Assassins quest, p.46
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       Assassins Quest, p.46
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Winter had dried the wooden town with its harsh cold as thoroughly as any heat of summer. Lean-tos and tents spanned the spaces between the buildings. If the fires burned undetected much longer, all of Moonseye would be a cinder by morning. And I with it, if I were still locked in my cell.

  How many guard you?

  Four. And a locked door.

  One of them will have the key.

  Wait. Let us see if our odds get better. Or they may open the door to move me.

  Somewhere in the cold town, a man raised his voice in a shout. The first fire had been spotted. I stood inside my cell, listening with Nighteyes’ ears. Gradually the outcry increased, until even the guards outside my door stood, asking one another, “What’s that?”

  One went to the door and opened it. Cold wind and the smell of smoke coiled into the room. The brawler drew his head back in and announced, “Looks like a big fire at the other end of town. ” In an instant, the other two men were leaning out the door. Their tense conversation woke the old man, who also came to have a look. Outside, someone ran past in the street, shouting, “Fire! Fire down by the granary! Bring buckets!”

  The boy looked to the officer. “Should I go and see?”

  For a moment the man hesitated but the temptation was too much. “No. You stay here while I go. Stay alert. ” He snatched up his cloak and headed out into the night. The boy looked disappointedly after him. He remained standing at the door, staring out into the night. Then, “Look, there’s more flames! Over there!” he exclaimed. The brawler swore, then snatched up his cloak.

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  “I’m going to go and have a look. ”

  “But we were told to stay and guard the Bastard!”

  “You stay! I’ll be right back, I just want to see what’s going on!” He called the last words over his shoulder as he hurried away. The boy and the old man exchanged glances. The old man went back to his bed and lay down, but the boy continued to hang out the door. From my cell door I could see a slice of the street. A handful of men ran by; then someone drove a team and wagon past at a fast clip. Everyone seemed headed toward the fire.

  “How bad does it look?” I asked.

  “Can’t see much from here. Just flames beyond the stables. A lot of sparks flying up. ” The boy sounded disappointed to be so far from the excitement. He suddenly recalled whom he was speaking to. He abruptly drew in his head and shut the door. “Don’t talk to me!” he warned me and then went to sit down.

  “How far from here is the granary?” I asked. He refused to even glance at me, but sat stony-eyed, staring at the wall. “Because,” I went on conversationally, “I just wondered what you were going to do if the fires spread this far. I wouldn’t care to burn alive. They did leave you the keys, didn’t they?” The boy glanced immediately toward the old man. His hand made an involuntary twitch toward his pouch as if to be sure he had them still, but neither made a reply. I stood by the barred window and watched him. After a time the boy went to the door and peered out again. I saw his jaw clench. The old man went to look over his shoulder.

  “It’s spreading, isn’t it? A winter fire is a terrible thing. Everything dry as bones. ”

  The boy would not reply, but he turned to look at me. The old man’s hand stole down to the key in his pouch.

  “Come and bind my hands now and take me out of here. None of us wants to be in this building if the flames come this far. ”

  A glance from the boy. “I’m not stupid,” he told me. “I won’t be the one to die for letting you go free. ”

  “Burn where you stand, Bastard, for all I care,” the old man added. He craned his neck out the door again. Even from afar I could hear the sudden whoosh as some building vanished in an eruption of fire. The wind brought the smell of the smoke strongly now and I saw tension building in the boy’s stance. I saw a man run past the open door, shouting something to the boy about fighting in the market square. More men ran past in the street, and I heard the jangle of swords and light armor as they ran. Ash rode on the winds now and the roaring of flames was louder than the gusting winds. Drifting smoke grayed the air outside.

  Then suddenly boy and man came tumbling back into the room. Nighteyes followed them, showing every tooth he had. He filled the door and blocked their escape. The snarl he let loose was louder than the crackling of the flames outside.

  “Unlock the door of my cell, and he won’t hurt you,” I offered them.

  Instead the boy drew his sword. He was good. He did not wait for the wolf to come in, but charged at him, weapon leveled, forcing Nighteyes back out of the door. Nighteyes avoided the blade easily, but he no longer had them cornered. The boy followed up his advantage, stepping out into the darkness to follow the wolf. The second the door was no longer blocked, the old man slammed it.

