Assassins quest, p.48
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       Assassins Quest, p.48
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “I didn’t even know there was a road there,” I panted apologetically to Nighteyes as we fled down the hillside. We had a very brief advantage. We went downhill following our own trail, while the hounds and horsemen in pursuit of us must come up a hill of unbroken snow. I hoped that by the time they reached the ridge we had just left, we could be out of view in the brushy ravine below us. Nighteyes was holding back, loath to leave me behind. The hounds were baying and I heard the voices of men raised in excitement as they took up the chase.

  RUN! I commanded Nighteyes.

  I will not leave you.

  I’d have small chance if you did, I admitted. My mind worked frantically. Get to the bottom of the ravine. Lay as much false trail as you can, loop around, go downstream following the ravine. When I get there, we’ll flee uphill. It may delay them a while.

  Fox tricks! he snorted, and then raced past me in a blur of gray and vanished into the thick brush of the ravine. I tried to drive myself faster through the snow. Just before I reached the brushy ravine’s edge, I looked back. Dogs and horsemen were just cresting the ridge. I gained the shelter of the snow-cloaked brush and scrabbled down the steep sides. Nighteyes had left enough tracks there for a whole pack of wolves. Even as I paused for a quick breath, he raced past me in yet another direction.

  Let’s get out of here!

  I did not wait for his reply, but took off up the ravine as fast as my legs would carry me. The snow was shallower at the very bottom, for the overhanging trees and brush had caught and held most of it. I went half doubled over, knowing that if I snagged on the branches they would dump their cold loads upon me. The belling of the hounds rang in the freezing air. I listened to it as I pushed my way on. When I heard their excitement give way to a frustrated canine yelling, I knew they had reached the muddled trail at the bottom of the ravine. Too soon; they were there too soon and would be coming too fast.

  Nighteyes!

  Silence, fool! The hounds will hear you! And that other.

  My heart near stopped in my chest. I could not believe how stupid I had been. I flailed on through the snowy brush, my ears straining after what was happening behind us. The huntsmen had liked the false trail Nighteyes had left and were all but forcing the hounds along it. There were too many men on horseback for the narrowness of the ravine. They were getting in one another’s way, and perhaps fouling our true trail. Time gained, but only a bit of it. Then suddenly I heard alarmed cries and a wild yelping of hounds. I picked up a confused babble of doggy thoughts. A wolf had sprung down on them and raced right through the center of their pack, slashing as he went, dashing off right through the very legs of the horses the men rode behind them. One man was down and having trouble catching his wild-eyed mount. A dog had lost most of one floppy ear and was agonized with it. I tried to shut my mind to his pain. Poor beast, and all for none of your own gain. My legs were like lead and my mouth dry, but I tried to force speed from myself, to use well the time Nighteyes had gained at such risk to himself. I wanted to cry out to him to leave off his taunting, to flee with me, but dared not betray to the pack the true direction of our retreat. Instead I pushed myself on.

  The ravine was getting narrower and deeper. Vines and brambles and brush grew from the steepening sides and dangled down. I suspected I walked on top of a winter-frozen stream. I began to look for a way out of it. Behind me the hounds were yelping again, baying out to one another that they had the true trail now, follow the wolf, the wolf, the wolf. I knew then with certainty that Nighteyes had shown himself to them once more and was deliberately drawing them away from me. Run, boy, run! He flung the thought to me, uncaring that the hounds would hear him. There was a wild merriment to him, a hysterical silliness to his thought. It reminded me of the night I had chased Justin through the halls of Buckkeep, to slaughter him in the Great Hall before all the guests at Regal’s King-in-Waiting ceremony. Nighteyes was in a frenzy that had carried him past worrying over his own survival. I plunged on, my heart in my throat for him, fighting the tears that pricked the corners of my eyes.

