Assassins quest, p.85
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       Assassins Quest, p.85

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Trade and raiding and piracy have all existed simultaneously between the Six Duchies and the OutIslands. But the commencement of the Red Ship raids marked a change in this abrasive and profitable interchange. Both the savagery and destruction of the raids were unprecedented. Some attributed it to the rise to power in the OutIslands of a ferocious chieftain who espoused a bloody religion of vengeance. The most savage of his followers became Raiders and crew for his Red Ships. Other OutIslanders, never before united under one leader, were coerced into swearing fealty to him, under threat of Forging for those and their families who refused him. He and his raiders brought their vicious hatred to the shores of the Six Duchies. If he ever had any intent beyond killing, raping, and destroying, he never made it known. His name was Kebal Rawbread.

  “I don’t understand why you deny me,” I said stiffly.

  Verity stopped his endless chopping at the dragon. I had expected him to turn and face me, but instead he only crouched lower, to brush away rock chips and dust. I could scarcely believe the progress he had made. The entire clawed right foot of the dragon now rested upon the stone. True, it lacked the fine detail of the rest of the dragon, but the leg itself was now complete. Verity wrapped a careful hand over the top of one of its toes. He sat motionless beside his creation, patient and still. I could not see any movement of his hand, but I could sense Skill at work. If I reached toward it at all, I could feel the tiny fissuring of stone as it flaked away. It truly seemed as if the dragon had been hidden in the stone, and that Verity’s task was to reveal it, one gleaming scale at a time.

  “Fitz. Stop it. ” I could hear annoyance in his voice. Annoyance that I was Skill-sharing with him, and annoyance that I was distracting him from his work.

  “Let me help you,” I begged again. Something about the work drew me. Before, when Verity had been scraping at the stone with his sword, the dragon had seemed an admirable work of stone-carving. But now there was a shimmering of Skill to him as both Verity and Kettle employed their powers. It was immensely attractive, in the way that a sparkling creek glimpsed through trees draws the eye, or the smell of fresh-baked bread wakes hunger. I longed to put hands on, and help shape this powerful creature. The sight of their working awakened a Skill hunger in me such as I had never known. “I have been Skill-linked with you more than anyone has. In the days when I pulled an oar on the Rurisk, you told me I was your coterie. Why do you turn me away now, when I could help, and you need help so badly?”

  Verity sighed and rocked back on his heels. The toe was not done, but I could see the faint outline of scales upon it now, and the beginning of the sheath for the wickedly curved talon. I could feel how the claw would be, striated like a hawk’s talon. I longed to reach down and draw forth those lines from the stone.

  “Stop thinking about it,” Verity bade me firmly. “Fitz. Fitz, look at me. Listen to me. Do you remember the first time I took strength from you?”

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  I did. I had fainted. “I know my own strength better now,” I replied.

  He ignored that. “You didn’t know what you were offering me, when you told me you were a King’s Man. I took you at your word that you knew what you were doing. You didn’t. I tell you plainly right now that you don’t know what you are asking me for. I do know what I am refusing you. And that is all. ”

  “But Verity . . . ”

  “In this, King Verity will hear no buts, FitzChivalry. ” He drew that line with me as he had so seldom before.

  I took a breath and refused to let my frustration become anger. He placed his hand carefully on the dragon’s toe again. I listened a moment to the clack, clack, clack of Kettle’s chisel working the dragon’s tail free of the stone. She was singing as she worked, some old love ballad.

  “My lord, King Verity, if you would tell me what it is I don’t know about helping you, then I could decide for myself, perhaps, if . . . ”

  “It is not your decision, boy. If you truly wish to help, go get some boughs and make a broom. Sweep the rock chips and dust away. It is damnable stuff to kneel in. ”

  “I would rather be of real help to you,” I muttered disconsolately as I turned away.

  “FitzChivalry!” There was a sharp note to Verity’s voice, one I had not heard since I was a boy. I turned back to it with dread.

  “You overstep yourself,” he told me bluntly. “My queen keeps these fires going and sharpens my chisels for me. Do you put yourself above such work?”

