Assassins quest, p.42
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       Assassins Quest, p.42
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         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “Ah, a friend,” Starling agreed smoothly. “And is he handsome, spirited, and bold enough to steal any woman’s heart?”

  I snorted. “No. He’s older. He’s stubborn, and cranky. But he’s also steady and reliable and thoughtful. He always treats women well. Politely and kindly. He’ll take good care of both her and the child. ” I smiled to myself, and knew the truth of it as I added, “He’ll kill any man that even looks a threat at them. ”

  “Steady, kind, and thoughtful? Treats women well?” Starling’s voice rose with feigned interest. “Do you know how rare a man like that is? Tell me who he is, I want him for myself. If your Molly will let him go. ”

  I confess I knew a moment’s unease. I remembered a day when Molly had teased me, saying I was the best thing to come out of the stables since Burrich. When I had been skeptical as to whether that was a compliment, she had told me he was well regarded among the ladies, for all his silences and aloof ways. Had she ever looked at Burrich and considered him? No. It was I she had made love with that day, clinging to me although we could not be wed. “No. She loves me. Only me. ”

  I had not intended to say the words aloud. Some note in my voice must have touched a kinder place in Starling’s nature. She gave over tormenting me. “Oh. Well, then. I still think you should send her word. So she has hope to keep her strong. ”

  “I will,” I promised myself. As soon as I reached Jhaampe. Kettricken would know some way by which I could get word back to Burrich. I could send back just a brief written message, not too plainly worded in case it was intercepted. I could ask him to tell her I was alive and I would return to her. But how would I get the message to him?

  I lay silently musing in the dark. I did not know where Molly was living. Lacey would possibly know. But I could not send word via Lacey without Patience finding out. No. Neither of them must know. There had to be someone we both knew, someone I could trust. Not Chade. I could trust him, but no one would know how to find Chade, even if they knew him by that name.

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  Somewhere in the barn, a horse thudded a hoof against a stall wall. “You’re very quiet,” Starling whispered.

  “I’m thinking. ”

  “I didn’t mean to upset you. ”

  “You didn’t. You just made me think. ”

  “Oh. ” A pause. “I am so cold. ”

  “Me, too. But it’s colder outside. ”

  “That doesn’t make me the least bit warmer. Hold me. ”

  It was not a request. She burrowed into my chest, tucking her head under my chin. She smelled nice. How did women always manage to smell nice? Awkwardly I put my arms around her, grateful for the added warmth but uneasy at the closeness. “That’s better,” she sighed. I felt her body relax against mine. She added, “I hope we get a chance to bathe soon. ”

  “Me, too. ”

  “Not that you smell that bad. ”

  “Thank you,” I said a bit sourly. “Mind if I go back to sleep now?”

  “Go ahead. ” She put a hand on my hip and added, “If that’s all you can think of to do. ”

  I managed to draw a breath. Molly, I told myself. Starling was so warm and near, smelling so sweet. Her minstrel’s ways made nothing of what she suggested. To her. But what was Molly, truly, to me? “I told you. I’m married. ” It was hard to speak.

  “Um. And she loves you, and you obviously love her. But we are the ones who are here, and cold. If she loves you that much, would she begrudge you an added bit of warmth and comfort on such a cold night?”

  It was difficult, but I forced myself to think about it a bit, then smiled to myself in the darkness. “She wouldn’t just begrudge me. She’d knock my head off my shoulders. ”

  “Ah. ” Starling laughed softly into my chest. “I see. ” Gently she drew her body away from mine. I longed to reach out and pull her back to me. “Perhaps we’d better just go to sleep, then. Sleep well, Fitz. ”

  So I did, but not right away and not without regrets.

  The night brought us rising winds, and when the barn doors were unbolted in the morning, a fresh layer of snow greeted us. I worried that if it got much deeper, we’d have serious problems with the wagons. But Nik seemed confident and genial as he loaded us up. He bid a fond farewell to his lady and we set forth again. He led us away from the place by a different trail from the one we had followed to get there. This one was rougher, and in a few places the snow had drifted deep enough that the wagon bodies gouged a path through it. Starling rode beside us for part of the morning, until Nik sent a man back to ask her if she’d come ride with them. She thanked him cheerily for the invitation and promptly went to join them.

