Assassins quest, p.92
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       Assassins Quest, p.92

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  At first I could think of no answer to that. Then, as he reached his dragon and placed his hands on its brow, I told him, I never doubted it. Never doubt I loved you.

  I don’t think I shall ever forget that final smile over his shoulder. His eyes went a last time to his queen. He pressed his hands firmly to the dragon’s chiseled head. He watched her as he went. For an instant, I could smell Kettricken’s skin, recall the taste of her mouth on mine, the smooth warmth of her bare shoulders gripped in my hands. Then the faint memory was gone and Verity was gone and Kettle was gone. To my Wit and my Skill they disappeared as completely as if they had been Forged. For an unnerving instant, I saw Verity’s empty body. Then he flowed into the dragon. Kettle had been leaning on the statue’s shoulder. She was gone faster than Verity, spreading out across the scales as turquoise and silver. Color flooded the creature and suffused him. No one breathed, save that Nighteyes keened softly. A great stillness held under the summer sun. I heard Kettricken give a single, choked sob.

  Then, like a sudden wind, the great scaled body drew air into its lungs. His eyes, when he opened them, were black and shining, the eyes of a Farseer, and I knew Verity looked out of them. He lifted his great head upon his sinuous neck. He stretched like a cat, bowing and rolling reptilian shoulders and spreading claws. As he drew his clawed feet back, his talons scored the black stone deeply. Suddenly, like a sail catching the wind, his immense wings unfurled. He rattled them, a hawk settling his plumage, and refolded them sleek to his body. His tail gave a single lash, stirring rock dust and grit into the air. The great head turned, his eyes demanding we be as pleased with this new self as he was.

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  Verity-as-Dragon strode forward to present himself to his queen. The head he bent to her dwarfed her. I saw her whole reflection in one gleaming black eye. Then he dipped a shoulder to her, bidding her mount.

  For one instant, grief controlled her face. Then Kettricken drew a breath and became Queen. Fearlessly she strode forward. She placed her hand on Verity’s shining blue shoulder. His scales were slick and she slipped a trifle as she clambered to his back and then crawled forward to where she could straddle his neck. Starling gave me a look, of terror and amazement, and followed the Queen more slowly. I saw her take her place behind Kettricken, and check once more that her harp-pack was secured to her back.

  Kettricken lifted an arm in farewell to us. She shouted something, but the words were lost to me in the wind of the dragon’s opening wings. Once, twice, thrice he flapped them, as if getting the feel of them. Rock dust and grit flew stingingly against my face and Nighteyes pressed close against my leg. The dragon crouched as he gathered his great legs under him. The wide turquoise wings beat again and he sprang up suddenly. It was not a graceful launch, and he wobbled a bit as he took flight. I saw Starling clutch desperately at Kettricken, but Kettricken leaned forward against his neck, shouting her encouragement. In four beats, his wings carried him half the length of the quarry. He lifted, circling over the hills and trees that surrounded the quarry. I saw him dip his wings and turn to inspect the Skill road that led to the quarry. Then his wings began to beat steadily, carrying him higher and higher. His belly was a bluish white, like a lizard’s. I squinted to see him against the summer sky. Then, like a blue and silver arrow, he was gone, speeding toward Buck. Long after he was gone from sight, I stared after him.

  I let out my breath finally. I was trembling. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and turned toward the Fool. Who was gone.

  “Nighteyes! Where is the Fool?”

  We both know where he is gone. There is no need to shout.

  I knew he was right. Yet I could not deny the urgency I felt. I ran down the ramp of stone, leaving the empty dais behind me. “Fool?” I cried as I reached the tent. I even paused to look inside, hoping that he might be packing up what we’d need to take with us. I don’t know why I indulged such a foolish hope.

  Nighteyes had not waited. When I reached Girl-on-a-Dragon, he was already there. He was sitting patiently, tail neatly coiled about his feet, looking up at the Fool. I slowed when I saw him. My premonition of danger faded. He was sitting on the edge of the dais, feet dangling, head leaned back against the dragon’s leg. The surface of the dais was littered with fresh chips from this day’s efforts. I walked toward him. His eyes were lifted to the sky and the expression on his face was wistful. Contrasted against the dragon’s rich green hide, the Fool was white no longer, but the palest of golds. There was even a tawny edge to his silky fine hair. The eyes he turned to me were pale topaz. He very slowly shook his head at me, but he did not speak until I leaned against her pedestal.

