Assassins quest, p.8
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       Assassins Quest, p.8

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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  You are troubled, little brother?

  Yes. I forced myself to add, You cannot help me with this. It is man trouble, a thing I must solve for myself.

  Be a wolf instead, he advised lazily.

  I did not have the strength to say either yes or no to that. I let it go by me. I looked down at myself, at my stained shirt and trousers. My clothing was caked with dirt and old blood, and my trousers tattered off into rags below my knees. With a shudder, I recalled the Forged ones and their ragged garments. What had I become? I tugged at the collar of my shirt and then averted my face from my own stink. Wolves were cleaner than this. Nighteyes groomed himself daily.

  I spoke it aloud, and the rustiness of my voice only added to it. “As soon as Burrich left me here, alone, I reverted to something less than an animal. No time, no cleanliness, no goals, no awareness of anything save eating and sleeping. This was what he was trying to warn me about, all those years. I did just what he had always feared I would do. ”

  Laboriously I kindled a fire in the hearth. I hauled water from the stream in many trips and heated as much as I could. The shepherds had left a heavy rendering kettle at the hut, and this held enough to half-fill a wooden trough outside. While the water heated, I gathered soapwort and horsetail grass. I could not remember that I had ever before been this dirty. The coarse horsetail grass scrubbed off layers of skin with the grime before I was satisfied I was clean. There were more than a few fleas floating in the water. I also discovered a tick on the back of my neck and burned it off with an ember twig from my fire. When my hair was clean, I combed it out and then bound it back once more in a warrior’s tail. I shaved in the glass Burrich had left me, and then stared at the face there. Tanned brow and pale chin.

  By the time I had heated more water and soaked and pounded my clothes clean, I was starting to understand Burrich’s fanatical and constant cleanliness. The only way to save what was left of my trousers would be to hem them up at the knee. Even then, there was not much wear left in them. I extended my spree to my bedding and winter clothing as well, washing the musty smell out of them. I discovered that a mouse had borrowed from my winter cloak to make a nest. That, too, I mended as well as I could. I looked up from draping wet leggings on a bush to find Nighteyes watching me.

  You smell like a man again.

  Is that good or bad?

  Better than smelling like last week’s kill. Not so good as smelling like a wolf. He stood and stretched, bowing low to me and spreading his toes wide against the earth. So. You do wish to be a man after all. Do we travel soon?

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  Yes. We travel west, up the Buck River.

  Oh. He sneezed suddenly, then abruptly fell over on his side, to roll about on his back in the dust like a puppy. He wiggled happily, working it well into his coat, and then came to his feet to shake it all out again. His blithe acceptance of my sudden decision was a burden. What was I taking him into?

  Nightfall found me with every garment I owned and all my bedding still damp. I had sent Nighteyes hunting alone. I knew he would not soon return. The moon was full and the night sky clear. Plenty of game would be moving about tonight. I went inside the hut and built up the fire enough to make hearth cakes from the last of the meal. Weevils had got into the flour and spoiled it. Better to eat the meal now than to waste it similarly. The simple cakes with the last of the grainy honey from the pot tasted incredibly good. I knew I had best expand my diet to include more than meat and a handful of greens each day. I made an odd tea from the wild mint and the tips of the new nettle growth, and that, too, tasted good.

  I brought in an almost-dry blanket and spread it out before the hearth. I lay on it, drowsing and staring into the fire. I quested for Nighteyes, but he disdained to join me, preferring his fresh kill and the soft earth under an oak at the edge of the meadow. I was as alone, and as human, as I had been in months. It felt a little strange, but good.

  It was when I rolled over and stretched that I saw the packet left on the chair. I knew every item in the hut by heart. This had not been here when last I was. I picked it up and snuffed at it, and found Burrich’s scent faintly upon it, and my own. A moment later I realized what I had done and rebuked myself for it. I had best start behaving as if there were always witnesses to my actions, unless I wished to be killed as a Witted one again.