  “Are you going to stay in here and burn alive with me?” I asked him conversationally.

  In an instant, he had decided. “Burn alone!” he spat at me. He flung the door open again and raced outside.

  Nighteyes! He’s the one with the key, the old one who runs away.

  I’ll get it.

  I was alone in my prison now. I half expected the boy to come back, but he did not. I grabbed the bars of the windows and shook the door against its latch. It barely budged. One bar felt slightly loose. I wrenched at it, bracing my feet against the door to lever at it with all my weight. An eternity later, one end twisted free. I bent it down and worked it back and forth until it came out in my hand. But even if all the bars came out, the opening would still be too small for me to get through. I tried, but the loose bar I gripped was too thick to get into the cracks around the door to pry at it. I could smell smoke everywhere now, thick in the air. The fire was close. I slammed my shoulder against the door but it didn’t even shiver. I reached through the window and groped down. My straining fingers encountered a heavy metal bar. I walked my fingertips across it until I came to the lock that secured it in place. I could brush my fingers against it but no more. I couldn’t decide if the room was truly getting warmer or if I were imagining it.

  I was blindly bashing my iron bar against the lock and the braces that supported it when the outer door opened. A guard in gold and brown strode into the room, calling, “I’ve come for the Bastard. ” Then her glance took in the empty room.

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  In a moment, she pushed back her hood and became Starling. I stared at her in disbelief.

  “Easier than I’d hoped,” she told me with a stark grin. It looked ghastly on her bruised face, more like a snarl.

  “Maybe not,” I said faintly. “The cell’s locked. ”

  Her grin became a look of dismay. “The back of this building is smoldering. ”

  She snatched my bar with her unbandaged hand. Just as she lifted it to smash at the lock, Nighteyes appeared in the door. He padded into the room and dropped the old man’s pouch on the floor. Blood had darkened the leather.

  I looked at him, suddenly aghast. “You killed him?”

  I took from him what you needed. Hurry. The back of this cage burns.

  For a moment I could not move. I looked at Nighteyes and wondered what I was making of him. He had lost some of his clean wildness. Starling’s eyes went from him, to me, to the pouch on the floor. She did not move.

  And some of what makes you a man is gone from you. We have no time for this, my brother. Would not you kill a wolf if it would save my life?

  I didn’t need to answer that. “The key is in that pouch,” I told Starling.

  For a moment she just stared down at it. Then she stooped and fumbled the heavy iron key out of the leather pouch. I watched her fit it into the keyhole, now praying that I had not dented the mechanism too badly. She turned the key, jerked loose the hasp, and then lifted the bar from the door. As I came out she ordered me, “Bring the blankets. You’ll need them. The cold outside is fierce. ”
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br />   As I snatched them up, I could feel the heat radiating from the back wall of my cell. I grabbed up my cloak and mittens. Smoke was beginning to slink in between the planks. We fled with the wolf at our heels.

  No one took any notice of us outside. The fire was beyond battling. It held the town and raced wherever it willed. The people I saw were engaged in the selfish business of salvage and survival. A man trundled a barrow of possessions past us with no more than a warning look. I wondered if they were his. Down the street I could see a stable afire. Frantic grooms were dragging horses out but the screams of the panicked animals still within were shriller than the wind. With a tremendous crash a building across the street collapsed, wheezing hot air and ash toward us in a terrible sigh. The wind had spread the fire throughout all Moonseye. The fire sped from building to building, and the wind carried burning sparks and hot ash beyond the walls to the forest above. I wondered if even the deep snows would be enough to stop it. “Come on!” Starling yelled angrily, and I realized I had been standing and gawking. Clutching the blankets, I followed her wordlessly. We ran through the winding streets of the burning town. She seemed to know the way.

  We came to a crossroads. Some sort of struggle had taken place there. Four bodies sprawled in the street, all in Farrow colors. I paused, to stoop over a soldier and take the fallen woman’s knife and the pouch at her belt.

