Assassins fate, p.87
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       Assassin's Fate, p.87

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

  Calm. What was wrong with me? I hadn’t had so much difficulty in years … not since I’d been trying to Skill to Verity. Trying to reach him when he was in the Mountains. Verity, who had also soaked his hands in Silver.

  Perhaps the difficulty had not been entirely mine? Perhaps there had been more at work than my elfbark habit.

  I touched my silvered fingers to my thumb and focused on the peculiar power coursing through me. Pain. No, pleasure. No, it was too intense to classify. I focused on Buckkeep, on Dutiful, and for a moment I was in the Skill-current.

  I plunged into a depth that I’d never known existed. I was buffeted and shoved by the mobbed and streaming awarenesses. ‘Forgot to feed …’ ‘He’s so lovely …’ ‘My boy…!’ ‘Not enough coin …’ It was like being in the Great Hall at Buckkeep if all the musicians were playing and all the people were talking at once in equally loud voices. I could not sort one from another. Then, an immense presence, powerful and disciplined, would cut through the prattle like a commander’s order being barked above the discord of a battle, or a great fish swimming through a dense school of minnows. All would part and then close up behind it.

  Once, long ago, I’d encountered one of those great beings in the Skill-current. I’d nearly lost myself in her. In this strata there were many of them, and as they passed I felt other entities attach to them, combining to grow that awareness. I wanted … I wanted to … I dragged myself clear of it and came to biting my lower lip so hard I tasted blood.

  I tried to puzzle out what might be happening to me. The Silver had increased the power of my Skill, taking me to a level that I could not master. I put up my walls and pondered that. Caution, I decided. If need be I could wait until I reached Kelsingra and then contact Dutiful by messenger bird. There was no sense in taking risks.

  As I came to each crossroads or by-way, I chose the more-travelled path. I had to veer widely to avoid villages. I found I was glad that the dragons had not completely slaughtered the inhabitants of the island. Nonetheless, I had no desire to encounter anyone in my silvered condition. Sometimes the crow helped me find a way and other times she was absent and I had to blunder through woods and down trails and hope for the best. I stole shamelessly from outlying farms, raiding vegetable gardens and hen-coops and smokehouses. I took a sheet from a laundry line. There were a few coins left in the corner of my pocket, and I tied them in a shirtsleeve on the line. Even assassins have a bit of honour. Hens would lay more eggs and vegetables replenish, but taking a sheet was a true theft. I knotted the sheet into a makeshift cloak and gained some shelter from both the baking sun and the biting insects. And I walked on.

  The weather continued fine and the journey was miserable. I wondered and worried about Bee and the Fool and my other companions. I mourned Lant. I wished vainly that I had seen Paragon transform into dragons. I wondered how long it would take them to get home. I worried what would happen when they delivered the news of the prince’s demise to Queen Etta. She had charged us to keep the lad safe and we hadn’t done so. Would there be grief, or would there be anger, or both?

  Hunger was a given. Thirst came and went depending on streams.

  And I ached. My weariness was constant.

  My body continued to heal and stole my strength to do so. My diet was uneven. I had no shoes. I was hiking and sleeping outdoors as I had not done in years. But even so, my level of lethargy was extreme. I awoke one morning with no ambition to move. I wanted to go home, but more I wanted to be still. I lay on the bare earth in the shade of a tree with drooping leaves. Ants began crawling over my hand. I sat up, slapping them away, and then scratched the back of my neck. The tick bite was slow to heal. I picked the scab away from it and felt some relief. ‘Home!’ Motley squawked at me from a branch overhead. ‘Home, home, HOME!’

  ‘Yes,’ I conceded and gathered my legs under me. They ached and my belly hurt.

  My brother, you have worms.

  I considered that thought. I’d had worms before. What man who has lived by his wits has not? I knew several cures, none of which were available to me right now.

  You made me swallow a copper coin when I was a cub.

  A copper bit kills the worms but not the pup. I learned it from Burrich.

  Heart of the Pack knew many things.

  I haven’t a copper left to my name. It must wait until we are home. To where I have access to herbs I know.

  Then you’d best get up and get moving toward home.

  Nighteyes was right. I needed to get home. I imagined embracing Bee. With my silver hands and gleaming face … Ah, no.

