Assassins quest, p.49
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       Assassins Quest, p.49
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  At Jhaampe can also be found hot springs, some of water that can scald a man, others merely a gently bubbling warmth. These have been confined, both as public baths and as a source of heat in some of the smaller dwellings. In every building, in every garden, at every turn the visitor finds the austere beauty and simplicity of color and form that are the Mountain ideal. The overall impression that one carries away is of tranquillity and joy in the natural world. The chosen simplicity of life there may lead the visitor to question his own choice in life.

  It was night. I recall little more than that it followed long days of pain. I moved my staff and took another step. I moved my staff again. We were not going quickly. A scurrying of snowflakes in the air was more blinding than the darkness. I could not get away from the circling wind that carried them. Nighteyes wove a pacing path around me, guiding my hesitant steps as if it could hurry me. From time to time he keened anxiously. His body was tight with fear and weariness. He smelled wood smoke and goats. . . . not to betray you, my brother. But to help you. Remember that. You need someone with hands. But if they try to mistreat you, you have but to call and I shall come. I shall not be far. . . .

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  I could not make my mind focus on his thoughts. I felt his bitterness that he could not help me and his fear that he was leading me into a trap. I thought we had been arguing but I could not remember what I had been insisting on. Whatever it was, Nighteyes had won, simply by virtue of knowing what he wanted. My feet slipped on the packed snow of the road and I went to my knees. Nighteyes sat down beside me and waited. I tried to lie down and he seized my wrist in his jaws. He tugged gently, but the thing in my back burst into sudden flames. I made a noise.

  Please, my brother. There are huts ahead, and lights within them. Fires and warmth. And someone with hands, who can cleanse the foul wound in your back. Please. Get up. Just once more.

  I lifted my hanging head and tried to see. There was something in the road ahead of us, something the road forked and went around on either side. The silver moonlight gleamed on it but I could not make out what it was. I blinked hard, and it became a carved stone, taller than a man. It had not been shaped to be an object, but was simply smoothed into a graceful shape. At its base, bare twiggy limbs recalled summer shrubbery. An irregular wall of smaller stones bordered it. Snow garnished all. It reminded me of Kettricken somehow. I tried to rise but could not. Beside me, Nighteyes whined in agony. I could not frame a thought to reassure him. It took all my strength to remain on my knees.

  I did not hear footsteps but I felt a sudden increase in the tension thrumming through Nighteyes. I lifted my head again. Far ahead of me, past the garden, someone came walking through the night. Tall and slender, draped in heavy fabric, hood pulled forward so far it was almost a cowl. I watched the person come. Death, I thought. Only death could come so silently, gliding so smoothly through this icy night. “Run away,” I whispered to Nighteyes. “No sense in letting him take both of us. Run away now. ”

  For a wonder, he obeyed me, slipping away silently from my side. When I turned my head, I could not see him, but I sensed he was not far. I felt his strength leave me as if I had taken off a warm coat. Part of me tried to go with him, to cling to the wolf and be the wolf. I longed to leave this battered body behind.

  If you must, my brother. If you must, I will not turn you away.

  I wished he had not said it. It did not make it easier to resist the temptation. I had promised myself I would not do that to him, that if die I must, I would die and leave him free and clean of me to carve his own life. Yet as the moment for dying grew nearer there seemed so many good reasons to forsake that promise. The healthy wild body, that simple life in the now called to me.

  Slowly the figure drew nearer. A great shivering of cold and pain racked me. I could go to the wolf. I summoned the last of my strength to defy myself. “Here!” I croaked to Death. “Here I am. Come and take me and let it be done at last. ”

  He heard me. I saw him halt and stand stiffly as if afraid. Then he came with sudden haste, his white cloak swirling in the night wind. He stood by me, tall and slender and silent. “I’ve come to you,” I whispered. Abruptly he knelt by me, and I glimpsed the chiseled ivory of his bony face. He put his arms around me and lifted me to bear me away. The pressure of his arm on my back was agonizing. I fainted.

