Assassins quest, p.29
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       Assassins Quest, p.29

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Life went on for the rest of them. The caravan master guided us well and the trip was blessedly uneventful. Our misfortunes were limited to dust, little water, and sparse grazing, and those misfortunes were ones we accepted as part of the road. In the evenings, after the sheep were settled and the meal cooked and eaten, the puppeteers rehearsed. They had three plays and they seemed bent on perfecting all of them before we reached Blue Lake. Some nights it was merely the motions of the puppets and their dialogue, but several times they set up completely, torches, stage, and backdrops, the puppeteers dressed in the pure white drapings that signified their invisibility, and went through the entire repertoire of plays. The master was a strict one, very ready with his strap, and he did not spare even his journeyman a lash or two if he thought he deserved it. A single line intoned incorrectly, one flip of a marionette’s hand that was not as Master Dell dictated it, and he was amongst his cast, flaying about with the strap. Even if I had been in the mood for amusements, that would have spoiled it for me. So more often I went and sat looking out over the sheep, while the others watched the performances.

  The minstrel, a handsome woman named Starling, was often my companion. I doubted that it was from any desire for my company. Rather it was that we were far enough from the camp that she could sit and practice her own songs and harpings, away from the endless rehearsals and the weeping of the corrected apprentices. Perhaps it was that I was from Buck, and could understand what she missed when she spoke quietly of the gulls crying and the blue sky over a sea after a storm. She was a typical Buck woman, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and no taller than my shoulder. She dressed simply, blue leggings and tunic. There were holes in her ears for earrings, but she wore none, nor were there any rings on her fingers. She would sit not far from me, and run her fingers over her harp strings and sing. It was good to hear a Buck accent again, and the familiar songs of the Coastal Duchies. Sometimes she talked to me. It was not a conversation. She spoke to herself in the night and I just happened to be within earshot, as some men talk to a favorite dog. So it was that I knew she had been one of the minstrels in a small keep in Buck, one I’d never been to, held by a minor noble whose name I didn’t even recognize. Too late to worry about visiting or knowing; the keep and the noble were no more, swept through and burned out by the Red Ships. Starling had survived, but without a place to rest her head or a master to sing for. So she had struck out on her own, resolved to head so far inland that she’d never again see a ship of any color. I could understand that drive. By walking away she saved Buck for herself, as a memory of how it had been once.

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  Death had come close enough to her to brush her with its wingtips, and she wasn’t going to die as she was, a minor minstrel for a lesser noble. No, somehow she was going to make her name, was going to witness some great event and make a song about it that would be sung down the years. Then she’d be immortal, remembered as long as her song was sung. It seemed to me she would have had a better chance of witnessing such an event if she’d stayed on the coast where the war was, but as if in answer to my unspoken thought, Starling assured me that she was going to witness something that left its witnesses alive. Besides, if you’ve seen one battle, you’ve seen them all. She saw nothing especially musical about blood. To that I nodded mutely.

  “Ah. I thought you looked more like a man-at-arms than a shepherd. Sheep don’t break one’s nose, or leave a scar like that down your face. ”

  “They do if you tumble down a cliff looking for some in a mist,” I told her dourly, and turned my face aside from her.

  For a long time, that was as close as I came to having a conversation with anyone.

  We journeyed on, moving only as fast as laden wagons and a herd of sheep would permit. The days were remarkably similar. The countryside we passed was remarkably similar. There were a few novelties. Sometimes there were other folk camped at the watering places we came to. At one, there was a tavern of sorts, and here the caravan master delivered some small kegs of brandy. Once we were followed for half a day by folk on horseback who might have been bandits. But they veered off and left our trail in the afternoon, either bound to a destination of their own, or deciding what we possessed wasn’t worth the effort of a raid. Sometimes other folk passed us, messengers and folk traveling on horseback, unslowed by sheep and wagons. Once it was a troop of guards in the Farrow colors, pushing their horses hard as they passed us. I felt an uneasiness as I watched them pass our caravan, as if an animal scrabbled briefly against the walls that shielded my mind. Did a Skilled one ride amongst them, Burl or Carrod, or even Will? I tried to persuade myself it was merely the sight of the gold-and-brown livery that unnerved me.

