Assassins fate, p.6
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       Assassin's Fate, p.6

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

  Slowly and carefully I stooped and tugged out a red woollen shawl. It was as damp and smelly as the hat I’d found, but just as welcome. ‘What do you have there?’ Dwalia demanded and I flinched. I hadn’t heard her come up behind me.

  ‘Just a rag,’ I said, my words blurred by my swollen mouth.

  ‘There’s a lot of rubbish over here,’ Reppin observed.

  ‘Which shows that people use this road.’ Alaria added. She looked toward Dwalia as she said, ‘If we followed it, we might soon come to a village. And a healer for Reppin.’

  ‘There’s bear-scat, too,’ I contributed. ‘And it’s fresher than the rubbish.’ That last part was true. The excrement was on top of some of the canvas and unmelted by rain.

  ‘Ew!’ Alaria had been tugging at a corner of some canvas. She dropped it and sprang back.

  ‘What’s that?’ Dwalia exclaimed and pushed her aside. She squatted down and peeled the canvas back from the wet stones to expose something white and cylindrical. A bone? ‘Umph,’ she exclaimed in satisfaction. We all watched as she unscrewed a small plug from the end and coaxed out a coiled piece of parchment.

  ‘What is it?’ Alaria asked.

  ‘Go get wood!’ Dwalia snapped and took her treasure back to the fireside.

  ‘Move, Bee!’ Alaria commanded me. I hastily wrapped my shawl around my shoulders and followed them.

  For the rest of the morning they broke sticks from storm-fallen branches and piled them in my arms for me to carry back to the campsite. Dwalia remained crouched by the fire, brow furrowed over the little scroll she’d found.

  ‘I am going to die here,’ Reppin announced. She was huddled under her coat and mine, her bitten arm cradled in her lap.

  ‘Don’t be dramatic,’ Dwalia snapped at her and went back to studying her papers, squinting as the light faded from the day. It had been two days since I’d bitten Reppin, and here we still were. Dwalia had forbidden Alaria from exploring any farther down the old roads, and had slapped Reppin for asking what we would do next. Since she had found the bone cylinder and discovered the parchment inside it, all she had done was sit by the fire and compare it to her crumpled paper. She scowled and squinted as her gaze moved from one to the other.

  I stared at Reppin across the fire. The sun was going down and the cold was creeping back. The small amount of warmth the stones of the old plaza had captured would soon flee. Reppin probably felt colder because of her fever. I kept my mouth flat. She was right; she would die. Not quickly, but she would die. Wolf Father had told me and, when I let him guide my senses, I could smell the infection in her sweat. Next time, for a faster kill, you must find and bite a place where the blood leaps forth in gushes. But for a first kill, you did well. Even if this is meat you cannot eat.

  I didn’t know my bite could kill her.

  No regrets, Wolf Father chided me. There is no going back to do a thing or not do a thing. There is only today. Today you must resolve to live. Each time you are given a choice, you must do the thing that will keep you alive and unhurt. Regrets are useless. If you had not made her fear you she would have done you many more hurts. And the others would have joined in. They are a pack and they will follow their leader. You made the bitch fear you, and the others know that. What she fears, they will fear.

  So I kept my face set and showed no remorse – though I did suspect that the proscription against eating humans had not been made by someone as hungry as I was. In the two days that had passed since we’d arrived, I’d eaten twice – if a thin soup of some bird Alaria had killed with a thrown stone and two handfuls of meal cooked in a full pot of water could be counted as food. The others had eaten better than I had. I had wanted to be too proud to eat the little they offered me, but Wolf Father said that was a poor choice. Eat to live, he had told me. Be proud of staying alive. And so I tried. I ate what I was given, spoke little and listened much.

  By day, they untied my hands and hobbled my ankles so I could help with the endless task of scavenging for firewood. My new bonds had been made from strips torn from my tunic. I dared not chew them again lest they tear away even more of my clothing. They watched me closely. If I strayed at all from Alaria’s side, Dwalia would hit me with a stick. Every night, she bound my wrists to my tied ankles and tethered them to her wrist. If I shifted in my sleep, she kicked me. Hard.

  And with every kick, Father Wolf would snarl, Kill her. As soon. As possible.

  ‘You and I are the only ones left,’ Reppin whispered that night to Alaria after Dwalia slept.

  ‘I am here,’ Vindeliar reminded them.

