Assassins quest, p.93
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       Assassins Quest, p.93

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  An arrow clattered across the stone where I had stood, another skittered right between Nighteyes’ legs. A scream rose from the walls of the quarry to the west of us. Girl-on-a-Dragon swept low over me, the Fool on her back, a gold-and-brown archer writhing in the dragon’s jaws. The man was gone suddenly, a puff of smoke or steam swept away by the wind of her passage. She banked her wings, came in low again, snatching up another archer and sending one leaping into the quarry to avoid her. Another puff of smoke.

  On the floor of the quarry, all of us were frozen, gaping up. Will recovered more quickly than I did. An angry shout to his archers, ringing with Skill. “Fire upon her! Bring her down!”

  Almost instantly a phalanx of arrows went singing toward her. Some arched and fell before they even reached her. The rest she deflected with a single powerful beat of her wings. The arrows suddenly wobbled in the gust of her wind, and fell tumbling like straws to shatter on the quarry floor. Girl-on-a-Dragon abruptly stooped and came diving directly at Will.

  He fled. I believe Regal abandoned him for at least as long as it took him to make that decision. He ran, and for an instant it appeared that he chased the wolf who had nearly closed the distance between him and the coterie. Save at the moment the coterie realized that Will was fleeing toward them with a dragon sheering through the air behind them, the coterie turned on their heels and fled as well. I caught a brief flash of Nighteyes’ delighted triumph that twelve swordsmen would not stand to meet his charge. Then he cowered to the earth as Girl-on-a-Dragon swept low over all of us.

  It was not only the harsh wind of her passage that I felt, but also a dizzying sweep of Skill, that in an instant snatched from my mind every thought I had been holding. As if the world had been plunged briefly into absolute darkness and then handed back to me in full brightness it was. I stumbled as I ran, and for an instant could not recall why I carried a bared sword or who I chased. Ahead of me Will faltered as her shadow swept him, and then the coterie staggered in their turn.

  Her claws snatched fruitlessly at Will as she passed. The scattered blocks of black stone were his salvation, for such was her wingspan that he could elude her in the narrowness of their maze. She shrieked her frustration, the high wild cry of a hawk thwarted. She rose and banked to make a second sweep at him. I gasped as she flew right into a singing flight of arrows. They rattled uselessly off her hide as if the archers had targeted the black stone of the quarry itself. Only the Fool cowered away from them. Girl-on-a-Dragon changed course abruptly, to fly low over the archers and snatch another from their midst and consume him in an instant.

  Again her shadow swept over me, and again a moment of my life was snatched from me. I opened my eyes to find Will gone. Then I caught a brief glimpse of him, veering as he ran dodging between the standing blocks of stone much as a hare breaks his trail as he flees from a hawk. I could no longer see the coterie, but suddenly Nighteyes sprang from the shadow of a stone block to race by my side.

  Oh, my brother, the Scentless One hunts well! he exulted. We were wise to take him into our pack!

  Will is my kill! I declared to him.

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  Your kill is my kill, he pointed out, quite seriously. That is pack. And he shall be no one’s kill unless we spread out to find him.

  He was right. Ahead of us, I heard shouts and occasionally saw a gold-and-brown flash as a man dashed across a wide space between the blocks of stone. But most of them had rapidly understood that the way to remain sheltered from the dragon was to cling closely to the edges of the immense stone blocks.

  They are running for the pillar. If we get to where we can see it, we can wait for him there.

  It seemed logical. To flee through the pillar would be the only way they could hope to escape the dragon for any length of time. I still heard the occasional clatter as arrows rained down in the dragon’s wake, but a good portion of the archers who had ringed the quarry walls had retreated to the shelter of the surrounding forest.

  Nighteyes and I abandoned all efforts to find Will and simply went directly to the pillar. I had to admire the discipline of some of Regal’s archers. Despite all else, if the wolf and I broke cover for more than a few strides, we would hear a cry of “There they are!” and moments later arrows would be hailing down where we had been.

