Assassins quest, p.94
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       Assassins Quest, p.94

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “Fitz, I cannot. I was not made for this, this slaughter! This taking of life is not why I came. I have never seen this, not in any dream, nor read of it in any scroll. I fear I may lead time awry. ”

  “No. This is right. I feel it. I am the Catalyst, and I came to change all things. Prophets become warriors, dragons hunt as wolves. ” I hardly knew my own voice as I spoke. I had no idea where such words came from. I met the Fool’s unbelieving eyes. “It is as it must be. Go. ”

  “Fitz, I . . . ”

  Girl-on-a-Dragon came lumbering toward us. On the ground, her airy grace deserted her. Instead she walked with power, as a hulking bear or a great horned bull does. The green of her scales shone like dark emeralds in sunlight. The girl on her back was a breathtaking beauty, for all her empty expression. The dragon head lifted and she opened her mouth and darted her tongue out to taste the air. More?

  “Hurry,” I bid him.

  He embraced me almost convulsively, and shocked me when he kissed my mouth. He spun and ran toward Girl-on-a-Dragon. The girl part of her leaned down, to offer him a hand as she drew him up to sit behind her. The expression on her face never changed. Just another part of the dragon.

  “To me!” he cried to the dragons that were already gathering around us. The last look he gave me was a mocking smile.

  Follow the Scentless One! Nighteyes commanded them before I could think. He is a mighty hunter and will lead you to much meat. Hearken to him, for he is pack with us.

  Girl-on-a-Dragon leaped up, her wings opened, and with powerful beats they carried her steadily upward. The Fool clung behind her. He lifted a hand in farewell, then quickly put it back to clutch at her waist. It was my last sight of him. The others followed, giving cry in a way that reminded me of hounds on a trail, save they sounded more like the shrilling of raptor birds. Even the winged boar rose, ungainly as was his leap into the air. The beating of their wings was such that I covered my ears and Nighteyes shrank belly-down to the earth beside me. Trees swayed in that great passage of dragons, and dropped branches both dead and green. For a time the sky was filled with jeweled creatures, green and red and blue and yellow. Whenever the shadow of one passed over me, I knew a blackness, but my eyes were opened and watching as Realder’s dragon lifted, last of them all, to follow that great pack into the sky. In a short time, the canopy of the trees hid them from my view. Gradually their cries faded.

  “Your dragons are coming, Verity,” I told the man I had once known. “The Elderlings have risen to Buck’s defense. Just as you said they would. ”



  THE CATALYST COMES to change all things.

  In the wake of the dragons’ departure, there was a great silence, broken only by the whispers of leaves as a few sifted down to the forest floor. Not a frog croaked, not a bird sang. The dragons had broken the roof of the forest in their departure. Great shafts of sunlight shone down on soil that had been shaded since before I was born. Trees had been uprooted or snapped off and great troughs had been gouged in the forest floor by the passage of their immense bodies. Scaly shoulders had gashed the bark from ancient trees, baring the secret white cambium beneath. The slashed earth and trees and trampled grasses gave up their rich odors to the warm afternoon. I stood in the midst of the destruction, Nighteyes at my side, and looked about slowly. Then we went to look for water.

  Our passage took us through the camp. It was an odd battle scene. There were scattered weapons and occasional helms, trampled tents and scattered gear, but little more than that. The only bodies that remained were those of soldiers that Nighteyes and I had killed. The dragons had no interest in dead meat; they fed on the life that fled such tissue.

  I found the stream I had recalled and threw myself flat by it to drink as if my thirst had no bottom. Nighteyes lapped beside me, then flung himself to the cool grass by the stream. He began a slow, careful licking of a slash on his forepaw. It had parted his hide, and he pressed his tongue into that gap, cleaning it carefully. It would heal as a fusing of dark hairless skin. Just another scar, he dismissed my thought. What shall we do now?

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  I was carefully peeling my shirt off. Drying blood made it cling to my injuries. I set my teeth and jerked it loose. I leaned over the stream, to splash cold water up onto the sword cuts I had taken. Just a few more scars, I told myself glumly. And what shall we do now? Sleep.