  It was not a large bundle. It was one of my shirts, somehow taken from my old clothes chest, a soft brown one I’d always favored, and a pair of leggings. Bundled up inside the shirt was a small earthenware pot of Burrich’s unguent that he used for cuts, burns, and bruises. Four silver bits in a little leather pouch; he’d worked a buck in the stitching on the front. A good leather belt. I sat staring at the design he’d worked into that. There was a buck, antlers lowered to fight, similar to the crest Verity had suggested for me. On the belt, it was fending off a wolf. Difficult to miss that message.

  I dressed before the fire, feeling wistful that I had missed his visit, and yet relieved that I had. Knowing Burrich, he’d probably felt much the same at hiking up here and then finding me gone. Had he brought me these presentable clothes because he wanted to persuade me to return with him? Or to wish me well on my way? I tried not to wonder what his intent had been, or his reaction to the abandoned hut. Clothed again, I felt much more human. I hung the pouch and my sheath knife from the belt and cinched it around my waist. I pulled a chair up before the fire and sat in it.

  I stared into the fire. I finally allowed myself to think about my dream. I felt a strange tightening in my chest. Was I a coward? I was not sure. I was going to Tradeford to kill Regal. Would a coward do that? Perhaps, my traitor mind told me, perhaps a coward would, if it was easier than seeking out one’s king. I pushed that thought from my mind.

  It came right back. Was going to kill Regal the right thing to do, or merely what I wished to do? Why should that matter? Because it did. Maybe I should be going to find Verity instead.

  Silly to think about any of it, until I knew if Verity was still alive. If I could Skill to Verity, I could find out. But I had never been able to Skill predictably. Galen had seen to that, with the abuse that had taken my strong natural talent for Skill and turned it into a fickle and frustrating thing. Could that be changed? I’d need to be able to Skill well, if I wanted to get past the coterie to Regal’s throat. I’d have to learn to control it. Was the Skill something one could teach oneself to master? How could one learn a thing if one did not even know the full scope of it? All the ability that Galen had neither beaten into nor out of me, all the knowledge that Verity had never had time to teach me: how was I to learn all that on my own? It was impossible.

  I did not want to think of Verity. That, as much as anything, told me that I should. Verity. My prince. My king now. Linked by blood and the Skill, I had grown to know him as I knew no other man. Being open to the Skill, he had told me, was as simple as not being closed to it. His Skill-warring with the Raiders had become his life, draining away his youth and vitality. He had never had the time to teach me to control my talent, but he had given me what lessons he could in the infrequent chances he had. His Skill-strength was such that he could impose a touch on me, and be one with me for days, sometimes weeks. And once, when I had sat in my prince’s chair, in his study before his worktable, I had Skilled to him. Before me had been the tools of his mapmaking and the small personal clutter of the man who waited to be king. That one time, I had thought of him, longed for him to be home to guide his kingdom, and had simply reached out and Skilled to him. So easily, without preparation or even real intent. I tried to put myself in that same frame of mind. I had not Verity’s desk nor clutter to put him in mind, but if I closed my eyes, I could see my prince. I took a breath and tried to call forth his image.

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  Verity was broader of shoulder than I but not quite of my height. My uncle shared with me the dark eyes and hair of the Farseer family, b
ut his eyes were set more deeply than mine, and his unruly hair and beard were shot through with gray. When I was a boy, he had been well-muscled and hard, a stocky man who wielded a sword as easily as a pen. These later years had wasted him. He had been forced to spend too much time physically idle as he used his Skill-strength to defend our coastline from the Raiders. But even as his muscle had dwindled, his Skill-aura had increased, until to stand before him now was like standing before a blazing hearth. When I was in his presence, I was much more aware of his Skill now than his body. For his scent, I called to mind the piquancy of the colored inks he used when he made his maps, the smell of fine vellum, and, too, the edge of elfbark that was often on his breath. “Verity,” I said softly aloud, and felt the word echo within me, bouncing off my walls.

  I opened my eyes. I could not reach out of myself until I lowered my walls. Visualizing Verity would do nothing for me until I opened a way for my Skill to go forth, and his to enter my mind. Very well. That was easy enough. Just relax. Stare into the fire and watch the tiny sparks that rode upward on the heat. Dancing floating sparks. Relax the vigilance. Forget how Will had slammed his Skill-strength against that wall and nearly made it give way. Forget that holding the wall was all that had kept my mind my own while they hammered away at my flesh. Forget that sickening sense of violation the time that Justin had forced his way into me. The way Galen had scarred and crippled my Skill ability the time he had abused his position as Skillmaster to force his control on my mind.

