Assassins quest, p.68
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       Assassins Quest, p.68

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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Page 250

 

  Kettricken studied the glyphs I had copied from the city’s map. “I’ve seen such markings, from time to time,” she admitted uneasily. “No one truly reads them anymore. A handful of them are still known. One encounters them mostly in odd places. In a few places in the Mountains, there are raised stones that have such marks. There are some at the west end of the Great Chasm Bridge. No one knows when they were carved, or why. Some are thought to mark graves, but others say they marked land boundaries. ”

  “Can you read any of them?” I asked her.

  “A few. They are used in a challenge game. Some are stronger than others. . . . ” Her voice trailed off as she studied my scratchings. “None match exactly the ones I know,” she said at last, disappointment heavy in her voice. “This one is almost like the one for “stone. ’ But the others I have never seen at all. ”

  “Well, it’s one of the ones that was marked here. ” I tried to make my voice cheery. “Stone” conveyed nothing at all to me. “It seems closest to where we are. Shall we go there next?”

  “I would have liked to see the city,” the Fool said softly. “I should have liked to see the dragon, too. ”

  I nodded slowly. “It is a place and a thing worth seeing. Much knowledge is there, if only we had the time to ferret it out. Did not I have Verity always in my head with his “Come to me, come to me’ I think I would have been more curious to explore. ” I had said nothing to them of my dreams of Molly and Chade. Those were private things, as was my ache to be home with her again.

  “Doubtless you would have,” Kettle agreed. “And doubtless gotten yourself into more trouble that way. I wonder, did he so bind you to keep you on the road and protect you from distractions?”

  I would have challenged her again on her knowledge, had not the Fool repeated softly, “I would have liked to see the city. ”

  “We should all sleep now. We are up at first light, to travel hard tomorrow. It heartens me to think that Verity had been there before FitzChivalry, even as it fills me with foreboding. We must get to him quickly. I can no longer stand wondering each night why he never returned. ”

  “Comes the Catalyst, to make stone of flesh and flesh of stone. At his touch shall be wakened the dragons of the earth. The sleeping city shall tremble and waken to him. Comes the Catalyst. ” The Fool’s voice was dreamy.

  “The writings of White Damir,” Kettle added reverently. She looked at me and for a moment was annoyed. “Hundreds of years of writings and prophecies and they all terminate in you?”

  “Not my fault,” I said inanely. I was already rucking my way into my blankets. I thought longingly of the almost warm day I had had. The wind was blowing and I felt chilled to the bone.

  I was drowsing off when the Fool reached over to pat my face with a warm hand. “Good you’re alive,” he muttered.

  “Thank you,” I said. I was summoning up Kettle’s game board and pieces in an effort to keep my mind to myself for the night. I had just begun to contemplate the problem. Suddenly I sat up, exclaiming, “Your hand is warm! Fool! Your hand is warm!”

  “Go to sleep,” Starling chided me in an offended tone.

  I ignored her. I dragged the blanket down from the Fool’s face and touched his cheek. His eyes opened slowly. “You’re warm,” I told him. “Are you all right?”

  “I don’t feel warm,” he informed me miserably. “I feel cold. And very, very tired. ”

  I began building up the fire in the brazier hastily. Around me the others were stirring. Starling across the tent had sat up and was peering at me through the gloom.

  “The Fool is never warm,” I told them, trying to make them understand my urgency. “Always, when you touch his skin, it is cool. Now he’s warm. ”

  “Indeed?” Starling asked in an oddly sarcastic voice.

  “Is he ill?” Kettle asked tiredly.

