Assassins quest, p.74
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       Assassins Quest, p.74

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  She frowned to herself for a moment. “I believe so. And I think that all are winged. ”

  “Perhaps it is a graveyard,” I ventured. “Perhaps there are tombs beneath these creatures. Perhaps this is some strange heraldry, marking the burial places for different families. ”

  Kettricken looked about us, considering. “Perhaps it is so. But why would that be marked on the map?”

  “Why would a garden?” I countered.

  We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the area. We found a great many more animals. There were all kinds and a variety of styles, but all were winged and sleeping. And they had been here a very long time. A closer examination showed me that these great trees had grown around the statues, the statues had not been placed around them. Some were almost captured by the encroaching moss and leaf mold. Of one, little remained to be seen save a great toothed snout projecting from a boggy bit of ground. The bared teeth shone silver and the tips were sharp.

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  “Yet I found not a single one with a chip or a crack. Everyone looks as perfect as the day it was created. Nor can I decide how the colors were put to the stone. It does not feel like paint or stain, nor does it appear weathered by the years. ”

  I was expounding my thoughts slowly to the others as we sat about our campfire that evening. I was trying to work Kettricken’s comb through my wet hair. In the late afternoon, I had slipped away from the others, to wash thoroughly for the first time since we had left Jhaampe. I had also attempted to wash out some of my clothes. When I returned to camp, I had found that all of the others had had much the same ideas. Kettle was moodily draping wet laundry on a dragon to dry. Kettricken’s cheeks were pinker than usual and she had rebraided her wet hair into a tight queue. Starling seemed to have forgotten her earlier anger at me. Indeed, she seemed to have forgotten entirely about the rest of us. She stared at the flames of the campfire, a musing look on her face, and I could almost see the tumbling words and notes as she fit them together. I wondered what it was like, if it was like solving the game puzzles that Kettle set for me. It seemed odd to watch her face, knowing a song was unfolding in her mind.

  Nighteyes came to lean his head against my knee. I do not like denning in the midst of these living stones, he confided to me.

  “It does seem as if at any moment they might awaken,” I observed.

  Kettle had settled with a sigh to the earth beside me. She shook her old head slowly. “I do not think so,” she said quietly. She almost sounded as if she grieved.

  “Well, as we cannot fathom their mystery, and what remains of the road has ended here, we shall leave them tomorrow and resume our journey,” Kettricken announced.

  “What will you do,” the Fool asked quietly, “if Verity is not at the last map destination?”

  “I do not know,” Kettricken confided to us quietly. “Nor shall I worry about it until it happens. I still have an action left to take; until I have exhausted it, I shall not despair. ”

  It struck me then that she spoke as if considering a game, with one final move left that might yet lead to victory. Then I decided that I had spent too much time focusing on Kettle’s game problems. I yanked a last snarl from my hair and pulled it back into a tail.

  Come hunt with me before the last light is gone, the wolf suggested.

  “I think I shall hunt with Nighteyes tonight,” I announced as I stood and stretched. I raised one eyebrow at the Fool, but he seemed lost in thought and made no response. As I stepped away from the fire, Kettricken asked me, “Are you safe, alone?”

  “We are far from the Skill road. This has been the most peaceful day I’ve known in some time. In some ways. ”

  “We may be far from the Skill road, but we are still in the heart of a land once occupied by Skill users. They have left their touch everywhere. You cannot say, while you walk these hills, that you are safe. You should not go alone. ”

  Nighteyes whined low in his throat, anxious to be gone. I longed to go hunt with him, to stalk and chase, to move through the night with no human thoughts. But I would not discount Kettle’s warning.

  “I’ll go with him,” Starling offered suddenly. She rose, dusting her hands on her hips. If anyone besides myself thought it was strange, no one made sign of it. I expected at least a mocking farewell from the Fool, but he continued to gaze off into the darkness. I hoped he was not getting sick again.

