Assassins quest, p.82
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       Assassins Quest, p.82

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  I was not due to take my watch until the hours before dawn. But it was short of that when the wolf came to push his nose under my cheek and jog my head until I opened my eyes.

  “What?” I demanded tiredly.

  Kettricken walks alone, weeping.

  I doubted she would want my company. I also doubted that she should be alone. I rose noiselessly and followed the wolf out of the tent. Outside, Kettle sat by the fire, poking disconsolately at the meat. I knew she must have seen the Queen leave, so I did not dissemble.

  “I’m going to go find Kettricken. ”

  “Probably a good idea,” she said quietly. “She told me she was going to look at his dragon, but she has been gone longer than that. ”

  We needed to say no more about it. I followed Nighteyes as he trotted purposefully away from the fire. But he led me, not toward Verity’s dragon, but back through the quarry. There was little moonlight, and what there was the looming black blocks of stone seemed to drink away. Shadows seemed to fall in all different directions, altering perspective. The need for caution made the quarry vast as I picked my way along in the wolf’s wake.

  My skin prickled as I realized we were going in the direction of the pillar. But we found her before we reached there. She was standing, motionless as the stone itself, by the girl on the dragon. She had clambered up onto the block of stone that mired the dragon, and reached up to lay a hand on the girl’s leg. A trick of the moonlight made it look as if the girl’s stone eyes looked down at her. Light sparkled silver on a stone tear, and glistened on the tears on Kettricken’s face. Nighteyes padded lightly up, leaped weightlessly upon the dais, and leaned his head against Kettricken’s leg with a tiny whine.

  “Hush,” she told him softly. “Listen. Can you hear her weeping? I can. ”

  I did not doubt it, for I could feel her questing out with the Wit, more strongly than I had ever sensed it from her before.

  “My lady,” I said quietly.

  She startled, her hand flying to her mouth as she turned to me.

  “I beg your pardon. I did not mean to frighten you. But you should not be out here alone. Kettle fears there may still be danger from the coterie, and we are not so far from the pillar. ”

  She smiled bitterly. “Wherever I am, I am alone. Nor can I think of anything they could do to me worse than what I have done to myself. ”

  “That is only because you do not know them as well as I do. Please, my queen, come back to the camp with me. ”

  She moved and I thought she would step down to me. Instead she sat down and leaned back against the dragon. My Wit-sense of the dragon-girl’s misery was echoed by Kettricken’s. “I just wanted to lie beside him,” she said quietly. “To hold him. And to be held. To be held, Fitz. To feel . . . not safe. I know none of us are safe. But to feel valued. Loved. I did not expect more than that. But he would not. He said he could not touch me. That he dared not touch anything live save his dragon. ” She turned her head aside. “Even with his hands and arms gloved, he would not touch me. ”

  I found myself clambering up the dais. I took her by the shoulders and drew her to her feet. “He would if he could,” I told her. “This I know. He would if he could. ”

  She lifted her hands to cover her face, and her silent sliding tears suddenly became sobs. She spoke through them. “You . . . and your Skill. And him. You speak so easily of knowing what he feels. Of love. But I . . . I don’t have that. I am only . . . I need to feel it, Fitz. I need to feel his arms about me, to be close to him. To believe he loves me. As I love him. After I have failed him in so many ways. How can I believe . . . when he refuses to even . . . ” I put my arms about her and drew her head down on my shoulder, while Nighteyes leaned up against both of us and keened softly.

  “He loves you,” I told her. “He does. But fate has laid this burden upon both of you. It must be borne. ”

  “Sacrifice,” she breathed, and I did not know if she named her child or defined her life. She continued to weep, and I held her, soothing her hair and telling her it would get better, it had to be better someday, there would be a life for them when all this was over, and children, children growing up safe from Red Ships or Regal’s evil ambitions. In time I felt her quiet, and realized it was Wit as much as words I had been giving her. The feeling I had for her had mingled with the wolf’s and joined us. Gentler than a Skill-bond, more warm and natural, I held her in my heart as much as in my arms. Nighteyes pressed up against her, telling her he would guard her, that his meat would ever be her meat, that she need fear nothing that had teeth, for we were pack, and always would be.

