Assassins fate, p.7
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       Assassin's Fate, p.7

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

  and was scowling at us. I knew she would not try to take the jerky from me, for fear of my teeth.

  He patted my shoulder. ‘You tried to save me. If I had let go when you bit me, I would have stayed there with beautiful Shun. I understand that now. You wanted me to stay behind, to protect her and win her.’

  I kept chewing the jerky. To get as much of it as I could into my belly before anyone could take it from me. Belatedly I nodded at him. Let him believe whatever he wished if it meant he would give me food.

  He sighed as he gazed at the night. ‘I think we are in the realm of death. It is very different to what I expected. I feel cold and pain but I hear music and see beauty. I do not know if I am punished or rewarded. I do not know why I am still with these people instead of judged by my ancestors.’ He gave Dwalia a gloomy look. ‘These folks are darker than death. Perhaps that is why we are lodged here, halfway down death’s throat.’

  I nodded again. I’d managed to tear a bit of the meat free and was chewing it to shreds. I had never so greatly anticipated swallowing anything.

  He twisted away from me and fumbled at his belt. When he turned back, a large gleaming knife was in his hand. I tried to scrabble back from him, but he caught my tied feet and pulled them to him. The knife was sharp. It slid through the twisted fabric and suddenly my ankles were free. I kicked free of his grip. He reached toward me. ‘Now your wrists,’ he said.

  Trust or not? That knife could take off a finger just as easily as cut my bonds. I stuffed the stick of meat into my mouth and gripped it with my teeth. I held out my wrists to him.

  ‘This is tight! It hurts?’

  Don’t answer.

  I met his gaze silently.

  ‘Your wrists have swelled up around it.’ He slid the blade carefully between my hands. It was cold.

  ‘Stop that! What are you doing?’ Dwalia finally voiced her outrage.

  The Chalcedean barely spared her a glance. He took one of my hands to steady his task and began sawing through the rag that bound them

  Dwalia surprised me. She had been in the act of adding a hefty stick of wood to the fire. Instead she took two steps and clouted the Chalcedean on the back of his head. He went down, the knife still clutched in his hand. I tore my hands free of the last shred of rag and shot to my feet. I ran two steps on my buzzing feet before she seized me by the back of my collar, choking me. Her first two clouts with the stick were on my right shoulder and right ribs.

  I twisted in her grasp, ignoring how it tightened the chokehold she had on me and kicked her as hard as I could, hitting her shin and then her knee. She shrieked with pain but did not let me go. Instead she struck the side of my head with her stick of firewood. My crushed ear rang and I tasted blood but the pain did not matter so much as the way my vision was shrinking. I spun away from her, but that allowed her to hit me on the other side of my head. Dimly, I knew she was shouting at the others to seize me. No one leapt to help her. Vindeliar was moaning, ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t,’ his voice going higher each time he said the word. It angered me that he would moan but do nothing. I pushed my pain at him.

  She hit me on the side of my head again, smashing my ear. My knees folded and suddenly I was hanging by my collar. She was not strong enough to support my weight. She collapsed on top of me and my shoulder exploded with pain.

  I felt a wave of emotion. It was like when Nettle and my father merged their minds, or when my father’s mind was boiling with thoughts and he had forgotten to hold them in. Don’t hurt her! Don’t hurt her!

  Dwalia let go of my collar and made a strange sound as she rolled off me. I didn’t try to move. I just breathed, pulling air back into my body. I’d lost the jerky. My mouth was full of blood. I turned my head and opened my lips to let it run out.

  Don’t die. Please don’t die and leave me alone. Vindeliar’s thought whispered to me. Oh. That was it. When I’d pushed my pain at him, I’d opened a way for his thoughts to come in. Dangerous. With every bit of will power I could muster, I blocked him from my mind. Tears stung my eyes. Tears of fury. Dwalia’s calf was within reach of my teeth. I wondered if I could bite a piece of meat off her leg.

  Don’t, cub. She still has the stick. Crawl away. Quietly. This is one you don’t attack until you are sure you can kill her.

  I tried to wriggle away. But my arm wouldn’t obey me. It flopped uselessly. I was broken. I blinked at the pain and little black spots danced in front of my eyes. Dwalia got to her hands and knees and then stood up with a grunt and walked away without looking at me. When she reached the other side of the fire, she sat down on the pack again and resumed looking at her much-folded paper, and the little scroll she had taken from the bone. Slowly, she rotated the pieces of paper, then suddenly leaned closer to them. She set them side by side on her knees and looked from one to the other.

