Assassins quest, p.28
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       Assassins Quest, p.28

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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Page 100


  Creece arrived with the setting sun, after Damon had already gone back to his room and bed. I dutifully showed him the sheep, and then listened to his grumbling that Damon had not provided us with a room to sleep in. It was a clear, warm night with only a bit of wind, so I saw little to complain about. I did not say so, but let him mutter and complain until he was weary of it. I slept just outside the sheep pen, on guard lest any predators come near, but Creece wandered off to annoy the puppeteers with his dour nature and extensive opinions.

  I don’t know how long I truly slept. My dreams parted like curtains blown by a wind. I came alert to a voice whispering my name. It seemed to come from far away, but as I listened, I was compelled inexorably to it as if summoned by a charm. Like an errant moth, I became aware of candle flames and was drawn toward them. Four candles burned brightly on a rough wooden table and their mingling scents sweetened the air. The two tall tapers gave off the scent of bayberry. Two smaller ones burned before them, giving off a sweet spring scent. Violets, I thought, and something else. A woman leaned forward over them, breathing deeply of the rising perfume. Her eyes were closed, her face misted with sweat. Molly. She spoke my name again.

  “Fitz, Fitz. How could you die and leave me like this? It wasn’t supposed to be this way, you were supposed to come after me, you were supposed to find me so I could forgive you. You should have lit these candles for me. I wasn’t supposed to be alone for this. ”

  The words were interrupted by a great gasp, as of a wrenching pain, and with it a wave of fear, frantically fought down. “It’s going to be all right,” Molly whispered to herself. “It’s going to be all right. It’s supposed to be like this. I think. ”

  Even within the Skill dream, my heart stood still. I looked down at Molly as she stood near the hearth in a small hut. Outside, an autumn storm was raging. She grasped the edge of a table and half crouched, half leaned over it. She wore only a nightrobe, and her hair was slick with sweat. As I watched aghast, she took another great gulping breath, and then cried out, not a scream, but a thin caw of a sound as if that were all she had strength for. After a minute she straightened a bit and put her hands softly on the top of her belly. I felt dizzied at the size of it. It was so distended, she looked pregnant.

  She was pregnant.

  If it were possible to lose consciousness when one is asleep, I think I would have done so. Instead my mind reeled suddenly, reordering every word she had said to me when we had parted, recalling the day when she had asked me what I would do if she had been carrying my child. The baby was the one she had spoken of, the one she had left me for, the one she would put ahead of every other in her life. Not another man. Our child. She’d left to protect our child. And she hadn’t told me because she was afraid I wouldn’t go with her. Better not to ask than to ask and be refused.

  And she had been right. I wouldn’t have gone. There had been too much happening at Buckkeep, too pressing the duties to my king. She’d been right to abandon me. It was so like Molly to make the leaving and the facing this alone her own choice. Stupid, but so like her I wanted to hug her. I wanted to shake her.

  She clutched the table again suddenly, her eyes going wide, voiceless now with the force that moved through her.

  She was alone. She believed I was dead. And she was having the child alone, in that tiny windswept hut somewhere.

  I reached for her, crying, Molly, Molly, but she was focused inward on herself now, listening only to her own body. I suddenly knew Verity’s frustration those times when he could not make me hear him and most desperately needed to reach me.

  The door gusted open suddenly, admitting blowing storm wind into the hut and a blast of cold rain with it. She lifted her eyes, panting, to stare at it. “Burrich?” she called breathlessly. Her voice was full of hope.

  Again I felt a wave of astonishment, but it was drowned by her gratitude and relief when his dark face peered suddenly around the door frame. “It’s only me, soaked through. I couldn’t get you any dried apples, no matter what I offered. The town stores are bare. I hope the flour didn’t get wet. I’d have been back sooner, but this storm . . . ” He was coming in as he spoke, a man coming home from town, a carry-sack over his shoulder. Water streamed down his face and dripped from his cloak.

  “It’s time, it’s now,” Molly told him frantically.