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  It was she who finally broke the embrace. She gave a final shuddering sigh, and then stepped apart from me. Her hand rose to smear the wetness on her cheeks. “Oh, Fitz,” she said, simply, sadly. And that was all. I stood still, feeling the chill apartness where for a time we had been together. A sudden pang of loss assailed me. And then a shiver of fear as I realized its source. The girl on the dragon had shared our embrace, her Wit-misery briefly consoled by our closeness. Now, as we drew apart, the far, chill wailing of the stone rose up again, louder and stronger. I tried to leap lightly down from the dais, but as I landed I staggered and nearly fell. Somehow that joining had drawn strength from me. It was frightening, but I masked my uneasiness as I silently accompanied Kettricken back to the camp.

  I was just in time to relieve Kettle on watch. She and Kettricken went to sleep, promising to send the Fool out to stand watch with me. The wolf gave me an apologetic glance and then followed Kettricken into the tent. I assured him I approved. A moment later the Fool emerged, rubbing his eyes with his left hand and carrying his right lightly curled against his chest. He took a seat on a stone across from me as I looked over the meat to see which pieces needed turning. For a time he watched me silently. Then he stooped, and with his right hand, picked up a piece of firewood. I knew I should rebuke him, but instead I watched, as curious as he. After a moment, he tucked the wood into the fire and straightened. “Quiet and lovely,” he told me. “Some forty years of growing, winter and summer, storm and fair weather. And before that, it was borne as a nut by another tree. And so the thread goes back, over and over. I do not think I need fear much from natural things, only those that have been wrought by man. Then the threads go raveling out. But trees, I think, will be pleasant to touch. ”

  “Kettle said you should touch no live things,” I reminded him like a tattling child.

  “Kettle has not to live with this. I do. I must discover the limits it places on me. The sooner I find what I can and cannot do with my right hand, the better. ” He grinned wickedly, and made a suggestive gesture toward himself.

  I shook my head at him, but could not keep from laughing.

  He joined his laughter with my own. “Ah, Fitz,” he said quietly a moment later. “You do not know how much it means to me that I can still make you laugh. If I can stir you to laughter, I can laugh myself. ”

  “It surprises me that you can still jest at all,” I replied.

  “When you can either laugh or cry, you might as well laugh,” he replied. Abruptly he asked, “I heard you leave the tent earlier. Then, while you were gone . . . I could feel something of what happened. Where did you go? There was much I did not understand. ”

  I was silent, thinking. “The Skill-bond between us may be growing stronger instead of weaker. I do not think that is a good thing. ”

  “There is no elfbark left. I had the last of it two days ago. Good or bad, it is as it is. Now explain to me what happened. ”

  I saw little point in refusing. So I attempted to explain. He interrupted with a number of questions, few of which I could answer. When he decided he understood it as well as words could convey it, he quirked a smile at me. “Let us go see this girl on a dragon,” he suggested.

  “Why?” I asked warily.

  He lifted his right hand and waggled his
silver fingertips at me as he lifted one eyebrow.

  “No,” I said firmly.

  “Afraid?” he needled me.

  “We are on watch here,” I told him severely.

  “Then you will go with me tomorrow,” he suggested.

  “It is not wise, Fool. Who knows what effect it might have on you?”

  “Not I. And that is exactly why I wish to do it. Besides. What call has a Fool to be wise?”

  “No. ”

  “Then I shall have to go alone,” he said with a mock sigh.

  I refused to rise to the bait. After a moment, he asked me, “What is it you know about Kettle that I do not?”

  I looked at him uncomfortably. “About as much as I know about you that she does not. ”

  “Ah. That was well spoken. Those words could have been stolen from me,” he conceded. “Do you wonder why the coterie had not tried to attack us again?” he asked next.

