Assassins quest, p.87
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       Assassins Quest, p.87

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  They had not moved, though greenery grew taller around them than it had been. I spotted a lightning-blasted stump I remembered, and from there found Realder’s dragon. I had already decided he might be the most promising one to start with, for I had definitely felt a strong Wit-life in him. As if it could make some difference, I took a few minutes to clear him of vines and wet, clinging grasses. As I did so, one thing struck me. The way the sleeping creature was sprawled upon the earth followed the contour of the ground beneath him. It did not look like a statue carved and then set in place here. It looked like a living creature that had flung itself down to rest and never moved again.

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  I tried to force belief on myself. These were the very Elderlings that rose to King Wisdom’s call. They flew like great birds to the coast and there they defeated the raiders and drove them from our shores. From the skies they fell on the ships, driving the crews mad with terror or oversetting the ships with the great wind from their wings. And they would again, could we but wake them.

  “I shall try,” I said aloud, and then repeated, “I shall wake them,” and sought to have no doubt in my voice. I walked slowly about Realder’s dragon, trying to decide how to begin. From the wedge-shaped reptilian head to the barbed tail, this was one stone dragon that was all of the stuff of legend. I reached an admiring hand to run it over the gleaming scales. I could sense the Wit curling lazily through it like smoke. I willed myself to believe in the life in it. Could any artist have contrived so perfect a rendering? There were knobs of bone at the apex of its wings, similar to those on a gander. I did not doubt that it could clout a man down with it. The barbs of its tail were still sharp and nasty. I could imagine it lashing through rigging or rowers, shearing, slicing, snagging. “Realder,” I cried aloud to it. “Realder!”

  I felt no response. Not a stirring of Skill, not even much difference in its Wit. Well, I told myself I had not expected it to be that easy. In the next few hours, I tried every way I could imagine to wake that beast. I pressed my face to its scaly cheek, and quested into that stone as deeply as I could probe. I got less response from it than an earthworm would have given me. I stretched my body out beside that cold stone lizard, and willed myself to oneness with it. I sought to bond with that lazy stirring of Wit within it. I radiated affection toward it. I commanded it strenuously. Eda help me, I even sought to threaten it with dire consequences if it did not arise to obey my command. It all availed me nothing. I began to clutch at straws. I recalled the Fool to it. Nothing. I reached back for the Skill dream the Fool and I had shared. I brought into my mind every detail of the woman in the rooster crown that I could recall. I offered her to the dragon. There was no response. I tried basic things. Verity said perhaps they had starved. I visualized pools of cool, sweet water; fat, silvery fish there for the devouring. I Skill-visualized Realder’s dragon being devoured by a greater one, and offered it that picture. No response.

  I ventured to reach for my king. If there is life in these stones, it is too small and sunken for me to reach.

  It troubled me a little that Verity did not even bother to reply. But perhaps he too had seen this as a desperation measure, with small chance of success. I left Realder’s dragon and wandered for a time, from stone beast to stone beast. I quested amongst them, looking for any that might have a stronger flicker of Wit-life to them. Once, I thought I had found one, but a closer check showed me that a field mouse had made its home under the dragon’s chest.

  I chose a dragon antlered like a buck and tried again every tactic I had tried on Realder’s dragon, with as little result. By then, the daylight was waning. As I picked my way through the trees back to the pillar, I wondered if Verity had truly expected any sort of success. Doggedly, I moved from dragon to dragon on my way back to the pillar, giving each one a last effort. It was probably what saved me. I straightened from one, thinking I felt a strong Wit-life coming from the next one. But when I got to him, the hulking winged boar with his curving razor tusks, I perceived the Wit was coming from beyond him. I lifted my eyes and peered through the trees, rather expecting to see a deer or wild pig. Instead I saw a man with a drawn sword standing with his back to me.

  I folded up behind the boar. My mouth was suddenly dry, my heart hammering. He was neither Verity nor the Fool. That much I knew in an instant’s glance. He was someone shorter than I, sandy-haired, and holding a sword as if he knew how to wield it. Someone dressed in gold and brown. Not bulky Burl, nor slender dark Will. Someone else, but Regal’s.