  On another day we were intercepted by three of the nomadic folk whose grazing territory we were in. They came to us on tough little ponies that wore no more harness than a hackamore. The two grown women and the boy were all blond with faces baked brown by the sun. The boy’s face was tattooed with stripes like a cat’s. Their arrival occasioned a complete halting of the caravan, while Madge set up a table and cloth and brewed a special tea, which she served to them with candied fruit and barley-sugar cakes. No coin exchanged hands that I saw, only this ceremonial hospitality. I suspected from their manner that Madge was long known to them, and that her son was being groomed to continue this passage arrangement.

  But most days were the same plodding routine. We rose, we ate, we walked. We stopped, we ate, we slept. One day I caught myself wondering if Molly would teach her to make candles and tend bees. What could I teach her? Poisons and strangling techniques, I thought bitterly. No. Her letters and numbers she’d learn from me. She’d still be young enough when I returned for me to teach her that. And all Burrich had ever taught me about horses and dogs. That was the day when I realized I was looking ahead again, was planning for a life after I’d found Verity and somehow taken him safely back to Buck. My baby was just an infant now, I told myself, suckling at Molly’s breast and looking about with wide eyes and seeing all new. She was too young to know something was missing, too young to know her father wasn’t there. I’d be back with them soon, before she learned to say “Pa. ” I’d be there to see her first steps.

  That resolve changed something in me. I’d never looked forward to something so much. This was not an assassination that would end in someone’s death. No, I looked forward to a life, and imagined teaching her things, imagined her growing up bright and pretty and loving her father, knowing nothing, ever, of any other life he’d ever led. She wouldn’t remember me with a smooth face and a straight nose. She’d only know me as I was now. That was oddly important to me. So I would go to Verity because I had to, because he was my king and I loved him, and because he needed me. But finding him no longer marked the end of my journey, but the beginning. Once I had found Verity, I could turn about and come home to them. For a time, I forgot Regal.

  So I thought to myself sometimes, and when I did I walked behind the sheep in their dust and stink and smiled a tight-lipped smile behind the kerchief over my face. At other times, when I lay down alone at night, all I could think of was the warmth of a woman and a home and a child of my own. I think I felt every mile that stretched between us. Loneliness was a thing that ate at me then. I longed to know every detail of what was going on. Every night, every moment of quiet was a temptation to reach out with the Skill. But I understood Verity’s admonition now. If I Skilled to them, then Regal’s coterie could find them as well as me. Regal would not hesitate to use them against me in any way he could imagine. So I hungered for knowledge of them, but dared not attempt to satisfy that hunger.

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  We came to one village that was almost worthy of the name. It had sprouted up like a fairy ring of mushrooms around a deep-water spring. It had an inn, a tavern, and even several stores, all catering to travelers, with a scattering of houses surrounding it. We got there at midday, and Madge declared that we would
have a rest, and not move on until the following morning. No one really objected. Once we’d watered our animals, we moved our beasts and wagons to the outskirts of town. The puppeteer decided to take advantage of the situation, and announced in the tavern and inn that his troupe would stage a performance for the whole town, with gratuities cheerfully accepted. Starling had already found a corner of the tavern to call her own and was introducing this Farrow town to some Buck ballads.

  I was content to stay with the sheep on the outskirts of the town. I was soon the only one at our encampment. I did not especially mind. The horses’ owner had offered me an extra copper if I’d keep an eye on them. They scarcely needed watching. They were hobbled, but even so, all the animals were grateful to stop for a bit and search out whatever grazing they could find. The bull was staked out and likewise occupied with scavenging grass. There was a sort of peace to being still and alone. I was learning to cultivate an emptiness of spirit. I could now go for long stretches without thinking of anything in particular. It made my endless waiting less painful. I sat on the tail of Damon’s cart and stared out over the animals and the gentle undulating of the brush-spotted plain beyond them.