  “I don’t know. I’ve never known him to be ill in my whole life. ”

  “I am seldom ill,” the Fool corrected me quietly. “But this is a fever I have known before. Lie down and sleep, Fitz. I’ll be all right. I expect the fever will have burned out by morning. ”

  “Whether it has or not, we must travel tomorrow morning,” Kettricken said implacably. “We have already lost a day lingering here. ”

  “Lost a day?” I exclaimed, almost angrily. “Gained a map, or more detail for one, and knowledge that Verity had been to the city. For myself, I doubt not that he went there as I did, and perhaps returned to this very spot. We have not lost a day, Kettricken, but gained all the days it would have taken us to find a way down to what remains of the road down there and then tramp to the city. And back again. As I recall, you had proposed spending a day just to seek for a way down that slide. Well, we did, and we found the way. ” I paused. I took a breath and imposed calm on my voice. “I will not seek to force any of you to my will. But if the Fool is not well enough to travel tomorrow, I shall not travel either. ”

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  A glint came into Kettricken’s eyes, and I braced myself for battle. But the Fool forestalled it. “I shall travel tomorrow, well or not,” he assured us both.

  “That’s settled, then,” Kettricken said swiftly. Then, in a more humane voice she asked, “Fool, is there anything I can do for you? I would not use you so harshly, were not the need so great. I have not forgotten, and never shall, that without you I would never have reached Jhaampe alive. ”

  I sensed a story I was not privy to, but kept my questions to myself.

  “I will be fine. I am just . . . Fitz? Could I beg some elfbark of you? That warmed me last night as nothing else has. ”

  “Certainly. ” I was rummaging in my pack for it when Kettle spoke out warningly.

  “Fool, I counsel you against it. It is a dangerous herb, and almost often more damaging than good. Who knows but you are ill tonight because you had some night before last?”

  “It is not that potent an herb,” I said disdainfully. “I’ve used it for a number of years, and taken no lasting ill from it. ”

  Kettle gave a snort. “None that you are wise enough to see, anyway,” she said sarcastically. “But it is a warming herb that gives energy to the flesh, even if it is deadening to the spirit. ”

  “I always found it restored me rather than deadened me,” I countered as I found the small packet and opened it. Without my asking her, Kettle got up to put water on to boil. “I never noticed it dulling my mind,” I added.

  “The one taking it seldom does,” she retorted. “And while it may boost your physical energy for a time, you must always pay for it later. Your body is not to be tricked, young man. You will know that better when you are as old as I. ”

  I fell silent. As I thought back over the times I had used elfbark to restore myself, I had the uncomfortable suspicion that she was at least partly right. But my suspicion was not enough to keep me from brewing two cups rather than just one. Kettle shook her head at me, but lay back down and said no more. I sat beside the Fool as we drank our tea. When he handed me back the empty mug, his hand seemed warmer, not cooler.

  “Your fever is rising,” I warned him.

  “No. It is just the heat of the mug on my skin,” he suggested.

  I ignored him. “You are shaking all over. ”

  “A bit,” he admitted. Then his misery broke though and he said, “I am cold as I have never been before. My back and my jaws ache from shaking with it. ”

  Flank him, suggested Nighteyes. The big wolf shifted to press more closely against him. I added my blankets to those covering the Fool and then crawled in beside him. He said not a word but his shivering lessened somewhat.

  “I can’t recall that you were ever ill at Buckkeep,” I said quietly.

  “I was. But very seldom, and I kept to myself. As you recall, the healer had little tolerance for me, and I for him. I would not have trusted my health to his purges and tonics. Besi
de. What works for your kind sometimes does nothing for mine. ”

  “Is your kind so vastly different from mine?” I asked after a time. He had brought us close to a topic we had seldom even mentioned.

  “In some ways,” he sighed. He lifted a hand to his brow. “But sometimes I surprise even myself. ” He took a breath, then sighed it out as if he had endured some pain for an instant. “I may not even be truly ill. I have been going through some changes in the past year. As you have noticed. ” He added the last in a whisper.

  “You have grown, and gathered color,” I agreed softly.

  “That is a part of it. ” A smile twitched over his face, then faded. “I think I am almost an adult now. ”

  I snorted softly. “I have counted you as a man for many years, Fool. I think you found your manhood before I did mine. ”

  “Did I? How droll!” he exclaimed softly, and for a moment sounded almost like himself. His eyes sagged shut. “I am going to sleep now,” he told me.

  I made no reply. I shouldered deeper into the blankets beside him and set my walls once more. I sank into a dreamless rest that was not cautionless sleep.