  We reached the pillar in time to see two of Regal’s new coterie dash across the open, hands reaching, to plunge into the dark pillar itself the moment they touched it. The rune for the stone garden was the one they chose, but perhaps it was only because it was the side of the pillar closest to cover. We did not move from the angle of a great block that sheltered us from arrows.

  Did he go through already?

  Perhaps. Wait.

  Several eternities passed. I became certain that Will had eluded us. Above us Girl-on-a-Dragon swept her shadow over the quarry walls. The cries of her victims were less frequent. The archers were using the cover of trees to hide themselves. Briefly I watched her rise, circling high above the quarry. She hung shining green high against the blue sky, rocking on her wings. I wondered what it was like for the Fool to ride so. At least he had the girl part of the dragon to cling to. Abruptly Girl-on-a-Dragon tipped, sideslipped in the sky, and then folded her wings, plummeting down toward us. At the moment she did, Will broke cover and ran for the pillar.

  Nighteyes and I leaped after him. We were agonizingly close behind him. I ran fast, but the wolf ran faster, and Will fled the fastest of all. At the moment when his reaching fingertips brushed the pillar, the wolf made a final spring. His front paws slammed into Will’s back, sending him head first toward the pillar. As I saw him melting into it, I cried out a warning to Nighteyes and gripped his fur to drag him back. He seized one of Will’s calves as Will was snatched away from us. At the moment that his jaws closed on Will’s flesh, the dragon’s shadow swept over us. I lost my grip on the world and fell into blackness.

  Tales abound of heroes who have wrestled dark foes in the underworld. There are a few told of those who have willingly entered the dark unknown to rescue friends or lovers. In a timeless moment, I was offered quite clearly a choice. I could seize Will and choke the life out of him. Or clasp Nighteyes to me and hold him together against all the forces that tore at his wolf’s mind and being. It was, really, no decision at all.

  We emerged into cool shade and trampled grass. One moment there was only darkness and passage; in the next we breathed, and felt again. And feared. I scrabbled to my feet, amazed to find I still gripped Verity’s sword. Nighteyes heaved himself up, staggered two steps and fell over. Sick. Poisoned. The whole world sways.

  Lie still and breathe. I stood before him and lifted my eyes to glare around us. My gaze was returned, not only by Will but by most of Regal’s new coterie. Most of them were still breathing hard, and one gave a shout of alarm at the sight of us. When Will shouted, a number of Farrow guards came running as well. They fanned out to surround us.

  We must go back through the pillar. It’s our only chance.

  I cannot. You go. Nighteyes’ head drooped toward his paws and his eyes closed.

  That is not pack! I told him sternly. I lifted Verity’s sword. So this was how I was going to die. I was glad the Fool had not told me. I probably would have killed myself first.

  “Just kill him,” Will ordered them. “We’ve wasted enough time on him. Kill him and the wolf. And then find me an archer who can shoot a man off a dragon’s back for me. ” Regal turned Will’s back to me and strode away, still issuing orders. “You, Third Coterie. You told me a finished dragon could not be wakened and made to serve. Well, I have just seen an un-Skilled Fool do that very thing. You will find out how it was done. You will begin now. Let the Bastard test his Skill against swords. ”

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  I lifted my sword and Nighteyes pulled himself to his feet. His queasiness lapped against my fear as the circle of soldiers closed around us. Well, if I mus
t die now, there was no more to fear. Perhaps I would try my Skill against their swords. I discarded my walls, flinging them aside disdainfully. The Skill was a river that raged all around me, a river that in this place was always in flood. As easily as drawing a breath it was to fill myself with it. A second breath banished my body’s weariness and pains. I reached out with strength to my wolf. Beside me, Nighteyes gave himself a shake. The rising of his hackles and the baring of his teeth made him twice as large. My eyes circled the swords that surrounded us. Then we no longer waited, but sprang to meet them. As swords lifted to meet mine, Nighteyes raced forward and under them, then spun to slash a man’s leg from behind.

  Nighteyes became a creature of speed, teeth, and fur. He did not try to bite and hold. Instead he used his weight to knock men off balance, sending them stumbling into one another, hamstringing them when he could, slashing with his teeth rather than biting. For me the challenge became not to strike at him as he dashed thither and yon. He never tried to challenge their swords. The moment a man turned to him and advanced, he fled, to shoulder past the legs of those who sought to confront me.

