Assassins quest, p.33
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       Assassins Quest, p.33

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  The morning was not even half gone when Arno had his friend halt for the third time. He slipped down from the horse’s back and staggered a few steps away to vomit. He doubled up, holding his aching guts as he did so, and then suddenly fell forward on his face in the dirt. One of the other guards laughed aloud, but when Arno only rolled over, groaning, Bolt ordered Joff to see what ailed him. We all watched as Joff dismounted and took water to Arno. Arno could not take the proffered water bottle and when Joff put it to his mouth the water just ran over his chin. He turned his head aside from it slowly and closed his eyes. After a moment, Joff looked up, her eyes wide with disbelief.

  “He’s dead, sir. ” Joff’s voice went a bit shrill on the words.

  They scraped out a shallow grave for him and heaped rocks over the top. Two more guards had vomited before the burial was completed. Bad water was the consensus, though I caught Bolt looking at me with narrowed eyes. They hadn’t bothered to take me off my horse. I hunched over my belly as if it pained me and kept my eyes down. It was no difficulty at all to look sick.

  Bolt got his men remounted and we pushed on. By noon it was apparent that no one was well. One boy was swaying in his saddle as we rode. Bolt halted us for a brief rest but it turned into a longer one. No sooner would one man finish retching than another would begin. Bolt finally ordered them tersely back to their saddles despite their groaning complaints. We went on but at a gentler pace. I could smell the sour reek of sweat and puke on the woman who led my mare.

  As we were going up a gentle rise, Joff fell from her saddle into the dust. I gave my mare a sharp nudge with my heels, but she only sidled sideways and put her ears back, too well trained to gallop off with her reins dangling down from her bit. Bolt halted his troop, and every man immediately dismounted, some to puke, others to simply sink down in misery beside the horses. “Make camp,” Bolt ordered, despite the early hour. Then he walked aside a little way, to crouch and retch dryly for a time. Joff didn’t get up.

  It was Bolt who walked back to me and cut my wrists loose from my saddle pommel. He gave a tug at my chain and I all but fell down on top of him. I staggered away a few steps, then sank down, my hands over my belly. He came to hunker down beside me. He grabbed the back of my neck, gripped it tightly. But I could feel his strength was not what it had been. “What do you think, Bastard?” he asked me in a hoarse growl. He was very close to me and his breath and body stank of sickness. “Was it bad water? Or something else?”

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  I made gagging sounds and leaned toward him as if to puke. He moved wearily away from me. Only two of his guards had managed to unsaddle their mounts. The others were collapsed miserably in the dirt. Bolt moved among them, cursing them uselessly but feelingly. One of the stronger guards finally began to gather the makings for a fire, while another crabbed down the line of horses, doing little more than uncinching saddles and dragging them from the horses’ backs. Bolt came to fasten the hobble chain between my ankles.

  Two more guards died that evening. Bolt himself dragged their bodies to one side, but could not find the strength to do more than that. The fire they had managed to kindle died soon for lack of fuel. The open night on the flat land seemed darker than anything I had ever known and the dry cold a part of the darkness. I heard the groans of the men, and one babbling about his guts, his guts. I heard the restless shifting of the unwatered horses. I thought longingly of water and warmth. Odd pains bothered me. My wrists were chafed raw from the shackles. They hurt less than my shoulder, but in an ever-present way I could not ignore. I guessed the blade-bone in my shoulder was at least fractured.

  Bolt came staggering over to where I lay at dawn. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks drawn with his misery. He fell to his knees beside me and gripped my hair. I groaned. “Are you dying, Bastard?” he asked me hoarsely. I moaned again and tried feebly to pull free of him. It seemed to satisfy him. “Good. Good then. Some were saying it was the Wit magic you’d put on us, Bastard. But I think bad water can kill a man, be he Witted or honorable. Still. Let’s be sure of it, this time. ”

  It was my own knife that he drew out. As he dragged back on my hair to expose my throat, I brought up my shackled hands to crash the chain against his face. At the same time I repelled at him with all the strength of Wit I could muster. He fell back from me. He crawled a few paces away, then fell on his side in the sand. I heard him breathing heavily. After a time, he stopped. I closed my eyes, listening to that silence, feeling the absence of his life like sunlight on my face.

