Assassins fate, p.2
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       Assassin's Fate, p.2

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  ‘Your brother!’ Dwalia’s words dripped with venom. ‘Trust a sexless lout like you to not be able to tell the Unexpected Son from some White’s by-blow. All the coin we spent, all the luriks I wasted, and that girl is all we have to show for it. Stupid and ignorant, both of you. You think she’s a boy, and she doesn’t know what she is. She can’t even write and pays no attention to her dreams.’ A strange gloating filled her voice. ‘But I know she’s special.’ Then the fleeting satisfaction was gone, replaced with a sneer. ‘Doubt me. I don’t care. But you’d best hope there’s something special about her, for she’s the only coin we have to buy our way back into the Four’s good graces!’ In a lower voice, she added, ‘How Coultrie will crow over my failure. And that old bitch Capra will use it as an excuse for anything she wants to do.’

  Alaria spoke very softly. ‘So if she is all we have, perhaps we should try to deliver her in good condition?’

  ‘Perhaps if you had caught her instead of falling to the ground and rolling about moaning, none of this would have happened!’

  ‘Do you hear that?’ A desperate whisper from Reppin. ‘Did you hear that? Someone just laughed. And now … do you hear those pipes playing?’

  ‘Your mind is turned, and all because a little girl bit you! Keep your foolish words to yourself.’

  ‘I could see the bone! My arm is all swollen. The pain thuds through me like a drum!’

  There was a pause and I heard the fire’s crackling. Stay still, Wolf Father warned me. Learn all you can by listening. Then, with a touch of pride, See, even with your poor cow’s teeth, you have taught her to fear you. You must teach all of them to fear you. Even the old bitch has learned some caution. But you must drive it deeper. These must be your only three thoughts: I will escape. I will make them fear me. And if I have the chance, I will kill them.

  They have already beaten me just for trying to escape! What will they do if I kill one?

  They will beat you again, unless you escape. But you have heard, you have value to them. So they probably will not kill you.

  Probably? Terror swept through me. I want to live. Even if I live as their captive, I want to live.

  You think that is true, but I assure you it is not. Death is better than the sort of captivity they plan for you. I have been a captive, a toy for heartless men. I made them fear me. It is why they sought to sell me. It was why your father could buy my freedom.

  I do not know that tale.

  It is a dark and sad one.

  Thought is fast. So much was conveyed between Wolf Father and me in the pause of the pale folk’s conversation. Suddenly a shout came from the darkness. It terrified me and I made myself chew faster on my bonds. Not that I seemed to be making progress with the task. The garbled words came again and I recognized Chalcedean. It would be Kerf, the Chalcedean mercenary Vindeliar had bespelled to Dwalia’s service. I wondered if his mind was still scattered by his journey through the pillar. I wondered if his hand was swollen where I had bitten him. As silently as I could, I shifted my body until I could peer through the darkness. Kerf was pointing up at one of the ancient standing pillars at the edge of the clearing. I heard a shriek from Reppin. ‘See? See? I am not mad! Kerf sees her as well! A pale ghost crouches upon that pillar. You must see her! Is she not a White? But dressed so strangely and she sings a mocking song!’

  ‘I see nothing!’ Dwalia shouted angrily.

  Vindeliar spoke timidly. ‘I do. There are echoes here of folk from long ago. They held a market here. But now, as evening closes in, a White singer makes merry for them.’

  ‘I hear … something.’ Alaria confirmed reluctantly. ‘And … and as I came through that stone, people spoke to me. They said awful things.’ She took a little gasping breath. ‘And when I fell asleep this afternoon, I had a dream. A vivid dream, one I must tell. We lost our dream journals when we fled the Chalcedeans. I cannot write it down, so I must tell it.’

  Dwalia made a disgusted noise. ‘As if your dreams were ever of any real worth. Tell away, then.’

  Reppin spoke quickly, as if the words leapt from her. ‘I dreamed a nut in a wild river. I saw someone pull it from the water. The nut was set down and struck many times, to try to break it. But it only got thicker and harder. Then someone crushed it. Flames and darkness and a foul stench and screams came out of it. The flames wrote words. “Comes the Destroyer that you have made!” And a great wind swept through Clerres and picked us all up and scattered us.’