  Do you mind if she goes with us? I asked Nighteyes.

  In reply he gave a small sigh of resignation, and trotted away from the fire. I followed him more slowly and Starling followed me.

  “Shouldn’t we catch up with him?” she asked me several moments later. The forest and the deepening dusk were closing in around us. Nighteyes was nowhere to be seen, but then, I did not need to see him.

  I spoke, not in a whisper, but very low. “When we hunt, we move independently of one another. When one of us starts up some game, the other comes swiftly, either to intercept, or to join in the chase. ”

  My eyes had adjusted to the dark. Our quest led us away from the statues, into a forest night innocent of man’s workings. Spring smells were strong, and the songs of frogs and insects were all around us. I soon struck a game trail and began to move along it. Starling came behind me, not silently, but not awkwardly either. When one moves through the forest by day or by night, one can either move with it or against it. Some people know how to do it instinctively; others never learn. Starling moved with the forest, ducking under hanging branches and sidestepping others as we wove our way through the night. She did not try to force her way through the thickets we encountered, but turned her body to avoid being caught on the twiggy branches.

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  You are so aware of her, you will not see a rabbit if you step on it! Nighteyes chided me.

  At that moment, a hare started from a bush right beside my path. I sprang after it, going doubled over to follow it on the game trail. It was far faster than I, but I knew it would most likely circle. I also knew that Nighteyes was also moving swiftly to intercept it. I heard Starling hurrying after me but had no time to think of her as I kept the rabbit in sight as it dodged around trees and under snags. Twice I nearly had it, and twice it doubled away from me. But the second time it doubled, it raced straight into the jaws of the wolf. He sprang, pinned it to the earth with his front paws, then seized its small skull in his jaws. As he stood, he gave it a sharp shake, snapping its neck.

  I was opening its belly and spilling its entrails out for the wolf when Starling caught up with us. Nighteyes snapped the guts up with relish. Let’s find another, he suggested, and moved swiftly off into the night.

  “He always gives up the meat to you like that?” Starling asked me.

  “He doesn’t give it up. He lets me carry it. He knows that now is the best hunting, and so he hopes to kill again swiftly. If not, he knows I will keep meat safe for him, and that we will share later. ” I secured the dead rabbit to my belt. I started off through the night, the warm body flopping lightly against my thigh as I walked.

  “Oh. ” Starling followed. A short time later, as if in answer to something I’d said, she observed, “I do not find your Wit-bond with the wolf offensive. ”

  “Neither do I,” I replied quietly. Something in her choice of words nettled me. I continued to prowl along the trail, eyes and ears alert. I could hear the soft pad, pad, pad of Nighteyes feet off to my left and ahead of me. I hoped he would scare game toward me.

  A short time later, Starling added, “And I will stop calling the Fool “she. ’ Whatever I may suspect. ”

  “That’s good,” I told her noncommittally. I did not slow my pace.

  I truly doubt you will be much good as hunter this night.

  This is not of my choosing.

  I know.

  “Do you want me to apologize as well?” Starling asked in a low strained voice.

nbsp; “I . . . uh,” I stammered, and fell silent, unsure of what this was all about.

  “Very well then,” she said in an icily determined voice. “I apologize, Lord FitzChivalry. ”

  I rounded on her. “Why are you doing this?” I demanded. I spoke in a normal voice. I could sense Nighteyes. He was already topping the hill, hunting alone now.

  “My lady queen bid me stop spreading discord within the company. She said that Lord FitzChivalry carried many burdens I could not know of, and did not deserve to bear also my disapproval,” she informed me carefully.

  I wondered when all this had come to pass, but dared not ask it. “None of this is necessary,” I said quietly. I felt oddly shamed, like a spoiled child who had sulked until the other children gave in. I took a deep breath, determined to simply speak honestly and see what came of it. “I do not know what made you withdraw your friendship, save that I disclosed my Wit to you. Nor do I understand your suspicions of the Fool, or why they seem to anger you. I hate this awkwardness between us. I wish we could be friends, as we were before. ”

  “You do not despise me, then? For giving my witness that you claimed Molly’s child as your get?”

