Assassins quest, p.60
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       Assassins Quest, p.60

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  I stared up into the darkness of the tent’s ceiling, listening to the blowing wind outside and the quiet breathing of my companions inside. I closed my eyes and laxed my muscles, trying to at least rest my body. I wanted so desperately to fall asleep. But Skill dreams tugged at me like tiny barbed hooks in my mind until I thought I should scream. Most were horrible. Some sort of Forging ceremony in a coastal village, a huge fire burning in a pit, and captives dragged forward by jeering OutIslanders and offered the choice of being Forged or flinging themselves into the pit. Children were watching. I jerked my mind back from the flames.

  I caught my breath and calmed my eyes. Sleep. In a night chamber in Buckkeep Castle, Lacey was carefully removing lace from an old wedding gown. Her mouth was pinched shut with disapproval as she picked out the tiny threads that secured the ornate work. “It will bring a good price,” Patience said to her. “Perhaps enough to supply our watchtowers for another month. He would understand what we must do for Buck. ” She held her head very upright, and there was more gray in the black of her hair than I recalled as her fingers unfastened the strings of tiny pearls that glistened in scalloping at the neckline of the gown. Time had aged the white of the gown to ivory, and the luxuriant breadth of the skirts cascaded over their laps. Patience cocked her head suddenly as if listening, a puzzled frown on her face. I fled.

  I used all my will to pry my eyes open. The fire in the small brazier burned small, shedding a reddish light. I studied the poles that supported the taut hides. I willed my breath to calmness. I dared not think of anything that might lure me out of my own life, not Molly, not Burrich, not Verity. I tried to find some neutral image to rest my mind upon, something with no special connotations to my life. I called up a bland landscape. A smooth blank plain of land cloaked in white snow, a peaceful night sky over it. Blessed stillness . . . I sank into it as into a soft feather bed.

  A rider came, swiftly, leaning low, clinging to his horse’s neck, urging him on. There was a simple safe beauty to the duo, the running horse, the man’s streaming cloak echoed by the horse’s flowing tail. For a time, there was no more than this, the dark horse and rider cleaving the snowy plain under an open moonlit night. The horse ran well, an effortless stretching and gathering of muscles and the man sat him lightly, almost appearing to ride above him rather than on his back. The moon glinted silver off the man’s brow, glistening upon the rampant buck badge that he wore. Chade.

  Three riders and horses appeared. Two came from behind, but those horses were running wearily, heavily. The lone rider would outdistance them if the chase went much longer. The third pursuer cut the plain at an angle to the others. The piebald horse ran with a will, unmindful of the deeper snow he churned through in pursuit. His small rider sat him high and well, a woman or a young man. The moonlight danced lightly along a drawn blade. For a time it looked as if the young rider would intersect with Chade’s path of flight, but the old assassin saw him. He spoke to his horse, and the gelding put on a burst of speed, incredible to see. He left the two lumbering pursuers far behind, but the piebald reached the packed trail now and his legs stretched long as he endeavored to catch up. For a time, it looked as if Chade would escape cleanly, but the piebald horse was fresher. The gelding could not maintain his burst of speed, and the even pace of the piebald slowly ate into his lead. The gap closed gradually but relentlessly. Then the piebald ran right behind the black gelding. The gelding slowed and Chade turned in the saddle and lifted an arm in greeting. The other rider shouted to him, her voice thin in the cold air. “For Verity the true King!” She tossed a bag to him, and he threw a packet to her. Abruptly they separated, the two horses both veering from the trodden path to go wide of one another. The hoofbeats dwindled in the night.

  The laboring mounts of the pursuers were lathered and wet, steaming in the cold air. Their riders pulled them up, cursing, when they reached the place where Chade and his cohort separated. Snatches of conversation mixed with curses floated on the air. “Damned Farseer partisans!” and “No way to tell which one has it now!” and finally “Not going back to face a lash over this mess. ” They seemed to reach an agreement, for they let their horses breathe, and then proceeded more slowly, following the trodden path away from wherever they had come.