  The only thing that would sound better than that would be eating.

  “I’ve no stomach to kill anything else right now,” I told him.

  That’s the trouble with killing humans. All that work, and nothing to eat for it.

  I heaved myself wearily to my feet. “Let’s go look through their tents. I need something to use for bandaging. And they must have some food stores. ”

  I left my old shirt where it had fallen. I’d find another. Right now, even its weight seemed too much to bother carrying. I’d probably have dropped Verity’s sword, except that I had already sheathed it. Drawing it again would have been too much trouble. I was suddenly that tired.

  The tents had been trampled flat in the dragons’ hunting. One had collapsed into a cook fire and was smoldering. I dragged it away and trampled it out. Then the wolf and I began systematically to salvage what we would need. His nose quickly found their food supplies. There was some dried meat, but it was mostly travel bread. We were too famished to be fussy. I had gone so long without bread of any kind that it tasted almost good. I even found a skin of wine, but one taste persuaded me to use it to wash my injuries instead. I bound my wounds in brown cambric from a Farrowman’s shirt. I still had some wine left. I tasted it again. Then I tried to persuade Nighteyes to let me wash his injuries, but he refused, saying they already hurt enough.

  I was starting to stiffen, but I forced myself to my feet. I found a soldier’s pack and discarded from it all things useless to me. I rolled up two blankets and tied them snugly, and found a gold-and-brown cloak to wear against chilly evenings. I rummaged up more bread and put it in the pack.

  What are you doing? Nighteyes was drowsing, nearly asleep.

  I don’t want to sleep here tonight. So I gather what I will need for our journey.

  Journey? Where are we going?

  I stood still for a moment. Back to Molly and Buck? No. Never again. Jhaampe? Why? Why travel that long and wearisome black road again? I could think of no good reasons. Well, I still don’t want to sleep here tonight. I’d like to be well away from that pillar before I rest again.

  Very well. Then, What was that?

  We froze as we stood, every sense prickling. “Let’s go and find out,” I suggested quietly.

  Afternoon was venturing into evening, and the shadows under the trees were deepening. What we had heard was a sound that didn’t belong amongst the creakings of the frogs and insects and the fading calls of the day birds. It had come from the place of battle.

  We found Will on his belly, dragging himself toward the pillar. Rather, he had been dragging himself. When we found him, he was still. One of his legs was gone, severed away jaggedly. Bone thrust out of the torn flesh. He had bound a sleeve about the stump, but not tightly enough. Blood still leaked from it. Nighteyes bared his teeth as I stooped to touch him. He lived, but barely. No doubt he had hoped to reach the pillar and slip through to find others of Regal’s men to aid him. Regal must have known he still lived, but he had sent no one back for him. He had not even the decency to be loyal to a man who had served him that long.

  I loosed the sleeve, and bound it more tightly. Then I lifted his head, and dribbled a little water into his mouth.

  Why do you bother? Nighteyes asked. We hate him, and he’s nearly dead. Let him die.

  Not yet. Not just yet.

  “Will? Can you hear me, Will?”

  The only sign was a change in his breathing. I gave him a bit more water. He breathed some in, gasped, then swallowed the n
ext mouthful. He took a deeper breath, and sighed it out.

  I opened myself and gathered Skill.

  My brother, leave this. Let him die. This is the doing of carrion birds, to peck at a dying thing.

  “It’s not Will I’m after, Nighteyes. This may be the last chance I’ll ever get at Regal. I’m going to take it. ”

  He made no reply, but lay down on the ground beside me. He watched as I drew still more Skill into myself. How much, I wondered, did it take to kill? Could I summon enough?

  Will was so weak I almost felt shamed. I thrust past his defenses as easily as one would push aside a sick child’s hands. It was not just the loss of blood and the pain. It was Burl’s death, following so close on Carrod’s. And it was the shock of Regal’s abandonment. His own loyalty to Regal had been Skill-imprinted on him. He could not grasp that Regal had felt no real bond with him. It shamed him that I could see that in him. Kill me now, Bastard. Go ahead. I’m dying anyway.