  The Chalcedean sat up slowly. He reached around to the back of his head, brought his hand before his eyes and rubbed his wet fingertips together. He watched me sit up and shook his head at my flopping useless arm. ‘It’s broken,’ I whispered. I desperately wanted someone to care that I was hurt so badly.

  ‘Darker than death,’ he said quietly. He reached over and put his fingers on the point of my shoulder and prodded it. I yelped and flinched away. ‘Not broken,’ he observed. ‘But I don’t know your word for it.’ He made a fist and clasped it in his other hand. Then he pulled his fist out. ‘Popped out,’ he told me. He reached toward me again and I cowered away but he only waved at my shoulder. ‘Popped out.’

  ‘My arm won’t move.’ Panic was rising in me. I couldn’t get a breath.

  ‘Lie down. Be still. Be loose. Sometimes, it goes back in.’ He looked over at Dwalia. ‘She’s a wasp,’ he observed. I stared at him. He smiled sickly. ‘A Chalcedean saying. If the bee stings, it dies. It pays a price to hurt you. A wasp can bite and bite and bite again. It pays nothing for the pain it brings.’ He shrugged. ‘So they bite. They know nothing else.’

  Dwalia suddenly shot to her feet. ‘I know where we are now!’ She looked back at the small scroll in her hands. ‘The runes match. It makes no sense, but it must be so!’ She stared into the distance; then her eyes narrowed and her features changed as she realized something. ‘He lied to us. He lied to ME!’ Dwalia roared. I had thought she was frightening when she was angry, but, outraged was far worse. ‘He lied to me! A market square, Prilkop claimed, on a well-travelled road. He thought he was so clever. He tricked me into bringing us here. He tricked me!’ This last she screamed, her face contorted into a stark mask. ‘Prilkop!’ Spit flew out of her mouth. ‘Always so condescending. So calmly superior. And Beloved, so silent, and then babbling, babbling. Babbling lies! Well, I made him scream. I tore the truth out of them both, didn’t I?’

  ‘Apparently not.’ Alaria breathed the words, looking at the space between her feet and the fire. I doubt anyone heard her besides me.

  But Reppin’s head twitched as if she had and she tried to sit up straight. ‘You thought you did. You thought you ripped the truth out of his flesh. But he was stronger than you, wasn’t he? Cleverer. Prilkop tricked you into bringing us here, and here we are, in the middle of the wilderness. Starving. Dying!’ Her voice cracked.

  Dwalia stared at Reppin, her eyes flat. Then she crushed the yellow map between her hands, stood up and thrust it into the pack she’d been sitting on. The little scroll she had found, she rolled and slid back into the tube. She flourished it at Reppin. ‘Not all of us, Reppin. Not all of us will die here.’ Her smile widened with pride. ‘I’ve deciphered it. Prilkop lied to me, but the true Path is not to be defied!’ She dug deeper into the pack and pulled out a small pouch, unwound the ties that secured it and withdrew a delicate glove. Wolf Father growled within me. I stared, feeling ill and not knowing why. Dwalia worked the glove slowly and carefully onto her hand, settling each fingertip into place. She had used it before, when she had dragged us through the Skill-pillar. She stood up. ‘Bring the packs and the captive. Follow me.

  The captive. My new title flowed over me like greasy water. Dwalia did not look back to see if they were obeying. She carried only her superiority as she strode to one of the pillars and studied the markings on it. ‘Where does it go?’ Alaria asked timidly.

  ‘That’s not for you to worry about.’

  The Chalcedean had followed Dwalia. He was the only one who did. I shifted away from the fire. My hands were free, my feet untied. They tingled with dwindling numbness in contrast to the roaring pain in my shoulder. Could I stand and run? I pushed with my good hand braced on the ground and moved my aching body a bit closer to the darkness. If I could slowly edge into the darkness, I might be able to crawl away.

  Reppin had staggered to her feet and was trying one-handed to pick up my coat from the ground. ‘I don’t know if I can carry a pack,’ she apologized. No one responded.

  Ignoring Dwalia’s scowl, the Chalcedean stepped up beside her to regard the pillar. He reached out and traced the carved runes. ‘I know this one,’ he said, and smiled oddly. ‘I knelt almost upon it and had nothing else to stare at. I was six. We kept a vigil for my grandfather’s body in the Chamber of Toppled Doors in the Duke of Chalced’s stronghold. It was an honour for my grandfather’s body to be exposed in such a place. The next day, they burned his body on a pyre near the harbour.’

