Assassins quest, p.64
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       Assassins Quest, p.64

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
The road wound up and up. The mountain itself rose nearly sheer on our left, and dropped off as abruptly on our right. This road went where no sane builders would have placed it. Most trade routes meandered between hills and over passes. This one traversed the face of a mountain, carrying us ever higher. By the time the day was fading, we had fallen far behind the others. Nighteyes raced ahead of us and then came trotting back to report that they had come to a resting place, wide and level, where they were setting up the tent. With the coming of night, the mountain winds bit more fiercely. I was glad to think of warmth and rest, and persuaded Kettle to try to hurry.

  “Hurry?” she asked. “You are the one who keeps slowing. Keep up, now. ”

  The last march before rest always seems longest. So the soldiers of Buckkeep always told me. But that night I felt we waded through cold syrup, so heavy did my feet seem. I think I kept pausing. I know that several times Kettle tugged at my arm and told me to come along. Even when we rounded a fold in the mountainside and saw the lit tent ahead of us, I could not seem to make myself move faster. As if in a fever dream, my eyes brought the tent closer to me, and then set it afar. I plodded on. Multitudes whispered around me. The night dimmed my eyes. I had to squint to see in the cold wind. A crowd streamed past us on the road, laden donkeys, laughing girls carrying baskets of bright yarn. I turned to watch a bell merchant pass us. He carried a rack high on his shoulder, and dozens of brass bells of every shape and tone jingled and rang as he walked along. I tugged at Kettle’s arm to bid her turn and see it, but she only seized my hand in a grip of iron and hurried me on. A boy strode past us, going down to the village with a basketful of bright mountain flowers. Their fragrance was intoxicating. I pulled free of Kettle’s grip. I hurried after him, to buy a few for Molly to scent her candles.

  “Help me!” Kettle called. I looked to see what was the matter, but she was not by me. I couldn’t find her in the crowd.

  “Kettle!” I called. I glanced back but then realized I was losing the flowermonger. “Wait!” I called to him.

  “He’s getting away!” she cried, and there was fear and desperation in her voice.

  Nighteyes suddenly hit me from behind, his front paws striking my shoulders. His weight and speed threw me face-first on the thin layer of snow covering the road’s smooth surface. Despite my mittens, I skinned the palms of my hands and the pain in my knees was like fire. “Idiot!” I snarled at him and tried to rise, but he caught me by one ankle and flipped me down onto the road again. This time I could look down over the edge into the abyss below. My pain and astonishment had stilled the night, the folk had all vanished, leaving me alone with the wolf.

  “Nighteyes!” I protested. “Let me up!”

  Instead he seized my wrist in his jaws, clamped his teeth down and began to drag me on my knees away from the road’s edge. I had not known he had such strength, or rather, I had never supposed it would be turned on me. I swatted at him ineffectually with my free hand, all the while yelling and trying to get to my feet. I could feel blood running on my arm where one tooth had sunk in.

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  Kettricken and the Fool suddenly flanked me, seizing me by my upper arms and hoisting me to my feet. “He’s gone mad!” I exclaimed as Starling raced up behind them. Her face was white, her eyes huge.

  “Oh, wolf,” she exclaimed, and dropped to one knee to give him a hug. Nighteyes sat panting, obviously enjoying her embrace.

  “What is the matter with you?” I demanded of him. He looked up at me, but did not reply.

  My first reaction was a stupid one. I lifted my hands to my ears. But that had never been how I had heard Nighteyes. He whined as I did so, and I heard that clearly. It was just a dog’s whine. “Nighteyes!” I cried. He reared up to stand on his hind legs, his front paws on my chest. He was so big he could almost look me in the eye. I caught an echo of his worry and desperation, but no more than that. I quested out toward him with my Wit-sense. I could not find him. I could not sense any of them. It was as if they had all been Forged.

