Assassins quest, p.89
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       Assassins Quest, p.89

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Perhaps we would all be dead before we even reached Jhaampe. Is that a better end for my queen? No. I shall carry her back to Buckkeep, and clean the coasts, and she shall reign long and well as Queen. There. That is what I choose to give her. ”

  “And an heir?” I asked bitterly.

  He shrugged wearily and took up his chisel again. “You know what must be. Your daughter will be raised as heir. ”

  “NO! Threaten me with that again, and regardless of the risk, I will Skill to Burrich to flee with her. ”

  “You cannot Skill to Burrich,” Verity observed mildly. He appeared to be measuring for the dragon’s toe. “Chivalry closed his mind to the Skill years ago, to keep him from being used against Chivalry. As the Fool was used against you. ”

  Another small mystery laid to rest. For all the good it did me. “Verity, please. I beg you. Do not do this thing to me. Far better I should be consumed in the dragon as well. I offer you that. Take my life and feed it to the dragon. I will give you anything you ask of me. But promise me that my daughter will not be sacrificed to the Farseer throne. ”

  “I cannot make you that promise,” he said heavily.

  “If you bore any feelings at all for me anymore,” I began, but he interrupted me.

  “Cannot you understand, no matter how often you are told? I have feelings. But I have put them into the dragon. ”

  I managed to stand up. I limped away. There was nothing more to say to him. King or man, uncle or friend, I seemed to have lost all knowledge of who he was. When I Skilled toward him, I found only his walls. When I quested toward him with the Wit, I found his life flickering between himself and the stone dragon. And of late, it seemed to burn brighter within the dragon, not Verity.

  There was no one else in camp and the fire was nearly out. I flung more wood on it, and then sat eating dried meat beside it. The pig was nearly gone. We’d have to hunt again soon. Or rather, Nighteyes and Kettricken should hunt again. She seemed to bring meat down easily for him. My self-pity was losing its savor, but I could think of no better solution than to wish I had some brandy to drown it in. At last, with few other interesting alternatives, I went to bed.

  I slept, after a fashion. Dragons plagued my dreams and Kettle’s game took on odd meanings as I tried to decide if a red stone was powerful enough to capture Molly. My dreams were rambling and incoherent, and I broke often to the surface of my sleep, to stare at the dark inside the tent. I quested out once to where Nighteyes prowled near a small fire while Starling and the Fool slept turn and turn about. They had moved their sentry post to the brow of a hill where they could command a good view of the winding Skill road below them. I should have walked out and joined them. Instead I rolled over and dipped into my dreams again. I dreamed of Regal’s troops coming, not by dozens or scores, but hundreds of gold-and-brown troops pouring into the quarry, to corner us against the vertical black walls and kill us all.

  I awoke in the morning to the cold poke of a wolf’s nose. You need to hunt, he told me seriously, and I agreed with him. As I emerged from my tent, I saw Kettricken just coming down from the dais. Dawn was breaking, her fires were needed no longer. She could sleep, but up by the dragon, the endless clinking and scraping went on. Our eyes met as I stood up. She glanced at Nighteyes.

  “Going hunting?” she asked us both. The wolf gave a slow wag to his tail. “I’ll fetch my bow,” she announced, and vanished into her tent. We waited. She came out wearing a cleaner jerkin and carrying her bow. I refused to look at Girl-on-a-Dragon as we passed her. As we passed the pillar, I observed, “Had we the folk to do it, we should put two on guard here, and two overlooking the road. ”

  Kettricken nodded to that. “It is odd. I know they are coming to kill us, and I see small way for us to escape that fate. Yet we still go out to hunt for meat, as if eating were the most important thing. ”

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  It is. Eating is living.

  “Still, to live, one must eat,” Kettricken echoed Nighteyes’ thought.

  We saw no game truly worthy of her bow. The wolf ran down a rabbit, and she brought down one brightly colored fowl. We ended up tickling for trout and by midday had more than enough fish to feed us, at least for that day. I cleaned them on the bank of the stream, and then asked Kettricken if she would mind if I stayed to wash myself.

