Assassins fate, p.8
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       Assassin's Fate, p.8

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

  The Vanishing Elderlings, Chade Fallstar

  My mother used to do this to me. When she wanted to move me.

  A dim recollection. A den, a mother who carried me by the scruff of my neck. Not my thought, but it was a thought and the first one I had. Someone gripped hair, skin and shirt collar. The collar was the part that was choking me. I was dragged up and out of a mire as someone protested, ‘There isn’t room. Leave her! There isn’t room.’

  The blackness was absolute. Air on my face. I blinked my eyes to see if they were truly open. They were. No stars. No distant firelight. Nothing. Just dark. And something thick trying to pull me back down.

  I was abruptly glad for the choking grip on my collar. In panic, I clutched one-handed at someone’s shirt and crawled up and onto Kerf. He was prone on his side beneath me. I lifted my head and it hit against something. Worse, someone had hold of my arm and was pulling on it as they crawled up to join me. The man beneath me shifted onto his back. I fell off him to lie wedged between him and a stone wall. It was a snug fit and instinctively I pushed at him, trying to gain more room. But I could not move his bulk and I heard Alaria gasp and then utter small shriek after shriek as she scrabbled up to take my place on top of Kerf.

  The shrieks turned into gasped words. ‘Let go! Let go of me!’ She was thrashing on top of Kerf.

  ‘You’re kicking me,’ Vindeliar protested.

  ‘Let go!’ Alaria cried.

  ‘I’m not touching you! Stop kicking!’ Dwalia ordered her. ‘Vindeliar, get off me!’

  ‘I can’t. I’m stuck! There’s no room!’ He was panting with terror.

  Where were we? What had happened to us?

  Dwalia tried for a tone of command and failed. She was breathless. ‘Silence, all!’

  ‘I’m sick.’ I heard Vindeliar gag. ‘That was awful. They were all grabbing at me. I want to go home. I can’t do this. I hate this. I need to go home.’ He blubbered like a small child.

  ‘Let go of me!’ Alaria, her voice gone shrill.

  ‘Help me! I’m sinking! Please, make room! I can’t climb past you!’ I heard and smelled Reppin. The infection in her arm stank. She had probably broken the wound open in her struggle. ‘My arm … I can’t climb out. Pull me up, someone! Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me with them!’

  Where were we?

  Be calm. Discover what has happened before you try to make a plan. I felt Wolf Father’s steadiness suffuse me. My breathing that had become bellows in my chest. But his voice was so calm in my mind. Listen. Touch. Smell. What can you discover?

  It was hard to be calm with the slapping, panting struggle going on right beside me. Alaria begged, ‘Let go! There’s no room! Don’t pull me back! Ah!’

  Reppin did not shriek. She gave a long moan that was suddenly quenched in a sound like pulled heavy stone dropped in from muck. Only Alaria’s panting broke the silence.

  ‘She was pulled back down into the stone.’ More a statement than a question from Dwalia. And with it, I recalled that she had dragged us into a Skill-pillar.

  ‘I had to! I had to push her away. There’s no more room! You said to leave her. It’s not my fault!’ Alaria sounded more defensive than sorry.

  ‘Be silent!’ Dwalia’s voice was still pinched with breathlessness. ‘I speak. Vindeliar, get off me!’

  ‘I am sorry. I am stuck here. Kerf pushed me onto you as he crawled up. I can’t budge. A stone presses down on me.’ He was on the edge of hysteria. ‘I am so sick. I cannot see! Am I blind? Lingstra Dwalia, am I blind?’

  ‘No. It is dark, you oaf. Don’t dare to vomit on me. You are crushing me. Give me room.’ I heard a struggle of shifting bodies.

  Vindeliar whimpered, ‘There is no space for me to move. I am crushed, too.’

  ‘If you cannot be helpful, be still. Chalcedean?’ She was gasping for air. Vindeliar was not a small person and she was trapped beneath him. ‘Kerf?’

  He giggled. It was a terrible sound coming from a man’s deep chest in the darkness.

  ‘Stop that! Dwalia, he’s touching me!’ Alaria was outraged and terrified.

