Assassins quest, p.9
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       Assassins Quest, p.9

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  Almost the moment Verity was gone, Regal began to move against him. He courted the Inland Dukes and ignored the needs of the Coastal Duchies. I suspected he was the source of the whispered rumors that made mock of Verity’s quest and painted him as an irresponsible fool if not a madman. The coterie of Skill users who should have been sworn to Verity had long been corrupted to Regal’s service. He used them to announce that Verity had died while en route to the Mountains, and then proclaimed himself King-in-Waiting. His control over the ailing King Shrewd became absolute; Regal had declared he would move his court inland, abandoning Buckkeep in every way that mattered to the mercies of the Red Ships. When he announced that King Shrewd and Verity’s Queen Kettricken must go with him, Chade had decided we must act. We knew Regal would suffer neither of them to stand between him and the throne. So we had made our plans to spirit them both away, on the very evening he declared himself King-in-Waiting.

  Nothing went as planned. The Coastal Dukes had been close to rising up against Regal; they had tried to recruit me to their rebellion. I had agreed to aid their cause, in the hope of keeping Buckkeep as a position of power for Verity. Before we could spirit the King away, two coterie members had killed him. Only Kettricken had fled, and although I had killed those who had killed King Shrewd, I myself was captured, tortured, and found guilty of the Wit magic. Lady Patience, my father’s wife, had interceded on my behalf to no avail. Had Burrich not managed to smuggle poison to me, I would have been hung over water and burned. But the poison had been enough to counterfeit death convincingly. While my soul rode with Nighteyes in his body, Patience had claimed my body from the prison cell and buried it. Unbeknownst to her, Burrich and Chade had disinterred me as soon as they safely could.

  I blinked my eyes and looked away from the flames. The fire had burned low. My life was like that now, all in ashes behind me. There was no way to reclaim the woman I had loved. Molly believed me dead now, and doubtless viewed my use of Wit magic with disgust. And anyway she left me days before the rest of my life had fallen apart. I had known her since we were children and had played together on the streets and docks of Buckkeep Town. She had called me Newboy, and assumed I was just one of the children from the keep, a stableboy or a scribe’s lad. She had fallen in love with me before she discovered that I was the Bastard, the illegitimate son that had forced Chivalry to abdicate the throne. When she found out, I very nearly lost her. But I had persuaded her to trust me, to believe in me, and for almost a year we had clung to one another, despite every obstacle. Time and again, I had been forced to put my duty to the King ahead of what we wished to do. The King had refused me permission to marry; she had accepted that. He had pledged me to another woman. Even that, she had tolerated. She had been threatened and mocked, as “the Bastard’s whore. ” I had been unable to protect her. But she had been so steadfast through it all . . . until one day she simply told me there was someone else for her, someone she could love, and put above all else in her life, just as I did my king. And she had left me. I could not blame her. I could only miss her.

  I closed my eyes. I was tired, nearly exhausted. And Verity had warned me to Skill no more unless I must. But surely it could not hurt to attempt a glimpse of Molly. Just to see her, for a moment, to see that she was well . . . I probably wouldn’t even succeed at seeing her. But what could I hurt by trying, just for a moment?

  It should have been easy. It was effortless to recall everything about her. I had so often breathed her scent, compounded of the herbs she used to scent her candles and the warmth of her own sweet skin. I knew every nuance of her voice, and how it went deeper when she laughed. I could recall the precise line of her jaw, and how she set her chin when she was annoyed with me. I knew the glossy texture of her rich brown hair and the darting glance of her dark eyes. She had had a way of putting her hands to the sides of my face and holding me firmly while she kissed me. . . . I lifted my own hand to my face, wishing I could find her hand there, that I could trap it and hold it forever. Instead I felt the seam of a scar. The foolish tears rose warm in my eyes. I blinked them away, seeing the flames of my fire swim for a moment before my vision steadied. I was tired, I told myself. Too tired to try and find Molly with my Skill. I should try to get some sleep. I tried to set myself apart from these too-human emotions. Yet this was what I chose when I chose to be a man again. Maybe it was wiser to be a wolf. Surely an animal never had to feel these things.