  I looked around at their frightened faces and realized they were talking, no, almost shouting, something about the edge of the road and the black column and what was the matter, what was the matter? For the first time it struck me how ungainly speech was. All of those separate words, strung together, every voice mouthing them differently, and this was how we communicated with each other. “Fitz, fitz, fitz,” they shouted, my name, meaning me, I suppose, but each voice sounding the word differently, and each with a different image of whom they spoke to and why they needed to speak to me. The words were such awkward things, I could not concentrate on what they were trying to convey by them. It was like dealing with foreign traders, pointing and holding up fingers, smiling or frowning, and guessing, always guessing at what the other truly meant.

  “Please,” I said. “Hush. Please!” I only wanted them to be silent, to stop their noises and mouthings. But the sound of my own words caught my attention. “Please,” I said again, marveling at all the ways my mouth must move to make that inexact sound. “Hush!” I said again, and realized the word meant too many things to have any real meaning at all.

  Once, when I was very new to Burrich, he had told me to unharness a team. It was when we were still getting a measure of one another, and no task any sane man would give a child. But I managed, climbing all over the docile beasts, and unfastening every shining buckle and clasp until the harness lay in pieces on the ground. When he came to see what was taking me so long, Burrich had been mutely astounded but unable to fault that I had done what he had told me to do. As for me, I had been amazed at how many pieces there were to something that had seemed to be all one thing when I had started in on it.

  So it was for me then. All these sounds to make a word, all these words to frame a thought. Language came apart in my hands. I had never stopped to consider it before. I stood before them, so drenched in the Skill-essence on that road that speech seemed as childishly awkward as eating porridge with one’s fingers. Words were slow and inexact, hiding as much meaning as they revealed. “Fitz, please, you have to . . . ” began Kettricken, and so engrossed did I become in considering every possible meaning those five words might have that I never heard the rest of what she said.

  The Fool took hold of my hand and led me into the tent. He pushed at me until I sat down, and took off my hat and mittens and outer coat. Without a word, he put a hot mug into my hands. That I could understand, but the rapid, worried conversation of the others was like the frightened squawking of a coop full of chickens. The wolf came and lay down beside me, to rest his big head on one of my thighs. I reached down to stroke the broad skull and finger the soft ears. He pressed closer against me as if pleading. I scratched him behind the ears, thinking that might be what he wanted. It was terrible not to know.

  I was not much use to anyone that evening. I tried to do my share of the chores, but the others kept taking them out of my hands. Several times I was pinched, or poked and bid “Wake up!” by Kettle. One time I became so fascinated by the motion of her mouth as she scolded me that I didn’t realize when she walked away from me. I don’t remember what I was doing when the back of my neck was seized in her clawlike grip. She dragged my head forward and kept her hold while she tapped each stone in turn on her gamecloth. She put a black stone in my hand. For a time I just stared at the markers. Then suddenly I felt that shift in perception. There was no space between me and the game. For a time I tried my pebble in various positions. I finally found the perfect move, and when I set my stone in place, it was as if my ears had suddenly cleared, or like blinking sleep from my eyes. I lifted my eyes to consider those around me.

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  “Sorry,” I muttered inadequately. “Sorry. ”

  “Better now?” Kettle asked me softly. She spoke as if I were a toddler.

  “I’m more myself now,” I told her. I looked up at her, suddenly desperate. “Wha
t happened to me?”

  “The Skill,” she said simply. “You just aren’t strong enough in it. You nearly followed the road where it no longer goes. There is some sort of marker there, and once the road diverged there, one track going down into the valley and the other continuing across the mountainside. The downhill path is sheared off, carried away in a cataclysm years ago. There is nothing but tumbled stone at the bottom, but one can just see where the road emerges from the ruin and continues. It vanishes in another jumble of stone in the distance. Verity could not have gone there. But you nearly followed its memory to your death. ” She paused and looked at me severely. “In my days . . . you haven’t been trained enough to do what you’ve been doing, let alone face this challenge. If this is the best you were taught . . . Are you certain Verity is alive?” she suddenly demanded of me. “That he survived this trial alone?”