  Burrich dropped his sack as he dragged the door shut and latched it. “What?” he asked her as he wiped rain from his eyes and pushed the wet hair back from his face.

  “The baby’s coming. ” She sounded oddly calm now.

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  He looked at her blankly for an instant. Then he spoke firmly. “No. We counted, you counted. It can’t be coming now. ” Abruptly he sounded almost angry, he was so desperate to be right. “Another fifteen days, maybe longer. The midwife, I talked to her today and arranged everything, she said she’d come to see you in a few days. . . . ”

  His words died away as Molly gripped the table’s edge again. Her lips drew back from her teeth as she strained. Burrich stood like a man transfixed. He went as pale as I’d ever seen him. “Shall I go back to the village and get her?” he asked in a small voice.

  There was the sound of water pattering on the rough floorboards. After an eternity, Molly caught a breath. “I don’t think there’s time. ”

  Still he stood as if frozen, his cloak dripping water onto the floor. He came no farther into the room, stood still as if she were an unpredictable animal. “Shouldn’t you be lying down?” he asked uncertainly.

  “I tried that. It really hurts if I’m lying down and a pain comes. It made me scream. ”

  He was nodding like a puppet. “Then you should stand up, I suppose. Of course. ” He didn’t move.

  She looked up at him pleadingly. “It can’t be that different,” she panted. “From a foal or a calf . . . ”

  His eyes went so wide I could see the whites all round them. He shook his head fiercely, mutely.

  “But Burrich . . . there’s no one else to help me. And I’m . . . ” Her words were suddenly torn away from her in a sort of cry. She leaned forward on the table, her legs folding so her forehead rested on the edge of it. She made a low sound, full of fear as well as pain.

  Her fear broke through to him. He gave his head a tiny quick shake, a man awakening. “No. You’re right, it can’t be that different. Can’t be. I’ve done this hundreds of times. Just the same, I’m sure of it. All right. Now. Let’s see. It’s going to be all right, let me just . . . uh. ” He tore off his cloak and let it drop to the floor. He hastily pushed his wet hair back from his face, then came to kneel beside her. “I’m going to touch you,” he warned her, and I saw her bowed head give a small bob of agreement.

  Then his sure hands were on her belly, stroking down gently but firmly as I’d seen him do when a mare was having a bad time and he wished to hasten things for her. “Not long now, not much more,” he told her. “It’s really dropped. ” He was suddenly confident, and I felt Molly take heart from his tone. He kept his hands on her as another contraction took her. “That’s good, that’s right. ” I’d heard him say those same comforting words a hundred times in the stalls of Buckkeep. Between pains, he steadied her with his hands, talking all the while softly, calling her his good girl, his steady girl, his fine girl that was going to drop a fine baby. I doubt either of them heard the sense of what he said. It was all the tone of his voice. He rose once to get a blanket and folded it on the floor beside him. He said no awkward words as he lifted Molly’s nightdress out of the way, but only spoke softly, encouragingly as Molly clenched the table’s edge. I could see the ripple of muscle, and then she cried out suddenly and Burrich was saying, “Keep going, keep going, here we are, here we are, keep going, that’s fine, and what do we have here, who’s this?”

  Then the child was in his grasp, head in one cupped, callused hand, his other supporting the tiny
, curled body, and Burrich sat down suddenly on the floor, looking as amazed as if he had never seen anything born before. The women’s talk I had overheard had made me expect hours of screaming and pools of blood. But there was little blood on the babe that looked up at Burrich with calm blue eyes. The grayish cord coiling from the belly looked large and thick compared to the tiny hands and feet. All was silence save for Molly’s panting.

  Then, “Is he all right?” Molly demanded. Her voice shook. “Is something wrong? Why doesn’t he cry?”

  “She’s fine,” Burrich said softly. “She’s fine. And as beautiful as she is, what would she have to cry about?” He was silent for a long time, a man transfixed. Finally he reluctantly set her gently aside on the blanket, turned a corner of it up to cover her. “You’ve a bit more work to do here, girl, before we’re done,” he told Molly gruffly.

