Assassins quest, p.27
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       Assassins Quest, p.27
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         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  The speaker was going on, embroidering his tale of Kettricken’s evil ambitions and how she had lain with me to conceive a child we could use to claim the throne. There was loathing in the storyteller’s voice as he spoke of Kettricken, and no one scoffed at his words. Even Creece at my side was acquiescent, as if these bizarre plots were common knowledge. Confirming my worst fears, Creece spoke up suddenly.

  “You tell it like it’s all new, but all knew her big belly came not from Verity but from the Wit-Bastard. Had Regal not driven off the Mountain whore, we would eventually have had one like the Piebald Prince in line for the throne. ”

  There was a low murmur of assent to this. I closed my eyes and lay back as if bored, hoping that my stillness and lowered lids could conceal the rage that threatened to consume me. I reached up to tug my kerchief more snugly about my hair. What could be Regal’s purpose in letting such evil gossip be noised about? For I knew this kind of poison must come from him. I did not trust my voice to ask any questions, nor did I wish to appear ignorant of what was evidently common knowledge. So I lay still and listened with savage interest. I gathered that all knew Kettricken had returned to the Mountains. The freshness of the contempt they had for her suggested to me that this was recent news. There was muttering too that it was the fault of the Mountain witch that the passes were closed to honest Tilth and Farrow traders. One man even ventured to say that now that trade with the coast was shut down, the Mountains saw a chance to fence Farrow and Tilth in and force them to come to terms or lose all trade routes. One man recounted that even a simple caravan escorted by Six Duchies men in Regal’s own colors had been turned back from the Mountain border.

  To me, such talk was obviously stupid. The Mountains needed the trade with Farrow and Tilth. Grain was more important to the Mountain folk than the lumber and furs of the Mountains to these lowlanders. Such free trade had been openly admitted as a reason for wedding Kettricken to Verity. Even if Kettricken had fled back to the Mountains, I knew her well enough to be sure she would not support any cutting off of trade between her folk and the Six Duchies. She was too bonded to both groups, so intent on being Sacrifice for all of them. If there were a trade embargo as I had heard, I was sure it had begun with Regal. But the men about me grumbled on about the Mountain witch and her vendetta against the King.

  Was Regal fomenting a war with the Mountains? Had he been attempting to send armed troops there under the guise of escorts for traders? It was a foolish idea. Long ago my father had been sent to the Mountains to formalize boundaries and trade agreements with them, marking the end of long years of border skirmishes and raids. Those years of battle had taught King Shrewd that no one was going to take and hold the Mountain Kingdom passes and trails by force. Unwillingly I followed that thought. Regal had been the one to suggest Kettricken as a bride for Verity. He had done all the courtier’s work of wooing her for his brother. Then, as the time for the wedding drew near, he had attempted to kill Verity, with the aim of securing the Princess as his own bride. He had failed, and his plots and plans had been revealed to only a few. The chance for him to claim Princess Kettricken as his own, and all that went with her, such as her eventual inheritance of the Mountain crown, had slipped through his fingers. I recalled some talk I had once heard between Regal and the traitorous Galen. They had seemed to think that Tilth and Farrow would be best secured if they could control the Mountain ranges and passes that backed them. Did Regal now think to take by force what he had once hoped to claim by marriage? Did he think he could rally enough ill will against Kettricken to make his followers believe they were waging a just war, one of vengeance against a Mountain witch, one to keep open key trade routes?

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  Regal, I reflected, was capable of believing anything he wished to believe. In the depths of his cups, head wreathed with his Smokes, I did not doubt that he now believed his own wild tales. A hundred golds for Chade, and another hundred for me. I knew well enough what I had done lately to merit such a head-price, but I wondered keenly just what Chade had been up to. In all my years with Chade, he had always worked unnamed and unseen. He still had no name, but his pocked skin and resemblance to his half-brother were known now. That meant he had been seen somewhere, by someone. I hoped he was well and safe this night wherever he was. A part of me yearned to turn back, to return to Buck and track him down. As if somehow I could keep him safe.

  Come to me.

