Assassins quest, p.75
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       Assassins Quest, p.75
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Starling stepped close to me. She ran a hand up my chest to the side of my neck. Her fingers traced the line of my jaw and caressed my mouth. “Send him away,” she said quietly.

  “I could not send him far enough that he would not know everything of what we shared,” I told her truthfully.

  Her hand on my face was suddenly still. “Everything?” she asked. Her voice was full of dismay.

  Everything. He came and sat down beside us. Another rabbit dangled in his jaws.

  “We are Wit-bonded. We share everything. ”

  She took her hand from my face and stood clear of me. She stared down at the dark shape of the wolf. “Then all I just told you . . . ”

  “He understands it in his own way. Not as another human would, but . . . ”

  “How did Molly feel about that?” she abruptly demanded.

  I took a sharp breath. I had not expected our conversation to take this turn. “She never knew,” I told her. Nighteyes started back to the camp. I followed him more slowly. Behind me came Starling.

  “And when she does know?” Starling pressed. “She will just accept this . . . sharing?”

  “Probably not,” I muttered unwillingly. Why did Starling always make me think of things I had avoided considering?

  “What if she forces you to choose between her and the wolf?”

  I halted in my tracks for an instant. Then I started walking again, a bit faster. The question hung around me, but I refused to think about it. It could not be, it could never come to that. Yet a voice whispered inside me, “If you tell Molly the truth, it will come to that. It must. ”

  “You are going to tell her, aren’t you?” Starling relentlessly asked me the one question I was hiding from.

  “I don’t know,” I said grimly.

  “Oh,” she said. Then after a time, she added, “When a man says that, it usually means, “No, I won’t, but from time to time, I’ll toy with the idea, so I can pretend I eventually intend to do it. ’ ”

  “Would you please shut up?” There was no strength in my words.

  Starling followed me silently. After a time, she observed, “I don’t know who to pity. You, or her. ”

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  “Both of us, perhaps,” I suggested stonily. I wanted no more words about it.

  The Fool was on watch when we got back to camp. Kettle and Kettricken were asleep. “Good hunting?” he asked in a comradely way as we approached.

  I shrugged. Nighteyes was already gnawing his way through the rabbit he had carried. He sprawled contentedly by the Fool’s feet. “Good enough. ” I held up the other rabbit. The Fool took it from me and casually hung it from the tent pole.

  “Breakfast,” he told me calmly. His eyes darted to Starling’s face, but if he could tell she had been weeping, he made no jest of it. I don’t know what he read in my face, for he made no comment on it. She followed me into the tent. I pulled off my boots and sank gratefully into my bedding. When I felt her settle herself against my back a few moments later, I was not very surprised. I decided it meant she had forgiven me. It did not make it easy to fall asleep.

  But eventually I did. I had set up my walls, but somehow I managed a dream of my very own. I dreamed that I sat by Molly’s bed and watched over her as she and Nettle slept. The wolf was at my feet, while in the chimney corner the Fool sat on a stool and nodded to himself well pleased. Kettle’s gamecloth was spread on the table, but instead of stones, it had tiny statues of different dragons in white and black. The red stones were ships, and it was my move. I had the piece in my hand that could win the game, but I only wished to watch Molly sleep. It was almost a peaceful dream.

  31

  Elfbark

  THERE ARE A number of old “White Prophecies” that relate to the betrayal of the Catalyst. White Colum says of this event, “By his love is he betrayed, and his love betrayed also. ” A lesser known scribe and prophet, Gant the White, goes into more detail. “The heart of the Catalyst is bared to a trusted one. All confidence is given, and all confidence betrayed. The child of the Catalyst is given into his enemies’ hands by one whose love and loyalty are above question. ” The other prophecies are more oblique, but in each case the inference is that the Catalyst is betrayed by one who has his implicit trust.