  I decided one of us had to stop keeping secrets. “I saw him, in a Skill dream. In a city, with folk such as we passed today. He laved his hands and arms in a magic river, and walked away laden with power. ”

  “God of fishes!” Kettle swore. Something of horror and something of awe lit in her face.

  “We passed no folk today,” Starling objected. I had not been aware she had seated herself by me until she spoke. I jumped, startled that someone could get that close to me and I had not sensed it.

  “All those who have ever trodden this road have left something of themselves upon it. Your senses are muffled to those ghosts, but Fitz walks here naked as a newborn child. And as naive. ” Kettle leaned back suddenly against her bedroll, and all the lines in her face deepened. “How can such a child be the Catalyst?” she asked of no one in particular. “You don’t know how to save yourself from yourself. How are you going to save the world?”

  The Fool leaned over from his bedroll suddenly to take my hand. Something like strength flowed into me with that reassuring touch. His tone was light, but his words sank into me. “Competence was never guaranteed in the prophecies. Only persistence. What does your White Colum say? “They come like raindrops against the stone towers of time. But in time it is always the rain that prevails, not the tower. ’ ” He gave my hand a squeeze.

  “Your fingers are like ice,” I told him as he let go.

  “I am cold past belief,” he agreed with me. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. “Cold and tired. But persistent. ”

  I lifted my eyes from him to find Starling with a knowing smile on her face. Gods, how it irked me. “I have elfbark in my pack,” I suggested to the Fool. “It gives warmth as well as strength. ”

  “Elfbark,” Kettle scowled, as if it were disgusting. But after a moment’s reflection, she said excitedly, “Actually, that might be a good idea. Yes. Elfbark tea. ”

  When I took the drug out of my pack, Kettle snatched it out of my hands as if I might cut myself on it. She muttered to herself as she measured tiny portions of it into mugs for us. “I’ve seen what kind of doses you expose yourself to,” she chided me, and brewed the tea herself. She put none of it in the tea she prepared for Kettricken, Starling, and herself.

  I sipped at my hot tea, tasting first the acrid bite of the elfbark and then the warmth of it in my belly. Its enervating heat spread through me. I watched the Fool, and saw him relax in its embrace, even as his eyes began to sparkle with it.

  Kettricken had her map out and was frowning over it. “FitzChivalry, study this with me,” the Queen suddenly commanded. I moved around the brazier to sit next to her. I was scarcely settled before she began. “I believe we are here,” she told me. Her finger tapped the first juncture of the trail that was marked on the map. “Verity said he would visit all three places that were marked on the map. I believe that when this map was made, the road that you nearly followed tonight was intact. Now it is no longer there. And has not been there for some time. ” Her blue eyes met mine. “What do you suppose Verity did when he reached this point?”

  I considered a moment. “He’s a pragmatic man. This other, second destination looks no more than three or four days from here. I think he might go there first, seeking the Elderlings there. And this third one is but, oh, seven days past there. I think he would decide it would be fastest to visit those two places first. Then, if he had no success there, he might return here, to try and find a way down to . . . whatever’s there. ”

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  She wrinkled her brow. I suddenly recalled how smooth it had been when she was first his bride. Now I seldom saw her without lines of care and worry in her face. “He has been gone long, my husband. Yet it did not take us all that long to reach here. Perhaps he has not yet returned because he is down there. Because it took him so long to find a way down there to continue his journey. ”

  “Perhaps,” I agreed uneasily. “Bear in mind that we are well supplied and travel together. By the time Verity reached this far, he would have been alone, and with few resources. ” I refrained from telling Kettricken that I suspected he had been injured in that last battle. There was no sense in giving her more anxiety. Against my will, I felt a part of me groping out toward Verity. I shut my eyes and resolutely sealed myself in again. Had I imagined a taint upon the Skill-current, a too-familiar feeling of insidious power? I set my walls again.

  “. . . split the party?”

  “I beg pardon, my queen,” I said humbly.

