Assassins quest, p.45
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       Assassins Quest, p.45

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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  What is it?

  Hunters. Stalkers. He abandoned his meat and stood. He was on a hillside above Burl’s camp. Moving toward it, slipping from tree to tree, were at least two dozen shadowy figures. A dozen carried bows. As Nighteyes watched, two crouched in the cover of a dense thicket. In a few moments, his keen nose caught the scent of smoke. A tiny fire glowed dully at their feet. They signaled the others, who spread out, noiseless as shadows. Archers sought vantage points while the others slipped into the camp below. Some went toward the picket lines of the animals. With my own ears, I heard stealthy footsteps outside the tent where I lay trussed. They did not pause. Nighteyes smelled the stench of burning pitch. An instant later, two flaming bolts went winging through the night. They struck Burl’s tent. In a moment, a great cry arose. As sleeping soldiers stumbled out of their tents and headed toward the blaze, the archers on the hillside rained arrows down on them.

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  Burl stumbled out of the burning tent, wrapping his blankets about himself as he came and bellowing orders. “They’re after the Bastard, you fools! Guard him at all costs!” Then an arrow went skipping past him over the frozen ground. He cried out and flung himself flat into the shelter of a supply wagon. A breath later two arrows thudded into it.

  The men in my tent had leaped up at the first commotion. I had largely ignored them, preferring Nighteyes’ view of the events. But when the sergeant burst into the tent, his first order was “Drag him outside before they fire the tent. Keep him down. If they come for him, cut his throat!”

  The sergeant’s orders were followed quite literally. A man knelt on my back, his bared knife set to my throat. Six others surrounded us. All about us, in the darkness, other men scrambled and shouted. There was a second outcry as another tent went up in flames, joining Burl’s, which now blazed merrily and lit his end of the camp well. The first time I tried to lift my head and see what was happening, the young soldier on my back slammed my face back into the frozen ground energetically. I resigned myself to ice and gravel and looked through the wolf’s eyes instead.

  Had not Burl’s guard been so intent on keeping me, and on protecting Burl, they might have perceived that neither of us were the targets of this raid. While arrows fell about Burl and his blazing tent, at the dark end of the camp the silent invaders were freeing smugglers and pilgrims and ponies. Nighteyes’ spying had shown me that the archer who had fired Burl’s tent wore the Holdfast features as clearly as Nik did. The smugglers had come after their own. The captives trickled out of the camp like meal from a holed sack while Burl’s men guarded him and me.

  Burl’s assessment of his men had been correct. More than one man-at-arms waited out that raid in the shadow of a wagon or a tent. I did not doubt that they’d fight well if personally attacked, but no one ventured to lead a sortie against the archers on the hill. I suspected then that Captain Mark had not been the only man to have an arrangement with the smugglers. The fire they did return was ineffective, for the blazing tents in the camp had ruined their night vision, whereas the fire made silhouettes and targets of the archers who stood to return the smugglers’ fire.

  It was over in a remarkably short time. The archers on the hill continued to loose arrows down on us as they slipped away, and that fire held the attention of Burl’s men. When the rain of missiles abruptly ceased, Burl immediately roared for his sergeant, demanding to know if I had been kept. The sergeant looked warningly about at his men, and then called back that they’d held them off me.

  The rest of that night was miserable. I spent a good part of it facedown in the snow while a half-dressed Burl snorted and stamped all around me. The burning of his tent had consumed most of his personal supplies. When the escape of the pilgrims and smugglers was discovered, it seemed to be of secondary importance to the fact that no one else in camp had clothing of a size that would fit Burl.