  As for me I wielded Verity’s sword with a grace and a skill I had never before known with such a weapon. Hod’s lessons and Hod’s work finally came together for me, and if such a thing were possible, I would say that the spirit of the swordmaster was in the weapon and that she sang to me as I wielded it. I could not break out of the circle they pinned me in, but neither could they get past my guard to do more than minor damage.

  In that first flurry of battle, we fought well and did well, but the odds were impossible. I could force men back from my sword and step toward them, but in the next moment I must turn to fight those who had closed behind me. I could move the circle of battle, but not escape it. Still, I blessed the greater reach of Verity’s sword that kept me alive. Other men were coming at a run to the din and shouts of fighting. Those who came drove a wedge between Nighteyes and me, forcing him ever farther away.

  Get clear of them all and run. Run. Live, my brother.

  For answer he raced away from them all, then suddenly came looping back, charging right through their midst. Regal’s men hacked at each other in a futile effort to stop him. They were not used to an opponent less than half the height of a man and with twice the speed of one. Most aimed chopping blows at him that did no more than cleave the earth in his wake. In an instant, he was past them and had vanished once more into the lush forest. Men glared about wildly, wondering where next he would come from.

  But even at the hottest of the fight, I knew the hopelessness of what we did. Regal would win. Even were I to kill every man here, Will included, Regal would win. Had already won for all that matter. And had I not known he always would? Had not I known, from the very beginning, that Regal was destined to rule?

  I took a sudden step forward, took off a man’s arm at the elbow, and used the momentum of that blow to call the sword’s blade back in an arc that took the tip across the face of another man. As the two fell, tangling together, there was a tiny opening in the circle. I took a step into the brief space, focused my Skill and seized Will’s insidious grip upon my mind. I felt a blade lick against my left shoulder as I did so. I spun to engage my attacker’s sword, then bade my body think for itself for a moment and made good my grip on Will. Wound through Will’s consciousness I found Regal, twisted into him like a drill-worm in a deer’s heart. Will could not have broken free of him even if he had been able to think of doing it. And it seemed to me that there was not enough left of Will to even form a thought for himself. Will was a body, a vessel of meat and blood, holding Skill for Regal to wield. Bereft of the coterie that had strengthened him, he was not all that formidable a weapon anymore. Less valuable. One that might be used and cast aside with little remorse.

  I could not fight in both directions at once. I kept my grip on Will’s mind, forced his thoughts away from mine, and strove to direct my body as well. In the next instant, I took two cuts, one to my left calf and one to my right forearm. I knew I could not sustain it. I could not see Nighteyes. He at least had a chance. Get clear of this, Nighteyes. It’s all over.

  It but begins! he contradicted me. He surged through me like a flash of heat. From some other part of the camp, I heard a cry in Will’s voice. Somewhere, a Wit-wolf ravaged his body. I could sense Regal trying to unwind his mind from Will’s. I clamped my hold tighter on them both. Stay and face it, Regal!

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  The point of a sword found my hip. I jerked away from it and stumbled against stone, leaving a bloody handprint as I pushed myself upright again. It was Realder’s dragon; I had dragged the battle that far. I put my back to him thankfully and turned to face my attackers. Nighteyes and Will still fought; plainly Regal had learned something from his tortures of Witted ones. He was not as vulnerable to the wolf as he once would have been. He could not hurt the wolf with Skill, but he could wrap him with layer upon layer of fear. Nighteyes’ heart was suddenly thundering in my ears. I opened myself once more to the Skill, filled myself and did that I had never attempted before. I fed Skill-strength as Wit to Nighteyes. For you, my brother. I felt Nighteyes repel at Will, breaking free of him for an instant. Will used that instant to flee us both. I longed to give chase, but behind me, I felt an answering stir of the Wit in Realder’s dragon. In a brief stench, my bloody handprint on his hide smoked away. He stirred. He was awakening. And he was hungry.