  I awoke before first light with a foreboding of danger. Beside me, the Fool slept heavily. I touched his face, and found it warm still and misted with sweat. I rolled away from him, tucking the blankets in tight around him. I added a twig or two of precious fuel to the brazier and began drawing my clothes on quietly. Nighteyes was immediately alert.

  Going out?

  Just to sniff about.

  Shall I come?

  Keep the Fool warm. I won’t be long.

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  Are you sure you’ll be all right?

  I’ll be very careful. I promise.

  The cold was like a slap. The darkness, absolute. After a moment or two, my eyes adjusted but even so I could see little more than the tent itself. An overcast had blotted the stars even. I stood still in the icy wind, straining my senses to find what had disturbed me. It was not the Skill but my Wit that quested out into the darkness for me. I sensed our party, and the hunger of the huddled jeppas. Grain alone would not keep them long. Another worry. Resolutely I set it aside and pushed my senses further. I stiffened. Horses? Yes. And riders? I thought so. Nighteyes was suddenly beside me.

  Can you scent them?

  The wind is wrong. Shall I go see?

  Yes. But be unseen.

  Of course. See to the Fool. He whimpered when I left him.

  In the tent, I quietly woke Kettricken. “I think there may be danger,” I told her softly. “Horses and riders, possibly on the road behind us. I’m not certain yet. ”

  “By the time we are certain, they will be here,” she said dourly. “Wake everyone. I want us up and ready to move by light. ”

  “The Fool is still feverish,” I said, even as I stooped and shook Starling’s shoulder.

  “If he stays here, he won’t be feverish, he’ll be dead. And you with him. Has the wolf gone to spy for us?”

  “Yes. ” I knew she was right, but it was still hard to force myself to shake the Fool to consciousness. He moved like a man in a daze. While the others bundled our gear, I hurried him into his coat and nagged him into an extra pair of leggings. I wrapped him in all our blankets and stood him outside while the rest of us struck the tent and loaded it. Of Kettricken I asked quietly, “How much weight can a jeppa bear?”

  “More than the Fool weighs. But they are too narrow to straddle comfortably, and they are skittish with a live load. We might put him on one for a ways, but it would be uncomfortable for him and the jeppa would be difficult to control. ”

  It was the answer I had expected, but it did not make me happy.

  “What news from the wolf?” she asked me.

  I reached for Nighteyes, and was dismayed to find what an effort it was to touch minds with him. “Six riders,” I told her.

  “Friend or foe?” she asked.

  “He has no way to know,” I pointed out to her. To the wolf I asked, How do the horses look?

  Delicious.

  Large, like Sooty? Or small, like Mountain horses?

  Between. One pack mule.

  “They are on horses, not Mountain ponies,” I told Kettricken.

  She shook her head to herself. “Most of my folk do not use horses this high in the Mountains. They would use ponies, or jeppas. Let us decide they are enemies and act accordingly. ”

  “Run or fight?”

  “Both, of course. ”

  She had already taken her bow from one of the jeppa’s loads. Now she strung it to have it ready. “First we look for a better place to stage an ambush. Then we wait. Let’s go. ”

  It was easier said than done. Only the smoothness of the road made it possible at all. Light was only a rumor as we started that day. Starling led the jeppas ahead. I brought the Fool behind them, while Kettle with her staff and Kettricken with her bow followed us. At first I let the Fool try to walk on his own. He lurched slowly along, and as the jeppas drew inexorably away from us, I knew it would not do. I put his left arm across my shoulders and my arm about his waist and hurried him along. In a short time he was panting and struggling to keep his feet from dragging. The unnatural warmth of his body was frightening. Cruelly, I forced him on, praying for cover of some sort.

  When we came to it, it was not the kindness of trees, but the cruelty of sharp stone. A great portion of the mountain above the road had given way and cascaded down. It had carried off more than half the road with it, and left what remained heaped high with stone and earth. Starling and the jeppas were looking at it dubiously when the Fool and I limped up. I set him down on a stone, where he sat, eyes closed and head bowed. I pulled the blankets more closely around him, and then went to stand by Starling.

