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Assassins quest, p.86
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       Assassins Quest, p.86

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “You both were watching?” I asked quietly. For an instant, I was touched. They both cared that much for my child.

  “She is my heir, too,” Verity pointed out relentlessly. “Do you think I could stand by and do nothing if they had injured her?” He shook his head at me. “Stay away from them, Fitz. For all our sakes. Do you understand?”

  I nodded my head. His words could not distress me. I had already decided I would choose not to know where Molly and Burrich took Nettle. But not because she was Verity’s heir. Kettle and Verity stood and left the tent. I flung myself back into my blankets. The Fool, who had been propped on one elbow, lay down also. “I will tell you tomorrow,” I told him. He nodded mutely, his eyes huge in his pale face. Then he lay back down. I think he went to sleep. I stared up into darkness. Nighteyes came to lie beside me.

  He would protect your cub as his own, he pointed out quietly. That is pack.

  He meant the words for comfort. I did not need them. Instead I reached to rest a hand on his ruff. Did you see how she stood and faced them down? I demanded with pride.

  A most excellent bitch, Nighteyes agreed.

  I felt I had not slept at all when Starling woke the Fool and I for our watch. I came out of the tent stretching and yawning, and suspecting that keeping watch was not really a necessity. But the last shard of night was pleasantly mild, and Starling had left meat broth simmering at the fire’s edge. I was halfway through a mug when the Fool finally followed me out.

  “Starling showed me her harp last night,” I said by way of greeting.

  He smirked with satisfaction. “A crude bit of work. “Ah, this was but one of his early efforts,’ they shall say of it someday,” he added with strained modesty.

  “Kettle said you have no caution. ”

  “No, I have not, Fitz. What do we do here?”

  “Me? What I’m told. When my watch is over, I’m off to the hills, to gather broom twigs. So that I can sweep the rock chips out of Verity’s way. ”

  “Ah. Now there’s lofty work for a Catalyst. And what shall a prophet do, do you suppose?”

  “You might prophesy when that dragon will be finished. I fear we shall think of nothing else until it is done. ”

  The Fool was shaking his head minutely.

  “What?” I demanded.

  “I do not feel we were called here to make brooms and harps. This feels like a lull to me, my friend. The lull before the storm. ”

  “Now, there’s a cheery thought,” I told him glumly. But privately I wondered if he might not be right.

  “Are you going to tell me what went on last night?”

  When my account was finished, the Fool sat grinning. “A resourceful lass, that one,” he observed proudly. Then he cocked his head at me. “Think you the baby will be Witted? Or be able to Skill?”

  I had never stopped to consider it. “I hope not,” I said immediately. And then wondered at my own words.

  Dawn had scarcely broken before both Verity and Kettle arose. They each drank a mug of broth standing, and carried off dried meat as they headed back up to the dragon. Kettricken had also come out of Verity’s tent. Her eyes were hollow and defeat was in the set of her mouth. She had but half a mug of broth before setting it aside. She went back into the tent and returned with a blanket fashioned into a carry-sack.

  “Firewood,” she replied flatly to my raised eyebrow.

  “Then Nighteyes and I may as well go with you. I need to gather broom twigs and a stick. And he needs to do something besides sleep and grow fat. ”

  And you fear to go off in the woods without me.

  If sows like that abound in these woods, you are absolutely correct.

  Perhaps Kettricken would bring her bow?

  But even as I turned to make the suggestion, she was ducking back into the tent to fetch it. “In case we meet another pig,” she told me as she came out.

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  But it was an uneventful expedition. Outside the quarry, the countryside was hilly and pleasant. We stopped at the stream to drink and wash. I saw the flash of a tiny fingerling in the water, and the wolf immediately wanted to fish. I told him I would after I had finished gathering my broom. So he came at my heels, but reluctantly. I gathered my broom twigs and found a long straight branch for a handle. Then we filled Kettricken’s carry-sack with wood, which I insisted on bearing so her hands could be free for her bow. On the way back to camp, we stopped at the stream. I looked for a place where plants overhung the bank, and it did not take us long to find one. We then spent far longer than I had intended in tickling for fish. Kettricken had never seen it done before, but after some impatience, she caught the trick of it. They were a kind of trout I had not seen before, tinged with pink along their bellies. We caught ten, and I cleaned them there, with Nighteyes snapping up the entrails as quickly as I gutted them. Kettricken threaded them onto a willow stick, and we returned to camp.