  In a moment all became clear to me. How stupid could I have been? I had destroyed Will and Burl’s men, horses and supplies. What else would they do, but Skill to Regal that they needed more? With the constant skirmishing along the Mountain borders it would be no trick for another raiding party to slip through, bypass Jhaampe, and travel up the Skill road. The slide area we had crossed was a formidable barrier but not an insurmountable one. Risking his men’s lives was something Regal was proficient at. I wondered how many had attempted the crossing and how many had survived. I was sure now that Will and Burl were once more comfortably provisioned.

  Then a more chilling thought struck me. He might be Skilled. There was nothing to stop Will from training others. He had all Solicity’s books and scrolls to draw on, and while Skill-potential was not common, it was not excessively rare. In moments my imagination had multiplied the man to an army, all at least marginally Skilled, all fanatically loyal to Regal. I leaned against the stone boar, trying to breathe softly despite the fear coursing through me. For a moment, despair had me in thrall. I had finally realized the immensity of the resources that Regal could turn against us. This was no private vendetta between us; this was a king, with a king’s armies and powers, out to exterminate those he had branded as traitors. The only thing that had bound Regal’s hands before was the possible embarrassment if it were discovered that Verity had not died. Now, back in this remote area, he had nothing to fear. He could use his soldiers to do away with his brother and nephew, his sister-in-law, with all witnesses. Then his coterie could dispose of the soldiers.

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  These thoughts passed through my mind the way lightning illuminates the blackest night. In one flash, I suddenly saw all details. In the next moment, I knew I must get to the pillar and back to the quarry to warn Verity. If it were not already too late.

  I felt myself calm as soon as I had a goal in mind. I considered Skilling to Verity, and quickly rejected the idea. Until I knew my enemy better, I would not risk exposing myself to him. I found myself seeing it as if it were Kettle’s game. Stones to capture or destroy. The man was between me and the pillar. That was to be expected. What I now had to discover was if there were others as well. I drew my own belt knife; a sword was no weapon to use in dense brush. I took a deep steadying breath, and slipped away from the boar.

  I had a rough familiarity with the area. It served me in good stead as I moved from dragon to tree trunk to old stump. Before darkness was complete, I knew there were three men and that they seemed to be guarding the pillar. I did not think they had come here to hunt me, but rather to keep anyone save Regal’s coterie from using the pillar. I had found the tracks of their passage from the Skill road; they were fresh, the men newly arrived. I could then rely that I knew the lay of the land better than they did. I decided I would believe them un-Skilled, as they had come by the trail rather than by the pillar. But they were probably very able soldiers. I also decided I should believe Will and Burl might be very close by. Able to come through the pillar at a moment’s notice. For that reason I kept my Skill walls high and tight. And I waited. When I did not return, Verity would know something was wrong. I did not think he would be so unwary as to come through the pillar in search of me. In truth, I did not think he would leave his dragon for that long. This was my own fix to get myself out of.

  As darkness fell, insects came out. Stinging, biting, swarming insects by
the hundreds, and always the one who insisted on humming right by my ear. Ground mists began to rise, damping my clothes to my body. The guards had made a small fire. I smelled hearth cakes cooking and found myself wondering if I could kill them before they had eaten them all. I grinned hard to myself and ghosted closer. Night and a fire and food usually meant talk. These men spoke little and most of it was in low tones. They did not care for this duty. The long black road had driven some men mad. But tonight it was not the long way they had come, but the stone dragons themselves that bothered them. I also heard enough to confirm what I had guessed. There were three men guarding this pillar. There were a full dozen guarding the one at the plaza where the Fool had had his vision. The main body of soldiers had pushed on toward the quarry. The coterie was seeking to close off escape routes for Verity.

  I felt a bit of relief that it would take them fully as long to get there as it had taken our party. For tonight, at least, Verity and the others were in no danger of attack. But it was only a matter of time. My resolution to get back through the pillar as swiftly as possible hardened. I had no intention of fighting them. That left killing them by ambush, one by one, a feat I doubted even Chade could have accomplished. Or creating enough of a diversion to draw them off long enough for me to make a dash for the pillar.