  Warmth was seeping back into me, bringing pain with it. I sprawled on my side, within walls, for the wind surged like the ocean outside. I smelled tea and incense, paint and wood shavings and the wool rug I lay on. My face burned. I could not stop the shuddering that ran through me, though every wave of it awakened the searing pain in my back. My hands and feet throbbed.

  “The knots of your cloak-strings are frozen. I’m going to cut them. Lie still now. ” The voice was curiously gentle, as if unused to such a tone.

  I managed to get an eye open. I was lying on the floor. My face was turned toward a stone hearth where a fire burned. Someone leaned over me. I saw the glitter of a blade nearing my throat, but I could not move. I felt it sawing and honestly could not tell if it tasted my flesh. Then my cloak was being lifted back. “It’s frozen to your shirt,” someone muttered. I almost thought I knew the voice. A gasp. “It’s blood. All this is frozen blood. ” My cloak made an odd tearing sound as it was peeled loose. Then someone sat down on the floor beside me.

  I turned my eyes up slowly but could not lift my head to see a face. Instead I saw a slender body clothed in a soft robe of white wool. Hands the color of old ivory pushed the cuffs of his sleeves up. The fingers were long and thin, the wrists bony. Then he rose abruptly to get something. For a time I was alone. I closed my eyes. When I opened them a wide vessel of blue pottery was by my head. Steam rose from it and I smelled willow and rowan. “Steady,” said the voice, and for a moment one of those hands rested on my shoulder reassuringly. Then I felt spreading warmth on my back.

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  “I’m bleeding again,” I whispered to myself.

  “No. I’m soaking the shirt loose. ” Once again, the voice was almost familiar. I closed my eyes. A door opened and shut and a gust of cold air wafted across me. The man beside me paused. I felt him glance up. “You might have knocked,” he said with mock severity. I felt again the warm trickle of water on my back. “Even one such as I occasionally has other guests. ”

  Feet crossed hastily to me. Someone lowered herself fluidly to the floor beside me. I saw the folding of her skirts as she sank down. A hand pushed the hair back from my face. “Who is he, holy one?”

  “Holy one?” There was bitter humor in his voice. “If you would speak of holes, you should speak of him, not me. Here, look at his back. ” He spoke softer then. “As to who he is, I have no idea. ”

  I heard her give a gasp. “All of that is blood? How does he yet live? Let us get some warmth to him, and clean away the blood. ” Then she tugged at my mittens and dragged them free of my hands. “Oh, his poor hands, his fingers all gone black at the ends!” she exclaimed in horror.

  That I did not want to see or know. I let go of everything.

  For a time, it seemed as if I were a wolf again. I stalked an unfamiliar village, alert for dogs or anyone stirring about, but all was white silence and snow falling in the night. I found the hut I sought and prowled about it, but dared not enter it. After a time, it seemed I had done all I could about something. So I went hunting. I killed, I ate, I slept.

  When I opened my eyes again, the room was washed with the pale light of day. The walls curved. I thought at first my eyes would not focus, and then I recognized the shape of a Mountain dwelling. Slowly I took in detail. Thick rugs of wool on the floor, simple wooden furniture, a window of greased hide. On a shelf, two dolls leaned their heads together beside a wooden horse and tiny cart. A huntsman puppet dangled in a corner. On a table were bits of brightly painted wood. I smelled the clean shavings and the fresh paint. Pup
pets, I thought. Someone was making puppets. I was belly down on a bed with a blanket over me. I was warm. The skin of my face and my hands and feet burned unpleasantly but that could be ignored, for the great pain that bored into my back took precedence. My mouth was not so dry. Had I drunk something? I seemed to recall the spill of warm tea in my mouth but it was not a definite memory. Feet in felted wool slippers approached my bed. Someone bent down and lifted the blanket off me. Cool air flowed across my skin. Deft hands moved over me, prodding the area around my wound. “So thin. Were he better fleshed, I’d say he had more chance,” said an old woman’s voice sadly.