  At such times, a brief answer suffices best. “No, sir. ”

  “Then you shall make me a broom. Tomorrow. For now, much as I hate to say it, we all should rest, at least for a time. ” He stood slowly, swayed, then righted himself. He placed a silver hand affectionately on the dragon’s immense shoulder. “With the dawn,” he promised it.

  I had expected him to call to Kettle, but she was already standing and stretching. Skill-linked, I thought to myself. Words were no longer necessary. But they were for his queen. He walked around his dragon to where Kettricken sat near one of the fires. She was grinding at a chisel’s edge. The rough rasping of her work hid our soft footsteps from her. For a time, Verity looked down at his queen as she crouched at this chore. “My lady, shall we sleep awhile?” he asked her quietly.

  She turned. With a gray-dusted hand she wiped the straggling hair from her eyes. “As you wish, my lord,” she replied. She was able to keep almost all her pain from her voice.

  “I am not that tired, my lord king. I would continue working, if you will it. ” Kettle’s cheerful voice was almost jarring. I marked that Kettricken did not turn to look at her at all. Verity only said, “Sometimes it is better to rest before you are tired. If we sleep while it is dark, we will work better by the day’s light. ”

  Kettricken winced as if criticized. “I could build the fires larger, my lord, if that is what you wish,” she said carefully.

  “No. I wish to rest, with you beside me. If you would, my queen. ”

  It was no more than the bones of his affection, but she seized on it. “I would, my lord. ” It hurt me to see her content with so little.

  She is not content, Fitz, nor am I unaware of her pain. I give her what I can. What it is safe for me to give her.

  My king still read me so easily. Chastened, I bid them good night and went off to the tent. As we drew near, Nighteyes rose up, stretching and yawning.

  Did you hunt?

  With all this meat left, why would I hunt? I noticed then the tumble of pig bones all round him. He lay down amongst them again, nose to tail, rich as any wolf could ever be. I knew a moment’s envy of his satisfaction.

  Starling sat watch outside the tent by the fire, her harp nestled in her lap. I started to go past her with a nod, then halted to peer at her harp. With a delighted smile, she held it up for my inspection.

  The Fool had outdone himself. There were no gilt or curlicues, no inlays of ivory or ebony such as some would say set a harp apart. Instead there was only the silken gleam of curving wood, and that subtle carving that highlighted the best of the wood’s grain. I could not look at it without wanting to touch it and hold it. The wood drew the hand to it. The firelight danced upon it.

  Kettle stopped to stare also. She folded her lips tightly. “No caution. It will be the death of him someday,” she said ominously. She then preceded me into the tent.

  Despite my long nap earlier, I sank into sleep almost as soon as I lay down. I do not think I had slept long before I became aware of a stealthy noise outside. I Wit-quested toward it. Men. Four. No, five of them, moving softly up the hillside toward the hut. I could know little more about them than that they came in stealth, like hunters. Somewhere in a dim room, Burrich sat up soundlessly. He rose barefoot and crossed the hut to Molly’s bed. He knelt by the side of it, then touched her arm softly.

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  “Burrich?” She caught her breath on his name, then
waited in wonder.

  “Make no sound,” he breathed. “Get up. Put on your shoes and wrap Nettle well, but try not to wake her. Someone is outside, and I do not think they mean us well. ”

  I was proud of her. She asked no questions, but sat up immediately. She pulled her dress on over her nightgown and thrust her feet into her shoes. She folded up the bedding around Nettle until she looked like little more than a bundle of blankets. The baby did not wake.

  Meanwhile Burrich had drawn on his own boots and taken up a shortsword. He motioned Molly toward the shuttered window. “If I tell you to, go out that window with Nettle. But not unless I say to. I think there are five of them. ”

  Molly nodded in the firelight. She drew her belt knife and stood between her child and danger.

  Burrich stood to one side of the door. The entire night seemed to pass as they waited silently for their attackers to come.

  The bar was in place, but it had little meaning on such an old doorframe. Burrich let them slam into it twice, then, as it started to give, he kicked it out of its brackets, so that on their next onslaught the door was flung wide. Two men came staggering in, surprised at the sudden lack of resistance. One fell, the other fell over the first, and Burrich had put his sword in and out of both of them before the third man was in the door.