  There was a sudden crackling of branches and a storm of torn leaves as a great wind broke into the still heart of the forest. Girl-on-a-Dragon landed abruptly in the small cleared space by the pillar. Her lashing tail cleared the area around her of men. “Over there!” the Fool shouted to her, and in a moment her head snaked out, to seize one of my attackers in her fearsome jaws. He vanished in a puff of smoke, and I felt her Skill swell with the life she had consumed.

  Behind me, a wedge-shaped reptilian head lifted suddenly. For a moment all was blackness as that shadow passed over me. Then the head darted out, swifter than a striking snake, to seize the man nearest us. He vanished, the steam of what he had been stinking briefly past me. The roar the dragon gave near deafened me.

  My brother?

  I live, Nighteyes.

  As do I, brother.

  AS DO I, BROTHER. AND I HUNGER!

  The Wit-voice of a very large carnivore. Old Blood indeed. The strength of it shivered through my bones. Nighteyes had the wit to reply.

  Feed, then, large brother. Make our kill yours, and welcome. That is pack.

  Realder’s dragon did not have to be invited twice. Whoever Realder had been, he had put a healthy appetite into his dragon. Great clawed feet tore clear of the moss and earth; a tail lashed free, felling a small tree as it passed. I was barely able to scramble out of his path as he lunged to engulf another Farrowman in his jaws.

  Blood and the Wit! That is what it takes. Blood and the Wit. We can wake the dragons.

  Blood and the Wit? At the moment, we are drenched in both. He understood me instantly.

  In the midst of slaughter, Nighteyes and I played an insane child’s game. It was almost a contest to see who could wake the most, a contest the wolf easily won. He would dart to a dragon, shake blood from his coat onto it, then bid it, Wake, brother, and feed. We have brought you meat. And as each great body smoked with wolf-blood and then stirred, he would remind it, We are pack!

  I found King Wisdom. His was the antlered dragon, and he roused from his sleep shouting, Buck! For Buckkeep! Eda and El, but I am hungry!

  There are Red Ships aplenty off the coast of Buck, my lord. They but await your jaws, I told him. For all his words, there was little human left about him. Stone and souls had merged, to become dragons in truth. We understood one another as carnivores do. They had hunted as a pack before, and that they recalled well. Most of the other dragons had nothing at all human about them. They had been shaped by Elderlings, not men, and we understo
od little more of one another than that we were brothers and had brought them meat. Those who had been formed by coteries had dim recollections of Buck and Farseer kings. It was not those memories that bound them to me, but my promise of food. I counted it as the greatest blessing that I could imprint that much on those strange minds.

  There came a time when I could find no more dragons in the underbrush. Behind me, where Regal’s soldiers had camped, I heard the cries of hunted men and the roaring of dragons as they competed for not meat, but life. Trees gave way before their charges and their lashing tails sliced brush as a scythe cuts grain stalks. I had paused to breathe, one hand braced on my knee, the other still gripping Verity’s sword. Breath came harsh and dry to me. Pain was beginning to break through the Skill I had imposed on my body. Blood was dripping from my fingers. Lacking a dragon to give it to, I wiped my hand down my jerkin.

  “Fitz?”

  I turned as the Fool ran up to me. He caught me in his arms, hugged me hard.

  “You still live! Thank all gods everywhere. She flies like the wind itself, and she knew where to find you. Somehow she felt this battle, from all that distance. ” He paused for breath, and added, “Her hunger is insatiable. Fitz, you must come with me, now. They are running out of prey. You must mount her with me, and lead them to where they can feed, or I do not know what they will do. ”

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  Nighteyes joined us. This is a large and hungry pack. It will take much game to fill them.

  Shall we go with them, to their hunting?

  Nighteyes hesitated. On the back of one? Through the air?

  That is how they hunt.

  That is not this wolf’s way. But if you must leave me, I will understand.

  I do not leave you, my brother. I do not leave you.

  I think the Fool sensed something of what passed between us, for he was already shaking his head before I spoke. “You must lead them. On Girl-on-a-Dragon. Take them back to Buck and Verity. They will hearken to you, for you are pack with us. It is something they understand. ”

 
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