  After a time, when the day was stronger, I forced myself to open my eye. It was harder to crawl over to Bolt’s body. All my aches had stiffened and combined to one pain that shrieked whenever I moved. I went over his body carefully. I found Burrich’s earring in his pouch. Odd to think that I stopped right then and put it back in my ear lest I lose it. My poisons were there as well. What wasn’t in his pouch was the key to my shackles. I started to sort my possessions out from his, but the sun was pounding spikes into the back of my head. I simply put his pouch at my belt. Whatever he’d had in there was mine now. Once you’ve poisoned a man, I reflected, you might as well rob him as well. Honor no longer seemed to have much to do with my life.

  Whoever had shackled me probably carried the key, I surmised. I crawled to the next body, but found nothing in his pouch save some Smoke herbs. I sat up, and became aware of faltering footsteps crunching over the dry earth toward me. I lifted my eyes, squinted against the sunlight. The boy came slowly toward me, his steps wavering. In one hand he had a waterskin. In the other he held the key where I might see it.

  A dozen steps away from me, he halted. “Your life for mine,” he croaked. He was swaying where he stood. I made no response. He tried again. “Water and the key to your bonds. Any horse you want to take. I won’t fight you. Only lift your Wit-curse off me. ”

  He looked so young and pitiful standing there.

  “Please,” he begged me abruptly.

  I found myself shaking my head slowly. “It was poison,” I told him. “There’s nothing I can do for you. ”

  He stared at me, bitterly, incredulous. “Then I have to die? Today?” His words came out as a dry whisper. His dark eyes locked to mine. I found myself nodding.

  “Damn you!” He shrieked the words, burning whatever life strength he had left. “Then you die, too. You die right here!” He flung the key from us as far as he could, then staggered off in a feeble run, squawking and flailing at the horses.

  The beasts had stood all night unpicketed, had even waited all morning hoping for grain and water. They were well-trained animals. But the smell of sickness and death and this boy’s incomprehensible behavior were too much for them. When he screamed suddenly and then fell facedown almost amongst them, a big gray gelding threw up his head, snorting. I sent calming thoughts toward him, but he had thoughts of his own. He pranced nervously away, then suddenly decided this was a good decision and broke into a canter. The other horses followed his lead. Their hooves were not a thundering on the plain; rather they were the diminishing patter of a rainstorm as it vanishes, taking all hope of life with it.

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  The boy did not move again, but it was a time before he died. I had to listen to his soft weeping as I searched for the key. I wanted desperately to go look for waterskins instead, but I feared that if I turned away from the area where he had thrown it, I would never be able to decide which unremarkable stretch of sand held my salvation. So I crawled over it on my hands and knees, manacles cutting and chafing at my wrists and ankles, as I peered at the ground with my one good eye. Even after the sound of his weeping became too soft to hear, even after he died, I heard it still inside my mind. Sometimes I still can. Another young life ended senselessly, to no profit, as a result of Regal’s vendetta with me. Or perhaps because of mine with him.

  I did eventually find the key, just as I was certain that the setting su
n would hide it forever. It was crudely made and turned very stiffly in the locks, but it worked. I opened the shackles, prying them out of my puffy flesh. The one on my left ankle had been so tight that my foot was cold and near numb. After a few minutes, pain flooded back into my foot with life. I didn’t pay much attention. I was too busy seeking for water.

  Most of the guards had drained their waterskins just as my poison had drained all fluids from their guts. The one the boy had shown me held only a few mouthfuls. I drank them very slowly, holding the water in my mouth for a long time before swallowing it. In Bolt’s saddlebags I found a flask of brandy. I allowed myself one small mouthful of it, then capped it and set it aside. It was not much more than a day’s walk back to the waterhole. I could make it. I’d have to.

  I robbed the dead for what I needed. I went through the saddlebags and bundles on the heaped saddles. When I was finished, I wore a blue shirt that fit me in the shoulders, though it hung almost to my knees. I had dried meat and grain, lentils and peas, my old sword that I decided fit me best, Bolt’s knife, a looking glass, a small kettle, a mug and a spoon. I spread out a sturdy blanket and put these things on it. To them I added a change of clothing that was too large for me, but would be better than nothing. Bolt’s cloak would be long on me, but it was the best made, so I took it. One of the men had carried some linen for bandaging and some salves. I took these, an empty waterskin, and Bolt’s flask of brandy.