  As clearly as if Verity were beside me, I heard again my prince’s words. “Galen has scarred you. You’ve walls I can’t begin to penetrate, and I am strong. You’d have to learn to drop them. That’s a hard thing. ” And those words to me had been years ago, before Justin’s invasion, before Will’s attacks. I smiled bitterly. Did they know they had succeeded at un-Skilling me? They’d probably never even given it thought. Someone, somewhere, should make a record of that. Someday a Skilled king might find it handy, to know that if you hurt a Skilled one badly enough with the Skill, you could seal him up inside himself and render him powerless in that area.

  Verity had never had the time to teach me how to drop those walls. Ironically, he had found a way to show me how to reinforce them, so I could seal my private thoughts from him when I did not wish to share them. Perhaps that was a thing I had learned too well. I wondered if I would ever have time to unlearn it.

  Time, no time, Nighteyes interrupted wearily. Time is a thing that men made up to bother themselves with. You think on it until I am dizzy. Why do you follow these old trails at all? Snuff out a new one that may have some meat at the end of it. If you want the game, you must stalk it. That is all. You cannot say, To stalk this takes too long, I wish to simply eat. It is all one. The stalking is the beginning of the eating.

  You do not understand, I told him wearily. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many days in which I can do this thing.

  Why do you chop your life into bits and give the bits names? Hours, days. It is like a rabbit. If I kill a rabbit, I eat a rabbit. A sleepy snort of disdain. When you have a rabbit, you chop it up and call it bones and meat and fur and guts. And so you never have enough.

  So what should I do, O wise master?

  Stop whining about it and just do it. So I can sleep.

  He gave me a slight mind-nudge, like an elbow in the ribs when a companion crowds too close to you on the tavern bench. I suddenly realized how closely I had been holding our contact these past few weeks. Had been a time when I had rebuked him for always being in my mind. I had not wanted his company when I was with Molly, and I had tried to explain to him then that such times must belong to me alone. Now his nudge made it plain to me that I had been clinging as close to him as he had to me when he was a cub. I firmly resisted my first impulse to clutch at him. Instead I settled back in my chair and looked at the fire.

  I took the walls down. I sat for a time, with my mouth dry, waiting for an attack. When nothing came, I thought carefully, and again lowered my walls. They believe me dead, I reminded myself. They will not be lying in wait to ambush a dead man. It was still not easy to will my walls down. Far easier to unsquint my eyes on a day of bright sunlight on the water, or to stand unflinching before a coming blow. But when finally I did it, I could sense the Skill flowing all about me, parting around me as if I were a stone in the current of a river. I had but to plunge into it and I could find Verity. Or Will, or Burl, or Carrod. I shuddered and the river retreated. I steeled myself and returned to it. A long time I stood teetering on that bank, daring myself to plunge in. No such thing as testing the water with the Skill. In or out. In.

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  In, and I was spinning and tumbling, and I felt my self fraying apart like a piece of rotten hemp rope. Strands peeling and twisting away from me, all the overlays that made me myself, memories, emotions, the deep thoughts that mattered, the flashes of poetry that one experiences that strike deeper than understanding, the random memories of ordinary days, all of it tattering away. It felt so good. All I had to do was let go.

  But that would have made Galen right about me.

  Verity?

  There was no reply. Nothing. He wasn’t there.

  I drew back into myself and pulled my entire self about my mind. I could do it, I found, I could hold myself in the Skill stream and yet maintain my identity. Why had it always been so hard before? I set that question aside and considered the worst. The worst was that Verity had been alive and spoken to me, a few short months ago. “Tell them Verity’s alive. That’s all. ” And I had, but they had not understood, and no one had taken any action. Yet what could that message have been, if not a plea for help? A call for help from my king had gone unanswered.

  Suddenly that was not a thing to be borne, and the Skill cry that went out from me was something I felt, as if my very life sprang out of my chest in a questing reach.