  I groped inside me after the lost feelings. It had been long since I had even thought about it. “Chade already knew of them,” I said quietly. “He would have found a way, even if you had not existed. He is very . . . resourceful. And I have come to understand that you do not live by the same rules that I do. ”

  “I used to,” she said softly. “A long time ago. Before the keep was sacked and I was left for dead. After that, it was hard to believe in the rules. Everything was taken from me. All that was good and beautiful and truthful was laid waste by evil and lust and greed. No. By something even baser than lust and greed, some drive I could not even understand. Even while the Raiders were raping me, they seemed to take no pleasure in it. At least, not the kind of pleasure . . . They mocked my pain and struggling. Those who watched were laughing as they waited. ” She was looking past me into the darkness of the past. I believe she spoke as much to herself as me, groping to understand something that defied meaning. “It was as if they were driven, but not by any lust or greed that could be sated. It was a thing they could do to me, so they did it. I had always believed, perhaps childishly, that if you followed the rules, you would be protected, that things like that would not happen to you. Afterward, I felt . . . tricked. Foolish. Gullible, that I had thought ideals could protect me. Honor and courtesy and justice . . . they are not real, Fitz. We all pretend to them, and hold them up like shields. But they guard only against folk who carry the same shields. Against those who have discarded them, they are no shields at all, but only additional weapons to use against their victims. ”

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  I felt dizzied for an instant. I had never heard a woman speak of something like that so dispassionately. Mostly it was not spoken of at all. The rapes that occurred during a raid, the pregnancies that might follow, even the children that Six Duchies women bore to the Red Ship Raiders were seldom spoken of as such. I suddenly realized we had been standing still a long time. The chill of the spring night was reaching me. “Let’s go back to the camp,” I suggested abruptly.

  “No,” she said flatly. “Not yet. I fear I may cry, and if I do, I’d rather do it in the dark. ”

  It was getting close to full dark. But I led her back to a wider game trail, and we found a log to sit down on. Around us, the frogs and insects filled the night with mating songs.

  “Are you all right?” I asked her after we had sat some time in the silence.

  “No. I am not,” she said shortly. “I need to make you understand. I did not sell your child cheaply, Fitz. I did not betray you casually. At first, I did not even think of it that way. Who would not want her daughter to become a princess, and eventually a queen? Who would not want lovely clothes and a fine home for his child? I did not think that you or your woman would see it as a misfortune befalling her. ”

  “Molly is my wife,” I said quietly, but I truly believe she did not hear me.

  “Then, even after I knew it would not please you, I did it anyway. Knowing it would buy me a place here, at your side, witnessing . . . whatever it is you are going to do. Seeing strange sights no minstrel has ever sung of before, like those statues today. Because it was my only chance at a future. I must have a song, I must witness something that will assure me forever of a place of honor among minstrels. Something that will guarantee me my soup and wine when I am too old to travel from keep to keep. ”

  “Couldn’t you have settled for a man to share your life and children?” I asked quietly. “It seems to me you have no problem catching a man’s eye. Surely there must be one that . . . ”

  “No man wants a barren woman to wed,” she said. Her voice went flat, losing its music. “At the fall of Dimity Keep, Fitz, they left me for dead. And I lay there among the dead, sure that I would die soon, for I could not imagine continuing to live. Around me buildings were burning and injured folk were screaming and I could smell flesh scorching. . . . ” She stopped speaking. When she resumed, her voice was a bit more even. “But I didn’t die. My body was stronger than my will. On the second day, I dragged myself to water. Some other survivors found me. I lived, and was better off than many. Until two months later. By then I was sure that what had been done to me was worse than killing me. I knew I carried a child fathered by one of those creatures.

