Assassins quest, p.4
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       Assassins Quest, p.4
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         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  There is no answer to a fear like that or the shame that comes after it. I tried anger, I tried hatred. Neither tears nor brandy could drown it. It permeated me like an evil smell and colored every remembrance I had, shading my perception of who I had been. No moment of joy, or passion, or courage that I could recall was ever quite what it had been, for my mind always traitorously added, “Yes, you had that, for a time, but after came this, and this is what you are now. ” That debilitating fear was a cowering presence inside me. I knew, with a sick certainty, that if I were pressed I would become it. I was no longer FitzChivalry. I was what was left after fear had driven him from his body.

  On the second day after Burrich had run out of brandy, I told him, “I’ll be fine here if you want to go into Buckkeep Town. ”

  “We’ve no money to buy more supplies, and nothing left to sell off. ” He said it flatly, as if it were my fault. He was sitting by the fire. He folded his two hands together and clasped them between his knees. They had been shaking, just a little. “We’re going to have to manage on our own now. There’s game in plenty to be had. If we can’t feed ourselves up here, we deserve to starve. ”

  “Are you going to be all right?” I asked flatly.

  He looked at me through narrowed eyes. “Meaning what?” he asked.

  “Meaning there’s no more brandy,” I said as bluntly.

  “And you think I can’t get by without it?” His temper was rising already. It had become increasingly short since the brandy ran out.

  I gave a very small shrug. “I was asking. That’s all. ” I sat very still, not looking at him, hoping he wouldn’t explode.

  After a pause, he said, very quietly, “Well, I suppose that’s something we’ll both have to find out. ”

  I let a long time pass. Finally I asked, “What are we going to do?”

  He looked at me with annoyance. “I told you. Hunt to feed ourselves. That’s something you should be able to grasp. ”

  I looked away from him, gave a bobbing nod. “I understood. I mean . . . past that. Past tomorrow. ”

  “Well. We’ll hunt for our meat. We can get by for a bit that way. But sooner or later, we’ll want what we can’t get nor make for ourselves. Some Chade will get for us, if he can. Buckkeep is as picked over as bare bones now. I’ll have to go to Buckkeep Town, for a while, and hire out if I can. But for now . . . ”

  “No,” I said quietly. “I meant . . . we can’t always hide up here, Burrich. What comes after that?”

  It was his turn to be quiet awhile. “I suppose I hadn’t given it much thought. At first it was just a place to take you while you recovered. Then, for a time, it seemed as if you’d never . . . ”

  “But I’m here, now. ” I hesitated. “Patience,” I began.

  “Believes you dead,” Burrich cut in, perhaps more harshly than he’d intended. “Chade and I are the only ones who know different. Before we pulled you from that coffin, we weren’t sure. Had the dose been too strong, would you be really dead from it, or frozen from your days in the earth? I’d seen what they’d done to you. ” He stopped, and for a moment stared at me. He looked haunted. He gave his head a tiny shake. “I didn’t think you could live through that, let alone the poison. So we offered no hope to anyone. And then, when we had you out . . . ” He shook his head, more violently. “At first, you were so battered. What they’d done to you—there was just so much damage . . . I don’t know what possessed Patience to clean and bind a dead man’s wounds, but if she hadn’t . . . Then later . . . it was not you. After those first few weeks, I was sickened at what we had done. Put a wolf’s soul in a man’s body, it seemed to me. ”

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  He looked at me again, his face going incredulous at the memory. “You went for my throat. The first day you could stand on your own, you wanted to run away. I wouldn’t let you and you went for my throat. I could not show Patience that snarling, snapping creature, let alone . . . ”

  “Do you think Molly . . . ?” I began.

  Burrich looked away from me. “Probably she heard you died. ” After a time, he added, uncomfortably, “Someone had burned a candle on your grave. The snow had been pushed away, and the wax stump was there still when I came to dig you up. ”

  “Like a dog after a bone. ”

  “I was fearful you would not understand it. ”

  “I did not. I just took Nighteyes’ word for it. ”

  It was as much as I could handle, just then. I tried to let the conversation die. But Burrich was relentless. “If you went back to Buckkeep, or Buckkeep Town, they would kill you. They’d hang you over water and burn your body. Or dismember it. But folk would be sure you stayed dead this time. ”

  “Did they hate me so?”