  “It’s an old slide,” she observed. “Maybe it won’t be that hard to scramble across it. ”

  “Maybe,” I agreed, my eyes already looking for a place to attempt it. Snow overlaid the stone, cloaking it. “If I go first, with the jeppas, can you follow with the Fool?”

  “I suppose. ” She glanced over at him. “How bad is she?”

  There was only worry in Starling’s voice, so I swallowed my annoyance. “He can stagger along, if he has an arm to lean on. Don’t start to follow until the last animal is up and moving across it. Then follow our tracks. ”

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  Starling bobbed her head in agreement but did not look happy.

  “Shouldn’t we wait for Kettricken and Kettle?”

  I thought. “No. If those riders do catch up with us, I don’t want to be here with stone at my back. We cross the slide. ”

  I wished the wolf were with us, for he was twice as surefooted as I and much quicker of reflex.

  Can’t come to you without their seeing me. It’s sheer rock above and below the road here, and they are between you and me.

  Don’t fret about it. Just watch them and keep me alerted. Do they travel swiftly?

  They walk their horses and argue much among themselves. One is fat and weary of riding. He says little but he does not hasten. Be careful, my brother.

  I took a deep breath, and, as no place looked better than any other, simply followed my nose. At first there was just a scattering of loose stone across the road, but beyond that was a wall of great boulders, rocky soil, and loose sharp-edged stone. I picked my way up this treacherous footing. The lead jeppa followed me and the others came behind her unquestioningly. I soon found that blowing snow had frozen across the rocks in thin sheets, often covering hollows and cracks beneath them. I stepped carelessly on one and thrust my leg down to my knee in a crack. I extricated myself carefully and proceeded.

  When I took a moment and looked around me my courage almost failed. Above was a great slope of slide debris going up to a sheer wall of rock. I walked on a hillside of loose rock and stone. Looking ahead, I could not see
where it ended. If it gave way, I would tumble and slide with it to the edge of the road and shoot off it into the deep valley beyond. There would be nothing, not a twig of greenery, not a boulder of any size that I could cling to. Small things became suddenly frightening. The jeppa’s nervous tugging at the lead rope I clutched, a sudden shift in the push of the breeze, even my hair blowing in my eyes were abruptly life-threatening. Twice I dropped to all fours and crawled. The rest of the way, I went at a crouch, looking before I placed a foot and trusting my weight to it slowly.

  Behind me came the line of jeppas, all following the lead beast. They were not as cautious as I. I heard stone shift beneath them, and small scatterings of rock that they loosened went pebbling and bounding down the slope, to shoot off in space. Each time it happened, I feared it would waken other rocks and set them sliding. They were not roped together, save for the lead I had on the first beast. At any moment I dreaded to see one go slipping down the hillside. They were strung out behind me like corks on a net, and far behind them came Starling and the Fool. I stopped once to watch them and cursed myself as I realized the difficulty of the task I had given her. They came at half my crawling pace, with Starling gripping the Fool and watching footing for both of them. My heart was in my mouth when she stumbled once and the Fool sprawled flat beside her. She looked up then and saw me staring back at her. Angrily she lifted an arm and motioned to me to go on. I did. There was nothing else I could do.

  The dump of rock and stone ended as abruptly as it had begun. I scrabbled down to the road’s flat surface with gratitude. Behind me came the lead jeppa, and then the other beasts, jumping from scarp to rock to road like goats as they descended. As soon as they were all down, I scattered some grain on the road to keep them well bunched and clambered back up the slide’s shoulder.

  I could see neither Starling nor the Fool.

  I wanted to run back across the face of the slide. Instead I forced myself to go slowly, picking my way back along the tracks the jeppas and I had left. I told myself that I should be able to see their brightly colored garments in this dull landscape of grays and blacks and whites. And finally I did. Starling was sitting quite still in a patch of scree with the Fool stretched out beside her on the stones.

  “Starling!” I called to her softly.

 
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