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  Out in the night, a single wolf lifted his nose and howled suddenly up to the sky, piercing the night with his loneliness and despair.

  4

  The River Road

  BUCK, THE OLDEST duchy of the Six Duchies, has a coastline that stretches from just below the Highdowns southward to include the mouth of the Buck River and Bay of Buck. Antler Island is included in the Duchy of Buck. Buck’s wealth has two major sources: the rich fishing grounds that the coastal folk have always enjoyed, and the shipping trade created by supplying the Inland Duchies with all they lack via the Buck River. The Buck River is a wide river, meandering freely in its bed, and often flooding the lowlands of Buck during the spring. The current is such that an ice-free channel has always remained open in the river year round, save for the four severest winters in Buck’s history. Not only Buck goods travel up the river to the Inland Duchies, but trade goods from Rippon and Shoaks duchies, not to mention the more exotic items from the Chalced States and those of the Bingtown Traders. Down the river comes all that the Inland Duchies have to offer, as well as the fine furs and ambers from the Mountain Kingdom trade.

  I awoke when Nighteyes nudged my cheek with a cold nose. Even then I did not startle awake, but became soddenly aware of my surroundings. My head pounded and my face felt stiff. The empty bottle from the elderberry wine rolled away from me as I pushed myself to a sitting position on the floor.

  You sleep too soundly. Are you sick?

  No. Just stupid.

  I never before noticed that it made you sleep soundly.

  He poked me with his nose again and I pushed him away. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, then opened them again. Nothing had improved. I tossed a few more sticks of wood onto the embers of last night’s fire. “Is it morning?” I asked sleepily, aloud.

  The light is just starting to change. We should go back to the rabbit warren place.

  You go ahead. I’m not hungry.

  Very well. He started off, then paused in the open doorway. I do not think that sleeping inside is good for you. Then he was gone, a shifting of grayness from the threshold. Slowly I lay down again and closed my eyes. I would sleep for just a short time longer.

  When I awoke again, full daylight was streaming in the open door. A brief Wit-quest found a satiated wolf drowsing in the dappling sunlight between two big roots of an oak tree. Nighteyes had small use for bright sunny days. Today I agreed with him, but forced myself back to yesterday’s resolution. I began to set the hut to rights. Then it occurred to me that I would probably never see this place again. Habit made me finish sweeping it out anyway. I cleared the ashes from the hearth, and set a fresh armload of wood there. If anyone did pass this way and need shelter, they would find all ready for them. I gathered up my now-dry clothing and set everything I would be taking with me on the table. It was pathetically little if one was thinking of it as all I had. When I considered that I had to carry all of it on my own back, it seemed plentiful. I went down to the stream to drink and wash before trying to make it into a manageable pack.

  As I walked back from the stream, I was wondering how disgruntled Nighteyes was going to be about traveling by day. I had dropped my extra leggings on the doorstep somehow. I stooped and picked them up as I entered, tossing them onto the table. I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone.

  The garment on the doorstep should have warned me, but I had become careless. It had been too long since I had been threatened. I had begun to rely too completely on my Wit-sense to l
et me know when others were around. Forged ones could not be perceived that way. Neither the Wit nor the Skill would avail me anything against them. There were two of them, both young men, and not long Forged by the look of them. Their clothing was mostly intact, and while they were dirty, it was not the ground-in filth and matted hair that I had come to associate with the Forged.

  Most of the times I had fought Forged ones it had been winter and they had been weakened by privation. One of my duties as King Shrewd’s assassin had been to keep the area around Buckkeep free of them. We had never discovered what magic the Red Ships used on our folk, to snatch them from their families and return them but hours later as emotionless brutes. We knew only that the sole cure was a merciful death. The Forged ones were the worst of the horrors that the Raiders loosed on us. They left our own kin to prey on us long after their ships were gone. Which was worse: to face your brother, knowing that theft, murder, and rape were perfectly acceptable to him now, as long as he got what he wished? Or to take up your knife and go out to hunt him down and kill him?