  No matter what I longed to do, no matter what I felt, I knew that first I would go to Verity. I promised myself that over and over and was finally able to drop off into a wary doze. I dreamed, but they were pale dreams, barely touched by the Skill, shifting and turning as if blown by the autumn winds. My mind seemed to have caught up and jumbled together thoughts of every person I missed. I dreamed of Chade taking tea with Patience and Lacey. He wore a robe of red silk patterned over with stars, cut in a very old style, and he smiled charmingly at the women over his cup and brought laughter even to Patience’s eyes, although she looked strangely worn and weary. I then dreamed of Molly peeping out of a cottage door while Burrich stood outside it, pulling his cloak tight against the wind and telling her not to worry, he’d not be gone that long and any heavy chores could keep until he returned, that she should stay within doors and have only a care for herself. Even of Celerity did I dream, that she had taken shelter in the fabled Ice Caves of the Hungry Glacier in Bearns, and hid there with what troops she could still rally and many of her folk made homeless by the Raider wars. I dreamed she tended Faith, who lay suffering with a fever and a festering arrow wound in her belly. I dreamed finally of the Fool, his white face turned to ivory as he sat before a hearth and stared into the flames. There was no hope left in his face, and I felt that I was within the flames, looking deeply into his eyes. Somewhere nearby and yet not very near, Kettricken was weeping inconsolably. My dreams withered in my mind, and then I dreamed of wolves hunting, hunting, running down a buck, but they were wild wolves, and if my wolf was among them, he was theirs and mine no longer.

  I awoke with a headache and a crick in my back from a stone I’d slept on. The sun had only begun to crack the sky, but I rose anyway, to go to a well and draw water for washing, and to drink as much as I could hold. Burrich had once told me that drinking a lot of water was a good way to stave off hunger. It was a theory I’d have to test today. I put an edge on my knife, considered shaving, then decided against it. Better to let my beard grow over the scar as swiftly as possible. I rubbed reluctantly at the coarse growth that already irritated me. I went back to where the others still slept.

  They were just beginning to stir when a bulky little man appeared, to call shrilly that he would hire a man to help move his sheep from one pen to another. It was only a morning’s work, if that, and most of the men shook their heads, wishing to remain where they might be hired for a drover’s trip to Blue Lake. He almost pleaded, saying he must move the sheep through the city streets, hence he needed to get it done before the day’s common traffic began. Finally, he offered to include breakfast, and I really think that was why I nodded to him and followed him. His name was Damon and he talked the whole time we walked, fluttering his hands about, explaining needlessly to me just how he wanted these sheep handled. They were good stock, very good stock, and he didn’t want them injured or even flustered. Calmly, slowly, that was the best way to move sheep. I nodded wordlessly to his worrying and followed him to a pen far down the slaughter street.

  It soon became apparent why he was so anxious to move his sheep. The next pen must have belonged to the luckless Hencil. A few sheep still baaed in that pen, but most of them were down, dead or dying of flux. The stench of their sickness added a new foul note to the other smells in the air. Some men were there, taking the skins off the dead animals to salvage what they could from the flock. They were making bloody, messy work of it, leaving the skinned dead animals right there in the pen with the dying ones. It reminded me in some gruesome way
of a battlefield, with looters moving among the fallen. I turned my eyes from the sight and helped Damon bunch up his sheep.

  Trying to use the Wit on sheep is almost a waste of time. They are flighty of thought. Even those ones who appear most placid are so because they have forgotten what they were thinking about. The worst of them are capable of an inordinate amount of wariness, becoming suspicious of the simplest act. The only way to deal with them is much as herd dogs do. Convince them they have had a good idea about where they wish to go, and encourage them in it. I amused myself briefly by considering how Nighteyes would have bunched up and moved these woolly fools, but my even thinking of a wolf caused a few of them to halt in their tracks suddenly and glance about wildly. I suggested to them they should follow the others before they were lost, and they started as if surprised at the notion, then crowded in amongst the rest of the sheep.