  “I had been hoping. I could not help hoping. But I have seen today what must be put into a dragon so it can fly. ” He shook his head more forcefully. “And even if I had the Skill to give it, I do not have it to give. Even were she to consume all of me, it would not be enough. ”

  I did not say that I knew that. I did not even say that I had suspected it all along. I had finally learned something from Starling Birdsong. I let him have a silence for a time. Then I said, “Nighteyes and I are going to go get two jeppas. When I come back, we had better pack swiftly and be gone. I did not see Verity give chase to anything. Perhaps that means Regal’s troops are still far away. But I don’t want to take any chances. ”

  He drew a deep breath. “That is wise. It is time for this Fool to be wise. When you come back, I shall help you pack. ”

  I realized then I was still gripping Verity’s sword in its sheath. I took off the plain shortsword and replaced it with the blade Hod had made for Verity. It weighed strangely against me. I offered the shortsword to the Fool. “Want this?”

  He glanced at me, a puzzled look. “What for? I’m a Fool, not a killer. I’ve never even learned to use one. ”

  I left him there, to say his farewells. As we wended our way out of the quarry and toward the woods where we had been pasturing the jeppas, the wolf lifted his nose and snuffed.

  Nothing left of Carrod but a bad smell, he noted as we passed the vicinity of the body.

  “I suppose I should have buried him,” I said as much to myself as him.

  No sense in burying meat that is already rotten, he noted with puzzlement.

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  I passed the black pillar, but not without a small shudder. I found our straying jeppas on a hillside meadow. They were more reluctant to be caught than I had expected. Nighteyes enjoyed rounding them up considerably more than they or I did. I chose the lead jeppa and one other, but as I led them away, the others decided to trail along after us as well. I should have expected it. I had rather hoped the rest would stay and go wild. I did not relish the idea of six jeppas at my heels all the way back to Jhaampe. A new thought came to me as I led them past the pillar and into the quarry.

  I did not have to return to Jhaampe.

  The hunting here is as good as any we’ve found.

  We’ve the Fool to think of, as well as ourselves.

  I would not let him go hungry!

  And when winter comes?

  When winter comes, then . . . He is attacked!

  Nighteyes did not wait for me. He streaked past me, gray and low, claws scratching against the black stone of the quarry floor as he ran. I let go of my jeppas and ran after him. The wolf’s nose told me of human scent in the air. An instant later, he had identified Burl, even as he hurtled toward them.

  The Fool had not left Girl-on-a-Dragon. That was where Burl had found him. He must have come quietly, for the Fool was never easy to take unawares. Perhaps his obsession had betrayed him. Whatever the case, Burl had got the first cut in. Blood ran down the Fool’s arm and dripped from his fingertips. He had left smears of it all up the dragon as he climbed her. Now he clung, feet braced against the girl’s shoulders and one hand gripping the dragon’s gaping lower jaw. In his free hand he gripped his knife. He stared down at Burl
balefully, waiting. Skill boiled from Burl, angry and frustrated.

  Burl had climbed up onto the dais and was seeking to clamber up the dragon itself now as he strove to reach up and impose a Skill-touch on the Fool. The smoothly scaled hide was defying him. Only one as agile as the Fool could have shinnied up to the perch where he clung just out of Burl’s reach. Burl drew his sword in frustration and swung it at the Fool’s braced feet. Its tip missed, but not by much, and its blade rang against the girl’s back. The Fool cried out as loudly as if the blade had bit truly, and sought to scrabble higher. I saw his hand slip where his own blood had greased the dragon’s hide. Then he was sliding down, scrabbling frantically as he came down hard right behind the girl’s seat on the dragon’s back. I saw his head bounce glancingly against her shoulder. He looked half stunned, and clung where he was.

