Assassins fate, p.77
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       Assassin's Fate, p.77

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

  ‘Go,’ I told the Fool.

  ‘I can see nothing in there except the flame of the lamp,’ he complained. He groped to find the tunnel’s mouth and then clambered spryly over the wall. ‘I’m handing you a sword,’ I told him. I did a slow bend to pick it up and passed it through to him. The blade had not been improved by the use we’d made of it. The ceiling groaned behind me. I spared a backwards glance. A large section of it was sagging.

  ‘Don’t wait for me. Touch the wall and go down the steps to the bottom. I’ll be right behind you.’ The Fool nodded grimly and turned away from me to venture off into a darkness he could not see.

  We’d need a torch. I began my limping circuit of the wall, passing Spark’s pack, next to my firepot harness on the steps. I’d get them on my way back. I edged on, gimping from wall to table. At last, I seized a chair and used it as a bulky cane. The deeper I went into the room, the more my eyes stung. By the time I reached the cells and the crude mattress there I knew I’d made a bad decision. Bits of ceiling were flaking and floating in the air.

  I dragged the thin mattress onto the chair. Scraping the chair over the floor, I began my journey back. My eyes were closed to slits, and to take a deep breath invited a coughing fit. A piece of ceiling the size of a pony collapsed onto the upper stairs. I looked up at it in time to see another section giving way. As it came down, I threw up my arm to shield my face from the wash of heat. The smoke in the room billowed toward me. I pushed the chair frantically toward the opening in the wall, all thoughts of a torch abandoned. With a groan, a beam fell almost beside me, charred and glowing along its length. A flame leapt up as if rejoicing in its freedom and ran along the fallen timber. Another followed. Paragon’s words came back to me. In water and fire, in wind and darkness. Not swiftly. Was this my time to die? As if to confirm that thought, a big piece of ceiling fell. The gust of hot wind knocked me over, chair and all. I sprawled on the floor, temporarily blinded and disoriented. I rubbed my sleeve over my eyes. Which way was the opening to the tunnel?

  ‘Fitz? Where are you? Fitz?’

  The Fool? I closed my stinging eyes and dragged myself over the cinder-littered floor toward his voice. I bumped into the table, and called, ‘Fool?’

  ‘Here! This way!’

  I reached the wall. I felt his hands plucking at the back of my shirt and hauled myself up and into the opening. With him pulling and me clawing, I tumbled through into cooler air. He followed me more gracefully. ‘What were you doing?’ he demanded.

  ‘I wanted a torch.’

  ‘You nearly became one.’

  I opened my eyes, wiped them on my sleeve, rubbed them, and opened them again. The scarlet light from the fire in the dungeons behind us gave an unearthly illumination to the worked stone walls and the arched ceiling above us.

  ‘Up you go,’ the Fool said. He dragged my arm across his shoulder and stood up. Together we stumbled to where I could put one hand on the wall. I lurched down a step, then two.

  ‘Your legs are wet.’

  ‘There’s water at the bottom of the steps. And barnacles on the walls, too. And the tide’s coming in, Fitz.’

  We both knew what that meant. I let the cold dread creep into me and then asked him, ‘Do you think they’ll hurt Bee? The Whites who ran ahead.’

  He was panting with the effort of helping me descend another step. ‘I don’t think they can. They’re no match for Spark or Lant. For that matter, I don’t think Per would let any harm befall her.’

  ‘A moment,’ I said, and leaned on the wall to cough smoke from my lungs. When I could draw a full breath, I straightened up. ‘Let’s go,’ I told him. With every step we lurched down, the red light from the burning dungeon room offered less illumination.

  ‘Da?’ Bee’s small voice floated up to me from the darkness. Both the Fool and I startled. I peered down the steps into a well of increasing darkness. A feeble light glimmered down there.

  ‘Bee? I’m here, with the Fool.’ To him, I said, ‘Leave me. Go to her,’ and he started down the steps.

  The light became a dying torch. It bobbed as she reached the bottom of the steps. The light was reflected in standing water around her ankles. She raised her voice in an anxious shout. ‘Da, Per broke through the door! Per said we would wait for everyone else. But the prisoners ran up to us, all wet from the tunnel. They were angry. If Per had not been there with his sword— I tried to turn their minds, but I could not.’ She paused for breath.

  ‘Per threatened them with the sword, and they ran away. Then Spark came, and Lant. Per told them what happened, and Spark ran after them to kill them. Lant told us to stay where we were and went after Spark. Da, those Whites will run right back to Clerres and tell where we are. I came to warn you: they will come in force and kill us all! Per stayed to guard the door. He’ll stop them there if he can.’

  Her voice did not shake until the end of her report. As she started up the steps I saw she was wet to her hips. She had come to us through deeper water? How high would it reach? Did we dare attempt to escape that way? As she climbed the steps toward us, her torch revealed old watermarks and barnacles on the wall. How high could it reach? I didn’t like my conclusion. A high tide could come halfway up the steps, completely filling the tunnel below.

  Behind us, fire. Below us, rising water. No good choices.

  Then the chamber behind me exploded and I flew through darkness.


