Assassins quest, p.71
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       Assassins Quest, p.71

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  It was next to impossible. I looked at the white stones and thought it all a stupid task. What players could be so clumsy and shortsighted as to let the game degrade into such a clutter of white stones? It was not a problem worth solving. But neither could I lie down and sleep. I scarcely dared blink lest I see that eye again. Had it been Regal’s whole countenance or both his eyes it would not perhaps have seemed so awful. But the disembodied eye seemed all-seeing and constant, inescapable. I stared at the game pieces until the white stones seemed to float above the junctures of the lines. One black stone, to bring a winning pattern out of this chaos. One black stone. I held it in my hand, rubbing it with my thumb.

  All the next day, as we followed the road down the mountain’s flank, I held the stone in my bare hand. My other arm was about the Fool’s waist, his arm around my neck. These two things kept my mind focused.

  The Fool seemed somewhat better. His body was no longer feverish, but he seemed unable to stomach food or even tea. Kettle forced water on him until he simply sat and refused it, shaking his head wordlessly. He seemed as indisposed to talk as I was. Starling and Kettle with her staff led our weary little procession. The Fool and I followed the jeppas, while Kettricken with her bow strung kept our rear guarded. The wolf prowled restlessly up and down the line, now ranging ahead, now loping up our back trail.

  Nighteyes and I had gone back to a sort of wordless bond. He understood that I did not wish to think at all, and did his best not to distract me. It was still unnerving to sense him trying to use the Wit to communicate with Kettricken. No sign of anyone behind us, he would tell her as he trotted past on one of his endless trips. Then he would go ranging far ahead of the jeppas and Starling, only to come back to Kettricken and assure her in passing that all was clear ahead of us. I tried to tell myself that she merely had faith that Nighteyes would let me know if he found anything amiss on his scouting trips. But I suspected she was becoming more and more attuned to him.

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  The road led us very swiftly downward. As we descended the land changed. By late afternoon, the slope above the road was gentling and we began to pass twisted trees and mossy boulders. Snow faded and became patchy on the hillside while the road was dry and black. Dry tufts of grass showed green at their bases just off the shoulder of the road. It was hard to make the hungry jeppas keep moving. I made a vague Wit-effort to let them know that there would be better browsing ahead, but I doubt that I had enough familiarity with them to make any lasting impression on them. I tried to limit my thoughts to the fact that firewood would be more plentiful tonight, and to gratitude that the lower the road carried us the warmer grew the day.

  At one time, the Fool made a gesture to a low growing plant that had tiny white buds on it. “It would be spring in Buckkeep by now,” he said in a low voice, and then added quickly, “I’m sorry. Pay no attention to me, I’m sorry. ”

  “Are you feeling any better?” I asked him, resolutely thrusting spring flowers and bees and Molly’s candles out of my mind.

  “A little. ” His voice shook and he took a quick breath. “I wish we could walk more slowly. ”

  “We’ll camp soon,” I told him, knowing that we could not slow our pace now. I felt a growing urgency and had developed the notion it came from Verity. I pushed that name, too, from my mind. Even walking down the wide road in daylight, I feared that Regal’s eye was only a blink away and that if I glimpsed it they would once more hold me under their power. For an instant I hoped Carrod and Will and Burl were cold and hungry, but then realized I could not safely think of them, either.

  “You were sick like this before,” I observed to the Fool, mostly to think of something else.

  “Yes. In Blue Lake. My lady queen spent the food money on a room that I might be in out of the rain. ” He turned his head to stare at me. “Do you think that might have caused it?”

  “Caused what?”