  “Will he keep his toes and fingers?” A woman’s voice, close by. A young woman. I could not see her but she was near. The other woman bent over me. She handled my hands, bending the fingers and pinching at the ends of them. I winced and tried feebly to pull away. “If he lives, he’ll keep his fingers,” she said, not unkindly but factually. “They will be tender, for he must shed all the skin and flesh that was frozen. By themselves, they are not too bad. The infection in his back is what may kill him. There’s something inside that wound. An arrowhead and part of the shaft by the look of it. ”

  “Cannot you take it out?” Ivory-hands spoke from somewhere in the room.

  “Easily,” the woman replied. I realized she was speaking the tongue of Buck, with a Mountain accent. “But he will certainly bleed and he has not much blood left he can part with. And the foulness of his wound may spread in fresh-flowing blood to poison all his body. ” She sighed. “Would that Jonqui were alive still. She was very wise in this type of thing. It was she who pulled from Prince Rurisk the arrow that had pierced his chest. The wound bubbled with his very life’s breath and still she did not let him die. I am not such a healer as she, but I will try. I will send my apprentice with a salve for his hands and feet and face. Rub his skin well with it each day, and do not be dismayed at the shedding of skin. As for his back, that we must keep a drawing poultice on, to suck the poisons from it as best we may. Food and drink you must get into him, as much as he will take. Let him rest. And a week hence, we will pull that arrow and hope he has built the strength to live through it, Jofron. Know you a good drawing poultice?”

  “One or two. Bran and goosegrass is a good one,” she offered.

  “It will do well. Would that I could stay and tend him, but I have many another to see to. Cedar Knoll was attacked last night. A bird has come with tidings that many were injured before the soldiers were driven off. I cannot tend one and leave many. I must leave him in your hands. ”

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  “And in my bed,” Ivory-hands said dolefully. I heard the door close behind the healer.

  I drew in a deeper breath but found no strength to speak.

  Behind me, I heard the man moving about the hut, the small sounds of water poured and crockery moved. Footsteps came closer. “I think he’s awake,” Jofron said softly.

  I gave a small nod against my pillow.

  “Try to get this down him, then,” suggested Ivory-hands. “Then let him rest. I shall return with bran and goosegrass for your poultice. And some bedding for myself, for I suppose he must stay here. ” A tray was passed over my body and came into my view. There were a bowl and a cup on it. A woman sat beside me. I could not turn my head to see her face, but the fabrics of her skirt were Mountain-woven. Her hand spooned up a bit from the bowl and offered it to me. I sipped at it cautiously. Some sort of broth. From the cup wafted the scents of chamomile and valerian. I heard a door slide open, and then shut. I felt a waft of cold air move through the room. Another spoonful of broth. A third.

  “Where?” I managed to say.

  “What?” she asked, leaning closer. She turned her head and leaned down to see my face. Blue eyes. Too close to my own. “Did you say something?”

  I refused the spoon. It was suddenly too much effort to eat, even though what I had taken had heartened me. The room seemed darker. When next I awoke night was deep around me. All was silent save for the muted crackling of a fire in the hearth. The light it cast was fitful, but enough to show me the room. I felt feverish and very weak and horribly thirsty. There was a cup of water on a low table near my bed. I tried to reach for it, but the pain in my back stopped my arm’s movement. My back felt taut with the swollen wound. Any movement awakened it. “Water,” I mouthed, but the dryness of my mouth made it a whisper. No one came.

  Near the hearth, my host had made up a pallet for himself. He slept like a cat, lax, but with that aura of constant wariness. His head was pillowed on his outstretched arm and the fire glazed him with light. I looked at him and my heart turned over in my chest.

  His hair was smoothed back sleek on his skull, confined to a single plait, baring the clean lines of his face. Expressionless and still, it seemed a chiseled mask. The last trace of boyishness had been burned away, leaving only the clean planes of his lean cheeks and high forehead and long straight nose. His lips were narrower, his chin firmer than I recalled. The dance of the firelight lent color to his face, staining his white skin with its amber. The Fool had grown up in the time we had been apart. It seemed too much change for twelve months, and yet this year had been longer than any in my life. For a time I simply lay and looked at him.