  * * *


  The appearance of the Pocked Man is always a harbinger of disaster to come. He was seen not only in Buckkeep Town, but in Grimsbyford and Sandsedge in the weeks before the Blood Plague reached the Six Duchies and devastated our folk. He was seen standing on the balcony of the doomed Fins Tower two days before the earthquake that brought it down on the town. Some have claimed to have seen him immediately before the first Forging at Forge. On the night that King Shrewd was assassinated, the Pocked Man was seen in the washing court and by the castle well in Buckkeep Castle. He always appears as a cadaverous man, pale of countenance, his face marked with red pox.

  Six Duchies lore

  ‘Fitz? Fitz? Bee? BEE!’ A pause. ‘FITZ! She’s hurt! Fitz! Damn you, where are you?’

  I didn’t recall lying down. Had he been calling my name, over and over? I was woozy and tired. The Fool’s voice came from far away. ‘I’m here,’ I replied slowly. Ringing silence answered me. Absolute darkness all around me. ‘Fool? Is that you?’

  ‘Yes. Don’t move. I’m coming to you. Keep talking.’

  ‘I’m here. I’m … I can’t get up. There’s something on top of me.’ I reached for my last memory. Clerres. A tunnel. Bee! ‘What happened? Where are Bee and the others?’

  ‘I have Bee!’ The Fool’s voice was a drawn-out wail. ‘She’s alive but not aware!’

  ‘Be careful! Don’t move—’

  Too late. I heard him scrabble over loose rubble and then felt his groping touch. Wheezing with pain, he sat down heavily near me. I reached for him and found Bee’s small, slack body in his arms. ‘Eda and El, no! Not this way, not when we are so close! Fool. Is she breathing?’

  ‘I think so. I can feel fresh blood but I’m not sure where it comes from. Fitz, Fitz, what are we to do?’

  ‘First, be calm.’ I tried to move closer to him. I could not. My legs were pinned to the earth. I was on my back. Slowly awareness crept back to me through my panic. My head was lower than my feet. The steps. I had fallen on the steps. And something was on top of my legs just above my knees. I groped toward it but could barely reach it with my fingertips. I tightened my belly muscles and tried to sit up toward it. My back screamed and I gave it up. ‘Fool, there’s something on top of my legs. I can’t get up. Set Bee down carefully. Let me touch her.’

  I could hear his uneven breathing as he lowered my child to a rubble-strewn step beside me. ‘Are you hurt?’ I thought to ask him.

  ‘Far less than I deserve to be. It’s my foot, the one they smashed. It
s dragging. Oh, Fitz, she is still so small! After all she has been through, must we lose her now?’

  ‘Be steady, Fool.’ I had not heard him so emotional since Shrewd died. I forced a calm I didn’t feel into my own voice. I could not allow him to panic. ‘You must be her strength now. Here is my hand. Set it on her head.’

  The darkness was complete. I touched her hair, her ears, nose and mouth. Scars, yes, but no fresh blood from her ears and nose. I next checked her chest and belly. Then I cautiously patted each of her limbs. I ventured along the Skill-thread we shared. I found her awareness, curled small but whole. ‘Fool, she is just stunned. Her shoulder is damp, but it’s not very warm. It may be only water. Unless … is it your blood?’

  ‘Oh. Perhaps. My scalp is bleeding. And I think my shoulder.’

  Worse and worse. I had to focus. Order my thoughts. ‘Fool, I know what happened. Spark’s pack was left behind in the dungeon. She had some of Chade’s firepots in it. At least one exploded when the ceiling fell on them. There may be more back there. We must get Bee out of here. Immediately. Help me get free.’

  ‘What of Bee? Can you wake her?’

  ‘Why? So she can be frightened with us? Fool, she will wake on her own soon enough. Let us be ready before she does. Help me get free.’

  His hands moved down my belly and then over my thighs. ‘A beam came down,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s across your legs. With rubble on top of it.’ His hands touched my leg and tried to push under it. I clenched my teeth against the pain that woke. He moved his hand under my leg and tried to force it between my flesh and the edge of the stair. ‘You are pinned against the stone steps. I can’t dig anything away from underneath you.’

  Our mutual silence was a second darkness. I had my hand on Bee’s chest. I could feel it rise and fall. She lived. I heard the Fool swallow. I spoke past the ringing in my ears.

  ‘Bee is what matters now, Fool. Remember? We agreed on this. If it came to a choice and you had to make it? The dividing place is now, and there is no choice. You cannot save me. Pick her up and carry her out of here, while you still can. Because if the fire reaches another firepot the rest of the ceiling may come down. And we know the water is rising in the tunnel. No time to wait. Go now.’

  I heard him trying to catch his breath in the silence. ‘Fitz, I can’t.’

  ‘You must. There’s no time to argue. I’ll say it for you. You don’t want to leave me here to die. I don’t want you to leave me here to die. But you must and you will. I’m done for. Save my child. Save our child.’

  ‘But … I can’t …’ He sobbed in a breath. ‘My foot is broken again. And my shoulder is bleeding a lot, Fitz. A lot.’

  ‘Come here. Let me feel it.’ I tried to speak calmly. I did not feel calm at all.