  “Hate you? No. They liked you well enough, those that knew you. But if you came back, a man who had died and been buried, again walking among them, they’d fear you. It’s not a thing you could explain away as a trick. The Wit is not a magic that is well thought of. When a man is accused of it and then dies and is buried, well, in order for them to remember you fondly, you’d have to stay dead. If they saw you walking about, they’d take it as proof that Regal was right; that you were practicing Beast magic, and used it to kill the King. They’d have to kill you again. More thoroughly the second time. ” Burrich stood suddenly, and paced the room twice. “Damn me, but I could use a drink,” he said.

  “Me, too,” I said quietly.

  Ten days later, Chade came up the path. The old assassin walked slowly, with a staff, and he carried his pack up high on his shoulders. The day was warm, and he had thrown back the hood of his cloak. His long gray hair blew in the wind and he had let his beard grow to cover more of his face. At first glance, he looked to be an itinerant tinker. A scarred old man, perhaps, but no longer the Pocked Man. Wind and sun had weathered his face. Burrich had gone fishing, a thing he preferred to do alone. Nighteyes had come to sun himself on our doorstep in Burrich’s absence, but had melted back into the woods behind the hut at the first waft of Chade’s scent on the air. I stood alone.

  For a time I watched him come. The winter had aged him, in the lines of his face and the gray of his hair. But he walked more strongly than I remembered, as if privation had toughened him. At last I went to meet him, feeling strangely shy and embarrassed. When he looked up and saw me, he halted and stood in the trail. I continued toward him. “Boy?” he asked cautiously when I was near. I managed a nod and a smile. The answering smile that broke forth on his face humbled me. He dropped his staff to hug me, and then pressed his cheek to mine as if I were a child. “Oh, Fitz, Fitz, my boy,” he said in a voice full of relief. “I thought we had lost you. I thought we’d done something worse than let you die. ” His old arms were tight and strong about me.

  I was kind to the old man. I did not tell him that they had.

  2

  The Parting

  AFTER CROWNING HIMSELF King of the Six Duchies, Prince Regal Farseer essentially abandoned the Coastal Duchies to their own devices. He had stripped Buckkeep itself and a good part of Buck Duchy of as much coin as he could wring from it. From Buckkeep, horses and stock had been sold off, with the very best taken inland to Regal’s new residence at Tradeford. The furnishings and library of the traditional royal seat had been plundered as well, some to feather the new nest, some divvied out to his Inland dukes and nobles as favors or sold outright to them. Grain warehouses, wine cellars, the armories, all had been plundered and the loot carried off inland.

  His announced plan had been to move the ailing King Shrewd, and the widowed and pregnant Queen-in-Waiting Kettricken, inland to Tradeford, that they might be safer from the Red Ship raids that plagued the Coastal Duchies. This, too, was the excuse for the looting of furnishings and valuables from Buckkeep. But with the death of Shrewd and the disappearance of Kettricken, even this flimsy reason vanished. Nonetheless he left Buckkeep as soon after his coronation as he could. Th
e tale has been told that when his Council of Nobles questioned his decision, he told them that the Coastal Duchies represented only war and expense to him, that they had always been a leech upon the resources of the Inland Duchies and he wished the OutIslanders the joy of taking such a rocky and cheerless place. Regal was later to deny having ever uttered such words.

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  When Kettricken vanished, King Regal was left in a position for which there was no historical precedent. The child Kettricken carried had obviously been next in line for the crown. But both Queen and unborn child had vanished, under very suspicious circumstances. Not all were certain that Regal himself had not engineered it. Even if the Queen had remained at Buckkeep, the child could not assume even the title of King-in-Waiting for at least seventeen years. Regal became very anxious to assume the title of King as swiftly as possible, but by law he needed the recognition of all Six Duchies to claim it. He bought the crown with a number of concessions to his Coastal Dukes. The major one was Regal’s promise that Buckkeep would remain manned and ready to defend the coast.