  ‘Of the true luriks,’ Reppin clarified disdainfully. ‘You are no scholar of the dream-scrolls. Stop spying on us!’ She lowered her voice as if to exclude Vindeliar. ‘Remember when Symphe herself said we were chosen as the best to help Dwalia discern the Path. But from the beginning she ignored our advice. We both know that girl has no value.’ She sighed. ‘I fear we have strayed very far from the way.’

  Alaria sounded uncertain as she said, ‘But Bee did have the fever, and the skin-change. That must mean something.’

  ‘Only that she has some White heritage. Not that she can dream. Certainly not that she is this Unexpected Son that Dwalia claimed we would find.’ Reppin dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘You know she is not! Even Dwalia no longer credits that. Alaria, we must protect one another. No one else will. When Symphe and Dwalia proposed this mission, Capra and Coultrie both insisted that we had already endured the Unexpected Son; that he was the one who freed IceFyre and put an end to Ilistore. So Beloved told us when he came back to Clerres. He said that one of his Catalysts, the noble assassin, was the Unexpected Son. Among his people, they called Ilistore the Pale Woman. And she was defeated by the Unexpected Son. All know that! Three of the Four say that the dreams related to him are fulfilled and those prophecies should be discarded now. Only Symphe thought otherwise. And Dwalia.’

  I held my breath. They were speaking of my father! I knew from poring through his papers that the Fool had said he was the Unexpected Son. But I had never grasped that in some far-off land he had been the fulfilment of a prophecy. Furtively, I edged closer.

  Reppin dropped her voice. ‘Symphe believed her only because Dwalia showered her with obscure references that said the Unexpected Son’s victory would be absolute. And it was not, because Beloved came back to us and was recaptured. And remember that Dwalia served Ilistore for years and was infatuated with her. Dwalia always bragged that when Ilistore returned, she would raise her to power.’ She barely breathed the next words. ‘I think Dwalia only wants vengeance. You recall how she was about Beloved. She holds him responsible for Ilistore’s death. And you know whose home we stole Bee from? FitzChivalry’s.’

  Alaria sat up in her blankets. ‘No!’

  ‘Yes. FitzChivalry Farseer.’ Reppin reached up to tug her back down. ‘Think back. Recall the name Beloved shouted when his foot was being crushed? The name of his true Catalyst. He’d held that back, saying he’d had many: an assassin, a nine-fingered slave boy, a ship’s captain, a spoiled girl, a noble bastard. Not true. His one real Catalyst was FitzChivalry Farseer. And when I followed Dwalia into that house, in a room full of scrolls, she stopped still and stared and smiled. And there, on a mantelpiece, I saw a carving. One of the faces on it was Beloved’s! As he looked before he was interrogated.’ She nestled deeper into their bedding. ‘She wanted to take it. But just then, Ellik’s men came in and began to push over shelves and throw things around. They took a sword from there. So we left. But that’s who Bee is. The daughter of a Catalyst.’

  ‘They said the house belonged to Badgerlock, Tom Badgerlock. Bee said that was her father’s name.’

  ‘So. You are surprised that the biting little bitch lies?’

  ‘But she is a White, too?’

  Alaria’s whisper was soft. I strained to hear Reppin’s reply.

  ‘Yes. And think now how a thing such as that could come to be!’ Her words were triumphantly scandalized,
as if my very existence were shameful.

  ‘Vindeliar is listening,’ Alaria cautioned her. She shifted, pulling the coat more closely around them. ‘I don’t care about such things. I just want to go home. Back to Clerres. I want to sleep in a bed and have breakfast waiting for me when I awaken. I wish I’d never been chosen for this.’

  ‘My hand hurts so badly. I’d like to kill that brat!’

  ‘Don’t talk like that!’ Vindeliar warned them.

  ‘You shouldn’t talk at all. It’s your fault, all of this!’ Reppin hissed at him.

  ‘Sneaking spy,’ Alaria rebuked him, and they all fell silent.

  It was not the only time they whispered at night, though most of what they said made little sense to me. Reppin complained of her bite, and they discussed the politics of Clerres with names I did not know and fine points I could not understand. They promised to report all they had suffered when they returned home and agreed that Dwalia would be punished. Twice they spoke of dreams about a Destroyer, who Alaria claimed would bring screaming and foul fumes and death. In one, an acorn brought into a house suddenly grew into a tree of flames and swords. I recalled my own dream of the puppet with the acorn head and wondered if there was any connection. But I had also dreamed of a nut bobbing in a stream. I decided that my dreams were very confusing. Almost as bad as Reppin’s, for she had dreamed just darkness and a voice that announced, ‘Comes the Destroyer that you have made.’