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  I found myself briefly. Strange to discover I was smiling even though sweat misted my face. The Skilling was strong and true. I was breathing deep with the strain of it. I tried to draw back from it, but the sweet rush of knowing was too keen. I was elated at Chade’s escape, elated to know that there were partisans who worked on Verity’s behalf. The world stretched out wide before me, tempting as a tray of sweet cakes. My heart chose instantly.

  A baby wailed, in that endless, hopeless way that infants have. My daughter. She lay on a bed, still wrapped in a blanket that was beaded with rain. Her face was red with the earnestness of her screaming. The pent frustration in Molly’s voice was frightening as she said, “Be quiet. Can’t you just be quiet!”

  Burrich’s voice, stern and weary. “Don’t be cross at her. She’s only a babe. She’s probably just hungry. ”

  Molly stood, lips pinched tight, arms folded tightly across her chest. Her cheeks were red, her hair had gone to wet strands. Burrich hung up his dripping cloak. They had all been somewhere, together, and just returned. The ashes were dead in the fireplace, the cottage cold. Burrich went to the hearth and awkwardly knelt by it, favoring his knee, and began to select kindling to build a fire. I could feel the tension in him, and I knew how he strove to contain his temper. “Take care of the baby,” he suggested quietly. “I’ll get the fire going and put some water to boil. ”

  Molly took off her cloak and moved deliberately to hang it by his. I knew how she hated to be told what to do. The baby continued wailing, as remorseless a demand as the winter wind outside. “I am cold, and tired, and hungry, and wet. She’s going to have to learn that sometimes she just has to wait. ”

  Burrich leaned down to blow on a spark, cursed softly when it did not catch. “She is cold and hungry and tired and wet, too,” he pointed out. His voice was getting crisper. He continued doggedly with his fire making. “And she is too small to do anything about it. So she cries. Not to torment you, but to tell you she needs help. It’s like a puppy yelping, woman, or a chick cheeping. She doesn’t do it to annoy. ” His voice was rising on every sentence.

  “Well, it annoys me!” Molly declared, and turned to the fight. “She will just have to cry it out. I’m too tired to deal with her. And she’s getting spoiled. All she does is cry to be held. I never have a moment to myself any longer. I can’t even sleep a night through. Feed the baby, wash the baby, change the baby, hold the baby. That’s all my life is anymore. ” She listed off her grievances aggressively. That glint was in her eye, the same one I’d seen when she defied her father, and I knew she expected Burrich to stand and advance on her. Instead, he blew on a tiny glow and grunted in satisfaction when a narrow tongue of flame licked up and kindled a curl of birch bark. He didn’t even turn to look at Molly or the wailing child. Twig after twig he set on the tiny fire, and I marveled that he could not be aware of Molly seething behind him. I would not have been so composed were she behind me and wearing that expression.

  Only when the fire was well established did he rise, and then he turned, not to Molly but to the child. He walked past Molly as if she were not there. I did not know if he saw how she steeled herself not to flinch from the sudden blow she half-expected from him. It wrung my heart to see this scar her father left on her. Burrich leaned over the baby, speaking in his calming voice as he unwrapped her. I watched in a sort of awe as he competently changed her napkin. He glanced about, then took up a wool shirt of his that was hanging on a chair back and wrapped her in it. She continued to wail, but on a different note. He propped her against his shoulder and used his free hand to fill the kettle and set it on the fire. It was as if Molly were not there at all. Her fa
ce went white and her eyes were huge as he began to measure out grain. When he found the water was not yet boiling, he sat down with the baby and patted her back rhythmically. The wailing became less determined, as if the baby was wearying of crying.

  Molly stalked over to them. “Give me the baby. I’ll nurse her now. ”

  Burrich slowly turned his eyes up to her. His face was impassive. “When you’re calm, and want to hold her, I’ll give her to you. ”

  “You’ll give her to me now! She’s my child!” Molly snapped, and reached for her. Burrich stopped her with a look. She stepped back. “Are you trying to make me ashamed?” she demanded. Her voice was going shrill. “She’s my child. I have a right to raise her as I see fit. She doesn’t need to be held all the time. ”

  “That’s true,” he agreed blandly, but made no move to give her the child.