  “In truth, it might be a kindness to us all,” she replied, and I smiled, not at her teasing, but that she was still able to do so. In a short time I heard her splashing upstream from me, while Nighteyes dozed on the creek bank, his belly full of fish guts.

  As we passed Girl-on-a-Dragon on the way back to camp, we found the Fool curled up on the dais beside her, sound asleep. Kettricken woke him, and scolded him for the fresh chisel marks about the dragon’s tail. He professed no regrets, but only stated that Starling had said she would keep watch until evening, and he would really prefer to sleep here. We insisted he return to camp with us.

  We were talking amongst ourselves as we returned to the tent. Kettricken it was who stopped us suddenly. “Hush!” she cried out. And then, “Listen!”

  We froze where we were. I half expected to hear Starling crying a warning to us. I strained my ears, but heard nothing save the wind in the quarry and distant bird sounds. It took a moment for me to grasp the importance of that. “Verity!” I exclaimed. I shoved our fish into the Fool’s hands and began to run. Kettricken passed me.

  I had feared to find them both dead, attacked by Regal’s coterie in our absence. What I found was almost as strange. Verity and Kettle stood, side by side, staring at their dragon. He shone black and glistening as good flint in the afternoon sunlight. The great beast was complete. Every scale, every wrinkle, every claw was impeccable in its detail. “He surpasses every dragon we saw in the stone garden,” I declared. I had walked about him twice, and with every step I took, the wonder of him increased. Wit-life burned powerfully in him now, stronger than it did in either Verity or Kettle. It was almost shocking that his sides did not bellow with breath, that he did not twitch in his sleep. I glanced to Verity, and despite the anger I still harbored, I had to smile.

  “He is perfect,” I said quietly.

  “I have failed,” he said without hope. Beside him, Kettle nodded miserably. The lines in her face had gone deeper. She looked every bit of two hundred years old. So did Verity.

  “But he is finished, my lord,” Kettricken said quietly. “Is not this what you said you must do? Finish the dragon?”

  Verity shook his head slowly. “The carving is finished. But the dragon is not completed. ” He looked around at us, watching him, and I could see how he struggled to make the words hold his meaning. “I have put all I am into him. Everything save enough to keep my heart beating and the breath flowing in my body. As has Kettle. That, too, we could give. But it would still not be enough. ”

  He walked forward slowly, to lean against his dragon. He pillowed his face on his thin arms. All about him, where his body rested against the stone, an aura of color rippled on the dragon’s skin. Turquoise, edged with silver, the scales flashed uncertainly in the sunlight. I could feel the ebbing of his Skill into the dragon. It seeped from Verity into the stone as ink soaks into a page.

  “King Verity,” I said softly, warningly.

  With a groan, he stood free of his creation. “Do not fear, Fitz. I will not let him take too much. I will not give up my life to him without reason. ” He lifted his head and looked around at us all. “Strange,” he said softly. “I wonder if this is what it feels like to be Forged. To be able to recall what one once felt, but unable to feel it anymore. My loves, my fears, my sorrows. All have gone into the dragon. Nothing have I held back. Yet it is not enough. Not enough. ”

  “My lord Verity. ” Kettle’s old voice was cracked. All hope had run out of it. “You will have to take FitzChivalry. There is no other way. ” Her eyes, once so shiny, looked like dry black pebbles as she
looked at me. “You offered it,” she reminded me. “All your life. ”

  I nodded my head. “If you would not take my child,” I added quietly. I drew a breath deep into my lungs. Life. Now. Now was all the life I had, all the time I could truly give up. “My king. I no longer seek any bargain of any kind. If you must have my life so that the dragon may fly, I offer it. ”

  Verity swayed slightly where he stood. He stared at me. “Almost, you make me feel again. But. ” He lifted a silver finger and pointed it accusingly. Not at me, but at Kettle. His command was as solid as the stone of his dragon as he said, “No. I have told you that. No. You will not speak of it to him again. I forbid it. ” Slowly he sank down to his knees, then sat flat beside his dragon. “Damn this carris seed,” he said in a low voice. “It always leaves you, just when you need its strength most. Damn stuff. ”

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  “You should rest now,” I said stupidly. In reality, there was nothing else he could do. That was how carris seed left one. Empty and exhausted. I knew that only too well.