  Three other tents had been fired. Burl’s riding horse had been taken in addition to the smugglers’ ponies. For all Burl’s bellowed threats of dire vengeance, he made no effort to organize a pursuit. Instead he contented himself with kicking me several times. It was nearly dawn before he thought to ask if the minstrel, too, had been taken. She had. And that, he declared, proved that I had been the true target of the raid. He tripled the guard around me for the rest of that night, and for the next two days’ journey to Moonseye. Not surprisingly, we saw no more of our attackers. They had got all they wished and vanished into the foothills. I had no doubt that Nik had boltholes on this side of the river as well. I could not feel any warmth toward the man who had sold me but I confessed to myself a grudging admiration that he had carried off the pilgrims with him when he escaped. Perhaps Starling could make a song of that.

  Moonseye seemed a small town hidden in a fold of the mountains’ skirts. There were few outlying farmsteads, and the cobbled streets began abruptly just outside the wooden palisade that surrounded the town. A sentry issued a formal challenge to us there from a tower above the walls. It was only after we had entered it that I appreciated what a thriving little city it was. I knew from my lessons with Fedwren that Moonseye had been an important military outpost for the Six Duchies before it had become a stopping place for caravans bound for the other side of the Mountains. Now traders in amber and furs and carved ivory passed through Moonseye on a regular basis and enriched it in their passing. Or so it had been in the years since my father had succeeded in negotiating an open-pass treaty with the Mountain Kingdom.

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  Regal’s new hostilities had changed all that. Moonseye had reverted to the military holding it had been in my grandfather’s day. The soldiers that moved through the streets wore Regal’s gold and brown instead of Buck’s blue, but soldiers are soldiers. The merchants had the weary, wary air of men rich only in their sovereign’s scrip and wondering how redeemable it would prove in the long run. Our procession attracted the attention of the locals, but it was a surreptitious curiosity they showed us. I wondered when it had become bad luck to wonder too much about the King’s business.

  Despite my weariness, I looked about the town with interest. This was where my grandfather had brought me to abandon me to Verity’s care, and where Verity had passed me on to Burrich. I had always wondered if my mother’s folk had lived near Moonseye or if we had traveled far to seek out my father. But I looked in vain for any landmark or sign that would awaken some memory of my lost childhood in me. Moonseye looked to me both as strange and as familiar as any small town I had ever visited.

  The town was thick with soldiers. Tents and lean-tos had been thrown up against every wall. It looked as if the population had recently increased a great deal. Eventually we came to a courtyard that the animals in the baggage train recognized as home. We were drawn up and then dismissed with military precision. My guard marched me off to a squat wooden building. It was windowless and forbidding. Inside was a single room where an old man sat on a low stool by a wide hearth where a welcoming fire burned. Less welcoming were three doors with small barred windows on them that opened off that room. I was shown into one, my bonds summarily cut, and then I was left alone.

  As prisons go, it was the nicest one I’d ever been in. I caught myself in that thought and bared my teeth to it in something that was not quite a grin. There was a rope-laced bedstead with a bag of straw on it for a mattress. There was a chamber pot in the corner. Some light came in from the barred window, and some warmth. Not much of either, but it was still a great deal warmer than outside. It had not the severity of a serious prison. I decided it was a holding area for drunk or disruptive soldiers. It felt odd to take off my cloak and mittens and set them aside. I sat down on the edge of the bed and waited.

  The only remarkable thing that happened that evening was that the meal offered meat and bread and even a mug of ale. The old man opened the door to pass me the tray. When he came to take the tray back, he left two blankets for me. I thanked him, a
nd he looked startled. Then he shocked me by observing, “You’ve your father’s voice as well as his eyes. ” Then he shut the door in my face, rather hastily. No one spoke further to me, and the only conversation I overheard were the curses and gibes of a dice game. From the voices I decided there were three younger men in the antechamber as well as the old keyholder.