  Kerf giggled again and I felt him tug his arm from under me. He lifted it, giving me a tiny bit more room, and I surmised that he embraced Alaria against him. ‘Nice,’ he said in a throaty voice and I felt him lift his hips against her.

  ‘Stop,’ she begged him, but his reply was a throaty growl followed by a low chuckle. The muscles of his upper arm were pressed against me and I felt them tighten as he snugged Alaria closer to him. His breathing deepened. Beside me, he began a rhythmic shifting that shoved me solidly against the wall. Alaria began to weep.

  ‘Ignore him,’ Dwalia ordered her coldly.

  ‘He’s trying to rape me!’ She squeaked. ‘He’s—’

  ‘He doesn’t have enough room, so ignore him. He can’t get his own trousers down, let alone yours. Pretend he’s a little dog, infatuated with your leg.’ Was there a cruel satisfaction in Dwalia’s voice? Did she revel in Alaria’s humiliation? ‘We are trapped here and you are squawking about a man touching you. Scarcely a real danger.’

  Alaria responded with a frightened keening that kept pace with Kerf’s thudding against her.

  ‘The girl, Bee. Did she come through? Is she alive?’ Dwalia demanded.

  I kept my silence. I had wriggled my sore arm free, and although my injured shoulder protested, I was groping to discover the confines of our prison. Stone beneath me. To the left of me, Kerf’s body. To my right, a wall of stone as far as I could grope. When I reached up I could brush my fingertips against more stone. It was worked stone, smooth as a polished floor. I explored with my feet. More stone. Even if I’d been alone in this space, I could not have sat up. Where were we?

  The tempo of the Chalcedean’s jerking was speeding up and with it his open-mouthed gasping.

  ‘Alaria, feel around. Did the girl come through?’

  ‘She … must … have. Oh! I dragged myself through by … holding on … to her.’ Alaria’s voice was going smaller and higher. The Chalcedean continued to heave himself about. ‘It’s disgusting!’ She wailed. ‘He’s mouthing my face. He stinks! Stop it!’ She shrieked but the Chalcedean began to grunt under her.

  ‘Can you feel her? Is she alive?’ Dwalia persisted.

  I lay still. Despite Kerf’s passionate rocking, I felt her groping hand. I held my breath. She touched my face and then my chest.

  ‘She’s here. She’s not moving but her body is warm. Vindeliar! Make him stop this!’

  ‘I can’t. I’m sick. I’m so sick.’

  ‘Vindeliar, you’d best recall that I and only I give you your orders. Alaria, be silent!’

  ‘So many of them were in there,’ Vindeliar groaned. ‘They were all pulling at me. I’m so sick.’

  ‘Be sick silently!’ Dwalia snapped.

  Alaria was gasping in horror. She did not speak again but I heard the small weeping sounds she made, and the deep groan of the Chalcedean when he finally reached some sort of satisfaction. She tried to wriggle away from him, but I felt his arm muscles tighten and knew he held her there. It was as well for me. I did not want her to roll off him and onto me.

  ‘Feel about, as much as you can,’ Dwalia commanded. ‘Can anyone feel an opening in this tomb?’

  It was a poor choice of words. ‘Tomb,’ Vindeliar repeated and gave a trailing moan of despair.

  ‘Silence!’ she wheezed at him. ‘Feel about over your head. Is there any opening?’

  I heard them moving in the darkness, heard the scraping brush of fingers against stone, the scuff of boots scraping more stone. I remained still.

  ‘Anything?’ Dwalia demanded of the darkness.

  ‘No,’ Alaria responded sullenly. ‘Only stone, everywhere I touch. I can barely lift my head. Have you any room next to you?’ The Chalcedean’s muscles had gone slack and, by his stentorian breathing, I deduced he had fallen asleep. Madness was, perhaps, a mercy in some situations.

  ‘Would I allow V
indeliar to lie on top of me if I could be anywhere else?’ Dwalia demanded.

  A silence. Then Alaria suggested, ‘Perhaps you should take us back to where we were?’

