asked too many questions about me. “Tell me about yourself,” I urged him. “What did your mother teach you, and how?”

  He smiled, his cheeks wrinkling fatly about his black eyes and making them smaller. “It took her twenty years to teach it to me. Have you that long to hear about it?” At my look he added, “No, I know you asked but to make conversation. But I offer what I see you needing. Stay with us a bit. We’ll teach you what you both need to know. But you won’t learn it in an hour or a day. It’s going to take months. Perhaps years. ”

  Holly spoke suddenly from the corner in a quiet voice. “We could find him a mate as well. He might do for Ollie’s girl. She’s older, but she might steady him down. ”

  Rolf grinned widely. “Isn’t that like a woman! Knows you for five minutes, and already matching you up for marriage. ”

  Holly spoke directly to me. Her smile was small
but warm. “Vita is bonded to a crow. All of you would hunt well together. Stay with us. You will meet her, and like her. Old Blood should join to Old Blood. ”

  Refuse politely, Nighteyes suggested immediately. Bad enough to den among men. If you start sleeping near bears, you shall stink so that we can never hunt well again. Nor do I desire to share our kills with a teasing crow. He paused. Unless they know of a woman who is bonded with a bitch-wolf?

  A smile twitched at the corner of Black Rolf’s mouth. I suspected he was more aware of what we said than he let on, and I told Nighteyes as much.

  “It is one of the things that I could teach you, should you choose to stay,” Rolf offered. “When you two speak, to one of the Old Blood it is as if you were shouting to one another over the rattle of a tinker’s cart. There is no need to be so . . . wide open with it. It is only one wolf you address, not all of the wolf kindred. No. It is even more than that. I doubt if anything that eats meat is unaware of you two. Tell me. When was the last time you encountered a large carnivore?”

  Dogs chased me some nights ago, Nighteyes said.

  “Dogs will stand and bark from their territory,” Rolf observed. “I meant a wild carnivore. ”

  “I don’t think I’ve seen any since we bonded,” I admitted unwillingly.

  “They will avoid you as surely as Forged ones will follow you,” Black Rolf said calmly.

  A chill went down my spine. “Forged ones? But Forged ones seem to have no Wit at all. I do not sense them with my Wit-sense at all, only with eyes or nose or . . . ”

  “To your Old Blood senses, all creatures give off a kinship warmth. All save the Forged ones. This is true?”

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