  We neared the gates of the town. Suddenly a wagon rattled up beside us. The two horses drawing it were mismatched and lathered. “Get in!” someone shouted at us. Starling leaped into the wagon without hesitation.

  “Kettle?” I asked, and “Hurry up!” was her reply. I climbed in and the wolf leaped easily up beside me. She did not wait to see us settled but slapped the reins on the horses. The wagon plunged forward with a lurch.

  Ahead of us were the gates. They were open and unmanned, swinging on their hinges in the wind from the fire. To one side I caught a glimpse of a sprawled body. Kettle did not even slow the team. We were through the gates without a backward glance, and rattling down the dark road, to join others fleeing the destruction with carts and barrows. Most seemed bound toward the few outlying homesteads to seek shelter for the night, but Kettle kept our horses moving. As the night about us grew darker and folk fewer, Kettle stirred the horses to a faster clip. I peered ahead into the darkness.

  I realized Starling was looking back behind us. “It was only supposed to be a diversion,” she said in an awestruck voice. I turned to look back.

  An immense orange glow silhouetted the palisade of Moonseye in black. Sparks rose thick as swarming bees into the night sky above it. The roar of the flames was like storm winds. As we watched, a building caved in and another wave of sparks rose into the air.

  “A diversion?” I peered at her through the darkness. “You did all that? To free me?”

  Starling shot me an amused glance. “Sorry to disappoint you. No. Kettle and I came along for you, but that was not what this was about. Most of that is the work of Nik’s family. Revenge against those who broke faith with them. They went in to find them and kill them. Then they left. ” She shook her head. “It’s too complicated to explain it all right now, even if I understood it. Evidently the King’s Guard at Moonseye has been corrupt for years. They’ve been well paid to see nothing of the Holdfast smugglers. And the smugglers have seen to it that the men posted here enjoyed some of the better things in life. I gather that Captain Mark enjoyed the best of the profits. He was not alone, but neither was he generous about sharing.

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  “Then Burl was sent here. He knew nothing of the arrangement. He brought a huge influx of soldiers with him, and tried to impose military discipline here. Nik sold you to Mark. But when Nik was selling you to Mark, someone saw a chance to sell Mark and his arrangement to Burl. Burl saw a chance to take you, and clean up a ring of smugglers. But Nik Holdfast and his clan had paid well for safe passage for the pilgrims. Then the soldiers broke faith with them, and the Holdfast promise to the pilgrims was broken. ” She shook her head. Her voice went tight. “Some of the women were raped. One child died of the cold. One man will never walk again because he tried to protect his wife. ” For a time, the only sounds were the noises of the wagon and the distant roaring of the fires. Her eyes were very black as she looked back at the burning town. “You’ve heard of honor among thieves? Well, Nik and his men have avenged theirs. ”

  I was still staring back at the destruction of Moonseye. I cared not a whit for Burl and his Farrowmen. But there had been merchants there, and traders, families and homes. The flames were devouring them all. And Six Duchies soldiers had raped their captives as if they were lawless raiders instead of King’s guards. Six Duchies soldiers, serving a Six Duchies king. I shook my head. “Shrewd would have hanged them all. ”

  Starling cleared her throat. “Don’t blame yourself,” she told me. “I learned long ago not to blame myself for evil done to me. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t even your fault. You were just the catalyst that started the chain of events. ”

  “Don’t call me that,” I begged her. The wagon rumbled on, carrying us deeper into the night.

  19

  Pursuit

  THE PEACE BETWEEN the Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom was relatively new at the time of King Regal’s reign. For decades, the Mountain Kingdom had controlled all trade through the passes with as tight a grip as the Six Duchies had on all trade on the Cold and Buck rivers. Trade and passage between the two regions had been capriciously managed by both powers, to the detriment of both. But during the reign of King Shrewd, mutually beneficial trade agreements were worked out between King-in-Waiting Chivalry of the Six Duchies and Prince Rurisk of the Mountains. The peace and prosperity of this arrangement was secured further when, over a decade later, the Mountain princess Kettricken became the bride of King-in-Waiting Verity. Upon the untimely death of her older brother, Rurisk, on the very eve of her wedding, Kettricken became the sole heir to the Mountain crown. Thus it appeared for a time that the Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom might share a monarch and eventually become one land.