  As evening came on, they gave up their dice for quiet talk. I could make out little of what was said over the shrilling of the wind outside. I arose soundlessly from my bed and ghosted to the door. When I peered out of its barred window, I saw no less than three sentries on duty. The old man was asleep on his own bed in the corner, but these three in Regal’s gold and brown took their duties seriously. One was a beardless boy, probably no more than fourteen. The other two moved like soldiers. One had a face more scarred than mine; I decided he was a brawler. The other wore a neatly trimmed beard and was obviously in command of the other two. All were awake, if not exactly alert. The brawler was teasing the boy about something. The boy’s face was sullen. Those two, at least, did not get along. From teasing the lad, the brawler went to endlessly complaining about Moonseye. The liquor was bad, there were too few women, and those there were were as cold as the winter itself. He wished the King would cut their leash and let them loose on the Mountain whore’s thieving cutthroats. He knew they could cut a path to Jhaampe and take that tree-fort town in a matter of days. Where was the sense in waiting? On and on, he ranted. The others nodded to it as to a litany they knew well. I slipped away from the window and returned to my bed to think.

  Nice cage.

  At least they fed me well.

  Not as well as I fed myself. A little warm blood in your meat is what you need. Will you escape soon?

  As soon as I work out how.

  I spent some time carefully exploring the limits of my cell. Walls and floors of hewn plank, old and hard as iron to my fingers. A tightly planked ceiling I could barely brush with my fingertips. And the wooden door with the barred window.

  If I were getting out, it would have to be through the door. I returned to the barred window. “Could I have some water?” I called out softly.

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  The youngster startled rather badly, and the brawler laughed at him. The third guard looked at me, then went silently to take a dipper of water from a barrel in the corner. He brought it to the window and passed only the bowl of it through the bars. He let me drink from it, then withdrew it and walked away. “How long are they going to hold me here?” I called after him.

  “Till you’re dead,” the brawler said confidently.

  “We’re not to speak to him,” the boy reminded him, and “Shut up!” ordered their sergeant. The command included me. I stayed at the door, watching them, gripping the bars. It made the boy nervous but the brawler regarded me with the avaricious attention of a circling shark. It would take very little baiting to make that one want to hit me. I wondered if that could be useful. I was very tired of being hit, but it seemed the one thing I did well lately. I decided to press a little, to see what would happen. “Why are you not to speak to me?” I asked curiously.

  They exchanged glances. “Get away from the window and shut up,” the sergeant ordered me.

  “I just asked a question,” I objected mildly. “What can be the harm in speaking to me?”

  The sergeant stood up and I immediately backed away obediently.

  “I’m locked up and there’s three of you. I’m bored, that’s all. Can’t you at least tell me what you know about what’s to become of me?”

  “They’ll do with you what should have been done the first time they killed you. Hanged over water and chopped into quarters and burned, Bastard,” the brawler offered me.

  His sergeant rounded on him. “Shut up. He’s baiting you, you idiot. No one says another word to him. Not one. That’s how a Witted one gets you into his power. By drawing you into talk. That’s how he killed Bolt and his troop. ” The sergeant shot me a savage look, then turned it on his men as well. They resumed their posts. The brawler gave me a sneering smile.

  “I don’t know what they’ve told you about me, but it’s not true,” I offered. No one replied. “Look, I’m no different from you. If I had some great magical power, do you think I’d be locked up like this? No. I’m just a scapegoat, that’s all. You all know how it’s done. If something goes wrong, someone has to take the blame for it. And I’m the one who’s landed in the shit. Well, look at me and think of the stories you’ve heard. I knew Bolt when he was with Regal at Buckkeep. Do I look like a man who could take Bolt down?” I kept it up for the better part of their watch. I did not really think I could convince them I was an innocent man. But I could convince them that my talking or their replying was nothing to be feared. I told tales of my past life and misfortunes, certain they would be repeated all over the camp. Though what good that might do me, I did not know. But I stood at the door, gripping the bars at the window and with very tiny motions, twisted at the bars I gripped. Back and forth I worked them against their settings. If they moved, I could not detect it.

  The next day dragged for me. I felt that each hour that passed was one that brought danger closer to me. Burl had not come to see me. I felt sure he was holding me, waiting for someone to come and take me off his hands. I feared it would be Will. I did not think Regal would trust me to anyone else to transport. I did not want another encounter with Will. I did not feel I had the strength to withstand him. My work for the day consisted of jimmying at my bars and watching my captors. By the end of that day, I was ready to take a chance. After my evening meal of cheese and porridge, I lay down on my bed and composed myself to Skill.