  The command of the ancient keep was foisted off on his eldest nephew, heir to the title Duke of Farrow. Lord Bright, at twenty-five, had grown restless waiting for his father to pass power to him. He was more than willing to assume authority over Buckkeep and Buck, but had little experience to draw on. Regal took himself inland to Tradeford Castle on the Vin River in Farrow, while young Lord Bright remained at Buckkeep with a picked guard of Farrow men. It is not reported that Regal left him any funds to operate from, so the young man endeavored to wring what he needed from the merchants of Buckkeep Town, and the already embattled farmers and shepherds of surrounding Buck Duchy. While there is no indication that he felt any malice toward the folk of Buck or the other Coastal Duchies, neither did he have any loyalty toward them.

  Also in residence at Buckkeep at this time were a handful of minor Buck nobility. Most landholders of Buck were at their own lesser keeps, doing what little they could to protect their local folk. The most notable to remain at Buckkeep was Lady Patience, she who had been Queen-in-Waiting until her husband Prince Chivalry abdicated the throne to his younger brother Verity. Manning Buckkeep were the Buck soldiers, as well as Queen Kettricken’s personal guard, and the few men who remained of King Shrewd’s guard. Morale was poor among the soldiers, for wages were intermittent and the rations poor. Lord Bright had brought his own personal guard with him to Buckkeep, and obviously preferred them to the Buck men. The situation was further complicated by a muddled chain of command. Ostensibly the Buck troops were to report to Captain Keffel of the Farrow men, the commander of Lord Bright’s guard. In reality, Foxglove of the Queen’s Guard, Kerf of the Buckkeep Guard, and old Red of King Shrewd’s guard banded together and kept their own counsel. If they reported regularly to anyone, it was Lady Patience. In time the Buck soldiers came to speak of her as the Lady of Buckkeep.

  Even after his coronation, Regal remained jealous of his title. He sent messengers far and wide, seeking word of where Queen Kettricken and the unborn heir might be. His suspicions that she might have sought shelter with her father, King Eyod of the Mountain Kingdom, led him to demand her return of him. When Eyod replied that the whereabouts of the Queen of the Six Duchies was no concern for the Mountain folk, Regal angrily severed ties with the Mountain Kingdom, cutting off trade and attempting to block even common travelers from crossing the boundaries. At the same time, rumors that almost certainly began at Regal’s behest began to circulate that the child Kettricken carried was not of Verity’s getting and hence had no legitimate claim to the Six Duchies throne.

  It was a bitter time for the small folk of Buck. Abandoned by their king and defended only by a small force of poorly provisioned soldiers, the common folk were left rudderless on a stormy sea. What the Raiders did not steal or destroy, Lord Bright’s men seized for taxes. The roads became plagued with robbers, for when an honest man cannot make a living, folk will do what they must. Small crofters gave up any hope of making a living and fled the coast, to become beggars, thieves, and whores in the inland cities. Trade died, for ships sent out seldom came back at all.

  Chade and I sat on the bench in front of the hut and talked. We did not speak of portentous things, nor the significant events of the past. We did not discuss my return from the grave or the current political situation. Instead, he spoke of our small shared things as if I had been gone on a long journey. Slink the weasel was getting old; the past winter had stiffened him, and even the coming of spring had not enlivened him. Chade feared he would not last another year. Chade had finally managed to dry pennant plant leaves without them mildewing, but had found the dried herb to have little potency. We both missed Cook Sara’s pastries. Chade asked if there was anything from my room that I wanted. Regal had had it searched, and had left it in disarray, but he did not think much had been taken, nor would be missed if I chose to have it now. I asked him if he recalled the tapestry of King Wisdom treating with the Elderlings. He replied that he did, but that it was far too bulky for him to drag up here. I gave him such a stricken look that he immediately relented and said he supposed he could find a way.

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  I grinned. “It was a joke, Chade. That thing has never done anything save give me nightmares when I was small. No. There’s nothing in my room that’s important to me now. ”

  Chade looked at me, almost sadly. “You leave behind a life, with what, the clothes on your back and an earring? And you say there’s nothing there you’d wish brought to you. Does that not strike you as strange?”