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  The ravine ended. Before me was a glistening cascade of ice, a memorial to the mountain stream that cut this canyon during the summer months. The ice hung in long, rippled icicles down the face of a rocky crack in the mountain, gleaming with a faint sheen of moving water still. The snow at its base was crystalline. I halted, suspecting a deep pool, one I might unwittingly find under a layer of too-thin ice. I lifted my eyes. The walls here were mostly undercut and overgrown. In other places, bare slabs of rock showed through the drapery of snow. Runty saplings and twiggy brush grew in a scattering, leaning out to catch the sunlight from above. None of it looked promising for a climb. I turned to double back on my trail and heard a single howl rise and fall. Neither hound nor wolf, it could only be the mongrel dog. Something in the certainty of his cry convinced me he was on my trail. I heard a man shout encouragement and the dog yelped again, closer. I turned to the wall of the ravine and started to climb. I heard the man halloo to the others, calling and whistling for them to follow him, he had a man’s tracks here, never mind the wolf, it was just a Wit-trick. In the distance the hounds suddenly took up a different yelping. In that moment, I knew that Regal had finally found what he had sought. A Witted one to hunt me. Old Blood had been bought.

  I jumped and caught at a sapling leaning out from the wall of the ravine. I hauled myself up, got my feet on it, balanced, and reached for another above me. When I put my weight on it, its roots tore loose from the rocky soil. I fell, but managed to catch myself on the first tree again. Up again, I told myself fiercely. I stood on it, and heard it crack under my weight. I reached up to grab handfuls of twiggy brush leaning down from the undercut bank. I tried to go up quickly, to not let my weight hang from any sapling or bush for more than a few moments. Handfuls of twigs broke off in my grip, tufts of old grasses pulled free, and I found myself scrabbling along the lip of the ravine but not getting any higher. I heard a shout below me and against my will I glanced back and down. A man and dog were in the clearing below. As the mongrel bayed up at me, the man was nocking an arrow to his bow. I hung helpless above them, as easy a shot as a man could wish.

  “Please,” I heard myself gasp, and then heard the tiny unmistakable sound of a bowstring being released. I felt it hit me, a fist in the back, one of Regal’s old tricks from my childhood, and then a deeper, hotter pain inside me. One of my hands had let go. I had not commanded it to, it had simply come unhooked from its grip. I swung from my right hand. I could hear, so clearly, the yelping of the dog as it smelled my blood. I could hear the rustle of the man’s garment as he drew another arrow from his quiver.

  Pain bit again, deep into my right wrist. I cried out as my fingers let go. In a reflex of terror, my legs scrabbled fiercely against the yielding brush that dangled over the undercut bank. And somehow I was rising, my face brushing crusty snow. I found my left arm and made vague swimming motions with it. Get your legs up! Nighteyes snapped at me. He made not a sound, for his teeth were set firmly in the sleeve and flesh of my right arm as he dragged me up. The chance at living rejuvenated me. I kicked wildly and then felt solid ground under my belly. I clawed my way forward, trying to ignore the pain that centered in my back, but spread out from there in red waves. If I had not seen the man loose an arrow, I would have believed I had a pole as thick as a wagon axle sticking out of my back.

  Get up, get up! We have to run.

  I don’t recall how I got to my feet. I heard dogs scrabbling up the cliff behind me. Nighteyes stood back from the edge and met them as they came up. His jaws tore them open and he flung their bodies back down on the rest of the pack. When the curly-backed mongrel fell, there was a sudden lessening in the yelping below. We both knew his agony, and heard the screams of the man below as his bond-animal bled to death in the snow. The other huntsman was calling his dogs off, angrily telling the others it would do no good to send them up
to be slaughtered. I could hear the men yelling and cursing as they turned their weary horses and started back down the ravine, to try and find a place where they could get up and after us, to try and pick up our trail again.

  Run! Nighteyes told me. We would not speak of what we had just done. There was a sensation of terrible warmth running down my back that was also a spreading coldness. I put my hand to my chest, almost expecting to feel the arrowhead and shaft sticking out there. But no, it was buried deep. I staggered after Nighteyes, my consciousness awash in too much sensation, too many kinds of pain. My shirt and cloak tugged against the arrow shaft as I moved, a tiny wiggling of the wood that was echoed by the arrowhead deep inside me. I wondered how much further damage it was doing. I thought of the times I had butchered arrow-slain deer, of the black puddingy flesh full of blood that one found around such a wound. I wondered if he’d got my lung. A lung-shot deer didn’t go far. Did I taste blood in the back of my throat . . . ?