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  “You think I’m a bad mother. But what do you know about children, to say I’m wrong?”

  Burrich got up, staggered a half step on his bad leg, and regained his balance. He took up the measure of grain. He sprinkled it over the boiling water, then stirred it to wet it evenly. Then he put a tight lid on the pot and pulled it slightly back from the fire’s reach. All this while balancing the babe in the crook of one arm. I could tell he had been thinking when he answered, “Not babies, perhaps. But I know about young things. Foals, puppies, calves, piglets. Even hunting cats. I know if you want them to trust you, you touch them often when they are small. Gently, but firmly, so they believe in your strength, too. ”

  He warmed to his subject. I’d heard this lecture a hundred times before, usually delivered to impatient stableboys. “You don’t shout at them, or make sudden moves that look threatening. You give them good feed and clean water, and keep them clean and give them shelter from the weather. ” His voice dropped accusingly as he added, “You don’t take out your temper on them, or confuse punishment with discipline. ”

  Molly looked shocked at his words. “Discipline comes from punishment. A child learns discipline when she is punished for doing something wrong. ”

  Burrich shook his head. “I’d like to “punish’ the man that beat that into you,” he said, and an edge of his old temper crept into his voice. “What did you really learn from your father taking his temper out on you?” he demanded. “That to show tenderness to your baby is a weakness? That to give in and hold your child when she cries because she wants you is somehow not an adult thing to do?”

  “I don’t want to talk about my father,” Molly declared suddenly, but there was uncertainty in her voice. She reached for the baby like a child clutching at a favorite toy and Burrich let her take the infant. Molly sat on the hearthstones and opened her blouse. The baby sought her breast greedily and was instantly silent. For a time the only sounds were the wind muttering outside, the bubbling of the porridge pot, and the small stick noises of Burrich feeding the fire. “You did not always keep your patience with Fitz when he was little,” Molly muttered chidingly.

  Burrich gave a brief snort of laughter. “I don’t think anyone would have been eternally patient with that one. When I got him, he was five or six, and I knew nothing of him. And I was a young man, with many other interests. You can put a colt in a corral, or tie a dog up for a time. Not so with a child. You can never forget you have a child for even an instant. ” He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “Before I knew it, he’d become the center of my life. ” An odd little pause. “Then they took him from me, and I let them. . . . And now he’s dead. ”

  A silence. I wanted desperately to reach to them both, to tell them that I lived. But I could not. I could hear them, I could see them, but I could not reach them. Like the wind outside the house, I roared and pounded at the walls, to no avail.

  “What am I going to do? What will become of us?” Molly asked abruptly of no one. The despair in her voice was rending. “Here I am. No husband, and a child, and no way to make my own way in the world. Everything I saved is gone. ” She looked at Burrich. “I was so stupid. I always believed he would come to find me, that he would marry me. But he never did. And now he never will. ” She began to rock as she clutched the baby to her. Tears spilled unheeded down her cheeks. “Don’t think I didn’t hear that old man today, the one that said he’d seen me in Buckkeep Town and I was the Wit-Bastard’s whore. How long before that tale races through Capelin Beach? I daren’t go to town anymore, I can’t hold up my head. ”

  Something went out of Burrich at her words. He slumped, elbow on knee, head in his hand. He muttered, “I thought you had not heard him. Had he not been half as old as God, I’d have made him answer for his words. ”

  “You can’t challenge a man for speaking the truth,” Molly said dispiritedly.

  That brought Burrich’s head up. “You’re not a whore!” he declared hotly. “You were Fitz’s wife. It’s not your fault if not all were privy to it. ”

  “His wife,” Molly said mockingly to herself. “I was not, Burrich. He never married me. ”

  “Such was how he spoke of you to me. I promise you, I know this. Had he not died, he would have come to you. He would. He always intended to make you his wife. ”

  “Oh, yes, he had many intentions. And he spoke many lies. Intentions are not deeds, Burrich. If every woman who had heard a man promise marriage were a wife, well, there’d be a spate less of bastards in the world. ” She straightened up and wiped the tears from her face with a weary finality. Burrich made no answer to her words. She looked down into the little face that was finally at peace. The babe went to sleep. She slipped her little finger into the child’s mouth to free her nipple from the babe’s sleepy grip on it. As Molly did up her blouse, she smiled weakly. “I think I feel a tooth coming through. Maybe she’s just colicky from teething. ”