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  Damon had given me a general idea of where we were going, and a long stick. I worked the back and sides of the flock, running and soon panting like a dog, while he led the way and kept the flock from scattering at every intersection. He took us to an area on the outskirts of town, and we put the sheep into one of the ramshackle pens there. Another pen held a very fine red bull, while there were six horses in yet another. After we had caught our breath, he explained that tomorrow a caravan would be forming up here to travel to Blue Lake. He had bought these sheep just yesterday, and intended to take them to his home there to add to his flocks. I asked him if he might want another hand to herd the sheep to Blue Lake, and he gave me a considering look but no answer.

  He was as good as his word about breakfast. We had porridge and milk, plain fare that tasted wonderfully good to me. It was served to us by a woman who lived in a house near the holding pens and made her living keeping watch over the animals penned there and providing meals and sometimes beds for those in charge of them. After we had eaten, Damon laboriously explained to me that yes, he was in need of an extra hand, possibly two, for the trip, but that he judged by the cut of my clothes that I knew little of the type of work I was seeking. He’d taken me on this morning because I was the only one who looked really awake and eager for the work. I told him my story of my heartless sister, and assured him that I was familiar with handling sheep, horses, or cattle. After much dithering and druthering, he hired me. His terms were that he would provide my food for the journey, and at the end of it would pay me ten silver bits. He told me to run and fetch my things and say my goodbyes, but to be certain to be back here by the evening, or he would hire another to take my place.

  “I have nothing to fetch, and no one to bid goodbye to,” I told him. It would not be wise to go back to town, not after what I’d heard last night. I wished the caravan were leaving right now.

  For an instant he looked shocked, but then decided he was well pleased. “Well, I have both to attend to, so I shall leave you here to watch over the sheep. They’ll need water hauled to them; that was one reason I was leaving them in the town pens, they’ve a pump there. But I didn’t like to have them so near sick sheep. You haul them water, and I’ll send a man out with a cart of hay for them. See you give them a good feed. Now, mind, I’ll judge how we are to go on together by how you begin with me. . . . ” And so on and so on he went, telling me to the last detail how he wished the animals watered, and how many separate piles of feed to make to be sure each animal got a share. I suppose it was to be expected; I did not look like a shepherd. It made me miss Burrich, and his calm assumption that I would know my business and do it. As he was turning to go, he suddenly turned back. “And your name, lad?” he called to me.

  “Tom,” I said after an instant’s hesitation. Patience had thought once to call me that, before I had accepted the name FitzChivalry. The reflection called to mind something Regal had once flung at me. “You have to but scratch yourself to find Nameless the dog-boy,” he’d sneered. I doubted he would think Tom the shepherd much above that.

  There was a dug well, not very near the pens, with a very long rope to its bucket. By working constantly, I finally managed to get the water trough filled. Actually, I filled it several times before the sheep allowed it to remain filled. About then, a cart with hay arrived, and I carefully created four separate piles of feed in the corners of the pen. It was another exercise in frustration, as the sheep bunched and fed off each pile as I created it. It was only after all but the weakest were satiated that I could finally establish a pile in each corner.

  I whiled away the afternoon with drawing more water. The woman gave me the use of a large kettle to heat it, and a private place where I could wash the worst of the road from my body. My arm was healing well. Not bad for a deadly injury, I told myself, and hoped Chade would never hear of my blundering. How he would laugh at me. When I was clean, I fetched more water to heat, this for washing out the clothes I’d bought from the rag woman. I discovered the cloak was actually a much lighter gray than I had thought it. I could not get all the smell out of it, but by the time I hung it to dry, it smelled more of wet wool and less of its previous owner.

  Damon had left me no provision for food, but the woman offered to feed me if I would haul the water for the bull and the horses, as it was a chore she’d grown much weary of doing for the last four days. So I did, and earned myself a dinner of stew and biscuits and a mug of ale to wash it all down. Afterward I checked on my sheep. Finding them all placid, habit made me turn to the bull and the horses. I stood leaning on the fence, watching the animals, wondering how it would be if this were all there was to my life. It made me realize that it would not have been bad, not if there’d been a woman like Molly waiting for me to come home at night. A rangy white mare came over to rub her nose up my shirt and beg to be scratched. I petted her and found her missing a freckled farmgirl who had brought her carrots and called her Princess.