  But it was not long before he had Molly seated in a chair by the fire, a blanket about her to keep her from taking a chill. He hesitated a moment, then cut the cord with his belt knife before wrapping the child in a clean cloth and taking her to Molly. Molly immediately unwrapped her. While Burrich was tidying the room, Molly examined every inch of her, exclaiming over her sleek black hair, the tiny fingers and toes with their perfect nails, the delicacy of her ears. Then Burrich did the same while he held the baby and turned his back so that Molly might change into a nightgown that wasn’t soaked through with sweat. He studied her with an intentness I’d never seen him give to a foal or a pup. “You’re going to have Chivalry’s brow,” he told the babe softly. He smiled at her and touched her cheek with one finger. She turned her head toward the touch.

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  When Molly came back to her seat by the fire, he handed the child back to her, but crouched on the floor beside her chair as Molly put the babe to her breast. It took the baby a few tries to find and hold the nipple, but when she finally suckled, Burrich heaved such a sigh that I knew he had been holding his breath for fear she would not nurse. Molly had eyes only for the child, but I marked how Burrich lifted his hands to rub at his face and eyes, and that those hands trembled. He smiled as I had never seen him do before.

  Molly lifted her gaze to him, her face like a sunrise. “Would you make me a cup of tea, please?” she softly asked him, and Burrich nodded, grinning like a simpleton.

  I came out of my dream hours before dawn, not knowing at first when I passed from thoughtfulness to wakefulness. I became aware my eyes were open and I was staring at the moon. It would be impossible to describe my feelings at that time. But slowly my thoughts took shape, and I understood the previous Skill dreams I’d had of Burrich. It explained much. I’d been seeing him through Molly’s eyes. He’d been there, all this time, with Molly, taking care of her. She was the friend he’d gone to help, the woman who could use a man’s strength for a bit. He’d been there with her, while I had been alone. I felt a sudden rising of anger that he had not come to me and told me that she carried my child. It was quickly quenched as I suddenly realized that perhaps he’d tried. Something had brought him back to the cabin that day. I wondered again what he had thought when he’d found it abandoned. That all his worst fears for me had come true? That I’d gone feral, never to return?

  But I would return. Like a door swinging open, I suddenly understood that I could do that. Nothing truly stood between Molly and me. There was no other man in her life, only our child. I grinned suddenly to myself. I would not let so small a thing as my death come between us. What was death, compared to a child’s life shared? I would go to her, and explain, I’d tell her everything this time, and this time she would understand, and she’d forgive me, because there would never be any other secrets between us.

  I didn’t hesitate. I sat up in the darkness, picked up my bundle that I’d been using as a pillow, and set out. Downriver was so much easier than up. I had a few silvers, I’d get onto a boat somehow, and when they ran out, I’d work my passage. The Vin was a slow river, but once I was past Turlake, the Buck River would rush me along in its strong current. I was going back. Home, to Molly and our daughter.

  Come to me.

  I halted. It was not Verity Skilling to me. I knew that. This came from within me, the mark left by that sudden and powerful Skilling. I was certain that if he knew why I had to go home, he’d tell me to hurry, not to worry about him, that he’d be fine. It would be all right. All I had to do was keep walking.

  One step after another down a moonlit road. With each footfall, with each beat of my heart, I heard words in my mind. Come to me. Come to me. I can’t, I pleaded. I won’t, I defied them. I kept walking. I tried to think only of Molly, only of my tiny daughter. She would need a name. Would Molly have named her before I got there?

  Come to me.

  We’d need to get married right away. Find some local Witnesser in some small village. Burrich would vouch that I was a foundling, with no parentage for the Witnesser to memorize. I’d say my name was Newboy. An odd name, but I’d heard odder, and I could live with it the rest of my life. Names, once so important to me, no longer mattered. They could call me Horsedung, as long as I could live with Molly and my daughter.

  Come to me.