  “Her child to be stillborn . . . ”

  His voice dwindled off. I tried to think of words. “I don’t think it was any one thing, Fool. She simply suffered too many misfortunes while she was carrying the babe. ”

  “Burrich should have gone with her and left me. He would have taken better care of her. I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. . . . ”

  “Then I’d be dead,” I pointed out. “Among other things. Fool, there is no sense in trying to play that game with the past. Here is where we are today, and we can only make our moves from here. ”

  And in that instant, I suddenly perceived the solution to Kettle’s game problem. It was so instantly clear that I wondered how I could not have seen it. Then I knew. Each time I had studied the board, I wondered how it could have got into such a sorry condition. All I had seen were the senseless moves that had preceded mine. But those moves had no longer mattered, once I held the black stone in my hand. A half-smile crooked my lips. My thumb rubbed the black stone.

  “Where we are today,” the Fool echoed, and I felt his mood shadow mine.

  “Kettricken said that you might not truly be ill. That it might be . . . peculiar to your kind. ” I was uncomfortable coming even that close to a question regarding this.

  “It could be. I suppose. Look. ” He drew off his mitten, then reached up, and dragged his nails down his cheek. Dry white trails followed them. He rubbed at it and the skin powdered away beneath his hands. On the back of his hand, the skin was peeling as if it had been blistered.

  “It’s like a sunburn peeling away. Do you think it’s the weather you’ve been in?”

  “That, too, is possible. Save that if it is like last time, I shall itch and peel over every bit of my body. And gain a bit more color in the process. Are my eyes changing?”

  I obliged him by meeting his gaze. Familiar as I was with him, it was still not an easy task. Had those colorless orbs darkened a trifle more? “Perhaps they are a bit darker. No more than ale held up to the light. What will happen to you? Will you continue to have fevers and gain color?”

  “Perhaps. I don’t know,” he admitted after a few moments had passed.

  “How could you not know?” I demanded. “What were your elders like?”

  “Like you, foolish boy. Human. Somewhere back in my bloodline, there was a White. In me, as rarely happens, that ancient blood is given form again. But I am no more White than I am human. Did you think that one such as I was common to my people? I have told you. I am an anomaly, even among those who share my mixed lineage. Did you think White Prophets were born every generation? We would not be taken so seriously if we were. No. Within my lifetime, I am the only White Prophet. ”

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  “But could not your teachers, with all those records you said they kept, tell you anything of what to expect?”

  He smiled, but bitterness was in his voice. “My teachers were too certain that they knew what to expect. They planned to pace my learning, to reveal what they thought I should know when they thought I should know it. When my prophecies were different from what they had planned, they were not pleased with me. They tried to interpret my own words for me! There have been other White Prophets, you see. But when I tried to make them see that I was the White Prophet, they could not accept it. Writing after writing they showed to me, to try to convince me of my effrontery in insisting on such a thing. But the more I read, the more my certainty grew. I tried to tell them my time was nearly upon me. All they could counsel was that I should wait and study more to be certain. We were not on the best terms when I left. I imagine they were quite startled to find I was gone so young from them, even though I had prophesied it for years. ” He gave me a strangely apologetic smile. “Perhaps if I had stayed to complete my schooling, we would know better how to save the world. ”

  I felt a sudden sinking in the pit of my stomach. So much had I come to rely on a belief that the Fool, at least, knew what we were about. “How much do you truly know of what is to come?

  He took a deep breath, then sighed it out. “Only that we do it together, Fitzy-fitz. Only that we do it together. ”

  “I thought you had studied all those writings and prophecies. . . . ”

  “I did. And when I was younger, I dreamed many dreams, and even had visions. But it is as I have told you before; nothing is a precise fit. Look you, Fitz. If I showed you wool and a loom and a set of shears, would you look at it and say, Oh, that is the coat I will someday wear? But once you have the coat on, it is easy to look back and say, Oh, those things foretold this coat. ”

  “What is the good of it, then?” I demanded in disgust.

  “The good of it?” he echoed. “Ah. I have never quite thought of it in those terms before. The good of it. ”

  We walked for a time in silence. I could see what an effort it was for him to keep to the pace, and wished vainly there had been a way to keep one of the horses and get it past the slide area.

  “Can you read weather sign, Fitz? Or animal tracks?”