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  Don’t think about it! Nighteyes commanded me savagely. You weaken us both. Just walk. Walk and keep walking.

  So he knew as well as I did that I could not run. I walked and he walked at my side. For a time. Then I was walking blindly forward in the dark, not even caring in which direction I went, and he was not there. I groped for him, but could not find him. Somewhere afar I heard the yelping of dogs again. I walked on. I blundered into trees. Branches scratched my face but it was all right because my face was numb. The shirt on my back was a slushy sheet of frozen blood that moved chafingly against my skin. I tried to pull my cloak more closely around me, but the sudden pain nearly drove me to my knees. Silly me. I had forgotten it would drag against the arrow shaft. Silly me. Keep walking, boy. I walked on.

  I bumped into another tree. It released a shower of snow on me. I staggered clear and kept on walking. For a long time. Then I was sitting in the snow, getting colder and colder. I had to get up. I had to keep moving.

  I walked again. Not for very long, I don’t think. Under the shelter of some great evergreens where the snow was shallow, I sank to my knees. “Please,” I said. I had not the strength to weep for mercy. “Please. ” I could not think whom I was asking.

  I saw a hollow between two thick roots. Pine needles were thick on the ground there. I huddled into the small space. I could not lie down for the arrow sticking out of my back. But I could lean my forehead against the friendly tree and cross my arms on my chest. I made myself small, folding my legs under me and sinking into the space between the roots. I would have been cold save I was too tired. I sank into sleep. When I woke up, I’d build a fire and get warm. I could imagine how warm I’d be, could almost feel it.

  My brother!

  I’m here, I told him calmly. Right here. I quested out to touch him reassuringly. He was coming. The ruff around his throat was spiky with frozen saliva, but not a tooth had got through. He had one slash down the side of his muzzle but it was not bad. He’d led them in circles and then harried their horses from behind before leaving them plunging through a snow-covered swale of deep grass in the dark. Only two of their dogs were left alive and one of the horses was limping so badly the rider had doubled up with another.

  Now he came to find me, surging up the snowy slopes easily. He was tired, yes, but the energy of triumph surged through him. The night was crisp and clean around him. He caught the scent and then the tiny eye flicker of the hare that crouched beneath a bush, hoping he’d pass by. We did not. A single, sudden sideways pounce and the hare was in his jaws. We clutched it by its bony head and snapped its spine with one shake. We trotted on, the meat a welcome dangling weight from his jaws. We would eat well. The night forest was silver and black around us.

  Stop. My brother, do not do this.

  Do what?

  I love you. But I do not wish to be you.

  I hovered where I was. His lungs working so strongly, drawing in the cold night air past the hare’s head in his mouth. The slight sting of the slash down his muzzle, his powerful legs carrying his lean body so well.

  You do not wish to be me, either, Changer. Not really.

  I was not sure he was correct. With his eyes I saw and smelled myself. I had wedged myself into the space between the roots of the great tree, and was curled up as small as an abandoned pup. My blood smell was strong on the air. Then I blinked, and I was looking down into the darkness of my crooked elbow over my face. I lifted my head slowly, painfully. Everything hurt and all the pain traced back to that arrow centered in my back.

  I smelled rabbit guts and blood. Nighteyes stood beside me, feet braced on the carcass as he tore it open. Eat, while it’s hot.

  I don’t know if I can.

  Do you want me to chew it for you?

  He was not jesting. But the only thing more revolting than eating was the thought of eating disgorged meat. I managed a tiny shake of my head. My fingers were almost numb, but I watched my hand pinch up the small liver and carry it up to my mouth. It was warm and rich with blood. Suddenly I knew Nighteyes was right. I had to eat. Because I had to live. He had torn the hare apart. I picked up a portion and bit into the warm meat. It was tough but I was determined. Without thinking, I had nearly abandoned my body for his, nearly climbed in beside him into that perfect healthy wolf’s body. I had done it once before, with his consent. But now we both knew better. We would share, but we could not become one another. Not without both of us losing.

