Assassins quest, p.30
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       Assassins Quest, p.30
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         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  There seemed nothing to reply to that. I didn’t know the others well enough to agree or disagree. So I said nothing and we sat watching the sheep. The silence lengthened as the night got darker. I thought that soon I should kindle a fire.

  “So,” she began after a few more minutes of my silence. “How did you become a shepherd?”

  “My parents died. My sister inherited. She didn’t particularly care for me, and here I am. ”

  “What a bitch!” she said fiercely.

  I took a breath to defend my fictitious sister, and then realized I’d only be extending the conversation. I tried to think of something I needed to go and do, but the sheep and other beasts were right there before us, grazing peacefully. Useless to hope that the others would soon return. Not with a tavern and new faces to talk to after our days on the road.

  I finally made excuse that I was hungry and got up to gather stones and then dry dung and sticks for a fire. Tassin insisted on cooking. I was not truly hungry, but she ate with a hearty appetite, and fed me well from the puppeteer’s traveling supplies. She made a pot of tea as well, and afterward we sat by the fireside sipping it from heavy red porcelain mugs.

  Somehow the silence had changed from awkward to companionable. It had been pleasant to sit and watch someone else prepare the meal. She had chattered at first, asking if I liked this sort of spice and did I make my tea strong, but not really listening for any answers. Seeming to find some sort of acceptance in my silence, she had gone on to speak more intimately of herself. With a sort of despair, she spoke of days spent learning and practicing a thing she had no desire to learn nor practice. She spoke with a grudging marvel of the dedication of the other puppeteers, and their enthusiasm that she could not share. Her voice dwindled off and she looked up at me with eyes full of misery. She did not need to explain to me the loneliness she felt. She turned the talk to lighter things, the minor irritations she felt, the foods they ate that she disliked, the way one of the other puppeteers always smelled of old sweat, of one woman who reminded her to speak her lines by pinching her.

  Even her complaints were pleasant in an odd way, filling my mind with her trivialities so that I could not focus on my larger problems. Being with her was in some ways like being with the wolf. Tassin was focused on the now, on this meal and this night, with little thought of anything else. From considering this my thoughts wandered to Nighteyes. I quested softly toward him. I could sense him, somewhere, alive, but could tell little more than that. Perhaps too great a distance separated us; perhaps he was too focused on his new life. Whatever the reason, his mind was not as open to me as it had once been. Perhaps he was simply becoming more attuned to the ways of his pack. I tried to feel glad that he had found such a life for himself, with many companions and possibly a mate.

  “What are you thinking about?” Tassin asked.

  She spoke so softly that I replied without thinking, still staring into the fire. “That sometimes it only makes one more lonely to know that somewhere else, one’s friends and family are well. ”

  She shrugged. “I try not to think of them. I suppose my farmer found another girl, one whose parents would wait for a bride-price. As for my mother, I suspect her prospects were better without me. She was not so old that she could not catch another man. ” She stretched, an oddly catlike gesture, then turned her head to gaze into my face and added, “There’s no sense in thinking of what’s far away and what you haven’t got. It will only make you unhappy. Be content with what you can have now. ”

  Our eyes were locked suddenly. There was no mistaking her meaning. For an instant I was shocked. Then she leaned across the small space between us. She put one hand on each side of my face. Her touch was gentle. She pushed the kerchief back from my hair, then used both hands to smooth the hair back from my face. She looked into my eyes as the tip of her tongue moistened her lips. She slid her hands down the sides of my face, down my neck to my shoulders. I was as entranced as a mouse looking at a snake. She leaned forward and kissed me, opening her mouth against mine as she did so. She smelled like sweet smoky incense.