  ‘Unfortunately, as the Chalcedean emerged, he pushed me to one side and shoved Vindeliar on top of me. He now lies on top of the portal stone. I cannot reach it from where I am.’

  ‘We are packed like pickled fish in a cask,’ Vindeliar observed sadly. More softly he added, ‘I suppose we will all die here.’

  ‘What?’ Alaria demanded in a half-shriek. ‘Die here? Starving to death in the dark?’

  ‘Well, we can’t get out,’ Vindeliar responded morosely.

  ‘Be silent!’ Dwalia ordered them, but it was too late. Alaria broke. She began weeping in gasps and after a few moments, I heard Vindeliar’s muffled sobs.

  Die here? Who would die first? A scream started to swell inside my chest.

  That is not a useful thought, Wolf Father rebuked me. Breathe. Quietly.

  I felt panic swell in me and then be quashed under his sternness.

  Think how to escape. Do you think you could enter the stone alone? Could you reach under the Chalcedean and open the passageway to return us to the forest?

  I’m not sure.

  Try.

  I’m afraid to try. What if I get stuck in the stone? What if I come out alone somewhere?

  What if you stay here and starve? After, of course, the others go mad and attack one another? Now, try.

  When I had slid off Kerf, I had landed on my back. I wriggled to one side. I had to roll onto my sore shoulder to do so. And it was that hand and arm that I had to try to wedge under Kerf and Alaria’s combined weight. I tried to do it slowly, sliding my hand under the small of his back where it did not press so hard against the stone. I made a small sound of pain and Alaria’s sniffling stopped. ‘What’s that?’ she cried, and reached down to me. ‘She’s moving. Bee’s alive and awake.’

  ‘And I bite!’ I reminded her, and she snatched her hand away.

  Now that they knew I was awake, there was no point in being secretive. I shoved my hand as far under Kerf as it would go. He shifted slightly, pinching my arm under him, then belched and went back to snoring. My shoulder burned as I worked my hand deeper under Kerf, scraping it over gritty stone. I heard my own fearful panting and closed my mouth to breathe through my nose. It was quieter but I was still just as terrified. What if I touched the rune and was suddenly sucked in? Could it drag me in past Kerf? Would he and Alaria fall in with me, as if I had opened a door under us? The terror put pressure on my bladder. I blocked it. I blocked everything except the effort of pushing my hand across stone. The stone surface under my fingers suddenly became a small indentation. I cautiously explored it with my fingertips. It was the rune.

  Do you feel anything? Can you make anything happen?

  I tried. I didn’t want to, but I pushed my fingers into the rune and rubbed the tips against the graven lines of it. Nothing. Nothing happens, Wolf Father.

  Very well. We should think of something else, then. His words were calm but beneath them I felt his simmering fear.

  Dragging my arm out from under Kerf was more painful than pushing it beneath him had been. Once my arm was free, I knew a sudden surge of panic. Everything was touching me – Kerf’s warm body, the unyielding stone below me, the stone alongside my body. I desperately needed to stand up, to stretch, to breathe cool air. Don’t struggle, Wolf Father insisted. Struggling only makes a snare go tighter. Be still and think. Think.

  I tried, but everything was touching me. Alaria was weeping again. Kerf was snoring. His ribs moved against me with every breath he took. My tunic had twisted around me, binding one of my arms. I was too warm. I was thirsty. I made a small noise in the back of my throat without intending to. Another sound rose in me, a scream that wanted to get out.

  No. None of that. Close your eyes, cub. Be with me. We are in a forest. Remember the cool night smells of a forest? Lie very still. Be with me.

  Wolf Father pulled me into his memories. I was in a forest. Dawn was coming and we were snug in a den. Time to sleep, he insisted. Sleep.

  I must have slept. When I awoke, I held tight to the calm he had given me. I had nothing else to cling to. In the blackness, I measured the passage of time by the behaviour of my fellow prisoners. Kerf awoke when Alaria became hysterical. He put his arms around her and crooned to her, perhaps a Chalcedean lullaby. She stilled after a time. Later, Dwalia burst into shrieking impotent fury when Vindeliar pissed on her. ‘I held it as long as I could,’ he wailed, and the smell of urine made me want to piss as well.

