Assassins fate, p.78
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       Assassin's Fate, p.78

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

  instead of upon it, caring for their territory and their people. They served one another well. A descendant of that woman became a man who was a servant to all of the folk who lived in those mountains, and in that way he led them.

  As did those who came after him, each one taking up the mantle of one who leads by serving.

  And thus did the White Prophet Gerda change the world.

  Accounts of the Prophets of Old

  I remembered when I was cold and Revel was carrying me into the house. We were going down steps. But I was wet-cold, not snow-cold. My feet were dragging in water. Or was it snow? I lifted my head from his shoulder. ‘Revel?’ I whispered into the scintillating light.

  ‘Bee? You’re awake?’ The light was talking to me. It was a nexus, shimmering with possible futures. It was not Revel. This light was a jabbing, glittering thing, stabbing and prickling me. I tightened my muscles to fling myself away but it spoke again, ‘Don’t do that. It’s dark here and water is coming into the tunnel. You took a bad fall. You’ve been unconscious.’

  ‘Put me down! It’s too much!’

  ‘Too much?’ he whispered. He sounded confused.

  I put up my walls but it did not dim. The light did not illuminate, it blinded. So many possibilities striating out from this moment. ‘Let me go!’ I begged him.

  Still he hesitated. ‘Are you sure? The water will be deep for you. Perhaps chest-deep. And it’s cold.’

  ‘Too many paths!’ I shouted at him. ‘Let me go, put me down, let me go!’

  ‘Oh, Bee,’ he said, and I knew him. The blind beggar from the marketplace. The one my father called Fool. Beloved, come to save me. I did not like how slowly he lowered me into the water, but he was right. It came to the bottom of my ribs and was cold enough to make me catch my breath.

  I stepped back from him and nearly fell. He caught at the ragged shoulder of my shirt. I let him hold onto it. Blessed darkness wrapped me. ‘Where is Per?’ He was the first safe person who came to mind. Then, ‘Where is my father?’

  ‘You left Per at the mouth of the tunnel. We will reach there soon. I hope. It’s slow going. Wading against the water is work.’ Carefully he asked me, ‘Do you remember where we are and what happened?’

  ‘Some of it.’ I wished he would speak louder. My ears were full of a ringing. My father had probably gone ahead with the others. To catch the fleeing Whites. I wished he had not left me. I took a step, stumbled, splashed and stood upright.

  ‘I can still carry you if you wish.’

  ‘No. I’d rather walk. Don’t you understand? When you touch me, you make me see all the paths. All of them, at once!’

  He was silent. Or was he? ‘Talk louder!’ I begged him.

  ‘I saw nothing when I carried you. No paths. Only the dark that we move through, Bee. Take my hand. Let me lead you.’ I felt his fingers brush my bare arm. I twitched away from him.

  ‘I can follow your voice.’

  ‘This way, Bee,’ he said with a sigh and began to walk away from me. Beneath the cold water the floor was flat but gritty under my feet. I held my arms above the water. It was hard to take a deep breath that way. I followed him for a few steps and then asked again, ‘Where is my father?’

  ‘Back there, Bee. You know there was a fire, and you know about the firepots we carried. There was an explosion, and the ceiling collapsed. Your father … it came down on him.’

  I stopped walking. With chill water to my waist, with dark all round me, a different, colder sort of darkness was rising inside me. I found there was something beyond pain and fear. That something was filling me.

  ‘I know,’ he said hoarsely. But I knew he could not possibly know what I was feeling. He spoke on. ‘We must hurry. I carried you down a slope and the water got deeper. Now we are on the level, but the water is still rising. It’s the tide coming in. This tunnel may fill completely. We cannot tarry.’

  ‘My father is dead? How? How can he be dead and you be alive?’

  ‘Walk,’ he commanded me. He began to slosh forward again and I followed him. I heard him take a breath and then after something that sounded like a sob, he said thickly, ‘Fitz is dead.’ He tried to continue speaking but could not. Eventually, he said, ‘He and I both knew it might come down to a choice. You heard him say as much. I promised that I would choose you. It was his wish.’ In a choked voice he asked me, ‘Do you recall your dream of the scales?’

