Assassins quest, p.41
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       Assassins Quest, p.41
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         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  We were still short of darkness when Nik turned our wagons away from the road and up a long trail nearly obscured by the blown snow. The only sign of it I could make out was that less grass stuck up above the snow, but Nik seemed to know it well. The mounted smugglers broke trail for the wagons. It was still heavy going for Kettle’s little mare. I looked back behind us once to see the sweeping hand of the wind smoothing our trail out to no more than a ripple in the snowy landscape.

  The land we crossed seemed featureless, but it undulated gently. We eventually crested the long rise we had ascended, and looked down onto a huddle of buildings that had been invisible from the road. Evening was drawing on. A single light shone in a window. As we wended our way down toward it, other candles were lit, and Nighteyes caught a trace of wood smoke on the wind. We were expected.

  The buildings were not old. They looked as if they had been recently completed. There was an ample barn. Wagons and all, we led the horses down into it, for the earth had been dug away so that the barn was half underground. This low profile was why we had not seen this place from the road, and I didn’t doubt that was the reason for it. Unless a man knew this place was here, he’d never find it. The earth from the digging had been heaped up around the barn and other buildings. Inside the thick walls with the doors shut, we could not even hear the wind. A milk cow shifted in her stall as we unhitched the horses and put them in stalls. There was straw and hay and a trough of fresh water.

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  The pilgrims had got out of the wagon, and I was helping Kettle down when the barn door opened again. A lithe young woman with a mass of red hair piled on her head came storming in. Fists on her hips, she confronted Nik. “Who are all these people and why have you brought them here? What good is a bolthole if half the countryside knows of it?”

  Nik handed his horse to one of his men and turned to her. Without a word, he swept her into his arms and kissed her. But a moment later, she pushed him away. “What are you . . . ”

  “They paid well. They’ve their own food, and can make do in here for the night. Then they’ll be on their way to the Mountains tomorrow. Up there, no one cares what we do. There’s no danger, Tel, you worry too much. ”

  “I have to worry for two, for you haven’t the sense to. I’ve food ready, but not enough for all this lot. Why didn’t you send a bird to warn me?”

  “I did. Didn’t it get here? Maybe the storm delayed it. ”

  “That’s what you always say when you don’t think to do it. ”

  “Let it go, woman. I’ve good tidings for you. Let’s go back to your house and talk. ” Nik’s arm rested easily about her waist as they left. It was up to his men to settle us. There was straw to sleep in and plenty of space to spread it. There was a dug well with a bucket outside for water. There was a small hearth at one end of the barn. The chimney smoked badly, but it sufficed to cook on. The barn was not warm, save in comparison to the weather outside. But no one complained. Nighteyes had stayed outside.

  They’ve a coop full of chickens, he told me. And a pigeon coop, too.

  Leave them alone, I warned him.

  Starling started to leave with Nik’s men when they went up to the house, but they stopped her at the door. “Nik says all of you are to stay inside tonight, in one place. ” The man shot a meaningful glance at me. In a louder voice, he called, “Get your water now, for we’ll be bolting the door when we leave. It keeps the wind out better. ”

  No one was fooled by his comment, but no one challenged it. Obviously the smuggler felt the less we knew of his bolthole, the better. That was understandable. Instead of complaining we fetched water. Out of habit, I replenished the animals’ trough. As I hauled the fifth bucket, I wondered if I would ever lose the reflex of seeing to the beasts first. The pilgrims had devoted themselves to seeing to their own comfort. Soon I could smell food cooking on the hearth. Well, I had dried meat and hard bread. It would suffice.

  You could be hunting with me. There’s game here. They had a garden this summer and the rabbits are still coming for the stalks.

  He sprawled in the lee of the chicken house, the bloody remnants of a rabbit across his forepaws. Even as he ate, he kept one eye on the snow-covered garden patch, watching for other game. I chewed a stick of dry meat glumly while I heaped up straw for Kettle’s bed in the stall next to her horse. I was spreading her blanket over it when she returned from the fire carrying her teapot.