  Dwalia whispered something to him, her voice as soft and deadly as a snake’s hiss, and he began to sob.

  Then his sounds stopped, and I decided he slept. Alaria was quiet. Kerf began to sing, not a lullaby but some sort of marching song. He stopped abruptly in mid-verse. ‘Little girl. Bee. Are you alive?’

  ‘I am.’ I answered because I was glad he had stopped singing.

  ‘I am very confused. When we walked through stone, I was certain we were dead. But if we are not dead, then this will not be a good way for you to die. I think I could reach your neck. Would you like me to strangle you? It will not be fast, but it is a faster death than starving.’

  How thoughtful. ‘No, thank you. Not yet.’

  ‘You should not wait too long. I will become weak. And it will be unpleasant in here soon. Piss. Shit. People going mad.’

  ‘No.’ I heard something. ‘Hush!’

  ‘I know my words are sad to hear, but I only seek to warn you. I may be strong enough to snap your neck. That might be faster.’

  ‘No. Not yet.’ Not yet? What was I saying? Then, from far away, a sound. ‘Listen. Do you hear that?’

  Alaria stirred at my words. ‘Hear what?’ she demanded.

  ‘Do you hear something?’ Dwalia snapped at me.

  ‘Be silent!’ I roared at them in my father’s angry voice, and they obeyed. We all listened. The sounds were faint. Slow hooves clopping on cobblestones. A woman’s voice lifted in a brief sing-song chant.

  ‘Is it a prayer?’ Alaria wondered.

  ‘It’s an early pedlar. She sings, “bread, fresh baked this morning. Bread, warm from the oven”.’ Kerf sounded sentimental.

  ‘Help us!’ Alaria’s desperate scream was so shrill my ears rang with it. ‘Help us, oh help us! We are trapped!’

  When she finally stopped shrieking for lack of breath, my ears were ringing. I strove to hear the bread-woman’s song or the clopping hooves, but I heard nothing. ‘She is gone,’ Vindeliar said sadly.

  ‘We are in a city,’ Kerf declared. ‘Only cities have breadmongers at dawn, selling wares in the street.’ He paused for a moment and then said, ‘I thought we were dead. I thought that was why you wished to come to the fallen palace of the dead duke, to be dead here. Do breadmongers still sing when they are dead? I do not think so. What need have the dead of fresh bread?’ Silence greeted his question. I did not know what the others were thinking, but I pondered his previous words. A fallen palace. How much stone was on top of our tomb? ‘So we are not dead,’ he reasoned laboriously, ‘but we will be soon if we cannot escape. But perhaps as the city awakens, we will hear other people. And perhaps they will hear us if we shout for help.’

  ‘So be silent for now!’ Dwalia warned us. ‘Be silent and listen. I will tell you when to shout for help, and we will all shout together.’

  We waited in suffocating silence. From time to time we heard the muffled sounds of a city. A temple bell rang. An ox bellowed. Once, we thought we heard a woman calling a child. At that, Dwalia bade us all shout for help with one voice. But it seemed to me that the sounds were never very close, and I wondered if we were on a hill above a city rather than in the city itself. After a time, Vindeliar pissed again, and I think Alaria did, too. The smell was getting worse – piss and sweat and fear. I tried to imagine I was in my bed at Withywoods. It was dark in the room. Soon my father would come
to look in on me. He always thought I was asleep when he looked in my room late at night before going to his own bed. I stared up at blackness and imagined his step in the corridor. I was beginning to see dots of light from staring into the blackness so long. Then I blinked and realized that one of the dots was now a narrow stripe.

  I stared at it, not daring to hope. Slowly I lifted my foot as far as it would go. It blocked part of the light. When I lowered my foot, the light reappeared, stronger.

  ‘I can see light,’ I whispered.

  ‘Where?’

  ‘Near my feet,’ I said, but by then the light had started to slink in. I could see how uneven the blocks were that confined us.
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