  In the early afternoon, we came back to the road. It seemed to me that we had gained little by avoiding the road for so long, but doubtless Nik had had his reasons. Perhaps he simply did not want to create a beaten track to his hiding place. That evening our shelter was crude, some tumbledown huts by the riverbank. The thatched roofs were giving way, so there were fingers of snow on the floors in places and a great plume of snow that had blown in under the door. The horses had no shelter at all other than the lee of the cabins. We watered them at the river and they each got a portion of grain, but no hay awaited them here.

  Nighteyes went with me to gather firewood, for while there was enough by the hearths to start a fire for a meal, there was not enough to last the night. As we walked down to the river to look for driftwood I mused on how things had changed between us. We spoke less than we once had, but I felt that I was more aware of him than I had ever been before. Perhaps there was less need to speak. But we had also both changed in our time apart. When I looked at him now, I sometimes saw the wolf first and then my companion.

  I think you have finally begun to respect me as I deserve. There was teasing but also truth in that statement. He appeared suddenly in a patch of brush on the riverbank to my left, loped easily across the snowswept trail, and somehow managed to vanish in little more than snow dunes and leafless, scrubby bushes.

  You’re no longer a puppy, that’s true.

  Neither of us are cubs anymore. We’ve both discovered that on this journey. You no longer think of yourself as a boy at all.

  I trudged wordlessly through the snow and pondered that. I did not know quite when I had finally decided I was a man and not a boy any longer, but Nighteyes was right. Oddly, I felt a moment of loss for that vanished lad with the smooth face and easy courage.

  I think I made a better boy than I do a man, I admitted ruefully to the wolf.

  Why not wait until you’ve been at it a bit longer and then decide? he suggested.

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  The track we followed was barely a cart wide and visible only as a swatch where no brush poked up above the snow. The wind was busy sculpting the snow into dunes and banks. I walked into the wind, and my forehead and nose soon burned with its rough kiss. The terrain was little different from what we had passed for the last few days, but the experience of moving through it with only the wolf, silently, made it seem a different world. Then we came to the river.

  I stood on top of the bank and looked across. Ice frosted the edges in places, and occasional knots of driftwood washing down the river sometimes carried a burden of dirty ice and clinging snow. The current was strong, as the swiftly bobbing driftwood showed. I tried to imagine it frozen over and could not. On the far side of that rushing flood were foothills dense with evergreens that gave onto a plain of oaks and willows that came right down to the water’s edge. I suppose the water had stopped the fire’s spread those years ago. I wondered if this side of the river had ever been as thickly treed as that.

  Look, Nighteyes growled wistfully. I could feel the heat of his hunger as we eyed a tall buck that had come down to the river to water. He lifted his antlered head, sensing us, but regarded us calmly, knowing he was safe. I found my mouth watering with Nighteyes’ thoughts of fre
sh meat. Hunting will be much better on the other side.

  I hope so. He leaped from the bank to the snow-swathed gravel and rock of the river edge, and padded off upriver. I followed him less gracefully, finding dry sticks as I went. The walking was rougher down here, and the wind crueler, laden as it was with the river’s cold. But it was also more interesting walking, somehow laden with more possibility. I watched Nighteyes range ahead of me. He moved differently now. He had lost a lot of his puppyish curiosity. The deer skull that once would have required a careful sniffing now got no more than a swift flipping over to be sure it was truly bare bones before he moved on. He was purposeful as he checked tangles of driftwood to see if game might be sheltering underneath it. He watched the undercut banks of the river as well, sniffing for game sign. He sprang upon and devoured a small rodent of some kind that had ventured out of a den under the bank. He dug briefly at the den’s entrance, then thrust his muzzle in to snuff thoroughly. Satisfied there were no other inhabitants to dig out, he trotted on.

  I found myself watching the river as I followed him. It became more daunting, not less, the more I saw of it. The depth of it and the strength of its current were attested to by the immense snaggle-rooted logs that swung and turned as the waters rushed them along. I wondered if the windstorm had been worse upriver to tear loose such giants, or if the river had slowly eaten away their foundations until the trees had tottered into the water.