  I had not realized how much the quiet interlude had soothed my spirits until we came in sight of the black pillar guarding the mouth of the quarry. It seemed more ominous than ever, like some dark scolding finger lifted to warn me that, indeed, this might be the lull but the storm was coming. I gave a small shudder as I passed it. My Skill-sensitivity seemed to be growing again. The pillar radiated controlled power luringly. Almost against my will, I stopped to study the characters incised on it.

  “Fitz? Are you coming?” Kettricken called back to me, and only then did I realize how long I had been gawking. I hastened to catch up with them, and rejoined them just as they were passing the girl on a dragon.

  I had deliberately avoided that spot since the Fool had touched her. Now I glanced up guiltily to where the silver fingerprint still shone against her flawless skin. “Who were you, and why did you make such a sad carving?” I asked her. But her stone eyes only looked at me pleadingly above her tear-specked cheeks.

  “Maybe she could not finish her dragon,” Kettricken speculated. “See how its hind feet and tail are still trapped in the stone? Maybe that’s why it’s so sad. ”

  “She must have carved it sad to begin with, don’t you see? Whether or not she finished it, the upper portion would be the same. ”

  Kettricken looked at me in amusement. “You still don’t believe that Verity’s dragon will fly when it is finished? I do. Of course, I have very little else to believe in anymore. Very little. ”

  I had been going to tell her I thought it a minstrel’s tale for a child, but her final words shut my mouth.

  Back at the dragon, I bound my broom together and went at my sweeping with a vengeance. The sun was high in a bright blue sky with a light and pleasant breeze. It was altogether a lovely day and for a time I forgot all else in my simple chore. Kettricken unloaded her firewood and soon left to get more. Nighteyes followed at her heels, and I noticed with approval that Starling and the Fool hastened after her with carry-sacks of their own. With the rock chips and dust cleared away from the dragon, I could see more of the progress Verity and Kettle had made. The black stone of the dragon’s back was so shiny it almost reflected the blue of the sky. I observed as much to Verity, not really expecting an answer. His mind and heart were focused entirely on the dragon. On all other topics his mind seemed vague and wandering, but when he spoke to me of his dragon and the fashioning of it he was very much King Verity.

  A few moments later, he rocked back on his heels from his crouch beside the dragon’s foot. He stood and ran a silver hand tentatively over the dragon’s back. I caught my breath, for in the wake of his hand there was suddenly color. A rich turquoise, with every scale edged in silver, followed the sweep of Verity’s finger. The hue shimmered there for an instant, then faded. Verity made a small sound of satisfaction. “When the dragon is full, the color will stay,” he told me. Without thinking, I reached a hand toward the dragon, but Verity abruptly shouldered me aside. “Don’t touch him,” he warned me, almost jealousl
y. He must have seen the shock on my face, for he looked rueful. “It’s not safe for you to touch him anymore, Fitz. He is too . . . ” His voice trailed off, and his eyes went afar in search of a word. Then he apparently forgot all about me, for he crouched back to his work on the creature’s foot.

  There is nothing like being treated like a child to provoke one to act that way. I finished the last of my sweeping, set my broom aside, and wandered off. I was not overly surprised when I found myself staring up at the girl on a dragon again. I had come to think of the statue as “Girl-on-a-Dragon,” for they did not seem like separate entities to me. Once more I climbed up on the dais beside her, once more I felt the swirling of her Wit-life. It lifted like fog and reached toward me hungrily. So much entrapped misery. “There is nothing I can do for you,” I told her sadly, and almost felt that she responded to my words. It was too saddening to remain close to her for long. But as I clambered down, I noticed that which alarmed me. Around one of the dragon’s hind feet, someone had been chiseling at the miring stone. I stooped down for a closer inspection. The chips and dust had been cleared from the cut, but the edges of it were new and sharp. The Fool, I told myself, was truly without caution. I stood with the intention of seeking him out immediately.