  I gleaned what facts I could from their whispering. Some important people had not agreed about allowing Dwalia to go forth on her mission. When she persisted, they had relented, but only because Beloved had escaped. From my father’s writings, ‘Beloved’ was also ‘the Fool’. And ‘Lord Golden’. ‘The Four’ had warned Dwalia of what would befall her if she failed to produce results. She had promised to deliver to them the Unexpected Son. And I was all she had.

  Vindeliar was excluded from their discussions, but he so craved their attention that he had no pride. One night, as they whispered under their furs, he broke in excitedly to say, ‘I had a dream, too.’

  ‘You did not!’ Reppin declared.

  ‘I did.’ He was as defiant as a child. ‘I dreamed that someone brought a small package into a room and no one wanted it. But then someone opened it. And flames and smoke and loud noises came out and the room fell apart all around everyone.’

  ‘You did not dream that,’ Reppin exploded with disdain. ‘You are such a liar! You heard me talking about that dream and just repeated what you heard.’

  ‘I did not hear you say such a dream!’ He was indignant.

  Alaria’s voice was a low growl. ‘You’d better not claim that dream with Dwalia, because I already told it to her. She will know you for what a liar you are and beat you with a stick.’

  ‘I did dream that,’ he whined. ‘Sometimes Whites dream the same. You know that.’

  ‘You are no White. You were born broken, you and your sister. You should have been drowned.’

  I caught my breath at that and waited for Vindeliar to explode with fury. Instead he fell silent. The cold wind blew and the only thing we truly shared was misery. And dreams.

  Even as a small child, I’d had vivid dreams and instinctively known they were important and should be shared. At home, I’d recorded them in my journal. Since the Servants had stolen me, my dreams had grown darker and more ominous. I had neither spoken of them nor written them down. The unuttered dreams were lodged inside me, like a bone in my throat. With every additional dream, the driving compulsion to speak them aloud or write them down became stronger. The dream-images were confusing. I held a torch and stood at a crossroads under a wasp nest. A scarred little girl held a baby and Nettle smiled at her although both Nettle and the girl were weeping. A man burned the porridge he was cooking, and wolves howled in anguish. An acorn was planted in gravel, and a tree of flames grew from it. The earth shook and the black rain fell and fell and fell, making dragons choke and fall to the earth with torn wings. They were stupid dreams that made no sense but the urgency I felt to share them was like the need to vomit. I put my finger on the cold stone and pretended to write and draw. The pressure eased. I tilted my head up and looked at distant stars. No clouds. It was going to be very cold tonight. I struggled to wrap my shawl more warmly around me, to no avail.

  A third day passed, and a fourth. Dwalia paced and muttered and studied her documents. My bruises began to fade but I still ached all over. The swelling over my eye had gone down but one of my back teeth still felt loose. The split flesh on my cheekbone was mostly closed over now. None of them cared.

  ‘Take me back through the stone,’ Reppin demanded on the fourth evening. ‘Perhaps they could save me, if we returned to the Six Duchies. At least I could die in a bed instead of in the dirt.’

  ‘Failures die in the dirt,’ Dwalia said without emotion.

  Reppin made a stricken sound and lay down on her side. She drew her legs up, treasuring her infected arm close. My disgust with Dwalia equalled my hatred in that moment.

  Alaria spoke quietly into the gathering dimness. ‘We can’t stay here. Where will we go? Why can’t we follow this old road? It must lead somewhere. Perhaps it goes to a town, with warm shelter and food.’

  Dwalia had been sitting by the fire, holding her hands out to the warmth. She suddenly folded her arms across her chest and glared at Alaria. ‘Are you asking questions?’

  Alaria looked down. ‘I was just wondering.’ She dared to lift her head. ‘Were not we luriks meant to advise you? Were not we sent to help you find the true Path and make correct decisions?’ Her voice rose in pitch. ‘Coultrie and Capra did not wish you to go. They only allowed this because Beloved had escaped! We were to hunt him down and kill him! And then, perhaps, capture the Unexpected Son, if Beloved had led you to him. But you let the Farseer take Beloved away, so we could ransack his home. All that killing! Now we are lost in a forest, with the useless girl you stole. Does she dream? No! What good is she? I wonder why you have brought us all here, to die! I wonder if the rumour was true, that Beloved did not “escape” but was released by you and Symphe?’

  Dwalia shot to her feet and stood over Alaria. ‘I am a lingstra! You are a young and stupid lurik. If you want to wonder anything, wonder why the fire is dying. Go get more wood.’