  Nighteyes continued to range ahead of me. Twice more I saw him leap and pin a rodent to the earth with his teeth and paws. I was not sure what they were; they did not look like rats exactly, and the sleekness of their coats seemed to indicate they’d be at home in the water.

  Meat doesn’t really need a name, Nighteyes observed wryly, and I was forced to agree with him. He flipped his prey gleefully into the air and caught it again as it somersaulted down. He worried the dead thing fiercely and then launched it once more, dancing after it on his hind legs. For a moment his simple pleasure was contagious. He had the satisfaction of a successful hunt, meat to fill his belly and time to eat it unmolested. This time it went winging over my head, and I leaped up to catch the limp body and then fling it up higher still. He sprang high after it, all four legs leaving the ground. He seized it cleanly, then crouched, showing it to me, daring me to chase him. I dropped my armload of wood and sprang after him. He evaded me easily, then looped back to me, daring me, rushing past me just out of arm’s reach as I flung myself at him.

  “Hey!”

  We both halted in our play. I got up slowly from the ground. It was one of Nik’s men, standing far up the riverbank and staring at us. He carried his bow. “Get some wood and come back now,” he ordered me. I glanced about, but could see no reason for the edgy tone to his voice. Nevertheless, I gathered my scattered armload of wood and headed back to the huts.

  I found Kettle squinting at a scroll by the firelight, ignoring those who were trying to cook around her. “What are you reading?” I asked her.

  “The writings of Cabal the White. A prophet and seer of Kimoalan times. ”

  I shrugged. The names meant nothing to me.

  “Through his guidance, a treaty was wrought that put an end to a hundred years of war. It enabled three folk to become one people. Knowledge was shared. Many kinds of foods that once grew only in the southern valleys of Kimoala came into common usage. Ginger, for instance. And kim-oats. ”

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  “One man did that?”

  “One man. Or two, perhaps, if you count the general he persuaded to conquer without destroying. Here, he speaks of him. “A catalyst was DarAles for his time, a changer of hearts and lives. He came not to be hero, but to enable the hero in others. He came, not to fulfill prophecies, but to open the doors to new futures. Such is ever the task of the catalyst. ’ Above, he has written that it is in every one of us to be a catalyst in our own time. What do you think of that, Tom?”

  “I’d rather be a shepherd,” I answered her truthfully. “Catalyst” was not a word I cherished.

  That night I slept with Nighteyes at my side. Kettle snored softly not far from me, while the pilgrims huddled together in one end of the hut. Starling had chosen to sleep in the other hut with Nik and some of his men. For a time, the sound of her harp and voice were occasionally borne to me on gusts of wind.

  I closed my eyes and tried to dream of Molly. Instead I saw a burning village in Buck as the Red Ships pulled away from it. I joined a young lad as he put on sail in the dark, to ram his dory into the side of a Red Ship. He flung a burning lantern on board her and followed it with a bucket of cheap fish oil such as poor folk burned in their lamps. The sail blazed up as the boy sheered away from the burning ship. Behind him the curses and cries of the burning men rose with the flames. I rode with him that night, and felt his bitter triumph. He had nothing left, no family, no home, but he had spilled some of the blood that had spilled his. I understood the tears that wet his grinning face only too well.

  17

  River Crossing

  THE OUTISLANDERS HAVE always spoken mockingly of the Six Duchies folk, declaring us slaves of the earth, farmers fit only for grubbing in the dirt. Eda, the mother goddess who is thanked for plentiful crops and multiplying flocks, is disdained by the OutIslanders as a goddess for a settled folk who have lost all spirit. The OutIslanders themselves worship only El, the god of the sea. He is not a deity to offer thanks to, but a god to swear by. The only blessing he sends his worshipers are storms and hardships to make them strong.

  In this they misjudged the people of the Six Duchies. They believed folk who planted crops and raised sheep would soon come to have no more spirit than sheep. They came amongst us slaughtering and destroying and mistook our concern for our folk for weakness. In that winter, the small folk of Buck and Bearns, Rippon and Shoaks, the fisherfolk and herders, goose-girls and pig-boys, took up the war that our wrangling nobles and scattered armies waged so poorly and made it their own. The small folk of a land can only be oppressed so long before they rise up in their own defense, be it against outlanders or an unjust lord of their own.