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  “A tooth? Let me see!” Burrich exclaimed, and came to bend over the baby as Molly carefully pushed down her pink lower lip to reveal a tiny half-moon of white showing in her gum. My daughter pulled away from the touch, frowning in her sleep. Burrich took her gently from Molly and carried her over to the bed. He settled her into it, still wrapped in his shirt. By the fire, Molly took the lid off the kettle and gave the porridge a stir.

  “I’ll take care of you both,” Burrich offered awkwardly. He looked down at the child as he spoke. “I’m not so old I can’t get work, you know. As long as I can swing an axe, we can trade or sell firewood in town. We’ll get by. ”

  “You’re not old at all,” Molly said absently as she sprinkled a bit of salt into the porridge. She went to her chair and dropped into it. From a basket by her chair, she took up a piece of mending and turned it about in her hands, deciding where to begin. “You seem to wake up new each day. Look at this shirt. Torn out at the shoulder seam as if a growing boy did it. I think you get younger each day. But I feel as if I get older with every passing hour. And I can’t live on your kindness forever, Burrich. I’ve got to get on with my life. Somehow. I just can’t think how to begin, just now. ”

  “Then don’t worry about it, just now,” he said comfortingly. He came to stand behind her chair. His hands lifted as if he would put them on her shoulders. Instead he crossed his arms on his chest. “Soon it will be spring. We’ll put in a garden and the fish runs will begin again. There may be some hiring work down in Capelin Beach. You’ll see, we’ll get by. ”

  His optimism reached something in her. “I should start now and make some straw hives. With great good luck, I might chance on a swarming of bees. ”

  “I know a flowering field up in the hills where the bees work thick in summer. If we set out hives there, would the bees move into them?”

  Molly smiled to herself. “They are not like birds, silly. They only swarm when the old hive has too many bees. We might get a swarm that way, but not until high summer or autumn. No. Come spring, when the bees first stir, we’ll try to find a bee tree. I used to hel
p my father hunt bees when I was smaller, before I grew wise enough to winter a hive over. You put out a dish of warmed honey to draw them. First one, and then another will come. If you are good at it, and I am, you can find the bee line and follow it back to the bee tree. That is only the start, of course. Then you have to force the swarm out of the tree and into the hive you’ve made ready. Sometimes, if the bee tree is small, you can simply cut it down and take the bee gum home with you. ”

  “Bee gum?”

  “The part of the tree they nest in. ”

  “Don’t they sting you?” Burrich asked incredulously.

  “Not if you do it right,” she told him calmly.

  “You’ll have to teach me how,” he said humbly.

  Molly twisted in her seat to look up at him. She smiled, but it was not like her old smile. It was a smile that acknowledged that they were pretending it would all go as they planned. She knew too well now that no hope could be completely trusted. “If you’ll teach me to write my letters. Lacey and Patience started, and I can read a bit, but the writing comes harder to me. ”

  “I’ll teach you and then you can teach Nettle,” he promised her.

  Nettle. She named my daughter Nettle, after the herb she loves, though it leaves great rashes on her hands and arms if she is careless when she gathers it. Is that how she felt about our daughter, that she brought pain even as she brought enjoyment? It pained me to think it was so. Something tugged at my attention, but I clung fiercely where I was. If this was as close as I could come to Molly right now, then I would take what I could and cling to it.

  No. Verity spoke firmly. Come away now. You put them in danger. Do you think they would scruple to destroy them, if they thought by doing so they could hurt and weaken you?

  Abruptly I was with Verity. He was somewhere cold and windy and dark. I tried to see more of what was around us, but he blocked my eyes. So effortlessly he had brought me here against my will, so effortlessly he closed off my vision. The strength of Skill on him was frightening. Yet I could sense he was tired, weary almost to death despite this vast power. The Skill was like a strong stallion and Verity was the fraying rope that tethers it. It pulled at him every minute and every minute he resisted it.

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