  VERITY!

  . . . Chivalry?

  No more than a whisper brushing against my consciousness, as slight as a moth battering at a window curtain. It was my turn, this time, to reach and grasp and steady. I flung myself out toward him and found him. His presence flickered like a candle flame guttering out in the pool of its own wax. I knew he would soon be gone. I had a thousand questions. I asked the only important one.

  Verity. Can you take strength from me, without touching me?

  Fitz? The question more feeble, more hesitant. I thought Chivalry had come back . . . He teetered on the edge of darkness. . . . to take this burden from me. . . .

  Verity, pay attention. Think. Can you take strength from me? Can you do it now?

  I don’t . . . I can’t. Reach. Fitz?

  I remembered Shrewd, drawing strength from me to Skill a farewell to his son. And how Justin and Serene had attacked him and leeched all his strength away and killed him. How he had died, like a bubble popping. Like a spark winking out.

  VERITY! I flung myself at him, wrapped myself around him, steadied him as he had so often steadied me in our Skill contacts. Take from me, I commanded him, and opened myself to him. I willed myself to believe in the reality of his hand on my shoulder, tried to recall what it had felt like the times when he or Shrewd had drawn strength from me. The flame that was Verity leaped up suddenly, and after a moment burned strong and clean again.

  Enough, he cautioned me, and then more strongly, Be careful, boy!

  No, I’m all right, I can do this, I assured him, and willed my strength to him.

  Enough! he insisted, and drew back from me. It was almost as if we stepped slightly apart and considered one another. I could not see his body, but I could sense the terrible weariness in him. It was not the healthy weariness that comes at the end of a day’s labor, but the bone-weariness of one grinding day piled upon another, with never food enough nor rest enough in between them. I had given him strength, but not health, and he would quickly burn the vitality he had borrowe
d from me, for it was not true strength any more than elfbark tea was a sustaining meal.

  Where are you? I demanded of him.

  In the Mountains, he said unwillingly, and added, It is not safe to say more. We should not Skill at all. There are those who would try to hear us.

  But he did not end the contact, and I knew he was as hungry to ask questions as I was. I tried to think what I could tell him. I could sense no one save ourselves but I was not certain I would know if we were spied upon. For long moments our contact held simply as an awareness of one another. Then Verity warned me sternly, You must be more careful. You will draw down trouble on yourself. Yet I take heart from this. I have gone long without the touch of a friend.

  Then it is worth any risk to myself. I hesitated, then found I could not confine the thought within myself. My king. There is something I must do. But when it is done, I will come to you.

  I sensed something from him then. A gratitude humbling in its intensity. I hope I shall still be here if you arrive. Then, more sternly, Speak no names, Skill only if you must. More softly, then, Be careful of yourself, boy. Be very careful. They are ruthless.

  And then he was gone.

  He had broken the Skill contact off cleanly. I hoped that wherever he was, he would use the strength I had loaned him to find some food or a safe place to rest. I had sensed him living as a hunted thing, always wary, ever hungry. Prey, much as I was. And something else. An injury, a fever? I leaned back in my chair, trembling lightly. I knew better than to try to stand. Simply Skilling took strength out of me, and I had opened myself to Verity and let him draw off even more. In a few moments, when the shaking lessened, I would make some elfbark tea and restore myself. For now I sat and stared into the fire and thought of Verity.

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  Verity had left Buckkeep last autumn. It seemed an eternity ago. When Verity had departed, King Shrewd had lived yet, and Verity’s wife Kettricken had been pregnant. He had set himself a quest. The Red Ship Raiders from the OutIslands had assailed our shores for three full years, and all our efforts to drive them away had failed. So Verity, King-in-Waiting for the throne of the Six Duchies, had set out to go to the Mountains, there to find our near-legendary allies, the Elderlings. Tradition had it that generations ago King Wisdom had sought them out and they had aided the Six Duchies against similar raiders. They had also promised to return if ever we needed them. And so Verity had left throne and wife and kingdom behind to seek them out and remind them of their promise. His aged father, King Shrewd, had remained behind, and also his younger brother, Prince Regal.

 
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