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  It’s not about you, Will. It was never about you. I saw that clearly now. I groped inside him as if I were probing a wound for an arrowhead. He struggled feebly against my invasion, but I ignored that. I shuffled through his memories, but found little that was useful. Yes, Regal had coteries, but they were young and green, little more than groups of men with potential for the Skill. Even the ones I had seen at the quarry were uncertain. Regal wanted him to make large coteries, so they could pool more power. Regal did not understand that closeness could not be forced, nor shared by that many. He had lost four young Skill users on the Skill road. They were not dead, but vacant-eyed and vague. Another two had come through the pillars with him, but had lost all ability to Skill afterward. Coteries were not so easily made.

  I went deeper and Will threatened to die on me but I linked with him, and forced strength into him. You won’t die. Not yet, I told him fiercely. And there, deep within him, my probing finally found what I sought. A Skill-link to Regal. It was tenuous and faint; Regal had abandoned him, done all he could to leave Will behind. But it was as I had suspected. They had been linked too strongly for too long for the bond to be easily dissolved.

  I gathered my Skill, centered myself, and sealed myself. I poised myself, and then I leaped. As when a sudden rain gathers and fills a stream bed that has been dry all summer, so I flowed through that Skill-link between Will and Regal. At the last possible moment, I held myself back. I seeped into Regal’s mind like slow poison, listening with his ears, seeing with his eyes. I knew him.

  He slept. No. He almost slept, his lungs thick with Smoke, his mouth numb from brandy. I drifted into his dreams. The bed was soft beneath him, the coverlets warm over him. This last falling fit had been a bad one, a very bad one. It was disgusting, to fall and twitch like the Bastard Fitz. Not proper for this to happen to a king. Stupid healers. They could not even say what had brought these fits on. What would people think of him? The tailor and his apprentice had seen; now he would have to kill them. No one must know. They would laugh at him. The healer had said he was better, last week. Well, he would find a new healer, and hang the old healer tomorrow. No. He would give him to the Forged ones in the King’s Circle, they were very hungry now. And then let the big cats out with the Forged ones. And the bull, the big white one with the sweeping horns and the hump.

  He tried to smile and tell himself it would be amusing, to tell himself that tomorrow would bring him pleasure. The room was thick with the cloying odor of Smoke, but even it could scarcely soothe him. All had been going so well, so very very well. And then the Bastard had ruined it all. He had killed Burl, and wakened the dragons and sent them to Verity.

  Verity, Verity, it was always Verity. Ever since he’d been born. Verity and Chivalry got tall horses, while he was kept to a pony. Verity and Chivalry got real swords, but he must practice with wood. Verity and Chivalry, always together, always older, always bigger. Always thinking they were better, even though he came of finer blood than they, and by right should have inherited the throne. His mother had warned him of their jealousy of him. His mother had bade him always be careful, and more than careful. They would kill him if they could, they would, they would. Mother had done her best, she had seen them sent away as much as she could. But even sent away, they might come back. No. There was only one way to be safe, only one way.

  Well, he would win tomorrow. He had coteries, did he not? Coteries of fine strong young men, coteries to make dragons for him, and him alone. The coteries were bound to him and the dragons would be bound to him. And he would make more coteries and more dragons, and more, until he had far more than Verity. Except Will had been teaching the coteries for him, and now Will was useless. Broken like a toy, the dragon bit his leg off when he flung him in the air, and Will had landed in a tree like a kite with no wind. It was disgusting. A man with one leg. He couldn’t stand broken things. His blind eye had been bad enough, but to lose a leg, too? What would men think of a king who kept a crippled servant? His mother had never trusted cripples. They are jealous, she had warned him, always jealous, and they will turn on you. But Will he had needed for the coteries. Stupid Will. It was all Will’s fault. But Will was the one who knew how to wake Skill in people and form them into coteries. So maybe he should send someone back for Will. If Will still lived.

  Will? Regal Skilled tentatively toward us.

  Not exactly. I closed my Skill around him. It was ridiculously easy, like picking up a sleeping hen from its perch.

  Let me go! Let me go!