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  I wanted her with a suddenness that dizzied me. Not as Tassin, but as woman and gentleness and closeness. It was lust that raced through me, and yet it was not that at all. It was like the Skill-hunger that eats at a man, demanding closeness and total communion with the world. I was unutterably weary of being alone. I caught her to me so quickly I heard her gasp of surprise. I kissed her as if I could devour her and somehow be less lonely by doing so. Suddenly we were prone and she was making small pleased sounds that suddenly changed to her pushing at my chest. “Stop a moment,” she hissed. “Just wait. There’s a rock under me. And I mustn’t spoil my clothes, give me your cloak to spread out. . . . ”

  I watched her avariciously as she spread my cloak out on the earth by the fire. She lay down upon it and patted a place beside her. “Well? Aren’t you coming back?” she asked me flirtatiously. More lewdly, she added, “Let me show you all I can do for you. ” She smoothed her hands down the front of her shirt, inviting me to think of my hands doing the same.

  If she had said nothing, if we had never paused, if she had simply looked up at me from the cloak . . . but her question and her manner were all wrong, suddenly. All the illusion of gentleness and closeness was gone, replaced by the same sort of challenge another fighter might offer me in a practice-yard with staves. I am no better than any man. I didn’t want to think, to consider anything. I longed to be able to simply throw myself down upon her and quench myself in her, but instead I heard myself asking, “And if I get you with child?”

  “Oh,” and she laughed lightly as if she had never considered such a thing. “Then you can marry me, and buy my prentice years from Master Dell. Or not,” she added, as she saw my face change. “A baby’s not so large a thing to be rid of as a man might think. A few silvers for the right herbs . . . but we needn’t think of that now. Why worry about a thing that may never come to pass?”

  Why indeed? I looked at her, wanting her with all the lust of my months alone and untouched. But I knew also that for that deeper hunger for companionship and understanding, she offered me no more solace than any man might find in his own hand. I shook my head slowly, more to myself than to her. She smiled up at me mischievously and reached a hand toward me.

  “No. ” I said the word quietly. She looked up at me, so incredulously amazed that I nearly laughed. “This is not a good idea,” I said, and hearing the words aloud, I knew they were true. There was nothing lofty in it, no thoughts of undying faithfulness to Molly or shame that I had already left one woman with the burden of bearing a child alone. I knew those feelings, but they were not what came to me then. What I sensed was a hollowness in me that would only be made worse by laying myself down beside a stranger. “It’s not you,” I said as I saw her cheeks redden suddenly and the smile fade from her face. “It’s me. The fault’s with me. ” I tried to make my voice comforting. It was a waste.

  She stood up suddenly. “I know that, stupid,” she said scathingly. “I only meant to be kind to you, nothing more. ” She stalked angrily away from the fire, blending with the shadows quickly. I heard the slam of the wagon door.

  I stooped slowly to pick my cloak up and shake the dust from it. Then, the night having become suddenly colder with a rising wind, I put it around my shoulders and sat down again to stare into my fire.

  12

  Suspicions

  THE USE OF the Skill is addictive. All students of this magic are warned of this from the very beginning. There is a fascination to this power that draws the user in, tempting him to use it more and more often. As the user’s expertise and power increase, so does the lure of the Skill. The fascination of the Skill eclipses other interests and relationships. Yet it is a difficult attraction to describe to anyone who has not experienced the Skill itself. A rising covey of pheasant on a crisp autumn morning, or catching the wind
’s benefit perfectly in a boat’s sails, or the first mouthful of hot savory stew after a cold and hungry day; these are all sensations that hover for only a moment. The Skill sustains that sensation, for as long as the strength of the user lasts.

  It was very late when the others came back to our campsite. My master Damon was drunk and leaning companionably on Creece, who was drunk and irritable and reeked of smoke. They dragged their blankets off the cart and rolled up in them. No one offered to relieve me in my watch. I sighed, doubting that I’d get any sleep until the next night.

  Dawn came as early as it always does, and the caravan master was merciless in insisting that we rise and get ready for the road. I suppose she was wise. If she’d allowed them to sleep as long as they wanted, the earlier risers would have gone back to town, and she’d have had to spend the day rounding them up. But it made for a miserable morning. Only the teamsters and the minstrel Starling seemed to have known when to stop drinking. We cooked and shared porridge while the others compared headaches and complaints.