  “Is this your night to ask unfortunate questions?” I demanded.

  “Of late, I have no other kinds. ”

  “At the very least, I dare to hope that Carrod’s death has weakened them. It must be a great shock to lose a member of your coterie. Almost as bad as losing a Wit-beast companion. ”

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  “And what do you fear?” the Fool pressed.

  It was a question I had been pushing away from myself. “What do I fear? The worst, of course. What I fear is that they are somehow marshaling greater strength against us, to offset Verity’s power. Or perhaps they are setting a trap for us. I fear they are turning their Skill to seeking out Molly. ” I added the last with great reluctance. It seemed the greatest bad luck even to think about it, let alone speak it aloud.

  “Cannot you Skill a warning to her somehow?”

  As if it had never occurred to me. “Not without betraying her. I have never been able to reach Burrich with the Skill. Sometimes, I am able to see them, but I cannot make them aware of me. I fear that even making the effort might be enough to expose her to the coterie. He may know of her, but not know where she is. You told me that not even Chade himself knew where she was. And Regal has many places to send his troops and attention. Buck is far from Farrow, and the Red Ships have kept it in turmoil. Surely he would not send troops into that for the sake of finding one girl. ”

  “One girl and a Farseer child,” the Fool reminded me gravely. “Fitz, I do not speak to grieve you, but only to warn you. I have contained his anger at you. That night, when they held me . . . ” He swallowed and his eyes went distant. “I have tried so hard to forget it. If I touch those memories at all, they seethe and burn within me like a poison I cannot be rid of. I have felt Regal’s very being inside my own. Hatred for you squirms through him like maggots through rotting meat. ” He shook his head, sickened at recalling it. “The man is mad. He ascribes to you every evil ambition he can imagine. Your Wit he regards with loathing, and terror. He cannot conceive that what you do, you do for Verity. In his mind, you have devoted your life to injuring him since you came to Buckkeep. He believes that both Verity and you have come to these Mountains not to wake the Elderlings to defend Buck, but to find some Skill-treasure or power to use against him. He believes he has no choice but to act first, to find whatever it is you seek and turn it against you. To that, he bends all his resources and determination. ”

  I listened to the Fool in a sort of frozen horror. His eyes had taken on the stare of a man who recalls torture. “Why have you not spoken of this to me before?” I asked him gently when he paused to catch his breath. The skin of his arms was standing up in gooseflesh.

  He looked away from me. “It is not a thing I enjoy recalling. ” He was trembling very lightly. “They were in my mind like evil, idle children, smashing what they could not grasp. I could keep nothing back from them. But they were not interested in me at all. They regarded me as less than a dog. Angry, in that moment of finding I was not you. They nearly destroyed me because I was not you. Then they considered how they might use me against you. ” He coughed. “If that Skill-wave had not come . . . ”

  I felt like Chade himself as I said quietly, “Now I will turn that back upon them. They could not hold you in thrall like that without revealing much of themselves to you. As much as you can, I ask you to reach back to that time, and tell me all you can recall. ”

  “You would not ask that, if you knew what you were asking. ”

  I thought I did know, but I refrained from saying it. Instead, I let silence bid him think it through. Dawn was graying the sky, and I had just returned from walking a circuit of our camp when next he spoke.

  “There were Skill books you know nothing about. Books and scrolls that Galen removed from Solicity’s rooms as she was dying. The information they held was for a Skillmaster alone, and some were even fastened shut with clever locks. Galen had many years to tinker those locks loose. A lock does no more than keep an honest man honest, you know. Galen found there much he did not understand. But there were also scrolls listing those who had been Skill-trained. Galen sought out all he could find and questioned them. Then he did away with them, lest others should ask them the same questions he had. Galen found much in those scrolls. How a man might live long and enjoy good health. How to give pain with the Skill, without even touching a man. But in the oldest scrolls he found hints of great power awaiting a strongly Skilled man in the Mountains. If Regal could bring the Mountains under his sway, he could come into power no one could withstand. To that end did he seek the hand of Kettricken for Verity, with no intent that she would ever be his bride. He intended that when Verity was dead, he would take her in his brother’s stead. And her inheritance. ”