  ‘I have to go back to him!’

  He was fast. Even in the dark, he caught my wrist and gripped it tight. I staggered from the light, and then he had me by the back of my shirt. ‘I can’t allow that. There is no time and there is no point. He was dead when we left him, Bee. I heard no breath from him; I felt no beat of his heart. Did you think I would leave him alive and trapped?’ His voice had started out tight and level, but it ended wild. His breathing was hoarse and echoed. ‘The last thing I can do for him is take you out of here. Now we go.’ He walked on, half-dragging me through the water. I kicked but could not fight him. I tried to twist out of his grip. ‘Don’t,’ he said, and it was a plea. ‘Bee, don’t make me force you. I don’t want to.’ His voice broke on the words. ‘It is as much as I can do to force myself to go on. I wish I could go back and be dead beside him. But I have to take you out of here! Why did Lant let you come back alone?’ He sounded grieved about that. As if I were a helpless little girl. Or it could be someone else’s fault.

  ‘He didn’t,’ I pointed out. ‘I told Per to stay and guard the door while I came back to warn you.’

  ‘What of Prilkop?’ he demanded suddenly.

  ‘I passed him on my way to warn you.’

  ‘How much farther to the door?’

  ‘We’re on the flat part. Then we come to a place where the floor slopes up. Then the long stairs. Then a small flat place and more stairs to the door. Did it … crush him?’

  ‘Bee,’ he said very softly.

  ‘He said he wouldn’t leave me again!’

  He said nothing.

  ‘He can’t be dead!’ I wailed.

  ‘Bee. You know that he is.’

  Did I? I felt for him, inside my mind. I lowered my walls and groped to where he had been. No Wolf Father. And the connection he had shared with me since he had touched my head … gone. ‘He’s dead.’

  ‘Yes.’

  That was the most terrible word I had ever heard. I reached out and caught the sleeve of his shirt. I held to it and together we walked faster, as if we could run away from his death.

  The floor had remained level but the water was getting deeper. We walked on through the blackness. Water sloshed around my chest. The floor began to slant upwards, but the water still became deeper.

  ‘Faster,’ he said, and I tried.

  ‘What’s going to become of me?’ I asked suddenly. It was a terrible, selfish question. My father was dead and I wanted to know what would happen to me?

  ‘I’ll take care of you. And the first thing I will do is get you out of here to the ship that will take us somewhere safe. And then I’ll get you home.’

  ‘Home,’ I said, but the word was hollow. What was home? ‘I want Per!’

  ‘We’re going to Per. Hurry.’ He halted, pulled his sleeve down over his hand, and then seized mine. He dragged me through the rising water, moving so quickly that my feet barely touched the floor. He stumbled when we came to the first shallow step, and we both fell in the water. But in a moment he was on his feet and we were climbing the steps, fleeing the water that seemed to be chasing us. The steps were unevenly spaced. I banged my ankles and tripped and hit my shins. He didn’t let go of my hand but dragged me relentlessly on. For a long time, we climbed steps, but the water got shallower very slowly.

  ‘Is that light?’ he asked suddenly.

  I squinted. ‘Not daylight. It’s a lamp.’

  ‘I can see it.’ His voice trembled as if someone were shaking him. ‘Per? Lant?’

  It was Lant. He came down the steps to us, holding the small
lamp in one hand and his sword in the other. His face was a mask of light and shadow above it. ‘Bee? Fitz? Fool? Why were you so slow to follow? We feared the worst!’ He came sloshing toward us, talking as he came. ‘I feared you were trapped in the tunnel. Only a few more steps and you’ll be out of the water. Spark has not come back. She outran me. I came back in time to see Prilkop running away. I would have had to kill him to stop him. Per remains on guard at the door.’ His explanation rattled from his lips. Then, as his light reached us, ‘Where is Fitz?’

  Fool took a breath. ‘Not with us,’ he said.

  ‘But …’ Lant stared at him and then looked down at me. I could not bear his expression. I hid my face in Beloved’s shirt. ‘No,’ Lant said on a hoarse exhalation Then, ‘How?’