  Early the next morning, as we ate toasted bits of rabbit meat, Kettricken and I consulted her map again. We scarcely needed it anymore, we both knew it so well. But it was a thing to set between us and point at as we discussed things. Kettricken traced a fading line on the battered scroll. “We shall have to return to the column in the stone circle, and then follow the Skill road for some little way beyond it. Right up to our final destination, I believe. ”

  “I have no great wish to walk upon that road again,” I told her honestly. “Even walking beside it strains me. But I suppose there is no help for it. ”

  “None that I can see. ”

  She was too preoccupied to offer much sympathy. I looked at the woman. The once gleaming blond hair was a short scruffy braid. Cold and wind had weathered her face, chapping her lips and etching fine lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth, to say nothing of the deeper worry lines in her brow and between her eyes. Her clothing was travel-stained and worn. The Queen of the Six Duchies could not even have passed muster as a chambermaid in Tradeford. I suddenly wanted to reach out to her. I could think of no way to do so. So I simply said, “We will get there, and we will find Verity. ”

  She lifted her eyes to meet mine. She tried to put faith into her gaze and voice as she said, “Yes, we will. ” I heard only courage.

  We had torn down and moved our camp so often, it no longer took any thought. We moved as a unit, almost as a single creature. Like a coterie, I thought to myself.

  Like a pack, Nighteyes corrected me. He came to push his head against my hand. I paused and scratched his ears and throat thoroughly. He closed his eyes and laid back his ears in pleasure. If your mate makes you send me away, I shall miss this greatly.

  I won’t let that happen.

  You believe she will make you choose.

  I refuse to think about it just now.

  Ah! He fell over on his side, then rolled to his back so I could scratch his belly. He bared his teeth in a wolfish smile. You live in the now and refuse to think of what may come. But I, I find I can think of little else save what may come to be. These times have been good for me, my brother. Living with others, hunting together, sharing meat. But the howling bitch had it aright last night. Cubs are needed to make a pack. And your cub . . .

  I cannot think of that just now. I must think only of what I must do today to survive, and all I must do before I can hope to go home.

  “Fitz? Are you all right?”

  It was Starling, coming to take me by the elbow and give me a small shake. I looked at her, wakened from my bemusement. The howling bitch. I tried not to grin. “I’m fine. I was with Nighteyes. ”

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  “Oh. ” She glanced down at the wolf, and I saw her struggle again to grasp just what we shared. Then she shrugged it off. “Ready to leave?”

  “If everyone else is. ”

  “They seem to be. ”

  She went to help Kettricken load the final jeppa. I glanced about for the Fool, and saw him sitting silently on top of his pack. His hand rested lightly upon one of the stone dragons and he had a faraway look on his face. I walked up softly behind him. “Are you all right?” I asked quietly.

  He did not jump. He never startled. He just turned his pale gaze up to meet mine. The look of his face was a lost yearning with none of his usual sharp wit to it. “Fitz. Have you ever felt you recalled something, but when you groped after it, there was nothing there?”

  “Sometimes,” I said. “I think it happens to everyone. ”

  “No. This is different,” he insisted quietly. “Since I stood on that stone the day before yes
terday, and suddenly glimpsed the old world that was here . . . I keep having odd half-memories. Like him. ” He stroked the dragon’s head gently, a lover’s caress to the wedge-shaped reptilian head. “I can almost remember knowing him. ” He suddenly fixed me with a pleading look. “What did you see, back then?”

  I gave a small shrug. “It was like a market plaza, with shops around it, and folk plying their trades. A busy day. ”

  “Did you see me?” he asked very quietly.

  “I’m not sure. ” I suddenly felt very uneasy, speaking about it. “Where you were, there was someone else. She was like you, in a way. No color to her, and behaving, I think, as a jester. You spoke of her crown, carved like rooster heads and tails. ”

  “Did I? Fitz, I can recall little of what I said immediately afterward. I only recall the feeling, and how swiftly it faded. Briefly, I was connected to everything. Part of it all. It was wonderful, like feeling a surge of love or glimpsing something perfectly beautiful or . . . ” He struggled for words.

  “The Skill is like that,” I told him softly. “What you felt is the pull of it. It is what a Skill user must constantly resist, lest he be swept away on it. ”

  “So that was Skilling,” he observed to himself.