  Dwalia snapped her stare back to him and smiled. ‘This was in Chalced, wasn’t it?’

  He nodded. ‘It was half a day’s ride from my family’s holding there. The duke’s stronghold is said to be built on the site of an ancient battle. There were four pillars such as this one, all dragged down to the earth, sunken to be flush with the floor of the chamber. It is said to be good luck if you can break a chip from one to carry as a token. I tried, but the stone was as hard as iron.’

  Her smile broadened. ‘As I thought! We are still on the true Path, my luriks. I am certain of it, when such good fortune smiles upon us.’ She tapped the little scroll-tube against her palm. ‘Fate has delivered a map into my hands. It’s oddly drawn and the writing is foreign, but I have puzzled it out. I know where we are on this map, and now I know that this pillar can transport us to Chalced. Kerf will take us to his family’s holding and introduce us as his friends. His family will give us supplies for our journey home.’ She swung her stare to Vindeliar. ‘Won’t he, Vindeliar?’

  Kerf looked astounded. Vindeliar, carrying one pack on his shoulders and dragging another, looked weary and uncertain. The firelight shifted on his features, making him first an adoring servant and then a beaten dog.

  ‘My family will do that?’ Kerf asked in wonder.

  ‘You will speak for us,’ Dwalia assured him. I scooted myself a little farther away from the fire. I could barely stand the pain of my popped shoulder when I moved. I cradled my useless arm with my good one, wondering how bad the pain would be if I staggered to my feet and tried to run.

  ‘I can’t lift my coat,’ Reppin told no one at all.

  ‘No.’ Kerf shook his head. ‘I cannot speak for you to my family. I cannot even speak for myself. They will want to know how I have survived and returned when so many of my comrades are missing. They will think I have fled battle and left my war brothers to die. They will despise me.’

  Dwalia fixed her smile in place, put her ungloved hand on his arm and gave Vindeliar a sideways glance. ‘I am sure your family will welcome us when you speak for us. I am sure they will feel only pride in you.’

  I kept my eyes fixed on them as I edged into darkness. The pain from my shoulder made me want to vomit. I watched Vindeliar’s face slacken as his thoughts went elsewhere. I felt how desperately he pushed his thoughts onto Kerf as if I heard the echo of a distant scream. I watched the Chalcedean’s scowl fade as he gazed at Dwalia. Reppin had given up trying to pick up my coat from the ground. Empty-handed, she tottered over to where the others stood. There she made a knowing smile and nodded to herself as Vindeliar worked his magic but no one took any notice of her. I bent my knees and pushed myself deeper into darkness.

  ‘My family will surely welcome you. All we own will be put at your disposal,’ Kerf told Dwalia. His smile was warm with certainty.

  ‘Alaria, bring her!’ Dwalia looked, not at me, but beyond me. I turned my head. The evil delight on Alaria’s face was chilling. All this time, as I’d kept watch on Dwalia and tried to move away from the firelight, she had been behind me. Now or never. I pushed hard with my good hand and managed to gain my feet, my useless arm clutched to my belly. I ran.

  I took three strides before Alaria caught me. She grabbed my hair and kicked my leg as if she had been waiting her whole life for that moment. I shrieked. She shook my head by my hair as a fox shakes a rabbit and then flung me aside. I landed on my bad shoulder. Flashes of red and flashes of black. I could not find air to breathe. I could do nothing when she seized the back of my shirt and dragged me almost to my feet. ‘Walk!’ she shouted at me. ‘Walk or I’ll kick you again!’

  It was hard to obey and impossible to defy her. She was bigger and stronger than me and hadn’t been beaten recently. She kept her grip on my garments and held me too high. We were halfway to Dwalia, me struggling to balance on my toes, when I realized that my shoulder was a dull red ache and I could move my arm again. So, I had that.

  By the pillars, Dwalia was arranging her ducklings to her liking. ‘I will go first,’ she announced, as if anyone else could have. ‘I will grip Vindeliar’s hand, and he will hold Kerf’s.’ She smiled warmly at the nodding Chalcedean and I understood. Those were the two most important to her own survival. She wished to be certain her magic-man and the warrior with a home in Chalced arrived with her. ‘Then the brat. Kerf, hold tight to her. Not her hand. Remember that she bites. Grab the back of her neck. That’s right. Alaria, you are last. Take her by her upper arm and hold tight.’