  I pushed that last thought aside. I was becoming adept at doing so. When I was home, it would all come right. I’d see Nettle and my new grandchild. There would be a way to deal with the Silver. Chade would know something, some way … No, Chade was dead and so was his son. What sort of a welcome would Shun give me for that news? Had the Elderling woman been right? Was the Silver killing me? It would sink down to my bones, she had said.

  Get up. You are lying there while the sun moves. Unless you have decided to sleep through the day and travel by night?

  The moon would be full tonight. I’d be able to see. Yes. I will travel tonight. I was lying to myself.

  At nightfall, I forced myself to rise. The crow had perched above me. I looked up into the darkened branches and to my surprise I could see her. I saw the shape of her body by its warmth. The Fool had spoken of this, when he drank the dragon’s blood.

  ‘I am going to travel. Do you wish me to carry you?’ Crows did not fly in the dark.

  She gave a dismissive caw. She could find me when it suited her. She had shown me that.

  The road had become well travelled over the last few days, but there were fewer carts and horses on it by night, and my sheet cloaked most of me. I made good time. Stones heated all day by the sun’s warmth gave off a different sort of light than the small mammals that foraged along the edge of the road. Another climb up another hill. The road cut through tilled lands and pastures. Where would I hide this day? Worry about it when dawn came.

  I topped the hill and looked down onto a bustling seaport. Lanterns burned bright on the ships anchored in the harbour; lamps gleamed randomly throughout the sprawling town. It was as least as big as Buckkeep Town, but spread out as flat as batter in a pan. How was I to make my way through that, get to the docks, and persuade a boat to take me to Furnich? And all without a copper to my name? Steal a small boat. And go where? I had no charts. I needed a boat and a crew that would obey my will.

  Why was nothing ever simple? Why was I so weary?

  That night, I raided a chicken-coop and took a hen as well as three eggs. I helped myself to grain from the cattle’s shelter, and stared down a watchdog who came to snarl at me. I told him he faced a wolf, and felt the Silver stitch together with my Wit to send him yelping back to his doorstep. It felt peculiar.

  I fled with my loot. Man’s teeth do not do well on raw meat, but I persevered and stripped the hen down to her bones. I followed with raw eggs gulped down and grain ground between my cow’s teeth, and all washed down with stream water. On a rocky berm between two grainfields, I settled for the day.

  I waited for night. Before the moon rose full and white, I skulked toward the busy port. Thick had used the Skill to hide himself, but he had always been far stronger in it than I was. I arranged my sheet to cover most of my face and I kept to the shadows even as I sent out ‘Don’t see me, don’t see me’ to any I passed in the quiet streets. There were few folk on the street at night. Only two gave me even a glance. The strength of influence I was now able to exert with my mingled magics was unsettling and reassuring. How much dared I trust it? Could I walk the busy streets in daylight and be unnoticed? To test that and fail might be deadly.

  I knew my destination and I did not pause. I headed down to the docks.

  A harbour never sleeps. Ships unload or take on cargo by night to catch the morning’s tide. I chose a dock where an ant-stream of lon
gshoremen pushed carts and barrows to docked ships. I stayed to the shadowed areas as I studied the moving cargo. I was hungry again, aching and weary. I could not allow that to deter me.

  I found a ship offloading hides. The Fool had spoken of Furnich being a tannery town. I stepped in front of one of the sailors. ‘I need passage to Furnich.’ I enveloped him in my friendliness. ‘You really want to please me,’ I whispered. He halted, glaring at me as I peered from under my sheet. His face went slack. Then he suddenly smiled as if I were an old friend.

  ‘We have just come from there,’ he told me. He shook his head. ‘It is not a pleasant place. If you must go there, I pity you.’

  ‘And yet I must go there. Of the ships in port, are any bound there?’

  ‘The Dancer. The second one, there. Her captain is Rasri, good for most things but a terrible cheat at games of chance.’

  ‘I will keep that in mind. Good evening to you.’

  As we parted, he gave me a loose-lipped smile as if I were his lover.