  I could have gone over the bodies for money and jewelry. I could have burdened myself with a dozen other perhaps-useful possessions. I found I wanted only to replace what I’d had, and to be away from the smell of the bloating bodies. I made the bundle as small and tight as I could, cinching it with leather straps from the horses’ harness. When I lifted it to my good shoulder, it still felt much too heavy.

  My brother?

  The query seemed tentative, faint with more than distance. With disuse. As if a man spoke in a language he had not used in many years.

  I live, Nighteyes. Stay with your pack, and live also.

  Do you not need me? I felt his twinge of conscience as he asked this.

  I always need you. I need to know you are alive and free.

  I sensed his faint assent, but little more than that. After a time I wondered if I had not imagined his touch against my mind. But I felt oddly strengthened as I walked away from the bodies into the deepening night.

  13

  Blue Lake

  BLUE LAKE IS the terminus of the Cold River. It is also the name of the largest town on its shores. Early in King Shrewd’s reign, the country surrounding the northeast side of the lake was renowned for its grainfields and orchards. A grape peculiar to its soil produced a wine with a bouquet no other could rival. Blue Lake wine was known not just throughout the Six Duchies, but was exported by the caravan load as far as Bingtown. Then came the long droughts and the lightning fires that followed them. The farmers and vintners of the area never recovered. Blue Lake subsequently began to rely more heavily on trade. The present-day town of Blue Lake is a trade town, where the caravans from Farrow and the Chalced States meet to barter for the goods of the Mountain folk. In summers, huge barges navigate the placid waters of the lake, but in winter the storms that sweep down from the Mountains drive the bargefolk from the lake and put an end to trade on the water.

  The night sky was clear with an immense orange moon hanging low. The stars were true and I followed their guidance, sparing a few moments for weary wonderment that these were the same stars that had once shone down on me as I made my way home to Buckkeep. Now they guided me back to the Mountains.

  I walked the night away. Not swiftly, and not steadily, but I knew that the sooner I got to water, the sooner I could ease my pains. The longer I went without water, the weaker I would become. As I walked, I moistened one of the linen bandages with Bolt’s brandy, and dabbed at my face. I had looked at the damage briefly in the looking glass. There was no mistaking that I had lost another fight. Most of it was bruising and minor cuts. I expected no new scars. The brandy stung on the numerous abrasions, but the moisture eased some of the scabbing so that I could open my mouth with minimal pain. I was hungry, but feared the salty dried meat would only accentuate my thirst.

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  I watched the sun come up over the great Farrow plain in a marvelous array of colors. The chill of the night eased and I loosened Bolt’s cloak. I kept walking. With the increasing light, I scanned the ground hopefully. Perhaps some of the horses had headed back to the waterhole. But I saw no fresh tracks, only the crumble-edged hoofprints we had made yesterday, already being devoured by the wind.

  The day was still young when I reached the water-place. I approached it cautiously, but my nose and my eyes told me it was blessedly deserted. I knew I could not depend on my luck that it would be that way long. It was a regular stopping place for caravans. My first act was to drink my fill. Then there was a certain luxury to building my own small fire, heating a kettle of water and adding lentils, beans, grain, and dried meat to it. I set it on a stone close to the fire to simmer while I stripped and washed in the waterhole. It was shallow at one end, and the sun had almost warmed it. The flat blade of my left shoulder was still quite painful to touch or move, as were the chafed places on my wrists and ankles, the knot on the back of my head, my face in general . . . I left off cataloging my pain for myself. I wasn’t going to die from any of it. What more than that mattered?