  The third man was a big man, redheaded and red-bearded. He came in the door with a roar, trampling right over the two injured men who squirmed under his boots. He carried a long sword, a lovely weapon. His size and blade gave him almost twice Burrich’s reach. Behind him, a stout man bellowed, “In the name of the King, we’ve come for the Wit-Bastard’s whore! Put down your weapon and stand aside. ”

  He’d have been wiser not to rouse Burrich’s anger any brighter than it was. Almost casually, Burrich dropped his blade to finish one of the men on the floor, and then brought the blade back up inside Red-beard’s guard. Red-beard retreated, trying to get space for the advantage of his blade. Burrich had no choice but to follow him, for if the man reached a place where he could swing freely, Burrich would have small chance. The stout man and a woman immediately surged into the door. Burrich spared a glance for them. “Molly! As I told you!”

  Molly was already by the window, clutching Nettle, who had begun to wail in fear. She leaped to a chair, snatched the shutters open, and got one leg out the window. Burrich was busying Red-beard when the woman dashed behind him and sank her knife into his lower back. Burrich cried out hoarsely, and frantically parried the longer blade. As Molly got her other leg over the windowsill and began to drop outside, the stout man leaped across the room and snatched Nettle from her arms. I heard Molly’s shriek of terror and fury.

  Then she ran away into the darkness.

  Disbelief. I could feel Burrich’s disbelief as plainly as my own. The woman pulled her knife from his back and lifted it to strike again. He banished his pain with anger, spun to cut her a slash across her chest, and then turned back to Red-beard. But Red-Beard had stepped back. His sword was still at the ready but he stood motionless as the stout man said, “We’ve got the child. Drop your sword or the baby dies here and now. ” He darted his eyes at the woman clutching at her chest. “Get after the woman. Now!”

  She glared at him, but went without a murmur. Burrich did not even watch her go. He had eyes only for the wailing babe in the stout man’s arms. Red-beard grinned as the tip of Burrich’s weapon slowly dropped toward the floor. “Why?” Burrich asked in consternation. “What have we ever done, that you attack us and threaten to kill my daughter?”

  The stout man looked down at the red-faced baby screaming in his arms. “She’s not yours,” he sneered. “She’s the Wit-Bastard’s bastard. We have it on the best authority. ” He lifted Nettle high as if he would dash her against the floor. He stared at Burrich. Burrich made an incoherent sound, half-fury, half-plea. He dropped his sword. By the door, the injured man groaned and tried to sit up.

  “She’s only a tiny baby,” Burrich said hoarsely. As if it were my own, I knew the warmth of the blood running down Burrich’s back and hip. “Let us go. You are mistaken. She’s my own blood, I tell you, and no threat to your king. Please. I have gold. I’ll take you to it. But let us go. ”

  Burrich, who would have stood and spit and fought to the death, dropped his sword and pleaded for the sake of my child. Red-beard roared out his laughter, but Burrich did not even turn to it. Still laughing, the man stepped to the table and casually lit the branch of candles there. He lifted the light to survey the disheveled room. Burrich could not take his eyes off Nettle. “She’s mine,” he said quietly, almost desperately.

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  “Stop your lies,” the stout man said disdainfully. “She’s the Wit-Bastard’s get. As tainted as he was. ”

  “That’s right. She is. ”

  All eyes turned to the door. Molly stood there, very pale, breathing hard. Her right hand was reddened with blood. She clutched to her chest a large wooden box. An ominous humming came from it. “The bitch you sent after me is dead,” Molly said harshly. “As you will soon be, if you don’t put down your weapons and free my child and man. ” The stout man grinned incredulously. Red-beard lifted his sword.

  Her voice shook only slightly as she added. “The child is Witted, of course. As am I. My bees will not harm us. But injure one of us, and they will rise up and follow you and give you no quarter. You shall die of a million burning stings. Think your swords will be of much use against my Wit-bees?” She looked from face to face, her eyes flashing with anger and her threat as she clutched the heavy wooden hive box to her. One bee escaped it, to buzz angrily about the room. Red-beard’s eyes followed it, even as he exclaimed, “I don’t believe it!”