  “Rest,” he said bitterly, his voice failing on the word. “Yes. Rest. I shall be well rested when my brother’s soldiers find me and cut my throat. Well rested when his coterie comes and tries to claim my dragon as their own. Make no mistake, Fitz. That is what they seek. It won’t work, of course. At least, I don’t think it will. . . . ” His mind was wandering now. “Though it might,” he said in the faintest of breaths. “They were Skill-linked to me, for a time. It might be enough that they could kill me and take him. ” He smiled a ghastly smile. “Regal as dragon. Do you think he will leave two stones of Buckkeep Castle atop each other?”

  Behind him, Kettle had folded herself up, her face against her knees. I thought she wept, but when she slowly fell over onto her side, her face was lax and still, her eyes closed. Dead, or sleeping the exhausted sleep of the carris seed. After what Verity had said to me, it scarcely seemed to matter. My king stretched himself out on the bare gritty pedestal. He slept beside his dragon.

  Kettricken went and sat down beside him. She bowed her head to her knees and wept. Not quietly. The rending sobs that shook her should have roused even the dragon of stone. They did not. I looked at her. I did not go to her, I did not touch her. I knew it would have been of no use. Instead I looked to the Fool. “We should bring blankets and make them more comfortable,” I said helplessly.

  “Ah. Of course. What better task for the White Prophet and his Catalyst?” He linked arms with me. His touch renewed the thread of Skill bond between us. Bitterness. Bitterness flowed through him with his blood. The Six Duchies would fall. The world would end.

  We went to fetch blankets.

  38

  Verity’s Bargain

  WHEN ALL THE records are compared, it becomes plain that no more than twenty Red Ships actually ventured inland as far as Turlake, and only twelve proceeded past Turlake to menace the villages adjoining Tradeford. The minstrels would have us believe there were scores of ships, and literally hundreds of Raiders upon their decks. In song, the banks of the Buck and Vin Rivers were red with flames and blood that summer. They are not to be faulted for this. The misery and terror of those days should never be forgotten. If a minstrel must embroider the truth to help us recall it fully, then let her, and let no one say she has lied. Truth is often much larger than facts.

  Starling came back with the Fool that evening. No one asked her why she no longer kept watch. No one even suggested that perhaps we should flee the quarry before Regal’s troops cornered us there. We would stay and we would stand, and we would fight. To defend a stone dragon.

  And we would die. That went without saying. Quite literally, it was knowledge that none of us uttered.

  When Kettricken had fallen asleep, exhausted, I carried her down to the tent she had shared with Verity. I laid her down on her blankets, and covered her well. I stooped and kissed her lined forehead as if I were kissing my sleeping child. It was a farewell, of sorts. Better to do things now, I had decided. Now was all I had for certain.

  As dusk fell, Starling and the Fool sat by the fire. She played her harp softly, wordlessly, and looked into the flames. A bared knife lay on the ground beside her. I stood a time and watched how the firelight touched her face. Starling Birdsong, the last minstrel to the last true Farseer King and Queen. She would write no song that anyone would recall.

  The Fool sat still and listened. They had found a friendship, of sorts. I thought to myself, if this is the last night she can play, he can give her no finer thing than that. To listen well, and let her music lull him with her skill.

  I left them sitting there and took up a full waterskin. Slowly I climbed the ramp up to the dragon. Nighteyes followed me. Earlier, I had built a fire on the dais. Now I fed it from what remained of Kettricken’s firewood, and then sat down beside it. Verity and Kettle slept on. Once Chade had used carris seed for two days straight. When he collapsed, he had taken most of a week to recover. All he had wanted to do was sleep and drink water. I doubted that either would awaken soon. It was all right. There was nothing left to say to them anyway. So I simply sat beside Verity and kept watch over my king.

  I was a poor watchman. I came awake to his whispering my name. I sat up instantly and reached for the waterskin I had brought with me. “My king,” I said quietly.