  “Who put you in charge of my bedding?” she demanded. As I took a breath to reply, she added, “Here’s tea if you’ve a cup to your name. Mine’s in my bag on the cart. There’s some cheese and dried apples there as well. Fetch it for us, there’s a good lad. ”

  As I did so, I heard Starling’s voice and harp take up a tune. Singing for her supper, I didn’t doubt. Well, it was what minstrels did, and I doubted she’d go hungry. I brought Kettle’s bag back to her, and she portioned me out a generous share while eating lightly herself. We sat on our blankets and ate. During the meal, she kept glancing at me, and finally declared, “You’ve a familiar cast to your features, Tom. What part of Buck did you say you were from?”

  “Buckkeep Town,” I replied without thinking.

  “Ah. And who was your mother?”

  I hesitated, then declared, “Sal Flatfish. ” She had so many children running about Buckkeep Town, there was probably one named Tom.

  “Fisherfolk? How did a fisherwoman’s son end up a shepherd?”

  “My father herded,” I extemporized. “Between the two trades, we did well enough. ”

  “I see. And they taught you courtly courtesies to old women. And you’ve an uncle in the Mountains. Quite a family. ”

  “He took to wandering at an early age, and settled there. ” The badgering was beginning to make me sweat a little. I could tell she knew it, too. “What part of Buck did you say your family came from?” I asked suddenly.

  “I didn’t say,” she replied with a small smile.

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  Starling suddenly appeared at the door of the stall. She perched on the edge of it and leaned over. “Nik said we’d cross the river in two days,” she offered. I nodded, but said nothing. She came around the end of the stall and casually tossed her pack down beside mine. She followed it to sit leaning against it, her harp on her lap. “There are two couples down by the hearth, squabbling and bickering. Some water got into their travel bread, and all they can think to do is spit about whose fault it is. And one of the children is sick and puking. Poor little thing. The man who is so angry about the wet bread keeps going on about it’s just a waste of food to feed the boy until he stops being sick. ”

  “That would be Rally. A more conniving, tightfisted man I never met,” Kettle observed genially. “And the boy, Selk. He’s been sick on and off since we left Chalced. And before, like as not. I think his mother thinks Eda’s shrine can cure him. She’s grasping at straws, but she has the gold to do so. Or did. ”

  It started off a round of gossiping between the two. I leaned in the corner and listened with half an ear and dozed. Two days to the river, I promised myself. And how much longer to the Mountains? I broke in to ask Starling if she knew.

  “Nik says there’s no way to tell that, it all depends on weather. But he told me not to worry about it. ” Her fingers wandered idly over the strings of her harp. Almost instantly, two children appeared in the door of the stall.

  “Are you going to sing again?” asked the girl. She was a spindly little child of about six, her dress much worn. There were bits of straw in her hair.

  “Would you like me to?”

  For answer, they came bounding in to sit on either side of her. I had expected Kettle to complain at this invasion, but she said nothing, even when the girl settled comfortably against her. Kettle began to pick the straw from the child’s hair with her twisted old fingers. The little girl had dark eyes and clutched a poppet with an embr
oidered face. When she smiled up at Kettle, I could see they were not strangers.

  “Sing the one about the old woman and her pig,” the boy begged Starling.

  I stood up and gathered my pack. “I need to get some sleep,” I excused myself. I suddenly could not bear to be around the children.

  I found an empty stall nearer the door of the barn and bedded down there. I could hear the mutter of the pilgrims’ voices at their hearth. Some quarreling still seemed to be going on. Starling sang the song about the woman, the stile, and the pig, and then a song about an apple tree. I heard the footsteps of a few others as they came to sit and listen to the music. I told myself they’d be wiser to sleep, and closed my own eyes.

  All was dark and still when she came to find me in the night. She stepped on my hand in the dark, and then near dropped her pack on my head. I said nothing, even when she stretched out beside me. She spread her blankets out to cover me as well, then wiggled in under the edge of mine. I didn’t move. Suddenly I felt her hand touch my face questioningly. “Fitz?” she asked softly in the darkness.