  ‘There was an explosion. The beams of the tunnel came down. Fitz is gone, Lant.’

  They were moving as they spoke climbing the steps slowly as if they carried something heavy between them. Lant stopped suddenly. The light wavered as his shoulder’s shook. He made a choking sound.

  ‘NO!’ Beloved said savagely. He grabbed his shoulder and shook him so that the lamp’s light danced. ‘No. Not here. Not now. Neither of us can feel that. When she is safe, we can grieve. For now, we plan and we survive. Swallow it, put your head up and walk on!’

  Lant did. He took a noisy breath and then strode on. I walked between them and then behind them, trying to comprehend that my father was gone. Again. But he would not return this time. I recalled the dream of the scales. I had known, in some part of myself, that he might buy my life with his. But with every breath I exhaled, something inside me grew heavier. Guilt, fault, grief, or a terrible mixture of those things. I did not weep. Tears would have been too small, an insult to the size of loss I’d taken. I wanted to bleed my sorrow, to let the pain of it drain out with my life.

  Lant suddenly glanced back at me. ‘Bee, I am so sorry.’

  ‘You didn’t kill him. He traded his life for mine.’

  He stumbled slightly. Then he said, ‘Get up on my back, Bee. We will go faster.’

  I thought of refusing, but I was so tired. He stooped and I climbed up. I put my arms around Lant’s neck, trying not to choke him. I wondered if the rising tide had filled the tunnel behind us. Would it slosh around my father’s body? Would little blind fishes come to eat him?

  With me riding on Lant’s back, we went more quickly. The steps grew steeper and the water receded. Then, in the distance, I saw a very small light. It was bobbing as it came toward us. ‘Get down, Bee,’ Lant said in a low voice. I slid from his back and he stepped in front of Beloved and I, his sword ready.

  But it was Spark with a brushwood torch. ‘I chased them through the bushes and down the hill, to the edge of the town. I couldn’t chase them through the streets with a sword. They got away. Where’s Prilkop?’

  ‘Per said he arrived after me, and then ran off toward the town. Per stayed to guard the tunnel mouth.’

  ‘I never saw Prilkop! Where is Fitz?’ She was close enough now to see that no one followed us.

  ‘Dead.’ Lant delivered the news bluntly.

  I admitted my guilt. ‘He traded his life for mine.’

  Spark made a choking sound. Lant put his arm around her. It was as much comfort as anyone could give her. We hurried on.

  When the flame on the brushwood torch burned out, Spark flung it against the side of the tunnel. I understood that gesture. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked in a whisper.

  Beloved answered me. ‘Out of this tunnel onto a low hillside behind the town, then through the town to the docks. A boat should be waiting for us there. I hope. From there, we go to a ship named Paragon. And then across a lot of water. And home.’ He sounded utterly discouraged. He drew a breath. ‘Home. We’re going home, Bee.’

  ‘Withywoods?’ I asked him softly.

  He hesitated. ‘If that is what you wish.’

  ‘Where else could I go?’

  ‘Buckkeep Castle.’

  ‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘But not Withywoods. I know too many dead people there.’

  He nodded. ‘I understand that.’

  The adults were walking fast. I caught at his cuff to help me keep pace with them. ‘My sister is at Buckkeep Castle,’ I told him. ‘Nettle. And Riddle.’

  ‘Yes. And they have a new baby! Your father told me. He said, “I’m a grandfather now” …’ His words faltered to a halt.

  ‘A new baby?’ I exclaimed in dismay. It suddenly hurt my feelings. I tried to understand why. There would be no room for me in her life now. Nettle had been my sister, mine, a few moments ago. Now she was somebody’s mother. And Riddle would have his own little girl.

  ‘Her name is Hope.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Your niece. Hope is her name.’

  I could think of nothing to say. He said wistfully, ‘It will be nice for you to have people to go home to. Your sister. And Riddle. I really like Riddle.’

  ‘So do I,’ I agreed.