  ‘Comes the Destroyer!’ the Chalcedean repeated in a happy shout from the darkness.

  ‘Be silent!’ Dwalia snapped at him, and he laughed. ‘And you, Reppin, be silent as well. This is not a dream worth sharing. It is nothing but your fever boiling in your mind. You are such cowardly children! You make shadows and phantoms in your own minds. Alaria and Reppin, go gather more wood. Make a good stack for the night and then check on that little bitch. And say not one more word of this nonsense.’

  I heard Alaria and Reppin tramp off into the woods. It seemed to me they went slowly, as if fearful of the darkness. But Kerf paid no attention to them. Hands uplifted, he shuffled in a clumsy dance all around the pillar. Mindful of Vindeliar’s power, I lowered my walls cautiously. The bee humming I’d been aware of became voices and I saw Elderlings in bright garments. Their eyes sparkled and their hair gleamed like polished silver and golden rings, and all around the Chalcedean they danced to the chanting of the pale songster perched on the pillar.

  Dwalia stared at Kerf, annoyed at his enjoyment. ‘Why can’t you control him?’ she demanded of Vindeliar.

  He gestured helplessly. ‘He hears too many others here. Their voices are many and strong. They laugh and sing and celebrate.’

  ‘I hear nothing!’ Dwalia’s voice was angry but there was a thread of fear in it. ‘You are useless. You cannot control that bit of a girl, and now you cannot control a madman. I had such hopes for you when I chose you. When I gifted you with that potion. How wrong I was to waste it on you! The others were right. You have no dreams and you see nothing. You are useless.’

  I felt a thin chill of Vindeliar’s awareness waft toward me. His misery lapped against me like a wave. I slammed my walls tight and tried not to care that he was hurt and yet still worried for me. His fear of Dwalia, I told myself fiercely, was too great for him to offer me any aid or comfort. Of what use is a friend who will take no risks for you?

  He is your enemy just as much as the others are. If an opportunity arises, you must kill him, just as you would any of them. If any of them come to touch you, you must bite and kick and scratch as much as you are able.

  I hurt all over. I have no strength. If I try to defend myself, they will beat me.

  Even if you do only a little damage, they will learn that touching you has a price. Some will not be willing to pay it.

  I do not think I can bite or kill Vindeliar. Dwalia, I could kill. But the others …

  They are her tools, her teeth and claws. In your situation, you cannot afford to be merciful. Keep chewing on your bonds. I will tell you of my days as a captive. Beaten and caged. Forced to fight dogs or boars that were just as miserable as I was. Starved. Open your mind to my tale of how I was enslaved and how your father and I broke the bonds of our captivities. Then you will see why you must kill when you are given the chance.

  He began, not a telling, but a remembering that I shared. It was like recalling things I had always known, but in scalding detail. He did not spare me his memories of his family killed, of beatings and starvation and a cramped cold cage. He did not soften how much he hated his captors, or how he had first hated my father, even when my father freed him. Hate had been his habit then, and hate had fed him and kept him alive when there was nothing else.

  I was not even halfway through the twisted fabric that bound my wrists when Dwalia sent Alaria to fetch me to the fire. I played dead until she was hunched over me. She put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Bee?’

  I flipped, lunged and bit. I caught her hand i
n my teeth, but only for a moment. My mouth was too sore and she ripped her hand free of me with a cry and sprang back. ‘She bit me!’ she cried to the others. ‘The little wretch bit me!’

  ‘Kick her!’ Dwalia commanded, and Alaria made a feint at me with her foot, but Father Wolf was right. She feared to get too close to me. I rolled away from her and, despite the screams of my abused body, managed to sit up. I glared at her from my one good eye and lifted my smashed lips clear of my teeth. I did not know how much of that she could see in the firelight’s dance, but she did not come near me.

  ‘She’s awake,’ Alaria informed them, as if I might have bitten her in my sleep.

  ‘Drag her here.’

  ‘She’ll bite me again!’

  Dwalia stood. She moved stiffly. I held still, poised to avoid her kick or to attack with my teeth if I could. I was pleased to see that I had blacked her eyes and split the flesh on one of her cheeks. ‘Listen, you little wretch,’ she snarled at me. ‘You can avoid a beating, but only if you obey me. Is that clear?’

  She bargains. That means she fears you.