  Burrich’s eyes were measuring the distance to his sword as Molly asked softly, almost coyly, “Don’t you?” She smiled oddly as she lowered the hive to the floor. Her eyes met Red-beard’s as she lifted the lid of the box. She reached in and even as the stout man gasped aloud, she drew out her hand, gloved with moving bees. She closed the lid of the hive and then stood. She looked down at the bees coating her hand and said quietly, “The one with the red beard, little ones. ” Then she held her hand out as if offering them as a gift.

  It took a moment, but as each bee took flight, it unerringly sought out Red-beard. He flinched as first one and then another buzzed past him, and then came back, circling. “Call them back or we kill the child!” he cried out suddenly. He batted at them ineffectually with the branch of candles he held.

  Molly instead stooped suddenly and heaved up the whole hive as high as she could. “You’ll kill her anyway!” she cried out, her voice breaking on the words. She gave the hive a shake, and the agitated humming of the bees became a roar. “Little ones, they would kill my child! When I set you free, avenge us!” She raised the hive higher yet in her arms, prepatory to smashing it to the floor. The injured man at her feet groaned loudly.

  “Hold!” cried the stout man. “I’ll give you your child!”

  Molly froze. All could see that she could not hold the weight of the hive box much longer. There was strain in her voice but she calmly directed, “Give my baby to my man. Let them both come to me. Or you shall all die, most certainly and most horribly. ” The stout man looked uncertainly at Red-beard. Candles in one hand and sword in the other, Red-beard had retreated from the table, but the bees still buzzed confusedly about him. His efforts to slap them away only seemed to make them more determined. “King Regal will kill us do we fail!”

  “Then die from my bees instead,” Molly suggested. “There are hundreds of bees in here,” she added in a low voice. Her tone was almost seductive as she offered, “They will get inside your shirts and the legs of your trousers. They will cling to your hair as they sting. They will crawl into your ears to sting, and up your noses. And when you scream, they will crowd into your mouth, dozens of humming, fuzzy bodies, to sting your tongue until it will not fit inside your
mouth. You will die choking on them!”

  Her description seemed to decide them. The stout man crossed the room to Burrich, thrust the still-screaming babe into his arms. Red-beard glared but said nothing. Burrich took Nettle, but did not neglect to stoop and seize up his sword as well. Molly glared at Red-beard. “You. Get over there beside him. Burrich. Take Nettle outside. Take her to where we picked mint yesterday. If they force me to act, I do not wish her to see it. It might make her fear the very bees who are her servants. ”

  Burrich obeyed. Of all the things I had witnessed that night, that seemed to me the most amazing. Once he was outside, Molly backed slowly toward the door. “Do not follow,” she warned them. “My Wit-bees will be keeping watch for me, right outside the door. ” She gave the hive a final shake. The roaring hum increased and several more bees escaped into the room, buzzing angrily. The stout man stood frozen, but Red-beard lifted his sword as if it would defend him. The man on the floor gave an incoherent cry and scrabbled away from her as Molly backed outside. She dragged the door shut behind her, then leaned the hive against it. She took the lid off the hive and then kicked it before she turned and ran off into the night. “Burrich!” she called quietly. “I’m coming. ” She did not go toward the road, but off toward the woods. She did not look back.

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  “Come away, Fitz. ” It was no Skilling, but Verity’s soft voice close by me. “You have seen them safe. Watch no more, lest others see with your eyes and know where they go. It is better if you do not know yourself. Come away. ”

  I opened my eyes to the dimness inside the tent. Not only Verity, but Kettle sat beside me. Kettle’s mouth was set in a flat line of disapproval. Verity’s face was stern, but understanding was also there. He spoke before I could. “Did I believe you had sought that, I would be most angry with you. Now I say to you plainly. It is better if you know nothing of them. Nothing at all. Had you heeded me when I first advised you of that, none of them would have been threatened as they were tonight. ”

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