  It did not last for long. In the late afternoon, the puppeteer’s wagon came rattling into camp. Only Master Dell and the youngest apprentice were in it. The others had stayed in town to drink and talk and generally enjoy themselves. But the shouting of the master soon made it apparent that his youngest apprentice had disgraced herself with forgotten lines and incorrect movements. Her punishment was to stay in camp with the wagon. To this he added several sharp cuts with his strap. Both the snap of the leather and yelps of the girl were clearly audible across camp. I winced at the second one and was on my feet by the third one. I had no clear idea of my intention, and was actually relieved to see the master go striding off away from the wagon and back into town.

  The girl wept noisily as she went about the task of unhitching the team and pegging it out. I’d noticed her before in a casual way. She was the youngest of the troupe, no more than sixteen, and seemed most often to be under her master’s lash. Not that that was unusual. It was not uncommon for a master to have a lash to keep his apprentices devoted to their tasks. Neither Burrich nor Chade had ever taken a strap to me, but I’d had my share of cuffs and raps, and an occasional boot from Burrich if I wasn’t moving fast enough to suit him. The puppeteer was no worse than many masters that I’d seen, and kinder than some. All of his underlings were well fed and well clothed. I suppose what irritated me about him was that one snap of his lash never seemed enough for him. It was always three or five or even more when he was in a temper.

  The peace of the night was gone. Long after she’d finished staking out the horses, her deep sobbing rent the stillness. After a time I could not stand it. I went to the back of their traveling wagon and rapped on the small door. The weeping paused with a sniff. “Who is it?” she asked hoarsely.

  “Tom the shepherd. Are you all right?”

  I’d hoped that she’d say she was and tell me to go away. Instead the door opened after a moment and she stood peering out at me. Blood was dripping from her jawline. I saw at a glance what had happened. The end of the strap had curled past her shoulder and the tip had bitten wickedly into her cheek. I didn’t doubt that it hurt badly, but I suspected the amount of blood was scaring her even more. I saw a looking glass set up on a table behind her and a bloody cloth beside it. For a moment we looked at one another wordlessly. Then, “He’s ruined my face,” she sobbed.

  I couldn’t think of words to say. Instead I stepped up into the wagon and took her by the shoulders. I sat her down. She’d been using a dry rag to poke at her face. Had she no sense at all? “Sit still,” I told her tersely. “And try to be calm. I’ll be right back. ”

  I took her rag and damped it in cool water. I went back in and dabbed the blood away. As I suspected, the cut was not large, but it was bleeding profusely as cuts to the face or scalp often do. I folded the rag into a square and pressed it against her face. “Hold that there. Press on it a bit, but don’t move it. I’ll be back. ” I looked up to find her eyes fastened to the scar on my cheek as tears brimmed over from her eyes. I added, “Skin as fair as yours doesn’t scar all that easily. Even if it leaves a mark, it won’t be large. ”

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  The hugeness of her eyes at my words let me know I’d said exactly the wrong thing. I left the wagon, berating myself for getting involved at all.

  I’d lost all my healing herbs and my pot of Burrich’s ointment when I had abandoned my things in Tradeford. I’d noticed a flower that looked a bit like a stunted goldenrod in the area where the sheep were grazing, however, and some succulents sort of like bloodroot. So I pulled up one of the succulents, but it smelled wrong, and the juice from the leaves was sticky rather than like jelly. I washed my hands and then looked at the stunted goldenrod. It smelled right. I shrugged. I started out picking just a handful of leaves, but then decided as long as I was at it, I could restock a bit of what I’d lost. It appeared to be the same herb, but growing smaller and more straggly in this dry rocky soil. I spread out my harvest on the tail of the cart and sorted through it. The fatter leaves I left to dry. The smaller tips I crushed between two cleaned stones, and then took the resulting paste on one of the stones to the puppeteer’s wagon. The girl looked at it with doubt, but nodded hesitantly when I told her, “This will stop the bleeding. Soonest closed is smallest scar. ”