  Burl lifted his sword for a second swing, one that could easily separate the Fool’s leg from his body. Instead, soundless as hate could be, the wolf surged up onto the dais and took Burl from behind. I was still running toward them as I saw Nighteyes’ impact drive Burl forward to smack against Girl-on-a-Dragon. He sank to his knees against the statue. His sword blow missed the Fool and rang again against the dragon’s gleaming green hide. Ripples of color raced away from that clash of metal against stone, like the ripples made when one tosses a pebble in a still pond.

  I reached the dais as Nighteyes darted his head in. His jaws closed, gripping Burl from behind, between his shoulder and neck. Burl screamed, his voice going amazingly shrill. He dropped his sword and lifted his hands to clutch at the wolf’s ravening jaws. Nighteyes worried him like a rabbit. Then the wolf braced his front feet on Burl’s wide back and made more sure of his grip.

  Some things happen too swiftly to tell well. I felt Will behind me at the same moment that the wild spattering of Burl’s blood became a sudden gushing. Nighteyes had severed the great vein in his throat, and Burl’s life was pumping out in jumping gouts of scarlet. For you, my brother! Nighteyes told the Fool. This kill for you! Nighteyes still did not let go, but shook him again. The blood leaped like a fountain as Burl struggled, not knowing he was already dead. The blood struck the dragon’s gleaming hide and ran down it, to puddle in the chiseled troughs the Fool had made attempting to free his feet and tail. And there the blood bubbled and steamed, eating into the stone as scalding water would have eaten into a chunk of ice. The scales and claws of the dragon’s hind feet were unveiled, the detail of the whiplike tail exposed. And as Nighteyes finally flung down Burl’s lifeless body, the dragon’s wings opened.

  Girl-on-a-Dragon soared up into the sky as she had strained to do for so long. It seemed an effortless lifting, almost as if she floated away. The Fool was borne away with her. I saw him lean forward, clutching instinctively at the supple waist of the girl before him. His face was turned away from me. I glimpsed the bland eyes and still mouth of the girl’s face. Perhaps her eyes saw, but she was no more separate from the dragon than its tail or wing; merely another appendage, one to which the Fool clung as they rose higher and higher.

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  I saw all these things, but not because I stood and stared. I saw them in glimpses, and through the wolf’s eyes. My own gaze I turned on Will as he ran up behind me. He carried a bared blade in his hand and ran easily. I drew Verity’s sword as I turned, and found it took longer coming out of its sheath than the shortsword I had become accustomed to.

  The strength of Will’s Skill hit me in a buffeting wave just as the tip of Verity’s blade came free of the scabbard. I staggered back a step and threw up my walls against him. He knew me well. That first wave had been compounded not just of fear, but of specific pains. They had been prepared especially for me. I knew again the shock of my broken nose, I felt the burn of my split face even if it did not stream hot blood down my chest as it once had. For a frozen heartbeat, all I could do was hold my walls against that crippling pain. The sword I gripped seemed suddenly made of lead. It sagged in my hand, its tip drooping toward the earth.

  Burl’s death saved me. In the moment that Nighteyes flung his lifeless body down, I saw that death lap against Will. His eyes sagged almost shut with the impact of it. The last member of his coterie was gone. I felt Will diminish abruptly, not just as Burl’s Skill no longer supplemented his own, but as grief washed over him. I found in my mind an image of Carrod’s rotting body and flung that at him for good measure. He staggered back.

  “You’ve failed, Will!” I spat the words. “Verity’s dragon has already risen. Even now it wings toward Buck. His queen rides with him, and she bears within her his heir. The rightful king will reclaim his throne and crown, he will scourge his coasts of Red Ships and scour Regal’s troops from the Mountains. No matter what you do here now, you are defeated. ” A strange smile twisted my mouth. “I win. ” Snarling, Nighteyes advanced to stand at my side.

  Then Will’s face changed. Regal looked at me out of his eyes. He was as unmoved by Burl’s death as he would be by Will’s. I sensed no grief, only anger at a lessening of his power. “Perhaps,” he said with Will’s voice, “perhaps then, all I should care for is killing you, Bastard. At whatever the cost. ” He smiled at me, the smile of a man who knows how the tumbling dice will fall before they land. I knew a moment of uncertainty and fear. I flung my walls up tighter against Will’s insidious tactics.