  The others grumbled the next morning about the cold and the need for haste. They spoke longingly of hot porridge and hearth cakes. There was hot water, but little more than that to warm our bellies. I filled Kettle’s teapot for her and then went back to fill my cup with hot water. I squinted my eyes against the pain as I dug in my pack for my elfbark. My Skill-dream of the night before had left me feeling sick and shaky. The very thought of food made me ill. Kettle sipped her tea and watched as I used my knife to scrape shavings from a lump of bark into my mug. It was hard to make myself wait for the liquid to brew. The extreme bitterness of it flooded my mouth, but almost immediately I felt my headache ease. Kettle abruptly reached a clawlike hand to pluck the chunk of bark from my fingers. She looked at it, sniffed it, and “Elfbark!” she exclaimed. She gave me a look of horror. “That’s a vicious herb for a young man to be using. ”

  “It calms my headaches,” I told her. I took a breath to steel myself, then drank off the rest of the mug. The gritty remnants of bark stuck to my tongue. I forced myself to swallow them, then wiped out my mug and returned it to my pack. I held out my hand and she gave back the chunk of bark, but reluctantly. The look she was giving me was very strange.

  “I’ve never seen anyone just drink it down like that. Do you know what that stuff is used for, in Chalced?”

  “I’ve been told they feed it to galley slaves, to keep their strength up. ”

  “Strength up and hopes down. A man on elfbark is easily discouraged. Easier to control. It may dull the pain of a headache, but it dulls the mind as well. I’d be wary of it, were I you. ”

  I shrugged. “I’ve used it for years,” I told her as I put the herb back in my pack.

  “All the more reason to stop now,” she replied tartly. She handed me her pack to put back in the wagon for her.

  It w
as midafternoon when Nik ordered our wagons to a halt. He and two of his men rode ahead, while the others assured us all was fine. Nik went ahead to ready the crossing place before we arrived there. I did not even need to glance at Nighteyes. He slipped away to follow Nik and his men. I leaned back on the seat and hugged myself, trying to stay warm.

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  “Hey, you. Call your dog back!” one of Nik’s men commanded me suddenly.

  I sat up and made a show of looking around for him. “He’s probably just scented a rabbit. He’ll be back. Follows me everywhere, he does. ”

  “Call him back now!” the man told me threateningly.

  So I stood up on the wagon seat and called Nighteyes. He did not come. I shrugged an apology at the men and sat down again. One continued to glare at me, but I ignored him.

  The day had been clear and cold, the wind cutting. Kettle had been miserably silent all day. Sleeping on the ground had awakened the old pain in my shoulder to a constant jab. I did not even want to imagine what she was feeling. I tried to think only that we would soon be across the river, and that after that the Mountains were not far. Perhaps in the Mountains I would finally feel safe from Regal’s coterie.

  Some men pull ropes by the river. I closed my eyes and tried to see what Nighteyes did. It was difficult, for he directed his eyes at the men themselves, while I wished to study the task they did. But just as I discerned they were using a guideline to restring a heavier rope across the river, two other men on the far side began energetically digging through a pile of driftwood in the curve of a bank. The concealed barge was soon revealed, and the men went to work chopping away the ice that had formed on it.

  “Wake up!” Kettle told me irritably, and gave me a poke in the ribs. I sat up to see the other wagon already in motion. I stirred the mare’s reins and followed the others. We traveled a short way down the river road before turning off it onto an open section of bank. There were some burned-out huts by the river that had apparently perished in the fires years ago. There was also a crude ramp of logs and mortar, much decayed now. On the far side of the river, I could see the remains of the old barge, half sunken. Ice covered parts of it, but dead grass also stuck up from it. It had been many seasons since it had floated. The huts on the other side were in as poor repair as the ones over here, for their thatched roofs had collapsed completely. Behind them rose gentle hills covered in evergreens. Beyond them, towering in the distance, were the peaks of the Mountain Kingdom.

 
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