  This Alaria was pleased to do and I could only be weakly glad that it was not my bad shoulder. Kerf gripped the back of my neck and any kindliness he previously had shown toward me was gone. He was Vindeliar’s puppet again.

  ‘Wait! Am I last?’ Reppin demanded.

  Dwalia looked at her coldly. ‘You are not last. You are unnecessary. You would not fetch the firewood. You chose to be useless. Alaria, go fetch that coat. It may be worth money in Chalced. And Reppin’s pack.’

  Reppin’s eyes were huge in her wan face as Alaria released me and ran to obey. The Chalcedean’s grip on me was sure. Alaria moved swiftly. Did she wish to show how useful she was? In a moment, she was back, Reppin’s pack slung over one shoulder and the heavy coat that once had been white and mine draped over her arm. She seized my upper arm in a pinching grip.

  ‘You can’t leave me here. I need my pack! Don’t leave me!’ Reppin’s pale face was cadaverous in the light of the fire. Her bitten arm was curled to her chest. She pawed at Alaria, trying to seize her free hand with her good one. Alaria turned her face away from her and clutched my former coat to her chest, curling her hand out of Reppin’s reach. Her grip on my arm tightened. I wondered if she hardened her heart to leave Reppin or if it was a relief. Perhaps she was simply glad that she wasn’t the one being abandoned. I saw now how Dwalia ruled. Cruelty to one of her followers meant the others could breathe more easily for a moment. There was no loyalty between luriks, only fear of Dwalia and desire for what she might bestow on them.

  ‘Please!’ Reppin shrieked to the night.

  Vindeliar made a small sound. For an instant, his concentration was broken and Kerf’s grip on my neck loosened.

  ‘She’s useless,’ Dwalia growled. ‘She’s dying, she’s whining, and she’s consuming resources that are already scarce. Don’t question my decisions, Vindeliar. Look what happened to all of us the last time you did not obey my commands. Look how many dead, and all your fault! Pay attention to me and hold tight or you, too, will be left behind!’

  Kerf’s grip on me tightened and Alaria’s fingers ground the flesh of my arm against the bone.

  I suddenly grasp
ed the danger. ‘We should not do this! We should follow the road. It must go somewhere! The standing stones are dangerous. We may not come out or we may emerge as mad as Kerf!’

  My shouted warnings went unheeded. Dwalia pressed her gloved hand to the stone’s carved face. It seemed to draw her in like a slice of ginger sinking into warm honey. The light from our abandoned campfire showed her sliding into the stone. Vindeliar followed, panting with terror as his hand, his wrist, his elbow vanished into stone. He whined as he was drawn in.

  ‘We swim with the dead ones!’ Kerf shouted, grinning his madman’s grimace. ‘On to the fallen palace of a dead duke!’ He seemed to enter the pillar more slowly than Vindeliar had, as if the stone resisted him. I hung back but his grip on my neck stayed tight even when the rest of him had vanished into the stone. I looked up as I was dragged toward the pillar and lost my breath in horror at what I saw. The additional marking on the stone was not new. It was not scored as deeply into the stone as the original runes, but there was no mistaking its intent. Someone had deliberately marked a deep straight scratch through the rune, as if to forbid or warn anyone who chose to use that face of the portal. ‘Da!’ I cried out, a desperate call that no one could hear. ‘Da! Help me!’ In the next moment, my cheek touched the cold surface and I was pulled into tarry blackness.


  * * *


  Because of our studies of many old scrolls, including translations we have done, I am convinced that the legendary Elderlings of our myths and legends were a very real people who occupied a large territory for many generations before their cities and culture eventually fell into decay long before Buckkeep Castle was founded. Additional information gained from a library of what we call Skill-cubes has only convinced us that we are correct.

  Why did the Elderlings, a people of wisdom and powerful magic, fail and disappear from our world? Can we tie that failing to the vanishing of the dragons, another event for which we have no explanation? And now that both dragons and perhaps Elderlings have returned to the world, how does that affect the future of humankind?

  And what of our legends of an ancient alliance between Farseer and Elderlings, the very alliance that King Verity sought to revive when he led his expedition to the Rain Wilds? Were they living Elderlings he encountered or the stored memories of what they had been? Questions that we may find the answers to if we continue to mine the memory-cubes for information.

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