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  I’ve noticed that drinking together, especially to excess, forms a bond between folk. So when the master decided his head ached too badly for him to drive the cart, he allotted that task to Creece. Damon slept in the cart as it jostled along while Creece drowsed over the reins as the pony followed the other wagons. They’d tied the bellwether to the tail of the cart, and the flock followed. Somewhat. To me fell the task of trotting behind in the dust, keeping the flock as well bunched as I could. The sky was blue but the day remained chill, with rising winds that stirred and carried the dust we raised. The night had been sleepless for me, and my head soon pounded with pain.

  Madge called a brief halt at noon. Most of the caravan folk had recovered enough by then that they wished to eat. I drank from the water casks on Madge’s wagon, then wet my kerchief and sopped some of the dust from my face. I was trying to rinse grit from my eyes when Starling came up beside me. I stepped aside, thinking she wanted water. Instead, she spoke softly.

  “I’d keep my kerchief on, were I you. ”

  I wrung it out and retied it about my head. “I do. It does nothing to keep the dust from my eyes, though. ”

  Starling looked at me levelly. “It’s not your eyes you should worry about. It’s that white shock of hair. You should black it with grease and ash tonight, if you get a private moment. It might make it a bit less noticeable. ”

  I looked questioningly at her, trying to keep my expression bland.

  She smiled at me archly. “King Regal’s guards had been through that water town just a few days before we arrived. They told the folk there that the King believed that the Pocked Man would be crossing Farrow. And you with him. ” She paused, expecting me to say something. When I just looked at her, her grin widened. “Or perhaps it’s some other fellow with a broken nose, scar down his face, white streak in his hair, and . . . ” She gestured toward my arm. “. . . a fresh sword-slash up his forearm. ”

  I found my tongue and a measure of my wits. I pushed back my sleeve, offered my arm for her inspection. “A sword-slash? This is just a scratch I got off a nail head in a tavern door. On my way out, a bit unwillingly. Take a look for yourself. It’s almost healed now, anyway. ”

  She leaned over and looked at my arm obligingly. “Oh. I see. Well. My mistake. Still,” and she met my eyes again, “I’d keep your kerchief on anyway. To prevent anyone else from making the same mistake. ” She paused, then canted her head at me. “I’m a minstrel, you see. I’d rather witness history than make it. Or change it. But I doubt all the others in this caravan feel that way. ”

  I watched mutely as she strolled away, whistling. Then I drank again, being careful not to take too much, and went back to my sheep.

  Creece was on his feet and helping, somewhat, for the rest of the afternoon. Even so, it seemed a longer, wearier day than I’d had in a time. There was nothing complicated about my task to make it so. The problem, I decided, was that I’d begun thinking again. I let my despair over Molly and our child drag me down. I’d let my guard down, I hadn’t been fearful enough on my own behalf. Now it occurred to me that if Regal’s Guard managed to find me, they’d kill me. Then I’d never see Molly or our daughter. Somehow that seemed worse than the threat to my life.

  At the evening meal that night, I sat back farther from the fire than usual, even though it meant wrapping myself in my cloak against the cold. My silence was taken as normal. The rest of them talked, much more than usual, about the last evening in town. I gathered the beer had been good, the wine poor, while the resident minstrel had had small goodwill toward Starling for performing for his captive audience. The members of our caravan seemed to take it as a personal victory that Starling’s songs had been well received by the villagers. “You sang well, even if all you knew was those Buck ballads,” Creece even conceded magnanimously. Starling nodded to that dubious praise.

  As she did every evening, Starling unwrapped her harp after the meal. Master Dell was giving his troupe a rare night off from their constant rehearsing, by which I gathered he had been pleased with his performers save Tassin. Tassin had not even a glance for me that evening, but instead perched by one of the teamsters, smiling up at his every word. I noticed that her injury was little more than a scratch on her face with some bruising around it. It would heal well.

  Creece went off to stand night watch over our flock. I stretched out on my cloak just beyond reach of the firelight, thinking to drowse off immediately. I expected the others would soon be off to bed as well. The hum of their conversation was lulling, as was the lazy strumming of Starling’s fingers on her harp strings. Gradually the strumming changed to a rhythmic plucking, and her voice lifted in song.