  I slipped well away from the men, to where I judged I was out of earshot, and proceeded to gather dry firewood. It was not an easy task in such a lush and verdant place, but I finally had a respectable armful. My plan was simple. I told myself it would either work or it wouldn’t. I doubted I would get a second chance; they would be too cautious for that.

  I considered where the symbol for the quarry was on the pillar and worked my way around to the dragons that were on the opposite side of it. Of the dragons, I chose the fierce-looking fellow with ear tufts that I had remarked on my first visit here. He would cast a fine shadow. I cleared a space behind him of wet grass and leaves and set my fire there. I had only enough fuel for a small fire, but I hoped I would not need more than that. I wanted enough light and smoke to be mysterious without enlightening. I got the fire going well, then slipped away from it in the darkness. Belly in the grass, I worked my way as close to the pillar as I dared. Now I only need wait until the guards noticed my fire. I hoped at least one man would go to investigate it, and that the other two would watch where he had gone. Then a noiseless dash, a slap to the pillar, and I’d be gone.

  Save that the guards did not notice my fire. From my vantage, it seemed glaringly obvious. There was rising smoke and a rosy glow through the trees, partially outlining the dragon’s silhouette. I had hoped that would pique their interest. Instead it was blocking my fire too well. I decided a few well-placed rocks would draw their attention to my fire. My groping hands found only lush plant life growing in thick loam. After an interminable wait, I realized my fire was going out, and the guards had noticed it not at all. Once more I slipped out of earshot. Once more I gathered dry sticks in the dark. Then my nose as much as my eyes guided me back to my smoldering fire.

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  My brother, you are long gone. Is all well? There was anxiety in Nighteye’s faint thought.

  I am hunted. Be still. I shall come as soon as I can. I pushed the wolf gently from my thoughts and stole through the dark toward my dwindling fire.

  I refueled it and waited for it to catch. I was just slipping away from it when I heard their voices raised in speculation. I do not think I was careless. It was but an ill twist of luck that as I moved from the cover of a dragon to that of a tree, one guard lifted his torch high, throwing my shadow into stark relief. “There! A man!” one shouted, and two of them charged out at me. I eeled away through the wet underbrush.

  I heard one trip and fall, cursing, in a patch of vines, but the second was a swift and agile fellow. He was on my heels in an instant, and I swear I felt the wind from the first sweep of his sword. I lunged away from it, and found myself half leaping, half falling over the stone boar. I clipped a knee painfully on his rocky back and fell to the earth on the other side of him. Instantly I scrabbled to my feet. My pursuer leaped forward, swinging a mighty blow that surely would have cloven me in two if he had not caught his leg on one curving, razor tusk. He tripped and fell squarely, impaling himself on the second tusk where it thrust up like a scimitar from the boar’s red maw. The sound the man made was not a large one. I saw him begin to struggle to rise, but the curve of the tusk was hooked inside him. I leaped to my feet, mindful of the second man who had been pursuing me, and fled into the dark. Behind me rose a long cry of pain.

  I kept my wits enough to circle. I had nearly reached the pillar when I felt a questing twist of Skill. I recalled the last time I had felt such a thing. Was Verity himself under attack, back at the quarry? One man still guarded the pillar, but I decided to risk his sword to get back to my king. I emerged from the trees, racing toward the pillar while the guard stared off toward my fire and the cries of the fallen man. Another tendril of Skill brushed me.

  “No,” I cried out, “don’t risk yourself!” as my king came through the pillar, notched gray sword clutched in his gleaming silver grip. He emerged behind the guard who had remained on post. My foolish cry had turned him toward the pillar, and he came at my king, sword lifted, even as his face betrayed his terror.