  Spark spoke over her shoulder. ‘We’re nearly at the door,’ she said. ‘We need to go quietly now. Lant and I will go first, to see what might be waiting. Fool will guard you, Bee. Stay here.’

  I nodded but all the same I took out Symphe’s knife and held it, as my father had taught me. A smile twisted her mouth to see me do that. ‘Good,’ she whispered. Beloved set down the lamp. Spark and Lant ghosted toward a pale-grey light interrupted by bushy shadows.

  But no one was waiting in ambush for us. Only Per, hatchet in hand, standing just inside the chopped door. ‘Bee!’ he exclaimed as soon as he saw me. He rushed to me and hugged me hard, weapons still in his hands. I hugged him back and then held tight to him. I spoke next to his ear. ‘Per. My da is dead. The ceiling fell on him. We had to leave him back there.’

  ‘No!’ he cried out low, holding me tighter. He breathed harsh, his chest heaving within my embrace. When he spoke again, his voice was angry and fierce. ‘Don’t be afraid, Bee. I’m still here. I’ll protect you.’

  ‘To the ship,’ Lant said. ‘No tarrying. Not for anything.’

  The doors had pushed earth and leaves and the cloaking vegetation aside. No one had guarded this way, or even tended this door, in a very long time. ‘So arrogant,’ Lant whispered as he worked his way gingerly through the tangle of thistles and climbing vine. ‘I doubt they’ve ever been attacked before.’

  ‘They always believed they could see disaster coming and avoid it,’ Beloved said. ‘Change the future to save themselves. They knew something of the Destroyer, but I doubt they expected a small girl; I doubt they understood they would bring it all on themselves.’ He added, ‘And the actions of the Unexpected Son were, as always, unexpected. Fitz had a way of tumbling all their pieces from the gameboard. For a time longer, we may be in their blind spot. Fitz bought this time for us. We must not waste it.’

  `Fitz had, I thought to myself. Not Fitz has. Never again. I felt Per’s grip on my hand tighten and knew that we shared that thought. We followed them out into a sunny day. I blinked incredulously. I felt it had been a year since I left my cell. Deep grass surrounded the neglected entry to the tunnel and no clear trail led away from it. The tasselled heads of the tall glasses glistened with dew. We could clearly see the trampled grass where the Whites and then Prilkop had gone down toward the town.

  ‘Let me take your arm,’ Spark said to Beloved. ‘We need to move quickly.’

  ‘I can see. As I once did. Perfectly.’

  ‘How?’ Lant demanded.

  ‘Fitz,’ he said quietly. He stepped clear of the brambles and looked around him as if the world were a wonder. ‘As he was dying. He did a last healing. On me. I suspect it took every last bit of strength he had.’ He looked down at me and added, ‘I did not ask him for that. I did not want it. But he knew he was trapped. He chose to spend what life he had left on me.’

  I looked up at him. He was changed from the first time I had seen him. He was thinner, almost gaunt. The battering his face had ta
ken was almost gone. And he stood differently. It came to me slowly. Nothing hurt inside him any more.

  I looked away from him. I was still trying to understand what I felt when Lant spoke, his voice emptied of emotion. ‘We need to get to the ship as quickly as possible. We must try to be seen as little as possible. We don’t know if the White prisoners or Prilkop have rallied folk against us. So we will assume they have. Per, if we are attacked take Bee and run. Don’t stay to fight. Take her, hide with her, and stay there until you can get to the boat and the ship.’

  ‘I don’t like that,’ I said bluntly. ‘Do you think I can’t fight? Do you think I didn’t fight?’

  Per’s angry face mirrored mine.

  Lant looked down on me. ‘It doesn’t matter if you like it. My father charged me to protect Fitz. I didn’t. I won’t lose you, too, Bee. Not unless I go down in my own blood. So, to make that less likely, obey me. Please.’ He added the last word as a courtesy, with no plea in it. Per gave a tight nod and I knew I’d have no choice. Months of being on my own. It wasn’t even noon and I was relegated to being a child again.

  ‘I will choose our path,’ Beloved said. Lant started to object, but he added, ‘I once knew every alley in this town well. I can get
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