  “When you first came out of it, you were ecstatic. You said something about somebody’s dragon that you were to introduce. It made small sense. Let me think. Realder’s dragon. And he had promised to fly you. ”

  “Ah. My dream last night. Realder. That was your name. ” He caressed the statue’s head as he spoke. When he did so, the oddest thing happened. My Wit-sense of the statue surged and Nighteyes came springing to my side, every hackle on his back standing erect. I know the hair on the back of my neck stood up as well, and I recoiled, expecting the statue to suddenly stir to life. The Fool shot us a puzzled glance. “What is it?”

  “The statues seem alive to us. To both Nighteyes and me. And when you spoke that name, it almost seemed to stir. ”

  “Realder,” the Fool repeated experimentally. I caught my breath as he said it, but felt no response. He glanced at me and I shook my head. “Just stone, Fitz. Cold and beautiful stone. I think perhaps your nerves are fraying. ” He took my arm companionably and we walked away from the statues and back to the faded trail. The others were already out of sight, save for Kettle. She stood leaning on her stick and glaring back at us. Instinctively I quickened my pace. When we got to the place where she waited, she took my other arm, and then imperiously waved at the Fool to precede us. We followed him, but at a slower pace. When he was a substantial distance ahead of us, she squeezed my arm in a grip of steel and demanded, “Well?”

  For an instant I looked at her blankly. Then, “I haven’t worked it out yet,” I apologized to her.

  “That much is plain,” she told me severely. She sucked on her teeth for a moment, frowned at me, nearly spoke, and then shook her head briskly at herself. She did not let go of my arm.

  For much of the rest of the day, as I walked silently by her side, I pondered the game puzzle.

  I do not think there is anything quite so tedious as retracing one’s steps when one is desperate to get somewhere. Now that we were no longer following an ancient road near invisible in overgrowth, we followed our own trampled way back through the marshy forest and up into the hills, and made better speed leaving than we had in getting there. With the shifting of the seasons, the daylight was lingering longer, and Kettricken pushed our march to the edge of dusk. Thus it was that we found ourselves only one hill away from the plaza of black stone when we made our camp that night. I think it was for my sake that Kettricken chose to camp on the ancient road for another night. I had no desire to sleep any closer to that crossroads than I must.

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  Shall we hunt? Nighteyes demanded as soon as our shelter was set.

  “I’m going hunting,” I announced to the others. Kettle glanced up disapprovingly.

  “Stay well away from the Skill road,” she warned me.

  The Fool surprised me by coming to his feet. “I shall go with them. If the wolf doesn’t mind. ”

  The Scentless One is welcome.

  “You are welcome to go with us. But are you sure you feel that strong?”

  “If I get tired, I can come back,” the Fool pointed out.

  As we strode off into the deepening dusk, Kettricken was poring over her map and Kettle was on watch. “Don’t be long, or I shall come and find you,” she warned me as I left. “And stay away from the Skill road,” she repeated.

  Somewhere above the trees, a full moon sailed. Light from her crept and snaked down in silvery spills through the newly leafed branches to illuminate our way. For a time we simply traveled together through the pleasantly open woods. The wolf’s senses supplemented mine. The night was alive with the smells of growing things and the calls of tiny frogs and night insects. The night air had a crisper bite to it than the day did. We found a game trail and followed it. The Fool kept pace with us, saying not a word. I breathed in deeply and then sighed it out. Despite everything else, I heard myself say, This is good.

  Yes. It is. I shall miss it.

  I knew he was thinking of what Starling had said the night before. Let us not think of tomorrows that may never come. Let us just hunt, I suggested, and we did. The Fool and I kept to the trail and the wolf veered off through the woods, to spook game back toward us. We moved with the forest, sliding near noiselessly through the night, every sense alert. I came across a porcupine trundling along through the night, but I did not feel like clubbing it to death, let alone gingerly skinning it before we could eat. I wanted simple meat tonight. With great difficulty, I persuaded Nighteyes to seek other prey with me. If we do not find anything else, we can always come back for it. They are not exactly swift of foot, I pointed out to him.