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  I was floating at the edge of sleep when the words “Antler Island Tower” jolted me awake. My eyes flew open as I realized she was singing about the battle there last summer, the Rurisk’s first real engagement with the Red Ship Raiders. I recalled both too much and very little about that battle. As Verity had observed more than once, despite all Hod’s weapons instruction, I tended to revert to brawling in any sort of a fight. So I’d carried an axe into that battle and used it with a savagery I’d never expected of myself. Afterward, it had been said that I’d killed the chief of the raiding party we’d cornered. I’d never known if that was true or not.

  In Starling’s song, it certainly was. My heart nearly stood still when I heard her sing of “Chivalry’s son, with eyes of flame, who carried his blood if not his name. ” The song went on with a dozen improbable embellishments of blows I’d dealt and warriors I’d felled. It was strangely humiliating to hear those deeds sung of as noble and now almost legendary. I knew there were many fighters who dreamed of having songs sung of their exploits. I found the experience uncomfortable. I didn’t recall the sun striking flames from my axehead or that I fought as bravely as the buck on my crest. Instead I recalled the clinging smell of blood and treading on a man’s entrails, a man who squirmed and moaned still. All the ale in Buckkeep that night had not been enough to bring me any sort of peace.

  When the song was finally done, one of the teamsters snorted. “So, that’s the one ye daren’t sing in the tavern last night, eh, Starling?”

  Starling gave a deprecating laugh. “Somehow I doubted it would be enjoyed. Songs about Chivalry’s Bastard would not have been popular enough to earn me a penny there. ”

  “It’s an odd song,” observed Dell. “Here’s the King offering gold for his head, and the Guard telling all, beware, the Bastard has the Wit and used it to trick death. But your song makes him out to be some sort of hero. ”

  “Well, it’s a Buck song, and he was well thought of in Buck, at least for a time,” Starling explained.

  “But not anymore, I’d wager. Save that any man would think well of a hundred gold coins if one could turn him over to the King’s Guard,” one of the team
sters observed.

  “Like as not,” Starling agreed easily. “Though there’s still some in Buck who would tell you that not all his tale has been told, and the Bastard was not so black as he’s been tarred of late. ”

  “I still don’t understand it. I thought he was executed for using the Wit to kill King Shrewd,” complained Madge.

  “So some say,” Starling replied. “Truth of it was, he died in his cell before he could be executed and was buried instead of burned. And the tale goes,” and here Starling’s voice dropped to a near whisper, “that when spring came, not a leaf of greenery would grow on his grave. And an old wise woman, hearing this, knew that meant his Wit magic still slept in his bones and might be claimed by any bold enough to pull a tooth from his mouth. And so she went, by full moonlight, and took a manservant with a spade with her. She put him to digging up the grave. But he hadn’t turned but a shovelful of earth before he found splintered wood from the Bastard’s coffin. ”

  Starling paused theatrically. There wasn’t a sound save the crackling of the fire.

  “The box was empty, of course. And those who saw it said that the coffin had been splintered out from inside, not stove in. And one man told it to me that caught in the splintered edge of the coffin lid were the coarse gray hairs of a wolf’s coat. ”

  A moment longer the silence held. Then, “Not truly?” Madge asked Starling.

  Her fingers ran lightly over her harp strings. “So I heard it told in Buck. But I also heard the Lady Patience, she that buried him, say it was all nonsense, that his body had been cold and stiff when she washed it and wrapped it in a grave cloth. And of the Pocked Man, that King Regal so fears, she declared he is no more than an old adviser of King Shrewd’s, some old recluse with a scarred face, come out of his hermitage to keep alive a belief that Verity still lives and lend heart to those who must go on battling the Red Ships. So. I suppose you can choose to believe whichever you wish. ”

  Melody, one of the puppeteers, gave a mock shiver. “Brrr. So. Sing us something merry now, to go to sleep on. I’ve no wish to hear more of your ghost tales before I seek my blankets tonight. ”

 
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