  I felt queasy for what I had done to him as I hastened down the dock to the Dancer. She was a tidy little vessel with a deep hull and small house, one that could be sailed with a very small crew. A young woman was standing on the deck. I sharpened my will then reached toward her with a wave of good fellowship and trustworthiness as I asked for Captain Rasri. Her eyes widened and she smiled at me despite my drapery. ‘I’m Captain Rasri. What business have you with me?’ She saw my silvered face and took a step back.

  I smiled at her and offered that it was a peculiar scar, no more than that. She politely looked away from it. ‘I need passage to Furnich.’

  ‘We take no passengers, good man.’

  ‘But for me, you could make an exception.’

  She stared at me and I felt her struggle. I pressed harder on her boundaries. ‘I could,’ she admitted, even as she shook her head ‘no’.

  ‘I can be a handy person to have aboard. I know my way around a deck.’

  ‘You could be a help,’ she agreed, as her brow furrowed.

  ‘How many days is it to Furnich?’

  ‘No more than a dozen, if the weather holds fine. We’ve two ports to visit on our way.’

  I wanted to tell her that we would go straight to Furnich, but could not bring myself to do so. Already I regretted what I was doing to her. ‘When do we leave?’

  ‘On the early tide. Soon.’

  I was no sooner on board than Motley swooped down and perched on my shoulder. The puzzlement on the captain’s face gave way to delight. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ Motley told her, and did the same when the crew approached. I introduced myself as Tom Badgerlock while the crew was charmed and distracted by Motley, and I settled acceptance over them like a blanket. By morning I was on my way.

  It was the most miserable voyage of my life. The ship was called Dancer for a reason. She bowed and bobbed, rocked and wallowed. I was seasick as I had never been before in my life.

  Yet despite how wretched I felt, I did my best to be as useful as I had presented myself. I found that I could remove corrosion from brass by smoothing it with my fingers, and made every fitting on Dancer gleam. I smoothed fraying lines so that they ran easily through the blocks and tackles. I ran my hands over stretched and weary canvas to tighten it. I ate no more than one man’s share at the table, despite my constant hunger.

  The journey seemed interminable. Imposing my will on the crew took strength and focus when my supply of both was dwindling. I dreaded each port stop, for it meant days tied up as they took on and offloaded freight. Each time we made port, I would slip away at night to Skill a plentiful meal at an inn. Sated, I would return to Dancer and sleep heavily. When I awoke, I would feel stronger for a day. But then the lassitude would return.

  In the long, heaving nights, I thought of Verity and how he had used his Skill to defend the Six Duchies. Even at a distance, he had been able to find the OutIslander ships and influence their captains and navigators. How many had he sent into the teeth of a storm, or onto the rocks? How had he felt to use the power of his magic to kill so many? Had it bothered him? Was that why he had seized on the wisp of an old legend and gone off into the Mountains in search of Elderling allies?

  The night we reached Furnich, I conveyed to the captain and crew that they had done a great kindness, something to be proud of. I left them looking puzzled but rather pleased with themselves. Motley settled on my shoulder. ‘Home,’ she reminded me, and I took strength from that word.

  Furnich was a dreary town of bad smells and sour folk. Turning cattle into meat and leather is a messy business but it did not need to be as squalid as Furnich made it. The town was dirty and the air tasted of hopelessness. It crouched in low, ill-kept buildings all around the bay. On the hill above it, I could see the tumbled ruins of what had been an Elderling city. It had obviously been deliberately destroyed. I hoped that no more destruction had been done to the Skill-pillar than the last time Prilkop and the Fool had used it. The Fool had described it as nearly toppled. But if there was any room to wriggle under it, I would take my opportunity and hope that it would take me back to Kelsingra.

  There is a danger in using the stones.

  Wolf, there is a danger in delaying my return, and I fear that is greater.

  I felt his doubt and tried not to be prey to it. As I plodded through the town, I was hungry but saw no tavern where I wanted to eat. They seemed deceitful and untrustworthy places. I would go straight to the Elderling city, find the Skill-stone, and leave this disgusting place. The aura of ugliness was like a stench in the air. In Kelsingra, they would know me. There would be food and kindness there. This place had never known kindness.

  I stopped to breathe and leaned against the wall of a stable. My feeling of despair was like a wind that swept through me. The intensity of it was oddly familiar, as was the buzzing in my ears.