  Slowly I sat up. I felt the muscles of my back move against the arrow, protesting the way it snagged them. I could feel the weight of the shaft. When I imagined it sticking out of me, I nearly lost the food I’d eaten. I forced myself to a calm I did not feel. Suddenly, oddly, an image of Burrich came to me. That deadly stillness in his face when he had flexed his knee and watched the old wound pulling open. Slowly I reached my hand back. I walked my fingers up my spine. It made the muscles pull against the arrow. Finally my fingers touched the sticky wood of the arrow shaft. Even that light touch was a new sort of pain. Awkwardly I closed my fingers around the shaft, closed my eyes and tried to pull on it. Even if there had been no pain involved, it would have been difficult. But the agony rocked the world around me, and when it steadied, I found myself on my hands and knees with my head hanging down.

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  Shall I try?

  I shook my head, remaining as I was. I was still afraid I’d faint. I tried to think. If he pulled it out, I knew I’d pass out. If the bleeding was bad, I’d have no way to stop it. No. Best to leave it in there. I gathered all my courage. Can you break it off?

  He came close to me. I felt his head against my back. He turned his head, maneuvered his jaws so that his back teeth would close on the shaft. Then he closed his jaws. There was a snick, like a gardener pruning a sapling, and a shiver of new pain. A wave of giddiness washed over me. But somehow I reached back and tugged my blood-sodden cloak free of the stub of arrow. I pulled it closer around me, shuddering. I closed my eyes.

  No. Build a fire first.

  I peeled my eyes open again. It was all too hard. I scraped together all the twigs and sticks within easy reach. Nighteyes tried to help, fetching branches to me, but it still took an eternity before I had a tiny flame dancing. Slowly I added sticks. About the time I had the fire burning, I realized the day was dawning. Time to move on again. We stayed only to finish eating the rabbit and to let me get my hands and feet thoroughly warm. Then we started off again, Nighteyes leading me unpityingly onward.

  20

  Jhaampe

  JHAAMPE, THE CAPITAL city of the Mountain Kingdom, is older than Buckkeep, just as the ruling line of the Mountain Kingdom is older than the house of Farseer. As a city, Jhaampe is as far removed in style from the fortress city of Buckkeep as the Farseer monarchs are different from the philosopher guides of the Sacrifice lineage that rules the Mountains.

  There is no permanent city such as we know. Ther
e are few permanent buildings. Instead, along the carefully planned and garden-bordered roads are spaces where the nomadic folk of the Mountains may come and go. There is a designated space for the market, but the merchants migrate in a procession that parallels that of the seasons. A score of tents may spring up overnight and their inhabitants swell the population of Jhaampe for a week or a month, only to disappear without a trace when their visiting and trading is over. Jhaampe is an ever-changing city of tents populated by the vigorous outdoor-dwelling folk of the mountains.

  The homes of the ruling family and the companions that choose to stay year-round with them are not at all like our castles and halls. Instead, their dwellings center around great trees, living still, their trunks and branches patiently trained over scores of years to provide a framework for the building. This living structure is then draped with a fabric woven of tree-bark fibers and reinforced with a latticework. Thus the walls can take on the gently curving shapes of a tulip bud or the dome of an egg. A clay coating is spread over the fabric layer and this in turn is painted with a shiny resinous paint in the bright hues the mountain folk enjoy. Some are decorated with fanciful creatures or patterns but most are left simple. Purples and yellows predominate, so that to come upon the city growing in the shade of the great mountain trees is like coming upon a patch of crocus in springtime.

  About these homes and at the intersections of the roads in this nomadic “city” are the gardens. Each is unique. One may center around an unusually shaped stump or an arrangement of stones or a graceful bit of wood. They may contain fragrant herbs or bright flowers or any combination of plants. One notable one has at its heart a bubbling spring of steaming water. Here grow plants with fleshy leaves and exotically scented flowers, denizens of some warmer clime brought here to delight the Mountain-dwellers with their mystery. Often visitors leave gifts in the gardens when they depart, a wooden carving or a graceful pot or perhaps merely an arrangement of bright pebbles. The gardens belong to no one, and all tend them.

 
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