  ‘I’m right here,’ he said.

  I had a moment of absolute clarity and inspiration. I felt his hands touch my face, one gloved, one with bare fingertips. Perfect. I reached up and caught his gloved wrist and held it tight. ‘You can,’ I said, as I peeled the glove from his hand. ‘And you will. Take what’s left of me, Fool, and save Bee.’

  ‘What?’ he demanded. And then, as he realized my intent, he struggled, but with his shoulder torn he had no real strength. I pressed his silvered fingers to the side of my throat. I felt it then, an ecstasy that burned but filled me with joy. Then the connection came, just as it had that time in Verity’s tower room. ‘Too much’, I had said then, and fled from it. Now I wrapped it with my awareness. I felt the Fool and saw his sparkling tumble of life and secrets like the stars in a night sky. No, not taking from him. His secrets were always his to keep. How to do this? He was trying to pull his hand clear of my grip, but I was doing the last thing I expected to do with my life, so I had to do it thoroughly. There could be no mercy for either of us. I threw my other arm around him, pulled him into a hard embrace and held him tight despite his struggles. The boundaries between us gave way. We were merging in a way that felt like a healing. I sensed the torn meat of his shoulder, knew a striating crack in the bone there and the stabbing pain of the little broken bones in his foot. I spoke into his panting mouth. ‘Be still. Don’t fight me. This must happen.’

  I drew a breath and held it. Gripping his wrist hard, I embraced him with more than my arms. As I breathed out hard, I pushed my strength, my healing, my all through the connection I had forced. I recalled how I had taken strength from Riddle. Let it flow the other way, I thought, and poured it into him. I needed nothing of what was left. I touched the damage inside him. He shuddered at the pain, and went still.

  You leave little for us, my brother.

  All the more to save Bee.

  The Fool lay stunned in my arms, sprawled on my chest. His resistance was gone. I let my fingers walk over his shoulder. Shirt and skin were torn. The hanging flap of flesh dizzied me. I lifted it into place, held it firmly there, sealed it. Bone be whole and flesh be knit. I healed him fiercely, as swiftly as I could force it, sparing neither of us.

  You should go with him, Nighteyes. You should go with Bee.

  If we end here, then I meet the end with you. As you ended with me.

  How is the hunting where you are?

  It will be better with you.

  I’m coming to you, my brother.

  I willed my Skill into the Fool’s body. All of it. I forced his ankle to straighten, pushed the tendon to where Chade’s old books had showed me it was supposed to be. Be made right, I commanded it, and with my Skill went my strength. I felt myself dwindle. The Fool stirred, then shuddered at the pain; he fainted again. Good. He could not fight me.

  But I had a last struggle—with myself. I felt myself soaking into him. If I let go, we would be what I had glimpsed when I had called him back from death. I’d be home, with him. A whole thing. But no.

  That was not a decision for you to make. I would not go with you.

  I know. I know.

  The Fool had to live on as himself. He had to save Bee, not me. We had promised one another.

  My arm fell away from him. I peeled my awareness away from him. With the last of my strength, I found Bee’s curly little head and set my hand on it. Eda protect you, I prayed to a god I’d never known. I found the Skill-thread to her, snapped it. Then, with certainty, I whispered, ‘The Fool will save you.’

  He was already stirring. Time to leave. Time to make this choice mine, not his. I sighed out a final breath and found Nighteyes waiting for me.

  Are you ready, my brother?

  Yes. I sank into the nothing.


  * * *

  Ship of Dragons

  The white prophet Gerda was barely twenty when she set out into the world to find her Catalyst. She had dreamed of her often since she was an infant. She travelled far from the peaceful green lands of her birth, going both by sea and by land, to a village far in the mountains where a peak smoked in the distance and glowed red at night.

  She came to Cullena’s home. Cullena was a grandmother who lived with her son and his wife. During the day while her children hunted and fished, she had the care of their seven youngsters. This Cullena did without complaint, though her bones ached and her eyes were dimming. Gerda came to her home and sat down on the doorstep and would not go. Cullena did not know why she had come, or why she would not leave. ‘Here is food for you, and now you must depart,’ she told Gerda.

  But at nightfall, the White Prophet was still there.

  ‘You may sleep by the fire, for the nights are cold, but in the morning you must go,’ she said to Gerda.

  But in the morning, Gerda sat once more on the doorstep.

  Finally Cullena said to her, ‘If you must be here, be of some use. Sit and churn the milk to make the butter, or rock the cradle for the squalling baby or stitch the furs into winter cloaks, for we are not far from a time of snow.’

  And all of these things Gerda did, without complaint or recompense other than food to eat and a place by the fire. She served a folk not he
r own just as Cullena had. And so Cullena’s family came to love her. Gerda taught the children, too, to read and to write and to understand numbers and amounts and distances. She kept Cullena alive for many a year, and in turn Cullena let her stay, and as years passed Gerda taught the children of the children as well, to the number of forty children.

  And then, their children.

  Thus did she change the world, for from among those she taught a woman arose who brought her people together, and they raised sturdy homes and clever children. They lived with the forest
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