  I did not know if the look in her eyes was exasperation or fear. She took my hand and held it firmly. “Attend me,” she commanded. “I said, tomorrow we shall seek a way down. If we see anything that looks promising, we will attempt it. But I think we should give such a search no more than three days. If we find nothing, we should move on. But an alternative is to split the party. To send . . . ”

  “I do not think we should split the party,” I said hastily.

  “You are most likely correct,” she conceded. “But it takes so long, so very long, and I have been alone with my questions too long. ”

  I could think of nothing to say to that, so I pretended to be busy rubbing Nighteyes’ ears.

  My brother. It was a whisper, no more, but I looked down at Nighteyes beside me. I rested a hand on his ruff, strengthening the bond with a touch. You were as empty as an ordinary human. I could not make you even feel me.

  I know. I don’t know what happened to me.

  I do. You are moving ever farther from my side to the other side. I fear you will go too far and be unable to return. I feared it had already happened today.

  What do you mean, my side, and the other side?

  “Can you hear the wolf again?” Kettricken asked me worriedly. I was surprised, when I looked up, to see how anxiously she regarded me.

  “Yes. We are together again,” I told her. A thought occurred to me. “How did you know we were unable to communicate?”

  She shrugged. “I suppose I assumed it. He seemed so anxious and you seemed so distant from everyone. ”

  She has the Wit. Don’t you, my queen?

  I can not say for certain that something passed between them. Once, long before in Buckkeep, I thought I had sensed Kettricken using the Wit. I suppose she well could have been using it then, for my own sense of it was so diminished I could scarce sense my own bond-animal. In any case Nighteyes lifted his head to look at her and she returned his gaze steadily. With a small frown, Kettricken added, “Sometimes I wish I could speak to him as you do. Had I his speed and stealth at my disposal, I could be more certain of the safety of the road, both before us and behind. He might be able to find a path down, one not apparent to our eyes. ”

  If you can keep your Wits about you enough to tell her what I see, I would not mind doing such a task.

  “Nighteyes would be most pleased to help you in such a way, my queen,” I offered.

  She gave a weary smile. “Then, I suppose, if you can keep aware of both of us, you may serve as go-between. ”

  Her eerie echo
ing of the wolf’s thought unsettled me, but I only nodded my assent. Every aspect of conversation now demanded my complete attention, or it slipped away from me. It was like being horribly tired and having to constantly fight off sleep. I wondered if it was this hard for Verity.

  There is a way to ride it, but lightly, lightly, like mastering an ill-tempered stallion who rebels against every touch of the rein or heel. But you are not ready to do so yet. So fight it, boy, and keep your head above water. I would that there were another way for you to come to me. But there is only the road, and you must follow it. —No, make no reply to me. Know that there are others that listen avariciously if not as keenly as I. Be wary.

  Once, in describing my father, Chivalry, Verity had said that when he Skilled it was like being trampled by a horse, that Chivalry would rush into his mind, dump out his messages, and flee. I now had a better understanding of what my uncle had meant. I felt rather like a fish suddenly deserted by a wave. There was that gaping sense of something missing in the instant after Verity’s departure. It took me a moment to remember I was a person. Had I not been fortified already with the elfbark, I think I might have fainted. As it was, the drug was increasing its hold on me. I had a sense of being muffled in a warm soft blanket. My weariness was gone, but I felt muted. I finished the little that was left in my cup and waited for the flush of energy that elfbark usually gave me. It didn’t come.

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  “I don’t think you used enough,” I told Kettle.

  “You have had plenty,” she said with asperity. She sounded like Molly did when she thought I was drinking too much. I braced myself, expecting images of Molly to fill my mind. But I stayed within my own life. I do not know if I felt relieved or disappointed. I longed to see her and Nettle. But Verity had warned me. . . . Belatedly I announced to Kettricken, “Verity Skilled to me. Just now. ” Then I cursed myself as a churl and a lackwit as I saw the hope flush her face. “It was not really a message,” I amended hastily. “Just a warning reminder to me that I am to avoid Skilling. He still believes there may be others seeking me that way. ”

  Her face fell. She shook her head to herself. Then she looked up to demand, “He had no word at all for me?”

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