  I had interrupted the two as they were pawing through my possessions. Hands full of dried meat, they were feeding, each keeping a wary eye on the other. Though Forged ones might travel together, they had absolutely no loyalty to anyone. Perhaps the company of other humans was merely a habit. I had seen them turn savagely upon one another to dispute ownership of some plunder, or merely when they had become hungry enough. But now they swung their gazes to me, considering. I froze where I was. For a moment, no one moved.

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  They had the food and all my possessions. There was no reason for them to attack me, as long as I didn’t challenge them. I eased back toward the door, stepping slowly and carefully, keeping my hands down and still. Just as if I had come up on a bear on its kill, so I did not look directly at them as I gingerly eased back from their territory. I was nearly clear of the door when one lifted a dirty hand to point at me. “Dreams too loud!” he declared angrily. They both dropped their plunder and sprang after me.

  I whirled and fled, smashing solidly chest to chest with one who was just coming in the door. He was wearing my extra shirt and little else. His arms closed around me almost reflexively. I did not hesitate. I could reach my belt knife and did, and punched it into his belly a couple of times before he fell back from me. He curled over with a roar of pain as I shoved past him.

  Brother! I sensed, and knew Nighteyes was coming, but he was too far away, up on the ridge. A man hit me solidly from behind and I went down. I rolled in his grip, screaming in hoarse terror as he suddenly awakened in me every searing memory of Regal’s dungeon. Panic came over me like a sudden poison. I plunged back into nightmare. I was too terrified to move. My heart hammered, I could not take a breath, my hands were numb, I could not tell if I still gripped my knife. His hand touched my throat. Frantically I flailed at him, thinking only of escape, of evading that touch. His companion saved me, with a savage kick that grazed my side as I thrashed and connected solidly with the ribs of the man on top of me. I heard him gasp out his air, and with a wild shove I had him off me. I rolled clear, came to my feet, and fled.

  I ran powered by fear so intense I could not think. I heard one man close behind me, and thought I could hear the other behind him. But I knew these hills and pastures now as my wolf knew them. I took them up the steep hill behind the cottage and before they could crest it I changed direction and went to earth. An oak had fallen during the last of the winter’s wild storms, rearing up a great wall of earth with its tangled roots, and taking lesser trees down with it. It had made a fine tangle of trunks and branches, and let a wide slice of sunlight into the forest. The blackberries had sprung up rejoicing and overwhelmed the fallen giant. I flung myself to the earth beside it. I squirmed on my belly through the thorniest part of the blackberry canes, into the darkness beneath the oak’s trunk, and then lay completely still.

  I heard their angry shouting as they searched for me. In a panic I threw up my mental walls as well. “Dreams too loud,” the Forged one had accused me. Well, Chade and Verity had both suspected that Skilling drew the Forged ones. Perhaps the keenness of feeling it demanded and the outreaching of that feeling in Skill touched something in them and reminded them of all they had lost.

  And made them want to kill whomever could still feel? Maybe.

  Brother?

  It was Nighteyes, muted somehow, or at a very great distance. I dared open to him a bit.

  I’m all right. Where are you?

  Right here. I heard a rustling and suddenly he was there, bellying through to me. He touched his nose to my cheek. Are you hurt?

  No. I ran away.

  Wise, he observed, and I could sense that he meant it.

  But I could sense too that he was surprised. He had never seen me flee from Forged ones. Always before I had stood and fought, and he had stood and fought beside me. Well, those times I had usually been well armed and well fed, and they had been starved and suffering from the cold. Three against one when you’ve only a belt knife as a weapon are bad odds, even if you know a wolf is coming to help you. There was nothing of cowardice in it. Any man would have done so. I repeated the thought several times to myself.