  I sat thinking for a moment. The sword Verity had given me. The silver ring King Eyod had given me, that had been Rurisk’s. A pin from Lady Grace. Patience’s sea-pipes had been in my room—I hoped she had got them back. My paints and papers. A little box I had carved to hold my poisons. Between Molly and me there had never been any tokens. She would never allow me to give her any gifts, and I had never thought to steal a ribbon from her hair. If I had . . .

  “No. A clean break is best, perhaps. Though you’ve forgotten one item. ” I turned the collar of my rough shirt to show him the tiny ruby nestled in silver. “The stickpin Shrewd gave me, to mark me as his. I still have that. ” Patience had used it to secure the grave cloth that had wrapped me. I set aside that thought.

  “I’m still surprised that Regal’s guard didn’t rob your body. I suppose the Wit has such an evil reputation they feared you dead as well as alive. ”

  I reached to finger the bridge of my nose where it had been broken. “They did not seem to fear me much at all, that I could tell. ”

  Chade smiled crookedly at me. “The nose bothers you, does it? I think it gives your face more character. ”

  I squinted at him in the sunlight. “Really?”

  “No. But it’s the polite thing to say. It’s not so bad, really. It almost looks as if someone tried to set it. ”

  I shuddered at the jagged tip of a memory. “I don’t want to think about it,” I told him honestly.

  Pain for me clouded his face suddenly. I looked away from it, unable to bear his pity. The recollections of the beatings I had endured were more bearable if I could pretend that no one else had known of them. I felt shamed at what Regal had done to me. I leaned my head back against the sun-soaked wood of the cabin wall and took a long breath. “So. What is happening down there where people are still alive?”

  Chade cleared his throat, accepting the change in topic. “Well. How much do you know?”

  “Not much. That Kettricken and the Fool got away. That Patience may have heard Kettricken got safely to the Mountains. That Regal is angry with King Eyod of the Mountains and has cut his trade routes. That Verity is still alive, but no one has heard from him. ”

  “Whoa! Whoa!” Chade sat up very straight. “The rumor about Kettricken . . . you remember that from the night Burrich and I discussed it. ”

  I looked aside fro
m him. “In the way that you might remember a dream you once had. In underwater colors, and the events out of order. Only that I heard you say something about it. ”

  “And that about Verity?” The sudden tension in him put a chill of dread down my spine.

  “He Skilled to me that night,” I said quietly. “I told you then that he was alive. ”

  “DAMN!” Chade leaped to his feet and hopped about in rage. It was a performance I had never witnessed before and I stared at him, caught between amazement and fear. “Burrich and I gave your words no credence! Oh, we were pleased to hear you utter them, and when you ran off, he said, “Let the boy go, that’s as much as he can do tonight, he remembers his prince. ’ That’s all we thought it was. Damn and damn!” He halted suddenly and pointed a finger at me. “Report. Tell me everything. ”

  I fumbled after what I recalled. It was as difficult to sort it out as if I had seen it through the wolf’s eyes. “He was cold. But alive. Either tired or hurt. Slowed, somehow. He was trying to get through and I was pushing him away so he kept suggesting I drink. To get my walls down, I suppose . . . ”

  “Where was he?”

  “I don’t know. Snow. A forest. ” I groped after ghostly memories. “I don’t think he knew where he was. ”

  Chade’s green eyes bored into me. “Can you reach him at all, feel him at all? Can you tell me he still lives?”

  I shook my head. My heart was starting to pound in my chest.

  “Can you Skill to him now?”

  I shook my head. Tension tightened my belly.

  Chade’s frustration grew with every shake of my head. “Damn it, Fitz, you must!”

  “I don’t want to!” I cried out suddenly. I was on my feet.

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  Run away! Run away fast!

  I did. It was suddenly that simple. I fled Chade and the hut as if all the devils of the OutIslander hell-islands were after me. Chade called after me but I refused to hear his words. I ran, and as soon as I was in the shelter of the trees, Nighteyes was beside me.

  Not that way, Heart of the Pack is that way, he warned me. So we bolted uphill, away from the creek, up to a big tangle of brambles that overhung a bank where Nighteyes sheltered on stormy nights. What was it? What was the danger? Nighteyes demanded.

 
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