  I lowered my walls cautiously, fearing to find Burl waiting for me. I reached out of myself and felt nothing. I composed myself and tried again, with the same results. I opened my eyes and stared up into blackness. The unfairness of it sickened me. The Skill-dreams could come and take me at their will, but now when I sought that Skill river, it eluded me completely. I made two more efforts before a throbbing headache forced me to give it up. The Skill was not going to help me get out of here.

  That leaves the Wit, Nighteyes observed. He felt very near.

  I don’t really see how that is going to help me, either, I confided to him.

  Nor do I. But I have dug out a spot under the wall, in case you are able to get out of your cage. It was not easy, for the ground is frozen and the logs of the wall were buried deep. But if you can get out of the cage, I can get you out of the city.

  That is wise planning, I praised him. At least one of us was doing something.

  Do you know where I den tonight? There was suppressed merriment in the thought.

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  Where do you den? I asked obediently.

  Right under your feet. There was just space enough for me to crawl under here.

  Nighteyes, this is foolish boldness. You may be seen or the marks of your digging discovered.

  A dozen dogs have been here before me. No one will mark my coming and going. I have used the evening to see much of this men’s warren. All of the buildings have spaces beneath them. It is very easy to slip from one to another.

  Be careful, I warned him, but could not deny there was comfort in knowing him so close. I passed an uneasy night. The three guards were careful always to keep a door between us. I tried my charms on the old man the next morning when he passed me a mug of tea and two pieces of hard bread. “So you knew my father,” I observed as he maneuvered my food through the bars. “You know, I have no memories of him. He never spent any time with me. ”

  “Count your blessings, then,” the old man replied shortly. “Knowing the Prince was not the same as liking him. Stiff as a stick he was. Rules and orders for us, while he was out making bastards. Yes, I knew your father. I knew him too well for my comfort. ” And he turned away from the bars, dashing any hope I had of making hi
m an ally. I retired to sit on my bed with my bread and tea and stare hopelessly at the walls. Another day had ticked endlessly by. I was sure it brought Will another day’s journey closer to me. Another day closer to being dragged back to Tradeford. One day closer to death.

  In the cold and the dark of the night, Nighteyes awoke me. Smoke. A lot of it.

  I sat up in my bed. I went to the barred window and peered out. The old man was asleep in his cot. The boy and the brawler were playing at dice, while the other man carved at his nails with his belt knife. All was calm.

  Where is the smoke coming from?

  Shall I go see?

  If you would. Be careful.

  When am I not?

  A time passed, during which I stood to one side of my cell door and watched my guards. Then Nighteyes reached me again. It’s a big building, smelling of grain. It burns in two places.

  Does no one cry an alarm?

  No one. The streets are empty and dark. This end of town is asleep.

  I closed my eyes and shared his vision. The building was a granary. Someone had set two fires against it. One only smoldered, but the other was licking well up the dry wooden wall of the building.

  Come back to me. Perhaps we can use this to our advantage.

  Wait.

  Nighteyes moved purposefully up the street, slipping from building to building as he went. Behind us, the granary fire began to crackle as it gained strength. He paused, sniffed the air, and changed his direction. Soon he was looking at another fire. This one was eating eagerly into a covered pile of hay at the back of a barn. Smoke rose lazily, wisping up into the night. Suddenly, a tongue of flame leaped up and with an immense whoosh, the whole pile was suddenly ablaze. Sparks rode the heat into the night sky. Some still glowed as they settled onto roofs nearby.

  Someone is setting those fires. Come back to me now!

  Nighteyes came swiftly. On his way to me, he saw another fire nibbling at a pile of oily rags stuffed under the corner of a barracks. An errant breeze encouraged it to explore. The flames licked up a piling supporting the building, and curled eagerly along the bottom of the floor.

 
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