  “What?”

  “How much do you trust Nik?”

  “I told you. Not at all. But I think he’ll get us to the Mountains. For his own pride, if nothing else. ” I smiled in the dark. “A smuggler’s reputation must be perfect, among those who know of it. He’ll get us there. ”

  “Were you angry at me, earlier today?” When I said nothing, she added, “You gave me such a serious look this morning. ”

  “Does the wolf bother you?” I asked her as bluntly.

  She spoke quietly. “It’s true then?”

  “Did you doubt it before?”

  “The Witted part . . . yes. I thought it an evil lie they had told about you. That the son of a prince could be Witted . . . You did not seem a man who would share his life with an animal. ” The tone of her voice left me no doubt as to how she regarded such a habit.

  “Well. I do. ” A tiny spark of anger made me forthright. “He’s everything to me. Everything. I have never had a truer friend, willing without question to lay his life down for mine. And more than his life. It is one thing to be willing to die for another. It is another to sacrifice the living of one’s life for another. That is what he gives me. The same sort of loyalty I give to my king. ”

  I had set myself to thinking. I’d never put our relationship in those terms before.

  “A king and a wolf,” Starling said quietly. More softly she added, “Do you care for no one else?”

  “Molly. ”

  “Molly?”

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  “She’s at home. Back in Buck. She’s my wife. ” A queer little tremor of pride shivered through me as I said the words. My wife.

  Starling sat up in the blankets, letting in a draft of cold air. I tugged at them vainly as she asked, “A wife? You have a wife?”

  “And a child. A little girl. ” Despite the cold and the darkness, I grinned at those words. “My daughter,” I said quietly, simply to hear how the words sounded. “I have a wife and a daughter at home. ”

  She flung herself down in the darkness beside me. “No you don’t!” she denied it with an emphatic whisper. “I’m a minstrel, Fitz. If the Bastard had married, the word would have gone round. In fact, there were rumors you were for Celerity, Duke Brawndy’s daughter. ”

  “It was done quietly,” I told her.

  “Ah. I see. You’re not married at all. You’ve a woman, is what you’re trying to say. ”

  The words stung me. “Molly is my wife,” I said firmly. “In every way that matters to me, she is my wife. ”

  “And in the ways that might matter to her? And a child?” Starling asked me quietly.

  I took a deep breath. “When I go back, that will be the first thing we remedy. It is promised to me, by Verity himself, that when he is king, I should marry whomever I wished. ” Some part of me was aghast at how freely I was speaking to her. Another part asked, what harm could it do for her to know? And there was relief in being able to speak of it.

  “So you do go to find Verity?”

  “I go to serve my king. To lend whatever aid I may to Kettricken and Verity’s heir-child. And then to go on, to beyond the Mountains, to find and restore my king. So he may drive the Red Ships from the Six Duchies coast and we may know peace again. ”

  For a moment all was silence save for the slicing wind outside the barn. Then she snorted softly. “Do even half of that, and I shall have my hero song. ”

  “I have no desire to be a hero. Only to do what I must to be free to live my own life. ”

  “Poor Fitz. None of us is ever free to do that. ”

  “You seem very free to me. ”

  “Do I? To me it seems as if every step I take carries me deeper into a mire, and the more I struggle, the more firmly I embed myself. ”

  “How is that?”

  She gave a choked laugh. “Look about you. Here I am, sleeping in straw and singing for my supper, gambling that there will eventually be a way to cross this river and go on to the Mountains. And if I get through all that, have I achieved my goal? No. I still must dangle after you until you do something song worthy. ”

  “You really needn’t,” I said in some dismay at the prospect. “You could go on your way, making your way as a minstrel. You seem to do well enough at it. ”

  “Well enough. Well enough for a traveling minstrel. You’ve heard me sing, Fitz. I’ve a good enough voice, and nimble enough fingers. But I am not extraordinary, and that is what it takes to win a position as keep minstrel. That’s assuming there will be any more keeps in five years or so. I’ve no mind to sing to a Red Ship audience. ”

  For a moment we were both quiet, considering.