  I stared at her wordlessly, letting nothing show on my face. She leaned closer, reaching for the front of my shirt. I bared my teeth soundlessly and she drew back. She spoke as if I’d agreed to obey her. ‘Alaria is going to cut your ankles free. We’ll take you over by the fire. If you try to run, I swear I will cripple you.’ She did not wait for a response. ‘Alaria, cut the bonds on her ankles.’

  I thrust my feet toward her. Alaria, I noted, had a very nice belt-knife. I wondered if I could find a way to make it mine. She sawed and sawed at the fabric that bound me, and I was surprised at how much it hurt. When finally she cut through, I kicked my feet to free them, and then felt a very unpleasant hot tingling as they came back to life. Was Dwalia tempting me to try to escape, to have an excuse to beat me again?

  Not yet. Gather more strength. Appear weaker than you are.

  ‘Get up and walk!’ Dwalia ordered me. She stalked away from me, as if wanting to demonstrate to me how certain she was of my obedience.

  Let her be certain of my surrender. I’d find a way to get away from her. But the wolf was right. Not yet. I stood, but very slowly, taking my time to get my balance. I tried to stand straight as if my belly were not full of hot knives. Her kicks had hurt something inside of me. I wondered how long it would take to heal.

  Vindeliar had ventured closer to us. ‘Oh, my brother,’ he mooed sadly at the sight of my broken face. I stared at him and he looked away. I tried to appear defiant rather than hobbled by pain as I stalked toward the fire.

  It was my first chance to have a good look at my surroundings. The pillar had brought us to an open dell in the heart of a forest. There were dwindling fingers of snow between the trees, but it was inexplicably missing in the plaza and on the roads leading to it and away. Trees had grown large alongside those roads and their branches arced over it and interlaced in some places. Yet the roads were largely clear of forest debris and snow. Did no one else recognize how peculiar that was? Evergreens with low, swooping branches surrounded the dell where Dwalia’s folk had built their fire. No. Not a dell. I scuffed my feet against some sort of paving stones. The open area was partially bounded by a low wall of worked stone set with several pillars. I saw something on the ground. It looked like a glove, one that had spent part of the winter under snow. Farther on I saw a scrap of leather, perhaps from a strap. And then a woollen hat.

  Despite my aching body, I slowly stooped to pick it up, feigning to take a moment to cradle my belly. Over by the fire, they pretended not to watch me, like cats hunched near a mouse hole. The hat was damp, but even damp wool is warm. I tried to shake the spruce needles from it but my arms hurt too much. I wondered if anyone had brought my heavy fur coat back to the camp. Up and moving, the chill of the early spring night reminded me of every aching bruise. The cold reached in and fingered my skin where they had torn strips from my shirt.

  Ignore that. Don’t think of the cold. Use your other senses.

  I could see little beyond the reach of the fire’s dancing light. I drew breath through my nose. The rising moisture of the earth brought rich scents with it. I smelled dark earth and fallen spruce needles. And honeysuckle.

  Honeysuckle? At this time of year?

  Breathe out through your mouth and slowly in through your nose, Wolf Father advised me.

  I did. I turned my head slowly on my stiff neck, following the scent. There. A pale, slender cylinder, half-covered by a scrap of torn canvas. I tried to stoop down, but my knees folded and I nearly fell on my face. With my bound hands, I awkwardly picked up the candle. It was broken, held together at the break only by the wick, but I knew it. I lifted it to my face and smelled my mother’s handiwork. ‘How can this be here?’ I asked the night softly. I looked at the nondescript scrap of canvas. Nearby there was a lady’s lacy glove, sodden and mildewed. I did not know either of those things, but I knew this candle. Could I be mistaken? Could other hands have harvested the beeswax and scented it with honeysuckle blossoms? Could another hand have patiently dipped the long wicks over and over into the wax pot to form such an elegant taper? No. This was my mother’s work. Possibly I had helped to make this candle. How did it come here?

  Your father has been here.

  Is that possible?

  It is the least impossible answer that I can imagine.