  “I don’t understand,” I said gently. “The Mountains have amber and furs and . . . ”

  “No. No. ” The Fool shook his head. “It was nothing like that. Galen would not divulge the whole of his secret to Regal, for he then would have had no hold over his half-brother. But you can be sure that when Galen died, Regal immediately possessed those scrolls and books and set to studying them. He is no master of the older languages, but he feared to seek the help of others, lest they discover the secret first. But he puzzled it out at last, and when he did, he was horrified. For by then he had eagerly dispatched Verity into the Mountains to die on some foolish quest. He finally ciphered out that the power Galen had sought for him was power over the Elderlings. Immediately he decided Verity had conspired with you to seek that very power for himself. How dare he seek to steal the very treasure that Regal had worked so long to gain! How dare he try to make a fool of Regal in such a way!” The Fool smiled weakly. “In his mind, his domination over the Elderlings is his birthright. You seek to steal it from him. He believes he upholds what is right and just by trying to kill you. ”

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  I sat nodding to myself. The pieces all fit, every one of them. Holes in my understanding of Regal’s motives were being closed up, to present me with a frightening picture. I had known the man was ambitious. I also knew he feared and suspected anyone or anything he could not control. I had been a double danger to him, a rival for his father’s affection and with a strange Wit-talent he could neither understand nor destroy. To Regal, every other person in the world was a tool or a threat. All threats must be destroyed.

  He had probably never considered that all I wanted from him was to be left alone.

  35

  Kettle’s Secrets

  NOWHERE IS THERE mention of who raised the Witness Stones that stand on the hill near Buckkeep. They may very well predate the actual building of Buckkeep Castle itself. Their supposed power seems to have little to do with the worship of Eda or El, but folk believe in it with the same fierce religious fervor. Even those who profess to doubt the existence of any gods at all would still hesitate to give false oath before the Witness Stones. Black and weathered those tall stones stand. If ever they bore inscriptions of any kind, wind and water have erased
them.

  Verity was the first of the others to rise that morning. He came staggering from his tent as the first true light of day brought color back to the world. “My dragon!” he cried as he stood blinking in the light. “My dragon!” For all the world as if he expected it to be gone.

  Even when I assured him his dragon was fine, he was like a spoiled child. He wished to resume his work on it instantly. With the greatest difficulty, I persuaded him to drink a mug of nettle and mint tea, and eat some of the slow-cooked meat from the skewers. He would not wait for the porridge to boil, but left the fire with meat and sword in hand. He did not mention Kettricken at all. In time the scrape, scrape, scrape of the sword’s point against the black stone resumed. The shadow I had seen of Verity last night had fled with the morning’s coming.

  It seemed strange to greet a new day and not immediately pack up all our belongings. No one was in a good humor. Kettricken was puffy-eyed and silent, Kettle sour and reserved. The wolf was still digesting all the meat he had consumed the day before and only wanted to sleep. Starling seemed annoyed with everyone, as if it were our fault that our quest had ended in such confusing disappointment. After we had eaten, Starling declared that she was going to check on the jeppas and do some washing in the stream the Fool had found. Kettle grumpily agreed to go with her for safety, though her eyes strayed often to Verity’s dragon. Kettricken was up there also, gloomily watching her husband and king as he gouged away at the black stone. I busied myself in removing the fire-dried meat, wrapping it and refueling the slow fire and putting the rest of the meat to dry over it.

  “Let’s go,” the Fool invited me as soon as I was finished.

  “Where?” I asked, thinking longingly of a nap.

  “The girl on a dragon,” he reminded me. He set off eagerly, not even looking back to see if I followed. He knew I must.

  “I think this is a foolish idea,” I called after him.

  “Exactly,” he replied with a grin, and would say no more until we approached the great statue.

 
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