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  FitzChivalry. Return to me at once, please.

  I sighed to myself. Probably more stone chips to sweep. For this I must be away from Molly, while she fended for herself. As I walked back to the dragon, I indulged myself in forbidden thoughts of her. I wondered if they had found a place to shelter, and how badly Burrich was hurt. They had fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. How would they survive? Or had Regal’s men attacked them again? Had they dragged her and the baby off to Tradeford? Did Burrich lie dead in the dirt somewhere?

  Do you truly believe that could happen and you not know of it? Besides. She seemed more than capable of caring for herself and the child. And Burrich for that matter. Stop thinking of them. And stop indulging in self-pity. I have a task for you.

  I returned to the dragon and picked up my broom. I had been sweeping for some minutes before Verity seemed to notice me. “Ah, Fitz, there you are. ” He stood, stretched, arching his back to take the ache out of it. “Come with me. ”

  I followed him down to the campfire where he busied himself for a moment by putting water to heat. He picked up a piece of the dry-cooked meat, looked at it, and said sadly, “What I would not give for one piece of Sara’s fresh bread. Oh, well. ” He turned to me. “Sit down, Fitz, I want to talk to you. I’ve been giving much thought to all you told me, and I’ve an errand for you. ”

  I sat down slowly on a stone by the fire, shaking my head to myself. One moment he made no sense at all to me; the next he sounded just like the man who had been my mentor for so long. He gave me no time to mull my thoughts.

  “Fitz, you visited the place of the dragons, on your way here. You told me that you and the wolf sensed life in them. Wit-life, you called it. And that one, Realder’s dragon, seemed almost to awaken when you called him by name. ”

  “I get the same sense of life from the girl on the dragon, in the quarry,” I agreed with him.

  Verity shook his head sadly. “Poor thing, nothing can be done for her, I fear. She persisted in trying to keep her human shape, and thus she held back from filling her dragon. There she is and likely to remain for all time. I have taken to heart her warning; at least her error has done that much good. When I fill the dragon, I shall hold nothing back. It would be a poor ending, would it not, to have come so far and sacrificed so much, to end only with a mired dragon? That mistake, at least, I shall not make. ” He bit off a chunk of the dry meat and chewed it thoughtfully.

  I kept silent. He had lost me again. Sometimes all I could do was wait until his own thoughts brought him back to some topic where he made sense. I noticed he had a new smudge of silver at the top of his brow, as if he had unthinkingly wiped sweat away. He swallowed. “Are there any tea herbs left?” he asked, and then added, “I want you to return to the dragons. I want you to see if you can use your Wit with your Skill to awaken them. When I was there, try as I might, I could detect no life in any of them. I feared they had slumbered too long, and starved themselves to death, feeding only on their own dreams until nothing was left. ”

  Starling had left a handful of wilted nettles and mint. I gingerly coaxed them into a pot, then spilled the heated water over them. While they steeped, I sorted my thoughts.

  “You want me to use the Wit and Skill to awake the dragon statues. How?”

  Verity shrugged. “I don’t know. Despite all Kestrel has told me, there are still great gaps in my knowledge of the Skill. When Galen stole Solicity’s books, and ceased all training for Chivalry and me, it was a master stroke against us. I still keep coming back to that. Did he even then plot to secure the throne for his half-brother, or was he merely greedy for power? We will never know. ”

  I spoke then of a thing I had never before voiced. “There is something I do not understand. Kettle says that your killing Carrod with the Skill left you injured yourself. Yet you drained Galen, and seemed to suffer nothing from it. Nor did Serene and Justin seem to take ill from draining the King. ”

  “Draining off another’s Skill is not the same as killing one with a blast of Skill. ” He gave a brief snort of bitter laughter. “Having done both, I well know the difference. In the end, Galen chose to die rather than surrender all his power to me. I suspect that my father made the same choice. I also suspect that he did so to keep from them the knowledge of where I was. What secrets Galen died protecting, we now have an inkling. ” He looked at the meat in his hand, set it aside. “But what concerns us now is waking the Elderlings. You look about us and see a lovely day, Fitz. I see fair seas and a clean wind to bring Red Ships to our shores. While I chip and scrape and labor, Six Duchies folk die or are Forged. Not to mention that Regal’s troops harry and burn the Mountain villages along the border. My own queen’s father rides to battle to protect his folk from my brother’s armies. How that rankles within me! Could you rouse the dragons to their defense, they could take flight now. ”

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  “I am reluctant to undertake a task when I do not know just what it demands,” I began, but Verity stopped me with a grin.