  The candle folded in two as I slid it into my shirt. I felt the wax chill against my skin. Mine. I could hear Vindeliar shuffling toward me. From the corner of my eye, I saw Dwalia holding her hands out to the fire’s warmth. I turned my good eye toward them. Reppin had my big fur coat. She had folded it into a cushion and was sitting on it by the fire next to Alaria. She saw me looking and sneered at me. I stared at her arm and then lifted my eyes to smile at her. Her exposed hand was a fat pad with sausage fingers. Blood was dark between her fingers and in the lines of her knuckles. Had she not had the sense to wash out the bite?

  I moved slowly to the biggest gap in their circle and sat down there. Dwalia rose and came to stand behind me. I refused to look back at her. ‘You’ll get no food tonight. Don’t think you can run away from us. You can’t. Alaria, you will take the first watch. Wake Reppin to take the second. Don’t let Bee escape or you’ll pay the price.’

  She stalked away to where they had piled the packs and supplies they’d brought with them. There wasn’t much. They had fled Ellik’s attack with whatever they could hastily seize. Dwalia made herself a lumpy cushion from the packs and reclined on them with no thought for the comfort of the others. Reppin looked around slyly, and then spread out my opened coat before lying down on it and wrapping the excess around herself. Vindeliar stared at them, and then simply flopped down like a dog. He pillowed his broad head on his arms and stared dolefully at the fire. Alaria sat cross-legged, glaring at me. No one paid any attention to the Chalcedean. Hands over his head, he was dancing a sort of a jig in a circle, his mouth wide in mindless enjoyment of the ghost music. His brain might be dazed, but he was an excellent dancer.

  I wondered where my father was. Did he think of me? Had Shun gone back to Withywoods to tell him that I’d been taken into a stone? Or did she die in the forest? If she had, he would never know what had become of me or where to look. I was cold, and very hungry. And so lost.

  If you can’t eat, sleep. Rest is the only thing you can give yourself right now. Take it.

  I looked at the hat I’d salvaged. Plain grey wool, undyed but well spun and knitted. I shook it to be sure there were no insects in it and then, with my hands still tied, struggled to get it onto my head. The damp was chill but slowly warmed from my skin. I manoeuvred myself into a reclining position on my less-painful side, and faced away from the fire. The warmth of my body had wakened the candle’s scent. I breathed honeysuckle. I curled slightly as if I were seeking sleep but brought my wrists up to my face and began again to chew at my bonds.

  TWO

  * * *

  T
he Silver Touch

  There is a peculiar strength that comes to one who is facing the final battle. That battle is not limited to war, nor the strength to warriors. I’ve seen this strength in old women with the coughing sickness and heard of it in families that are starving together. It drives one to go on, past hope or despair, past blood loss and gut wounds, past death itself in a final surge to save something that is cherished. It is courage without hope. During the Red-Ship Wars, I saw a man with blood gouting in spurts from where his left arm had once been yet swinging a sword with his right as he stood protecting a fallen comrade. During one encounter with Forged Ones, I saw a mother stumbling over her own entrails as she shrieked and clutched at a Forged man, trying to hold him away from her daughter.

  The OutIslanders have a word for that courage. Finblead, they call it, the last blood, and they believe that a special fortitude resides in the final blood that remains in a man or a woman before they fall. According to their tales, only then can one find and use that sort of courage.

  It is a terrible bravery and at its strongest and worst, it goes on for months when one battles a final illness. Or, I believe, when one moves toward a duty that will result in death but is completely unavoidable. That finblead lights everything in one’s life with a terrible radiance. All relationships are illuminated for what they are and for what they truly were in the past. All illusions melt away. The false is revealed as starkly as the true.

  FitzChivalry Farseer

  As the taste of the herb spread in my mouth, the sounds of the turmoil around me grew louder. I lifted my head and tried to focus my stinging eyes. I hung in Lant’s arms, the familiar bitterness of elfbark suffusing my mouth. As the herb damped my magic, I became more aware of my surroundings. My left wrist ached with a bone-deep pain, as searing as frozen iron. While the Skill had surged through me, healing and changing the children of Kelsingra, my perception had shrunk but now I was fully aware of the shouting of the crowd surrounding me as the sound bounced from the lofty walls of the elegant Elderling chamber. I smelled fear-sweat in the air. I was caught in the press of the mob, with some Elderlings fighting to step away from me as others were shoving to get closer in the hope I might heal them. So many people! Hands reached toward me, with cries of ‘Please! Please, just one more!’ Others shouted, ‘Let me
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