  But Verity was not sprawled on the stone, weak and helpless. He stood over me. He made a sign to me to rise and follow him. I did, moving as quietly as he did. At the base of the dragon’s dais, he turned to me. Without a word, I offered him the waterskin. He drank half of what it held, paused a bit, and then drank the rest. When he was finished, he handed it back to me. He cleared his throat. “There is a way, FitzChivalry. ” His dark eyes, so like my own, met mine squarely. “You are the way. So full of life and hungers. So torn with passions. ”

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  “I know,” I said. The words came out bravely. I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life. Regal had scared me badly in his dungeon. But that had been pain. This was death. I suddenly knew the difference. My traitorous hands twisted the front hem of my tunic.

  “You will not like it,” he warned me. “I do not like it. But I see no other way. ”

  “I am ready,” I lied. “Only . . . I should like to see Molly once more. To know that she and Nettle are safe. And Burrich. ”

  He peered at me. “I recall the bargain you offered. That I would not take Nettle for the throne. ” He glanced away from me. “What I ask of you will be worse. Your actual life. All the life and energy of your body. I have spent all my passions, you see. I have nothing left. If I could but kindle in myself one more night of feelings . . . if I could recall what it was to desire a woman, to hold the woman I loved in my arms . . . ” His voice dwindled away from me. “It shames me to ask it of you. Shames me more than when I drew strength from you, when you were no more than an unsuspecting boy. ” He met my eyes again and I knew how he struggled to use words. Imperfect words. “But you see, even that. The shame I feel, the pain that I do this to you . . . even that is what you give me. Even that I can put into the dragon. ” He looked away from me. “The dragon must fly, Fitz. He must. ”

  “Verity. My king. ” He stared away from me. “My friend. ” His eyes came back to mine. “It is all right. But . . . I should like to see Molly again. Even briefly. ”

  “It is dangerous. I think what I did to Carrod woke true fear in them. They have not tried their strength against us since then, only their cunning. But . . . ”

  “Please. ” I said the small word quietly.

  Verity sighed. “Very well, boy. But my heart misgives me. ”

  Not a touch. He didn’t even take a breath. Even as Verity dwindled, that was the power of his Skill. We were there, with them. I sensed Verity retreating, giving me the illusion I was there alone.

  It was an inn room. Clean and well furnished. A branch of candles
burned beside a loaf of bread and a bowl of apples on a table. Burrich lay shirtless on his side on the bed. Blood had clotted thickly about the knife wound and soaked the waist of his breeches. His chest moved in the slow, deep rhythms of sleep. He was curled around Nettle. She was snugged against him, deeply asleep, his right arm over her protectively. As I watched, Molly leaned over them and deftly slid the babe from under Burrich’s arm. Nettle did not stir as she was carried over to a basket in the corner and tucked into the blankets that lined it. Her small pink mouth worked with memories of warm milk. Her brow was smooth beneath her sleek black hair. She seemed none the worse for everything she had endured.

  Molly moved efficiently about the room. She poured water into a basin, and took up a folded cloth. She returned to crouch beside Burrich’s bed. She set the basin of water on the floor beside the bed and dipped the rag into it. She wrung it out well. As she set it to his back he jerked awake with a gasp. Fast as a striking snake, he had caught her wrist.

  “Burrich! Let go, this has to be cleaned. ” Molly was annoyed with him.

  “Oh. It’s you. ” His voice was thick with relief. He released her.

  “Of course it’s me. Who else would you expect?” She sponged at the knife wound gently, then dipped the rag in the water again. Both the rag in her hand and the basin of water beside her were tinged with blood.

  His hand groped carefully over the bed beside him. “What have you done with my baby?” he asked.

  “Your baby is fine. She’s asleep in a basket. Right there. ” She wiped his back again, then nodded to herself. “The bleeding has stopped. And it looks clean. I think the leather of your tunic stopped most of her thrust. If you sit up, I can bandage it. ”

  Slowly Burrich moved to sit up. He gave one tiny gasp, but when he was sitting up, he grinned at her. He pushed a straggle of hair back from his face. “Wit-bees,” he said admiringly. He shook his head at her. I could tell it was not the first time he had said it.

  “It was all I could think of,” Molly pointed out. She could not keep from smiling back. “It worked, did it not?”

 
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