  “Some, for weather. I am better at animal tracks. ”

  “But in either one, are you always sure you are right?”

  “Never. You don’t really know until the next day dawns, or you bring the beast to bay. ”

  “So it is with my reading of the future. I never know . . . Please, let us stop, even if for only a bit. I need to get my breath, and take a sip of water. ”

  I obliged him reluctantly. There was a mossy boulder just off the road, and he seated himself there. Not too far from the road were evergreens of a type I did not know. It rested my eyes to look on trees again. I left the road to sit beside him, and was instantly aware of a difference. As subtle as bees’ humming was the working of the road, but when it suddenly ceased, I felt it. I yawned to pop my ears, and suddenly felt more clearheaded.

  “Years ago I had a vision,” the Fool observed. He drank a bit more water, then passed the skin to me. “I saw a black buck rising from a bed of shining black stone. When first I saw the black walls of Buckkeep rising over the waters, I said to myself, “Ah, that is what that meant!’ Now I see a young bastard whose sigil is a buck walking on a road wrought from black stone. Maybe that is what the dream signified. I don’t know. But my dream was duly recorded, and someday, in years to come, wise men will agree as to what it signified. Probably after both you and I are long dead. ”

  I asked a question that had long prickled me. “Kettle says there is a prophecy about my child . . . the child of the Catalyst. . . . ”

  “That there is,” the Fool confirmed calmly.

  “Then you think Molly and I are doomed to lose Nettle to the throne of the Six Duchies?”

  “Nettle. You know, I like her name. Very much, I do. ”

  “You did not answer my question, Fool. ”

  “Ask me again in twenty years. These things are so much easier when one looks back. ” The sideways glance he gave me told me he would say no more on that topic. I tried a new tack.

  “So you came, all that way, so that the Six Duchies would not fall to the Red Ships. ”

  He gave me an odd look, then grinned as if astonished. “Is that how you see it? That we do all this to save your Six Duchies?” When I nodded, he shook his head. “Fitz, Fitz. I came to save the world. The Six Duchies falling to the Red Ships is but the first pebble in the avalanche. ” He took another deep breath. “I know the Red Ships seem disaster enough to you, but the misery they make to your folk is no more than a pimple on the world’s buttocks. Were that all, were it simply one set of barbarians seizing land from another, it would be no more than the ordinary working of the world. No. They are the first stain of poison spreading in a stream. Fitz, do I dare tell you this? If we fail, the spread is fast. Forging takes root as a custom, nay, as an amusement for the high ones. Look at Regal and his “King’s Justice. ’ He has succumbed to it already. He pleasures his body with drugs and deadens his soul with his savage amusements. Aye, and spreads the disease to those around him, until they take no satisfaction in a contest of skill that draws no blood, until games are only amusing if lives are wagered on the outcome. The very coinage of life becomes debased. Slavery spreads, for if it is accepted to take a man’s life for amusement, then how much wiser to take it for profit?”

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  His voice had grown in strength and passion as he spoke. Now he caught his breath suddenly and leaned forward over his knees. I set a hand on his shoulder, but he only shook his head. After a moment, he straightened. “I declare, talking to you is more wearying than hiking. Take me at my word, Fitz. As bad as the Red Ships are, they are amateurs and experimenters. I have seen visions of what the world becomes in the cycle when they prosper. I vow it shall not be this cycle. ”

  He heaved himself to his feet with a sigh and crooked out his arm. I took it and we resumed our walking. He had given me much to think about, and I spoke little. I took advantage of the gentling countryside to walk alongside the road rather than upon it. The Fool did not complain of the uneven ground.

  As the road plunged ever deeper into the valley, the day warmed and the foliage increased. By evening, the terrain had mellowed so much that we were able to pitch the tent, not only off the road, but quite a distance from the road. Before bedtime, I showed Kettle my solution to her game, and she nodded as if well pleased. She immediately began to set out a new puzzle. I stopped her.