  “You see,” she went on after a time, “I’ve no one anymore. Parents and brother gone. My old master gone, Lord Bronze gone, who was partial to me mostly for my master’s sake. All gone when the keep burned. The Raiders left me for dead, you know, or I’d truly be dead. ” For the first time, I heard hints of an old fear in her voice. She was quiet for a time, thinking of all that she would not mention. I rolled to face her. “I’ve only myself to rely on. For now, for always. Only myself. And there’s a limit to how long a minstrel can wander about singing for coins in inns. If you wish to be comfortable when you’re old, you have to earn a place in a keep. Only a truly great song will do that for me, Fitz. And I’ve a limited amount of time in which to find one. ” Her voice grew softer, her breath warm as she said, “And so I shall follow you. For great events seem to happen in your wake. ”

  “Great events?” I scoffed.

  She hitched herself closer to me. “Great events. The abdication of the throne by Prince Chivalry. The triumph against the Red Ships at Antler Island. Were not you the one who saved Queen Kettricken from Forged ones the night she was attacked, right before the Vixen Queen’s Hunt? Now, there’s a song I wish I had written. To say nothing of precipitating the riots the night of Prince Regal’s coronation. Let’s see. Rising from the dead, making an attempt on Regal’s life right inside Tradeford Hall, and then escaping unscathed. Killing half a dozen of his Guard single-handedly while manacled . . . I had a feeling I should have followed you that day. But I’d say I’ve a good chance of witnessing something noteworthy if I but held on to your shirttail from now on. ”

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  I’d never thought of those events as a list of things I’d caused. I wanted to protest that I had not caused any of them, that I had merely been caught up in the grinding wheels of history. Instead I just sighed. “All I want to do is go home to Molly and our little daughter. ”

  “She probably longs for the same thing. It can’t be easy for her, wondering when you’ll come back, or if. ”

  “She doesn’t wonder. She already believes me dead. ”

  After a time, Starling said hesitantly, “Fitz. She thinks you dead. How can you belie
ve she will be there waiting when you return, that she won’t find someone else?”

  I had played a dozen scenes in my head. That I might die before I returned home, or that when I returned, Molly would see me as a liar and a Witted one, that she would be repelled by my scars. I fully expected her to be angry at me for not letting her know I was alive. But I would explain that I had believed she had found another man and was happy with him. And then she’d understand and forgive me. After all, she was the one who had left me. Somehow I had never imagined returning home to find she had replaced me with someone else. Stupid. How could I not have foreseen that might happen, simply because it was the worst possible thing I could imagine? I spoke more to myself than Starling. “I suppose I’d better get word to her. Send her a message, somehow. But I don’t know exactly where she is. Nor who I’d entrust with such a message. ”

  “How long have you been gone?” she demanded to know.

  “From Molly? Almost a year. ”

  “A year! Men,” Starling muttered softly to herself. “They go off to fight or to travel and they expect their lives to be waiting for them when they get back. You expect the women who stay behind to keep the fields and raise the children and patch the roof and mind the cow, so that when you walk back in the door, you can find your chair still by the fire and hot bread on the table. Yes, and a warm, willing body in your bed, still waiting for you. ” She was beginning to sound angry. “How many days have you been gone from her? Well, that’s how many days she has had to cope without you. Time doesn’t stop for her just because you’re gone. How do you think of her? Rocking your baby beside a warm hearth? How about this? The baby is inside, crying and untended on the bed, while she’s out in the rain and wind trying to split wood for kindling because the fire went out while she was walking to and from the mill to get a bit of meal ground. ”

  I pushed the image away. No. Burrich wouldn’t let that happen. “In my mind, I see her in many ways. Not just in good times,” I defended myself. “And she isn’t completely alone. A friend of mine is looking after her. ”

 
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