  His eyes opened slowly, as if I had spoken to him. For a time he stared back at me without a word. Then a frown creased his brow. He sat up slowly, and I saw that truly he was ivory, his hair the color of fresh-ground flour. It was his eyes that stopped my heart and tongue. They caught the firelight, yellow as a cat’s. I finally found my breath. “Fool,” I sighed sadly. “What have they done to you?” My parched mouth could barely shape the words. I reached out my hand to him, but the movement pulled the muscles of my back and I felt my injury open again. The world tilted and slid away.

  Safety. That was my first clear sensation. It came from the soft warmth of the clean bedding, the herb fragrance of the pillow beneath my head. Something warm and slightly damp pressed gently on my wound and muffled its stab. Safety clasped me as gently as the cool hands that held my frostbitten hands between them. I opened my eyes and the firelit room slowly swam into focus.

  He was sitting by my bed. There was a stillness about him that was not repose as he stared past me and into the darkened room. He wore a plain robe of white wool with a round collar. The simple clothes were a shock after the years of seeing him in motley. It was like seeing a garish puppet stripped of its paint. Then a single silver tear tracked down one cheek beside the narrow nose. I was astonished.

  “Fool?” My voice came out as a croak this time.

  His eyes came instantly to mine and he dropped to his knees beside me. His breath came and went raggedly in his throat. He snatched up the cup of water and held it to my mouth while I drank. Then he set it aside, to take up my dangling hand. He spoke softly as he did this, more to himself than to me. “What have they done to me, Fitz? Gods, what have they done to you, to mark you so? What has become of me, that I did not even know you though I carried you in my arms?” His cool fingers moved tentatively down my face, tracing the scar and the broken nose. He leaned down suddenly to rest his brow against mine. “When I recall how beautiful you were,” he whispered brokenly, and then fell silent. The warm drip of his tear against my face felt scalding.

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  He sat up abruptly, clearing his throat. He wiped his sleeve across his eyes, a child’s gesture that unmanned me even more. I drew a deeper breath and gathered myself. “You’ve changed,” I managed to say.

  “Have I? I imagine I have. How could I not have changed? I thought you dead, and all my life for naught. Then now, this moment, to be given back both you and my life’s purpose . . . I opened my eyes to you and thought my heart would stop, that madness had finally claimed me. Then you spoke my name. Changed, you say? More than you can imagine, as much as you have plainly changed yourself. This night, I hardly know myself. ” It wa
s as close as I had ever heard the Fool come to babbling. He took a breath, and his voice cracked on his next words. “For a year, I have believed you dead, Fitz. For a whole year. ”

  He had not released my hand. I felt the trembling that went through him. He stood suddenly, saying, “We both need something to drink. ” He walked away from me across the darkened room. He had grown, but it was in shape rather than size. I doubted he was much taller, but his body was no longer a child’s. He was lean and slight as ever, muscled as tumblers are. He brought a bottle from a cabinet, two simple cups. He uncorked the bottle and I smelled the warmth of the brandy before he poured. He came back to sit by my bed and offer me a cup. I managed to wrap my hand around it despite my blackened fingertips. He seemed to have recovered some of his aplomb. He looked at me over the rim as he drank. I lifted my head and tipped a spill of mine into my mouth. Half went down my beard and I choked as if I had never had brandy before. Then I felt the hot race of it in my belly. The Fool shook his head as he gently wiped my face.

  “I should have listened to my dreams. Over and over, I dreamed you were coming. It was all you ever said, in the dream. I am coming. Instead I believed so firmly that I had failed somehow, that the Catalyst was dead. I could not even see who you were when I picked you up from the ground. ”

  “Fool,” I said quietly. I wished he would stop speaking. I simply wanted to be safe for a time, and think of nothing. He did not understand.

  He looked at me and grinned his old sly Fool’s smile. “You still don’t understand, do you? When word reached us that you were dead, that Regal had killed you . . . my life ended. It was worse, somehow, when the pilgrims began to trickle in, to hail me as the White Prophet. I knew I was the White Prophet. I’ve known it since I was a child, as did those who raised me. I grew up, knowing that someday I would come north to find you and that between the two of us we would put time in its proper course. All of my life, I knew I would do that.

 
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