  He agreed grudgingly, and we quartered out again. On an open hillside still warm from the sun, Nighteyes spotted the flick of an ear and the glint of a bright eye. In two bounds he was on top of the rabbit. His spring started another rabbit that fled toward the top of the hill. I gave chase, but the Fool called out he was going back now. Halfway up the hill, I knew I would not catch him. I was tired from the long day of walking and the rabbit was in fear of its life. By the time I reached the top of the hill, it was nowhere in sight. I halted, panting. The night wind moved lightly through the trees. On it I caught a scent, at once strange and oddly familiar. I could not identify it, but all the connotations to it were unpleasant. While I stood, nostrils flared, trying to place it, Nighteyes raced soundlessly up to me. Be small! he ordered me.

  I didn’t pause to think, but obeyed, crouching where I was and peering about for danger.

  No! Be small in your mind.

  This time I instantly grasped what he meant, and threw my Skill walls up in a panic. His keener nose had instantly associated the faint scent on the air with the scent of Burl’s clothing in his saddlebags. I crouched as small as I could make myself and set and reset my boundaries about my mind, even as I pleaded with reality that it was next to impossible that he be here.

  Fear can be a powerful spur to the mind. I suddenly grasped what should always have been obvious. We were not that far from the crossroads plaza and the black guidepost there. The symbols carved on the guidepost columns did not merely indicate where the adjacent roads led; they also indicated where the signposts could transport one. Anywhere there was a column, one could be transported to the next column. From the ancient city to any marked location was no more than a step away. All three of them could be but steps away from me right now.

  No. There is only the one, and he is not even close to us. Use your nose, if not your brain, Nighteyes scathingly reassured me. Shall I kill him for you? he offered casually.

  Please. But be careful of yourself.

  Nighteyes snorted softly in disdain. He is fatter far than that wild pig I killed. He puffs and sweats just to walk
down the trail. Lie still, little brother, while I get rid of him. Silent as death, the wolf moved off through the forest.

  I crouched an eternity, waiting to hear something, a snarl, a scream, the noises of someone running through the brush. There was nothing. I flared my nostrils but could catch no trace of the elusive scent. Suddenly I could no longer stand to crouch and wait. I surged to my feet and followed the wolf, as silently lethal as he. Before, when we had been hunting, I had not paid much attention to where we had gone. Now I perceived that we had approached closer to the Skill road than I had suspected; that our campsite was not that far from it at all.

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  Like a strain of distant music, I was suddenly aware of their Skilling. I halted where I stood and stood still. I willed my mind to stillness, and let their Skill brush my senses while I made no response.

  I’m close. Burl, breathless with both excitement and fear. I sensed him poised and waiting. I feel him, he draws near. A pause. Oh, I like not this place. I like it not at all.

  Be calm. A touch is all it will take. Touch him as I showed you, and his walls will come down. Will spoke, master to apprentice.

  And if he has a knife?

  He won’t have time to use it. Believe me. No man’s walls can stand before that touch, I promise you. All you need do is touch him. I will come through you and do the rest.

  Why me? Why not you or Carrod?

  Would you really rather have Carrod’s task? Besides, you are the one who had the Bastard in your power and was stupid enough to try to hold him in a cage. Go and complete the task you should have finished long ago. Or would you care to feel our king’s wrath again?

  I felt Burl shiver. And I trembled, too, for I felt him. Regal. The thoughts were Will’s, but somehow, somewhere, Regal heard them, too. I wondered if Burl knew as plainly as I did that no matter whether he killed the Bastard or not, Regal would enjoy giving him pain again. That the memory of torturing him was so pleasurable a one that Regal could no longer think of him at all without being reminded of how completely it had satiated him. Briefly.

  I was glad I was not Burl.

  There! That was the Bastard! Find him!

  I should have died then, by all rights. Will had found me, had found my careless thought floating in the air. My brief sympathy for Burl was all it had taken. He bayed on my trail like a hound. I have him!

 
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