  I’d need to get work of some kind, any kind. I abruptly decided that the silvers in my pouch were far too important to spend, that I’d have to work for my entire passage home. And once I was there, what could I do to earn a living? What was I fit for? I pushed the thought aside angrily. I’d find something, I’d find a way. I’d be a good husband, a good father. They would want for nothing.

  Come to me.

  My steps had gradually slowed. Now I stood upon a small rise, looking down the road before me. Lights still burned in the river town below. I had to go down there and find a barge heading downriver, willing to take on an unproven hand. That was all. Just keep moving.

  I did not then understand why I could not. I took a step, I stumbled, the world swung around me dizzily, and I went to my knees. I could not go back. I had to go on, to Verity. I still do not understand it, so I cannot explain it. I knelt on the rise, looking down at the town, knowing clearly what I wished with all my heart to do. And I could not do it. Nothing held me back, no man lifted a hand or sword to me and bid me turn aside. Only the small insistent voice in my mind, battering at me. Come to me, come to me, come to me.

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  And I could not do otherwise.

  I could not tell my heart to stop beating, I could not cease breathing and die. And I could not ignore that summoning. I stood alone in the night, trapped and suffocating in another man’s will for me. A coolheaded portion of myself said, There, well, you see, that is how it is for them. For Will and the rest of the coterie, Skill-imprinted by Galen to be loyal to Regal. It did not make them forget they had had another king, it did not make them believe what they did was right. They simply had no choice about it anymore. And to take it back a generation, that was how it had been for Galen, forced to be so fanatically loyal to my father. Verity had told me that his loyalty was a Skill-imprinting, done by Chivalry when they were all little more than boys. Done in anger against some cruelty Galen had wrought against Verity. The act of an older brother taking revenge on someone who had been mean to his little brother. It had been done to Galen in anger and ignorance, not even knowing fully that such a thing was possible. Verity said Chivalry had regretted it, would have undone it if he had known how. Had Galen ever awakened to what had been done to him? Did that account for his fanatical hatred of me, had it been a passing down to the son of the anger he could not allow himself to feel toward Chivalry, my father?

  I tried to get to my feet and failed. I sank slowly to the dirt in the center of the moonlit road, then sat there hopelessly. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered, save that there were my lady and my child, and I could not go to them. Could no more go to them than I could climb the night sky and take down the moon. I gazed afar to the river, shini
ng blackly in the moonlight, rippled like black slate. A river that could carry me home, but would not. Because the fierceness of my will was still not enough to break past that command in my mind. I looked up to the moon. “Burrich,” I pleaded aloud, as if he could hear me. “Oh, take care of them, see they come to no harm, guard them as if they were your own. Until I can come to them. ”

  I do not recall going back to the holding pens, or lying down to sleep. But morning came and when I opened my eyes, that was where I was. I lay, looking up at the blue arch of the sky, hating my life. Creece came to stand between me and the heavens and look down on me.

  “You’d better get up,” he told me, and then, peering closer, he observed. “Your eyes are red. You got a bottle you didn’t share?”

  “I’ve got nothing to share with anybody,” I told him succinctly. I rolled to my feet. My head was pounding.

  I wondered what Molly would name her. A flower name, probably. Lilac, or something like that. Rose. Marigold. What would I have named her? It didn’t matter.

  I stopped thinking. For the next few days, I did what I was told. I did it well and thoroughly, distracted by no thoughts of my own. Somewhere inside me, a madman raged in his cell, but I chose not to know of that. Instead I herded sheep. I ate in the morning, I ate in the evening. I lay down at night and I rose in the morning. And I herded sheep. I followed them, in the dust of the wagons and the horses and the sheep themselves, dust that clotted thick on my eyelashes and skin, dust that coated my throat with dryness, and I thought of nothing. I did not need to think to know that every step carried me closer to Verity. I spoke so little that even Creece wearied of my company, for he could not provoke me to argument. I herded the sheep as single-mindedly as the best sheepdog that ever lived. When I lay down to sleep at night, I did not even dream.

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