  “It seems to me that just yesterday that was what you were begging to do, FitzChivalry. ”

  He had me. “Nighteyes and I will set out tomorrow morning,” I offered.

  He frowned at me. “I see no reason to delay. It is no long journey for you, but merely a step through the pillar. But the wolf cannot pass through the stone. He will have to stay here. And I would that you went now. ”

  He told me so calmly to go without my wolf. I would sooner have gone stark naked. “Now? As in immediately?”

  “Why not? You can be there in a matter of minutes. See what you can do. If you are successful, I shall know it. If not, come back to us tonight, through the pillar. We will have lost nothing by trying. ”

  “Do you think the coterie is no longer a danger?”

  “They are no greater a danger to you there than here. Now go. ”

  “Should I wait for the others to return and let them know where I have gone?”

  “I will tell them myself, FitzChivalry. Will you do this thing for me?”

  There could be only one answer to such a question. “I will. I go now. ” I hesitated a final time. “I am not sure how to use the pillar. ”

  “It is no more complicated than a door, Fitz. Place your hand on it, and it draws on the Skill within you. Here, this symbol. ” He sketched with a finger in the dust. “That is the one for the place of the dragons. Simply put your hand on it and walk through. This,” another sketch in the dust, “is the sign for the quarry. It will bring you back here. ” He lifted his dark eyes to regard me steadily. Was there a test in those eyes?

  “I shall be b
ack this evening,” I promised him.

  “Good. Luck ride with you,” he told me.

  And that was it. I rose and left the fire behind me, walking toward the pillar. I passed Girl-on-a-Dragon and tried not to be distracted by her. Somewhere off in the woods, the others were gathering firewood while Nighteyes ranged all around them.

  Are you really going without me?

  I shall not be gone long, my brother.

  Shall I come back and wait for you by the pillar?

  No, watch over the Queen for me, if you would.

  With pleasure. She shot a bird for me today.

  I sensed his admiration and sincerity. What finer thing than a bitch who kills efficiently?

  A bitch who shares well.

  See that you save some for me, as well.

  You can have the fish, he assured me magnanimously.

  I looked up at the black pillar that now loomed before me. There was the symbol. As simple as a door, Verity had said. Touch the symbol and pass through. Perhaps. But my stomach was full of butterflies and it was all I could do to lift my hand and press it to the shining black stone. My palm met the symbol and I felt a cold tug of Skill. I stepped through.

  I went from bright sunlight to cool dappling shade. I stepped away from the tall black pillar and onto deeply grassed earth. The air was heavy with moisture and plant smells. Branches that had been beaded with leaf buds the last time I had been here were now lush with foliage. A chorus of insects and frogs greeted me. The forest around me swarmed with life. After the empty silence of the quarry, it was almost overwhelming. I stood for a time, just adjusting to it.

  Cautiously I lowered my Skill walls and reached warily out. Save for the pillar behind me, I had no sense of Skill in use. I relaxed a bit. Perhaps Verity’s blasting of Carrod had done more than he realized. Perhaps they feared to challenge him directly now. I warmed myself with that thought as I set off through the luxuriant growth.

  I was soon soaked to the knee. It was not that there was water underfoot, but that the riotous growth of grasses and reeds that I waded through were laden with moisture. Overhead twining vines and hanging leaves dripped. I did not mind. It seemed refreshing after the bare stone and dust of the quarry. What had been a rudimentary pathway the last time we were here was now a narrow corridor through leaning, sprawling plant life. I came to a shallow gurgling stream, and took a handful of peppery cress from it to nibble as I walked. I promised I would take some back to camp with me come nightfall, and then recalled myself to my mission. Dragons. Where were the dragons?

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