  When she took the rag away from her face, I saw that it had almost stopped bleeding. I smoothed on a fingertip’s worth of the woundwort paste anyway. She sat quietly under my touch, and it was suddenly unnerving to recall that I had not touched a woman’s face since I’d last seen Molly. This girl had blue eyes and they were wide-open and looking up into my face. I looked aside from the earnest gaze. “There. Now leave it alone. Don’t wipe at it, don’t touch it with your fingers, don’t wash it. Let the scab form and then do your best to leave that alone. ”

  “Thank you,” she said in a tiny voice.

  “Welcome,” I told her, and turned to leave.

  “My name is Tassin,” she said to my back.

  “I know. I’ve heard him roaring it at you,” I said. I started to go down the steps.

  “He’s an awful man. I hate him! I’d run away if I could. ”

  It didn’t seem like a good time simply to walk away from her. I stepped off the wagon and paused. “I know it’s hard to feel a strap when you’re trying hard. But . . . that’s how it is. If you ran away and had no food, no place to sleep, and your clothing all going to rags, that would be worse. Try to do better, so he won’t take up the strap. ” I believed so little of what I said, I could scarcely form the words. But those words seemed better than to tell her to leave now and run away. She wouldn’t survive a day on the open prairie.

  “I don’t want to do better. ” She’d found a spark of spirit, to be defiant. “I don’t want to be a puppeteer at all. Master Dell knew that when he bought my years. ”

  I edged away back toward my sheep, but she came down the steps and followed after me.

  “There was a man I liked in our village. He’d made an offer for me to be his wife, but had no money just then. He was a farmer, you see, and it was spring. No farmer has money in spring. He told my mother he’d pay a bride-price for me at harvest time. But my mother said, “If he’s poor now with one mouth to feed, he’ll only be poorer after he has two. Or more. ’ And then she sold me to the puppeteer, for half what he’d usually pay for an apprentice, because I wasn’t willing. ”

  “They do it differently where I’m from,” I said awkwardly. I couldn’t grasp what she was telling me. “Parents pay a master to take on their child as apprentice, hoping the child can make a better life. ”

  She smoothed her hair back from her face. It was light brown, with a lot of curl to it. “I’ve heard of that. Some do it that way, but most don’t. They buy an
apprentice, usually a willing one, and if he doesn’t work out, then they can sell him for a drudge. Then you’re not much better than a slave for six years. ” She sniffed. “Some say it makes an apprentice try harder, to know he may end up doing scut work in a kitchen or pumping a bellows in a smithy for six years if his master isn’t pleased. ”

  “Well. It sounds to me like you’d better learn to like puppets,” I said lamely. I sat on the tail of my master’s cart and looked out over my flock. She sat down next to me.

  “Or hope someone buys me from my master,” she said despondently.

  “You make yourself sound like a slave,” I said reluctantly. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

  “Doing something you think is stupid, day after day?” she asked me. “And being hit for not doing it perfectly? How is that better than being a slave?”

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  “Well, you’re fed and clothed and sheltered. And he’s giving you a chance to learn something, a trade that would let you travel all over the Six Duchies if you became good at it. You might end up performing for the King’s Court at Buckkeep. ”

  She looked at me oddly. “You mean Tradeford. ” She sighed and shifted herself closer to me. “It’s lonely for me. All the others, they all want to be puppeteers. They get angry at me when I make mistakes, and always call me lazy and won’t talk to me when they say I spoiled a performance. There’s not one kind one among them; none of them would have cared about my face getting scarred as you did. ”

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