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  I wondered if anyone, anywhere, got to live the life he’d wanted. Perhaps Nighteyes finally had. I truly hoped so. I wished him well, but was selfish enough to hope that sometimes he’d miss me. Sullenly I wondered if perhaps that was why Verity had not come back. Maybe he’d just got sick of the whole business of crowns and thrones and kicked over all his traces. But even as I thought it, I knew it was not so. Not that one. He’d gone to the Mountains to rally the Elderlings to our aid. And if he’d failed at that task, then he’d think of another way. And whatever it was, he’d called me to help him do it.

  11

  Shepherd

  CHADE FALLSTAR, ADVISER to King Shrewd, was a loyal servant of the Farseer throne. Few knew of his services during the years he served King Shrewd. This did not displease him, for he was not a man who sought glory. Rather he was devoted to the Farseer reign with a loyalty that surpassed his loyalty to himself or any other consideration most men have. He took most seriously his vow to the royal family. With the passing of King Shrewd, he pursued his vow to see that the crown followed the true line of succession. For this reason alone, he was sought after as an outlaw, for he openly challenged Regal’s claim to be King of the Six Duchies. In missives he sent to each of the dukes as well as to Prince Regal, he revealed himself after years of silence, declaring himself a loyal follower of King Verity and vowing he would follow no other until he was shown proof of the King’s death. Prince Regal declared him a rebel and a traitor and offered reward for his capture and death. Chade Fallstar evaded him by many clever artifices and continued to rally the Coastal Dukes to the belief that their King was not dead and would return to lead them to victory over the Red Ships. Bereft of any hope of aid from “King” Regal, many of the lesser nobles clung to these rumors. Songs began to be sung, and even the common folk spoke with hope that their Skilled King would return to save them, with the legendary Elderlings riding at his back.

  By late afternoon, folk began to gather for the caravan. One woman owned the bull and horses. She and her husband arrived in a wagon drawn by a br
ace of oxen. They built their own fire, cooked their own food, and seemed content with their own company. My new master returned later, a bit tipsy, and goggled at the sheep to be sure I’d fed and watered them. He arrived in a high-wheeled cart drawn by a sturdy pony, one he immediately entrusted to my care. He’d hired another man, he told me, one Creece. I should watch for him to come and show him where the sheep were. He then disappeared into a room to sleep. I sighed to myself to think of a long journey with Creece’s tongue and abrasive way to speed it, but did not complain. Instead I busied myself caring for the pony, a willing little mare named Drum.

  Next to arrive was company of a merrier sort. They were a troupe of puppeteers with a gaily painted wagon drawn by a team of dappled horses. There was a window in one side of the wagon that could be let down for puppet shows, and an awning that could be unrolled from the side to roof a stage when they were using the larger marionettes. The master puppeteer was named Dell. He had three apprentices and one journey puppeteer, as well as a minstrel who had joined them for the trip. They did not make their own fire, but proceeded to liven up the woman’s little house with song and the clacking of marionettes and a number of mugs of ale.

  Two teamsters came next, with two wagons full of carefully packed crockery, and then finally the caravan master and her four helpers. These were the ones who would do more than guide us. The very look of their leader inspired confidence. Madge was a stoutly built woman, her slate-gray hair constrained from her face by a band of beaded leather. Two of her help seemed to be a daughter and a son. They knew the waterholes, clean and foul, would defend us from bandits, carried extra food and water, and had agreements with nomads whose pasturing territory we’d be passing through. That last was as important as any of the rest, for the nomads did not welcome folk who passed through their lands with grazing animals to eat the feed their own flocks needed. Madge called us together that evening to inform us of this, and to remind us that they would keep order within our group as well. No theft or troublemaking would be tolerated, the pace set would be one all could sustain, the caravan master would handle all dealings at the watering places and with the nomads and all must agree to abide by the decisions of the caravan master as law. I murmured my assent along with the others. Madge and her help then checked the wagons to be sure each was fit for travel, that the teams were sound, and that there were adequate water and food supplies for emergencies. We would travel a zigzag course from watering place to watering place. Madge’s wagon carried several oak casks for water, but she insisted every private wagon and team carry some for their own needs.

 
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