  I felt him reaching for his other coteries. I slapped them away from him, closed him off from their Skilling. He had no strength, he had never had any real Skill-strength. It had all been the coterie’s power that he had puppeteered. It shocked me. All the fear I had borne inside me, over a year’s time now. Of what? Of a whining, spoiled child who schemed to take his older brothers’ toys. The crown and the throne were no more to him than their horses and swords had been. He had no concept of governing a kingdom; only of wearing a crown and doing what he wished. First his mother and then Galen had done his scheming for him. He had learned from them only a sly cunning as to how to get his way. If Galen had not bound the coterie to him, he would never have wielded any true power. Stripped of his coterie, I saw him as he was: a cosseted child with a penchant for cruelty that had never been denied.

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  This is what we have feared and fled? This?

  Nighteyes, what do you here?

  Your kill is my kill, my brother. I would see what meat we have come so far to take.

  Regal squirmed and thrashed, literally sickened by the Wit-touch of the wolf against his mind. It was unclean and disgusting, a dirty doggy thing, nasty and smelly, as bad as that rat creature that scuttled in his rooms at night and could not be caught . . . Nighteyes leaned closer, pressed the Wit against him as if he could smell him all that way away. Regal retched and shuddered.

  Enough, I told Nighteyes, and the wolf relented.

  If you are going to kill him, do it soon, Nighteyes advised. The other one weakens and will die if you do not hurry.

  He was right. Will’s breath had gone shallow and rapid. I gripped Regal firmly, then fed more strength into Will. He tried not to take it, but his self-mastery was not that strong. Given a chance, the body will always choose to live. And so his lungs steadied and his heart beat more strongly. Once more I drew Skill into myself. I centered myself in it and honed its purpose. I turned my attention back to Regal.

  If you kill me, you will burn yourself. You will lose your own Skill if you kill me with it.

  I had thought of that. I had never much enjoyed being Skilled. I had rather far be Witted than Skilled. It would be no loss.

  I forced myself to recall Galen. I called to mind the fanatical coterie he had created for Regal. It gave shape to my purpose.

  As I had longed to do for so long, I loosed my Skill upon him.

  Afterward, there was little left of Will. But I sat by him, and gave him water when he asked for it. I even covered him when he complained faintly of cold. It puzzled the wolf, my deathwatch. A knife across his throat would have been so much faster for both of us. Kinder, perhaps. But I had decided I was no longer an assassin. So I waited for his last breath, and when he sighed it out, I stood up and walked away.

  It is a long way from the Mountain Kingdom to the coast of Buck. Even as the dragon flies, tirelessly and swift, it is a long, long way. For a few days, Nighteyes and I knew peace. We traveled far from the empty Stone Garden, far from the black Skill road. We were both too stiff to hunt well, but we had found a good trout stream and we followed it. The days were almost too warm, the nights clear and kind. We fished, we ate, we slept. I thought only of things that did not hurt. Not of Molly in Burrich’s embrace, but of Nettle sheltered by his good right arm. He would be a good father to her. He had had practice. I even found it in me to hope that she might have younger brothers and sisters in years to come. I thought of peace returning to the Mountain Kingdom, of Red Ships driven from the coast of the Six Duchies. I healed. Not completely. A scar is never the same as good flesh, but it stops the bleeding.

  I was there on the summer afternoon when Verity-as-Dragon appeared in the skies over Buckkeep. With him, I saw the shining black towers and turrets of Buckkeep Castle far below us. Beyond the castle, where Buckkeep Town had been, were the blackened shells of buildings and warehouses. Forged ones ambled through the streets, pushed aside by swaggering Raiders. Masts with tatters of canvas dangling from them thrust up through the calm waters. A dozen Red Ships rocked peacefully in the harbor. I felt the heart of Verity-as-Dragon swell with anger. I swear I heard Kettricken’s cry of anguish at the sight.

  Then the great turquoise-and-silver dragon was alighting in the center grounds of Buckkeep Castle. He ignored the flight of arrows that rose to meet him; ignored, too, the cries of the soldiers who cowered before him, senseless as his shadow spread over them and his great wings beat to lower his bulk to the ground. It was a wonder he did not crush them. Even as he was alighting, Kettricken was trying to stand up upon his shoulders, crying to the guard to lower their pikes and stand away.

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