  Verity in their firelight looked like a demon out of a tale. His face was splashed with silver from the careless touching of his hands, while his hands and arms gleamed as if made of polished silver. His gaunt face and ragged clothes, the utter blackness of his eyes would have terrified any man. I will have to give Regal’s guard this: He stood his post, and caught the King’s first blow and turned it. Or so he thought. It was an old trick of Verity’s. Instead his blade wrapped the other. His cut should have severed the hand from the arm, but the dulled blade stopped at the bone. Nonetheless the man dropped his sword. As the man fell to his knees clutching at the gouting wound, Verity’s sword swept in again, across his throat. I felt a second tremoring of Skill. The lone remaining guard came racing toward us from the trees. His eyes fixed on Verity and he cried out in terror. He halted where he stood. Verity took a step toward him.

  “My king, enough! Let us leave!” I cried out. I did not want him to risk himself for me again.

  Instead Verity glanced down at his sword. He frowned. Suddenly he grasped the blade in his left hand just below the hilt and drew it through his shining grip. I gasped at what I saw. The sword he brandished now gleamed and came to a perfect point. Even by torchlight, I could see the wavering ripples of the many-folded metal of the blade. The King glanced at me. “I should have known I could do that. ” He almost smiled. Then Verity lifted it to the other man’s eyes. “When you are ready,” he said quietly.

  What happened next stunned me.

  The soldier fell to his knees, casting his sword into the grass before him. “My king. I know you, even if you do not know me. ” Buck accent spoke plainly in his tumbling words. “My lord, we were told that you were dead. Dead because your queen and the Bastard had conspired against you. Those were who we were told might be found here. It was half for that revenge that I came. I served you well at Buck, my lord, and if you live, I serve my king still. ”

  Verity peered at him in the flickering torchlight. “You’re Tig, aren’t you? Reaver’s boy?”

  The soldier’s eyes widened that Verity recalled him. “Tag, my lord. Serving my king as my father did before me. ” His voice shook a bit. His dark eyes never left the point of the sword Verity had leveled at him.

  Verity lowered his blade. “Do you speak truth, lad? Or simply seek to save your skin?”

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  The young soldier looked up at Verity and dared to smile. “I have no need to fear. The prince I served would not strike down a kneeling, unarmed man. I dare say the King will not either. ”

  Perhaps no other words would have convinced Verity. Desp
ite his weariness, he smiled. “Go then, Tag. Go as swift as you may and as silent as you may, for those who have used you will kill you if they know you are true to me. Return to Buck. And on the way there, and when you get there, tell everyone that I shall be returning. That I shall bring my good and true Queen with me, to sit the throne, and that my heir will claim it after me. And when you get to Buckkeep Castle, present yourself to my brother’s wife. Tell the Lady Patience that I commend you to her service. ”

  “Yes, my king. King Verity?”

  “What is it?”

  “More troops are coming. We are but the vanguard. . . . ” He paused. He swallowed. “I accuse no one of treachery, least of all your own brother. But . . . ”

  “Let it not concern you, Tag. What I have asked you to do is important to me. Go quickly and challenge no one on your way. But carry back those tidings as I have asked you. ”

  “Yes, my king. ”

  “Now,” Verity suggested.

  And Tag rose, took up his sword and sheathed it, and strode off into the darkness.

  Verity turned and his eyes shone with triumph. “We can do it!” he told me quietly. He gestured me fiercely toward the pillar. I reached to palm the symbol and tumbled through as the Skill clutched at me. Verity came on my heels.

  37

  Feeding the Dragon

  BY MIDSUMMER OF that final year, the Six Duchies situation had become desperate. Buckkeep Castle, so long avoided by the Raiders, came under sudden siege from them. They had possessed Antler Island and its watchtowers since midwinter. Forge, the first village to fall victim to the scourge that took its name, had long since become a watering stop for Red Ships. There had been for some time rumors of OutIsland sailing ships anchoring off Scrim Island, including several sightings of the elusive “White Ship. ” For most of the spring, no ships had made passage either into or out of Buck Harbor. This strangle of trade was felt not just in Buck, but in every trade village on the Buck, Bear, and Vin Rivers. The Red Ships had become a sudden reality to the merchants and lords of Tilth and Farrow.

 
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