  “Do you really think a one-eyed swordsman has a fighting chance against my blade and my wolf, Regal? Or do you plan to throw his life away as casually as you have the rest of the coterie?” I flung the question in a faint hope of stirring discord between them.

  “Why not?” Regal asked me calmly with Will’s voice. “Or did you think I was truly as stupid as my brother, to be content with only one coterie?”

  A wave of Skill struck me with the force of a wall of water. I staggered back before it, then regained myself and charged at Will. I’d have to kill him quickly. Regal had control of Will’s Skill. He little cared what it would do to Will, how it might scorch him if he killed me with a Skill-blast. I could feel him drawing up Skill power into himself. Yet even as I put all my heart into killing Will, Regal’s words ate at me. Another coterie?

  One-eyed or not, Will was fast. His blade was a part of him as he met my first thrust and turned it. I wished for an instant for the familiarity of my battered shortsword. Then I threw such thoughts aside as useless and thought only of breaking past his guard. The wolf moved swiftly past me, belly low, as he sought to close on Regal from Will’s blind side.

  “Three new coteries!” Will’s voice gasped with effort as he parried my blade again. I slipped away from his thrust and tried to wrap his blade. He was too fast for that.

  “Young, strong Skill users. To carve dragons of my own. ” A swiping slash whose breeze I felt. “Dragons at my beck, loyal to me. Dragons to bring down Verity, in blood and scales. ” He spun and darted a thrust at Nighteyes. The wolf leapt wildly away. I sprang in, but his blade was already back to meet mine. He fought with incredible speed. Another use of the Skill? Or a Skill-illusion he forced on me?

  “Then they shall clear the Red Ships. For me. And open the Mountain passes. The Mountains will be mine as well. I shall be a hero. No one will oppose me then. ” His blade struck mine hard, a jolt I felt in my shoulder. His words jolted me as well. They rang with truth and determination. Skill-imbued, they pounded against me with the solid force of hopelessness. “I shall master the Skill road. The ancient city will be my new capital. All my Skill users shall be drenched in the river’s magic. ”

  Another swipe at Nighteyes. It shaved a wisp of hair from his shoulder. And again that opening passed too swiftly for my own clumsy blade. I felt I stood shoulder-deep in water and fought a man whose blade was light as a straw. “Stupid Bastard! Did you truly think I cared about one pregnant whore, one dragon a-wing? The quarry itself is the true prize, the one you have left unguarded for me. The stuff from which a score, no, a hundred
dragons shall rise!”

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  How had we been so stupid? How had we not seen what Regal truly sought? We had thought with our hearts, of Six Duchies folk, of farmers and fishermen who needed their king’s arm to defend them. But Regal? He had thought only of what the Skill could win for him. I knew his next words before he flung them. “In Bingtown and Chalced they will bend their knees to me. And in the OutIslands, they will cower at my name. ”

  Others come! And above us!

  Nighteyes’ warning nearly killed me. For in the instant I lifted my eyes, Will sprang at me. I gave ground, all but running backward to avoid his blade. Far behind him, from the mouth of the quarry, a dozen men ran toward us, brandishing blades. They moved not in step but with a oneness to them far more cohesive than any mere troops could have mastered. A coterie. I sensed their Skill as they approached like the stormwinds that precede a squall. Will suddenly halted his advance. My wolf raced to meet them, teeth bared, snarling.

  Nighteyes! Stop! You cannot fight twelve blades wielded by one mind!

  Will lowered his blade, then casually sheathed it. He called to the coterie over his shoulder. “Don’t bother with them. Let the archers finish them. ”

  A glance at the towering walls of the quarry showed me this was no bluff. Gold-and-brown-clad soldiers were coming into position. I grasped this was what the troops were about. Not to defeat Verity, but to take and hold this quarry. Another wave of humiliation and despair washed over me. Then I lifted my blade and charged at Will. Him, at least, I would kill.

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