  “I do not think I will need that tonight. I am looking forward to truly sleeping. ”

  “Are you? Then you shouldn’t look forward to waking up again. ”

  I looked shocked.

  She resumed setting out her pieces. “You are one against three, and those three a coterie,” she observed more gently. “And possibly those three are four. If Regal’s brothers could Skill, he most likely has some ability. With the aid of the others, he could learn to lend his strength to them. ” She leaned closer to me and lowered her voice, although the others were all busy with camp chores. “You know it is possible to kill with the Skill. Would he wish to do less than that to you?”

  “But if I sleep off the road,” I began.

  “The force of the road is like the wind that blows alike on all. The ill wishes of a coterie are like an arrow that targets only you. Besides, there is no way you can sleep and not worry about the woman and the child. And every time you think of them, it is possible the coterie sees them through your eyes. You must crowd them out of your mind. ”

  I bent my head over the gamecloth.

  I awoke the next morning to the pattering of rain on the tent skins. I lay for a time listening to it, grateful that it was not snow but dreading a day of walking in rain. I sensed the others waking up around me with a keenness I had not had in days. I felt almost as if I had rested. Across the tent, Starling observed sleepily, “We walked from winter to spring yesterday. ”

  Next to me the Fool shifted, scratched and muttered, “Typical minstrel. Exaggerate everything. ”

  “I see you are feeling better,” Starling retorted.

  Nighteyes thrust his head into the tent, a bloody rabbit dangling in his jaws. The hunting is better, too.

  The Fool sat up in his blankets. “Is he offering to share that?”

  My kill is your kill, little brother.

  Somehow it stung to hear him call the Fool “brother. ” Especially when you’ve already eaten two this morning? I asked him sarcastically.

  No one forced you to lie in bed all dawn.

  I was silent a moment. I have not been much companion to you lately, I apologized.

  I understand. It is no longer just we two. Now we are pack.

  You are right, I told him humbly. But this evening, I intend to hunt with you.

  The Scentless One may come too, if he wishes. He could be a good hunter, did he try, for his scent could never give him away.

  “He not only offers to share meat, he invites you to hunt with us this evening.

  I had expected the Fool to decline. Even at Buck he had never shown any inclination toward hunting. Instead he inclined his head gravely toward Nighteyes and told him, “I would be honored. ”

  We struck camp speedily and were soon on our way. As before I walked beside the road rather than upon it, and felt clearer-headed for it. The Fool had eaten voraciously at breakfast and now seemed almost his old self. He walked upon the road, but within hailing distance, and kept up a merry chattering to me all day. Nighteyes ranged ahead and behind as always, frequently at a gallop. All of us seemed infected with the relief of warmer weather. The light rain soon gave way to a streaky sunlight, and the earth steamed fragrantly. Only my constant ache over Molly’s safety and a nagging fear that at any time Will and his cohorts might attack my mind kept it from being a lovely day. Kettle had warned me about letting my mind dwell on either problem, lest I attract the coterie’s attention. So I carried my fear inside me like a cold black stone, resolutely telling myself there was absolutely nothing I could do.

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  Odd thoughts popped into my head all day. I could not see a flower bud without wondering if Molly would have used it for scent or color in her work. I found myself wondering if Burrich was as good with a wood axe as he was with a battle-axe, and if it would be enough to save them. If Regal knew of them, he would send soldiers after them. Could he know of them without knowing exactly where they were?

  “Stop that!” Kettle reprimanded me sharply, with a light rap of her walking stick. I jolted back to full awareness. The Fool glanced over at us curiously.

  “Stop what?” I demanded.

  “Thinking those thoughts. You know what I mean. Were you thinking of anything else, I would not have been able to walk up behind you. Find your discipline. ”

  I did, and reluctantly dredged up the game problem from the night before to concentrate on.

  “That’s better,” Kettle told me in quiet approval.

  “What are you doing back here?” I asked suddenly. “I thought you and Starling were leading the jeppas. ”

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