  It’s all right, he soothed me. Then he added, Don’t you want to come out?

  In a while. When they’ve gone, I hushed him.

  They’ve been gone a long time, now, he offered me. They left while the sun was still high.

  I just want to be sure.

  I am sure. I watched them go, I followed them. Come out, little brother.

  I let him coax me out of the brambles. I found when I emerged that the sun was almost setting. How many hours had I spent in there, senses deadened, like a snail pulled into its shell? I brushed dirt from the front of my formerly clean clothes. There was blood there as well, the blood of the young man in the doorway. I’d have to wash my clothes again, I thought dumbly. For a moment I thought of hauling the water and heating it, of scrubbing out the blood, and then I knew I could not go into the hut and be trapped in there again.

  Yet the few possessions I had were there. Or whatever the Forged ones had left of them.

  By moonrise I had found the courage to approach the hut. It was a good full moon, lighting up the wide meadow before the hut. For some time I crouched on the ridge, peering down and watching for any shadows that might move. One man was lying in the deep grass near the door of the hut. I stared at him for a long time, looking for movement.

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  He’s dead. Use your nose, Nighteyes recommended.

  That would be the one I had met coming out the door. My knife must have found something vital; he had not gone far. Still, I stalked him through the darkness as carefully as if he were a wounded bear. But soon I smelled the sweetish stench of something dead left all day in the sun. He was sprawled facedown in the grass. I did not turn him over, but made a wide circle around him.

  I peered through the window of the hut, studying the still darkness of the interior for some minutes.

  There’s no one in there, Nighteyes reminded me impatiently.

  You are sure?

  As sure as I am that I have a wolf’s nose and not a useless lump of flesh beneath my eyes. My brother . . .

  He let the thought trail off, but I could feel his wordless anxiety for me. I almost shared it. A part of me knew there was little to fear, that the Forged ones had taken whatever they wanted and moved on. Another part could not forget the weight of the man upon me, and the brushing force of that kick. I had been pinned like that against the stone floor of a dungeon and pounded, fist and boot, and I had not been able to do anything. Now that I had that memory back, I wondered how I would live with it.

  I did, finally, go into the hut. I even forced myself to kindle a light, once my groping hands had found my flint. My hands shook as I hastily gathered what they had left me and bundled it int
o my cloak. The open door behind me was a threatening black gap through which they might come at any moment. Yet if I closed it, I might be trapped inside. Not even Nighteyes keeping watch on the doorstep could reassure me.

  They had taken only what they had immediate use for. Forged ones did not plan beyond each moment. All the dried meat had been eaten or flung aside. I wanted none of what they had touched. They had opened my scribe’s case, but lost interest when they found nothing to eat in there. My smaller box of poisons and herbs they had probably assumed held my scribe’s color pots. It had not been tampered with. Of my clothes, only the one shirt had been taken, and I had no interest in reclaiming it. I’d punched its belly full of holes anyway. I took what was left and departed. I crossed the meadow and climbed to the top of the ridge, where I had a good view in all directions. There I sat down and with trembling hands packed what I had left for traveling. I used my winter cloak to wrap it, and tied the bundle tightly with leather thongs. A separate strapping allowed me to sling it over a shoulder. When I had more light, I could devise a better way to carry it.

  “Ready?” I asked Nighteyes.

  Do we hunt now?

  No. We travel. I hesitated. Are you very hungry?

  A bit. Are you in so much of a hurry to be away from here?

  I didn’t need to think about that. “Yes. I am. ”

  Then do not be concerned. We can both travel and hunt.

  I nodded, then glanced up at the night sky. I found the Tiller in the night sky, and took a bearing off it. “That way,” I said, pointing down the far side of the ridge. The wolf made no reply, but simply rose and trotted purposefully off in the direction I had pointed. I followed, ears pricked and all senses keen for anything that might move in the night. I moved quietly and nothing followed us. Nothing followed me at all, save my fear.

 
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