  Alaria hesitated as if she would argue. Then she rose stiffly and walked reluctantly into the gathering gloom under the great trees. Over the last few days, we had gathered all the close dry wood. She would have to range deeper into the forest to find more. I wondered if she would come back. Twice Wolf Father had noted a faint but foul smell on the air. Bear, he had cautioned me. I had been frightened.

  He does not want to approach so many humans near a fire. But if he changes his mind, let the others shriek and run. You cannot run fast or far. So lie very still and do not make a sound. It may be he will chase after the others.

  But if he does not?

  Lie still and don’t make a sound.

  I had not been reassured, and I hoped that Alaria would return and bring an armful of firewood with her.

  ‘You,’ Dwalia said suddenly. ‘Go with her.’

  ‘You already tied my feet for the night,’ I pointed out to her. ‘And my hands.’ I tried to sound sullen. If she cut me free to go for wood, I was almost certain I could slip away in the gloom.

  ‘Not you. I’m not having you run off in the dark, to die in the forest. Reppin. Fetch wood.’

  Reppin looked incredulous. ‘I can barely move this arm. I can’t fetch wood.’

  Dwalia stared at her. I thought she might order her to her feet. Instead, she just pursed her mouth. ‘Useless,’ she said coldly, and then added, ‘Vindeliar, fetch wood.’

  Vindeliar rose slowly. He kept his eyes cast down, but I could read his resentment in the set of his shoulders as he wandered off in the same direction that Alaria had gone.

  Dwalia went back to doing what she did every evening: studying the little scroll and the tattered p
aper. Earlier, she had spent hours circling the pillars at the edge of the plaza, her eyes going from the parchment she’d found to the runes and back again. Some of those markings I had seen in my father’s papers in his study. Would she attempt another passage through the Skill-pillars? She had also made brief forays on the road in both directions, and had returned shaking her head and irritable. I could not decide which I feared more, that she would drag us into the Skill-pillar or starve us here.

  Across the plaza, Kerf was engaged in a boot-stamping dance. If I allowed myself, I could hear the music and see the Elderlings who danced all about him. Alaria returned with some frozen branches broken green from trees. They might burn but would give little warmth. Vindeliar came behind her, carrying a broken piece of rotted log, more moss than wood. As they approached the fire, Kerf danced a foot-stamping jig around them. ‘Go away!’ Alaria shouted at him, but he only grinned as he spun away to rejoin the festivities of the spectral Elderlings.

  I did not like camping in the open ground of the plaza, but Dwalia thought the forest floor was ‘dirty’. But dirt was much better than the smooth black stone of the plaza that gibbered and whispered to me constantly. Awake, I could keep my walls tight, though I was weary of the effort that took. But at night, when exhaustion finally claimed me, I was vulnerable to the voices stored in the stone. Their marketplace came alive with smoking meat over fragrant fires, and jugglers flipping sparkling gems and one pale songster who seemed to see me. ‘Be strong, be strong, go where you belong!’ she sang to me. But her words more frightened than comforted me. In her eyes, I saw her belief that I would do a terrible and wonderful thing. A thing only I could do? The Chalcedean abruptly dropped into place beside me. I jumped. My walls were so tight I had not been aware of his approach. Danger! Wolf Father cautioned me. Kerf folded his legs and gave me a jaunty grin. ‘A fine night for the festival!’ he said to me. ‘Have you tried the smoked goat? Excellent!’ He pointed across the plaza at the darkening forest. ‘From the vendor with the purple awning.’

  Madness made him such a congenial fellow. His mention of food made my stomach clench. ‘Excellent,’ I said quietly, and looked aside, thinking that agreeing might be the swiftest way to end the conversation.

  He nodded gravely and walked his haunches a bit closer to the fire, holding his grimy hands toward the warmth. Even mad, he’d had more sense than Reppin. A rag torn from his shirt bandaged the finger I’d bitten. He opened the sturdy leather pouch at his belt and rummaged in it. ‘Here,’ he said and thrust a stick at me. I lifted my bound hands to fend it off and he pushed it into my fingers. I suddenly smelled meat. Jerky. The rush of hunger and the flood of saliva in my mouth shocked me. My hands shook as I lifted it to my mouth. It was dry and so hard I could not bite off a piece. I chewed and sucked on it, and found myself breathing hard as I tried to gnaw off a piece I could swallow.

  ‘I know what you did.’

  I clutched the stick of jerky harder, fearful he would take it from me. I said nothing. Dwalia had lifted her gaze from her papers
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