  Circumstances put all such hope to ruin, however. The Six Duchies were threatened from without by the Raiders, and torn within by the bickering of princes. King Shrewd was murdered, King-in-Waiting Verity disappeared while on a quest, and when Prince Regal claimed the throne for his own, his hatred for Kettricken was such that she felt obliged to flee to her native Mountains for the sake of her unborn child. Self-proclaimed “King” Regal saw this somehow as a reneging on a promised surrender of territory. His initial endeavors to move troops into the Mountain Kingdom, ostensibly as “guards” for trading caravans, were repulsed by the Mountain folk. His protestations and threats prompted the closing of the Mountain borders to Six Duchies trade. Thwarted, he embarked on a vigorous campaign of discrediting Queen Kettricken and building patriotic hostility toward the Mountain Kingdom. His eventual goal seemed obvious: to take, by force if necessary, the lands of the Mountain Kingdom as a Six Duchies province. It seemed a poor time for such a war and such a strategy. The lands he justly possessed were already under siege by an outside enemy, one he seemed unable or disinclined to defeat. No military force had ever conquered the Mountain Kingdom, and yet this was what he seemed intent upon doing. Why he so desperately desired to possess this territory was a question that initially baffled everyone.

  The night was clear and cold. The bright moonlight was enough to show us where the road ran, but not more than that. For a time I simply sat in the wagon, listening to the crunching of the horses’ hooves on the road and trying to absorb all that had happened. Starling took the blankets we had brought from my cell and shook them out. She gave me one and draped one across her own shoulders. She sat huddled and apart from me, looking out the back of the wagon. I sensed she wanted to be left alone. I watched the orange glow that had been Moonseye dwindle in the distance. After a time, my mind started working again.
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  “Kettle?” I called over my shoulder. “Where are we going?”

  “Away from Moonseye,” she said. I could hear the weariness in her voice.

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  Starling stirred and glanced at me. “We thought you would know. ”

  “Where did the smugglers go?” I asked.

  I felt more than saw Starling shrug. “They wouldn’t tell us. They said if we went after you, we had to part company with them. They seemed to believe Burl would send soldiers after you, no matter how badly Moonseye had been hit. ”

  I nodded, more to myself than to her. “He will. He’s going to blame the whole raid on me. And it will be said that the raiders were actually from the Mountain Kingdom, soldiers sent to free me. ” I sat up, easing away from Starling. “And when they catch us, they’ll kill you both. ”

  “We didn’t intend that they should catch us,” Kettle observed.

  “And they won’t,” I promised. “Not if we act sensibly. Pull up the horses. ”

  Kettle scarcely needed to stop them. They had slowed to a weary walk long ago. I tossed my blanket at Starling and went around the team. Nighteyes launched himself from the wagon and followed me curiously. “What are you doing?” Kettle demanded as I unbuckled harness and let it fall to the snowy ground.

  “Changing this over so they can be ridden. Can you ride bareback?” I was using the guard’s knife to hack through the reins as I spoke. She’d have to ride bareback, whether she could or not. We had no saddles.

  “I suppose I’ll have to,” she observed grumpily as she clambered down from the wagon. “But we aren’t going to get very far very fast, doubled on these horses. ”

  “You and Starling will do fine,” I promised her. “Just keep going. ”

  Starling was standing in the bed of the wagon looking down on me. I didn’t need the moonlight to know there was disbelief on her face. “You’re leaving us here? After we came back for you?”

  That wasn’t how I’d seen it. “You are leaving me here,” I told her firmly. “Jhaampe is the only large settlement, once you’ve turned your back on Moonseye and headed toward the Mountain Kingdom. Ride steadily. Don’t go directly to Jhaampe. That’s what they’ll expect us to do. Find one of the smaller villages and hide there for a time. Most of the Mountain folk are hospitable. If you hear no rumors of pursuit, go on to Jhaampe. But get as far as you can as fast as you can before you stop to ask for shelter or food. ”

 
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