  The sun dried me while I shivered. I sloshed out my clothes and spread them on some brush. While the sun dried them, I wrapped myself in Bolt’s cloak, drank brandy, and stirred my soup. I had to add more water, and it seemed to take years for the dried beans and lentils to soften. I sat by my fire, occasionally adding some more branches or dried dung to it. After a time, I opened my eyes again and tried to decide if I were drunk, beaten, or incredibly weary. I decided that was as profitable as cataloging my pain. I ate the soup as it was, with the beans still a bit hard. I had more of the brandy with it. There wasn’t much left. It was difficult to persuade myself to do it, but I cleaned the kettle and warmed more water. I cleaned the worst of my cuts, treated them with the salve, wrapped the ones that could be bandaged. One ankle looked nasty; I could not afford for it to become infected. I lifted my eyes to find the daylight fading. It seemed to have gone swiftly. With the last of my energy, I put out my fire, bundled up all my possessions, and moved away from the waterhole. I needed to sleep and I would not risk being discovered by other travelers. I found a small depression that was slightly sheltered from the wind by some tarry-smelling brush. I spread out the blanket, covered myself with Bolt’s cloak, and sank down into sleep.

  I know that for a time I slept dreamlessly. Then I had one of those confusing dreams in which someone called my name, but I could not find who. A wind was blowing and it was rainy. I hated the sound of the blowing wind, so lonely. Then the door opened and Burrich stood in it. He was drunk. I felt both irritated and relieved. I had been waiting for him to come home since yesterday, and now he was here, he was drunk. How dared he be so?

  A shivering ran over me, an almost-awakening. And I knew that these were Molly’s thoughts, it was Molly I was Skill-dreaming. I should not, I knew I should not, but in that edgeless dream state, I had not the will to resist. Molly stood up carefully. Our daughter was sleeping in her arms. I caught a glimpse of a small face, pink and plump, not the wrinkled red face of the newborn I’d seen before. To have already changed so much! Silently, Molly carried her to the bed and placed her gently on it. She turned up a corner of the blanket to keep the baby warm. Without turning around, she said in a low tight voice, “I was worried. You said you’d be back yesterday. ”

  “I know. I’m sorry. I should have been, but . . . ” Burrich’s voice was hoarse. There was no spirit in it.

  “But you stayed in town and got drunk,” Molly filled in coldly.

  “I . . . yes. I got drunk. ” He shut the
door and came into the room. He moved to the fire to warm his red hands before it. His cloak was dripping and so was his hair, as if he had not bothered to pull the hood up as he walked home. He set a carry-sack down by the door. He took the soaked cloak off and sat down stiffly in the chair by the hearth. He leaned forward to rub his bad knee.

  “Don’t come in here when you’re drunk,” Molly told him flatly.

  “I know that’s how you feel. I was drunk yesterday. I had a bit, earlier today, but I’m not drunk. Not now. Now I’m just . . . tired. Very tired. ” He leaned forward and put his head in his hands.

  “You can’t even sit up straight. ” I could hear the anger rising in Molly’s voice. “You don’t even know when you’re drunk. ”

  Burrich looked up at her wearily. “Perhaps you’re right,” he conceded, shocking me. He sighed. “I’ll go,” he told her. He rose, wincing as he put weight on his leg, and Molly felt a pang of guilt. He was still cold, and the shed where he slept at night was drafty and damp. But he’d brought it on himself. He knew how she felt about drunkards. Let a man have a drink or two, that was fine, she had a cup herself now and then, but to come staggering home like this and try to tell her . . .

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  “Can I see the baby for a moment?” Burrich asked softly. He had paused at the door. I saw something in his eyes, something Molly did not know him well enough to recognize, and it cut me to the bone. He grieved.

  “She’s right there, on the bed. I just got her to sleep,” Molly pointed out briskly.

  “Can I hold her . . . just for a minute?”

  “No. You’re drunk and you’re cold. If you touch her, she’ll wake up. You know that. Why do you want to do that?”

  Something in Burrich’s face crumpled. His voice was hoarse as he said, “Because Fitz is dead, and she’s all I have left of him or his father. And sometimes . . . ” He lifted a wind-roughened hand to rub his face. “Sometimes it seems as if it’s all my fault. ” His voice went very soft on those words. “I should never have let them take him from me. When he was a boy. When they first wanted to move him up to the keep, if I’d put him on a horse behind me and gone to Chivalry, maybe they’d both still be alive. I thought of that. I nearly did it. He didn’t want to leave me, you know, and I made him. I nearly took him back to Chivalry instead. But I didn’t. I let them have him, and they used him. ”

 
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