  Here they betrayed us. For years, they deceived us and pretended to be our friends, and then, when need was upon us and we fled here, they slaughtered us. They ended us as they ended the dragons and even the serpents in the sea.

  For a moment, I saw them. The Elderlings ran through the streets, seeking a safety that did not exist. They had fled the collapse of their cities and come here, to an outlying settlement where the air was not poisonous and laden with ash. But as they emerged from the portal stones, hired soldiers were waiting to kill them. For the Servants had known that their cities would shake and fall, had known that both dragons and Elderlings would flee here. To end the dragons, they must end the Elderlings as well.

  And they had.

  The memories of that bloody betrayal had sunk into the memory-stone of their city. When later generations had salvaged the stone of the Elderling city to build Furnich they had salvaged the horror and betrayal as well. Small wonder that the folk of Furnich regarded the black stone ruins with hatred. The closer I came to the ruined villas on the hillside, the deeper and darker the memories flowed. Skill and Silver writhed in me and I staggered through a flow of ghosts. Men and women shouted and screamed, children lay dead or bleeding in the streets. I threw up my walls to deaden the horror.

  Kelsingra was a fountain of Elderling memories of festivals and markets and joyous times. Here the stones had drunk up the blood and the deaths of the Elderlings who had raised them. That terrible legacy of fear and despair had been passed down for generations. Any merry or peaceful memories had been quenched in blood.

  I did not know the name of this Elderling town. Grass was trying to grow between the broken paving stones, but too much memory-stone had been used. The streets recalled that they had been streets and did not allow the grass to flourish. Everywhere I saw the signs of hammers and chisels, toppled statues deliberately broken to pieces, fountains destroyed, building walls pulled down.

  Where would the standing pillars have been? In the centre of the town, as they were in Kelsingra? Atop a tower? Within a market square?

  I wandered the empty streets of the hilly town, wending my
way through a tide of screaming ghosts. Motley would lift from my shoulder, circle, and then return to me. Once this had been a beautiful place of opulent manors and walled gardens. Now it was like a fallen buck infested with maggots, all its majesty and graciousness tainted with memories of death and hate and betrayal. Only my Wit assured me that they were not real.

  My Wit made me aware that there were real people too, not far from me and following me. In my efforts to keep my walls tight and my mind my own, I had neglected my camouflage of Skill. Perhaps they were just curious adolescents following a peculiar stranger wearing a sheet. Had they seen my Silver-spattered face? Motley cawed overhead. I watched her circle and she suddenly dipped down to light on my shoulder. ‘Careful,’ she croaked in a hoarse whisper. ‘Careful, Fitz.’

  They were closing in on me.

  I stood still, breathing quietly. I flung my Wit wide, trying to sense how many and where they were. What did they imagine I had that they would want? Were they simply the sort of ruffians that enjoyed giving a stranger a beating? I had no strength left to run, let alone fight. Leave me alone! I flung the plea out into the night, but the Skill-infused stones diluted and muted me. I needed to see them, to look into their faces to target their minds. They kept their distance. Doubtless they knew the ruins well. Perhaps they had braved this miasma of fear and hate since they were children. They kept to cover. I would catch a glimpse in the growing dusk of someone flitting from one concealment to another. How many?

  Four. No, five. Two were standing close together. I flared my nostrils and took in scent, an almost useless gesture with my feeble human nose.

  They are near. Choose your place.

  That was my last advantage. I drew my knife as I found a bit of standing wall to put my back against. I discarded my sheet cloak. Perhaps my appearance would give them second thoughts, but in the gathering darkness, would they even see how peculiar I had become? With a sinking heart, I forced myself to question what sort of people would willingly drench themselves in this atmosphere of hatred and blood. It was not a good sort. I heard a low laugh, and someone shushing someone else. It had been a woman’s laugh. So. This was sport rather than robbery. I was probably not their first prey.

  A rock hit the wall beside me. I flinched and the crow lifted from my shoulder. I didn’t blame her. A single strike would kill her. Another rock struck near my head. I stood still, listening. The next rock struck my thigh, and this time their laughter was not hushed. They remained in hiding, unseen. I heard the soft whistle
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