  “So I went to a healer, who gave me herbs that did not work. I went to her again, and she warned me, saying if they had not worked, then I had better leave it to happen. But I went to another healer, who gave me a different potion. It . . . made me bleed. I shook the child loose from me, but the bleeding did not stop. I went back to the healers, both of them, but neither could help me. They said it would stop on its own, in time. But the one told me that it was likely I would never have other children. ” Her voice tightened, then thickened. “I know you think it slatternly, the way I am with men. But once you have been forced, it is . . . different. Ever after. I say to myself, Well, I know that it can happen to me at any time. So this way, at least I decide with whom and when. There will never be children for me, and hence there will never be a permanent man. So why should not I take my pick of what I can have? You made me question that for a time, you know. Until Moonseye. Moonseye proved me right again. And from Moonseye I came to Jhaampe, knowing that I was free to do whatever I must do to assure my own survival. For there will be no man and no children to look after me when I am old. ” Her voice went brittle and uneven as she said, “Sometimes I think it were better had they Forged me . . . ”

  “No. Never say that. Never. ” I feared to touch her, but she turned suddenly and burrowed her face against me. I put an arm around her and found her trembling. I felt compelled to confess my stupidity. “I did not understand. When you said Burl’s soldiers had raped some of the women . . . I did not know you had suffered that. ”

  “Oh. ” Her voice was very small. “I had thought you deemed it unimportant. I have heard it said in Farrow that rape bothers only virgins and wives. I thought perhaps you felt that to one such as I, it was no more than my due. ”

  “Starling!” I felt an irrational flash of anger that she could have believed me so heartless. Then I thought back. I had seen the bruises on her face. Why had not I guessed? I had never even spoken to her of how Burl had broken her fingers. I had assumed she had known how that had sickened me, that she knew it was Burl’s threat of greater damage to her that had kept me leashed. I had thought that she withdrew friendship from me because of my wolf. What had she believed of my distance?

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  “I have brought much pain into your life,” I confessed. “Do not think I do not know the value of a minstrel’s hands. Or that I discount the violation of your body. If you wish to speak of it, I am ready to listen. Sometimes, talking helps. ”

  “Sometimes it
does not,” she countered. Her grip on me suddenly tightened. “The day you stood before us all, and spoke in detail of what Regal had done to you. I bled for you that day. It did not undo anything that was done to you. No. I do not want to talk about it, or think about it. ”

  I lifted her hand and softly kissed the fingers that had been broken on my account. “I do not confuse what was done to you with who you are,” I offered. “When I look at you, I see Starling Birdsong the minstrel. ”

  She nodded her face against me, and I knew it was as I surmised. She and I shared that fear. We would not live as victims.

  I said no more than that, but only sat there. It came to me again that even if we found Verity, even if by some miracle his return would shift the tides of war and make us victors, for some the victory would come far too late. Mine had been a long and weary road, but I still dared to believe that at the end of it there might be a life of my own choosing. Starling had not even that. No matter how far inland she might flee, she would never escape the war. I held her closer and felt her pain bleed over into me. After a time, her trembling stilled.

  “It’s full dark,” I said at last. “We had best go back to the camp. ”

  She sighed, but she straightened up. She took my hand. I started to lead her back to camp, but she tugged back on my hand. “Be with me,” she said simply. “Just for here and just for now. With gentleness and friendship. To take the . . . other away. Give me that much of yourself. ”

  I wanted her. I wanted her with a desperation that had nothing to do with love, and even, I believe, little to do with lust. She was warm and alive and it would have been sweet and simple human comfort. If I could have been with her, and somehow arisen from it unchanged in how I thought of myself and what I felt for Molly, I would have done so. But what I felt for Molly was not something that was only for when we were together. I had given Molly that claim to me; I could not rescind it simply because we were apart for a time. I did not think there were words that could make Starling understand that in choosing Molly I was not rejecting her. So instead I said, “Nighteyes comes. He has a rabbit. ”

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