Assassins fate, p.84
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       Assassin's Fate, p.84

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


  When my second leg was finally freed, the incredible pain of its reawakening left me weeping and shouting. I slid my body down the stone steps and into shallow water and wallowed about until my head was finally higher than my torso. I crawled up onto fallen debris. I think I fell unconscious for a time. When I awoke, the water had receded slightly. I could not stand, and even sitting was a weariness. I decided I would sleep for a time longer.

  No. You can sleep after you have seen the sky again. Up, Fitz. Up and walk. You cannot rest yet.

  It was not my human will but the wolf in me that made me struggle to rise. My feet were distant and painful things. There were deep bruises across my legs. The flesh had been compacted and crushed. I could feel that with my fingers, as well as the ragged edge of the sword slash. I was glad I could not see my legs save as warm shapes. My initial progress was a series of stagger, fall, crawl, rest, stand, stagger, fall. The steps went down forever, and every lurch down was a torment. The fall took me into shallow, briny water. I moved through utter darkness. When my groping hands found a section of wall that seemed less damaged by Spark’s blast, I followed along it. Barnacles on the wall and floor cut my flesh. I stupidly realized I was barefoot. When had I lost my boots? The blast had torn my clothes, but my boots? I pushed that aside. It was only pain and it did not last long. The steps down seemed endless. I was grateful that the water was gradually receding. I do not think I could have forced my way past its resistance. When the steps finally ended and I sloshed through standing water to my knees, I became aware of a different sort of pain.

  It was not just the Skill forcing the healing of my legs. When I touched the sword slash, silver fingers to Silver-splashed wound, I felt as if I had been patched, like a leather jerkin mended with canvas. It did not feel like my own flesh, but there was no stopping it. I might be able to persuade stone to move and free me, but my own body had a peculiar will of its own.

  Onward. I had to catch up with the others. The Fool would believe I was dead. That was what he would tell them! My poor little girl! I could not blame him. I had thought myself dead.

  You would have been, if I had not held back some life for us. For me. For you. Mostly for the cub. You must stop taking foolish risks. We need to survive.

  How long had I been trapped underground? A tide had been rising when the others fled. It had fallen, risen again, and now was ebbing I judged. A day gone, at least. Possibly two. I wondered where Bee and the others might be right now. Had they escaped? Were they even now at sea on Paragon, sailing away from this horrid place, toward home and family?

  I tried to Skill to Bee. I had as little success as I always did when I reached for her. Trying to Skill through the pain and the peculiar Silver sensations was like trying to shout when one is breathless and running. I gave it up and trudged on. Catch up with them.

  Had they encountered the Servants’ guardsmen? Had the fleeing Whites we freed betrayed them? Had they fought and won, or fallen? Had they been taken prisoner? Whenever I wanted to stop and rest I flogged myself with those thoughts and pushed on. I came to steps. I climbed them.

  Blackness became dark grey and then a paler grey. I pushed on toward a paler shape of light interrupted by lines and … It was a partly open door, overgrown by vegetation. I could barely push past the tangled greenery. Brambles tore at my frayed clothing and skin as I thrust thorny vines aside until I emerged from the hillside thicket and stood under a clear blue sky. The grass was taller than my knees and mixed with twiggy brush.

  I collapsed and sat where I was, heedless of the protest of the sword-slash across my thigh. I dared myself to look at it. It was sealed with Silver as if I’d patched myself with tar. I prodded it and winced. Under the patch, my body toiled on with its repairs. My vision was marginally clearer. My palms were silver. I stared at them. My hands were skeletal, bones and bulging veins and tendons. All gleaming as if cast in Silver. I’d eaten myself to make repairs. My clothing hung on me.

  I rose and tried to walk on. The ground was uneven and tufts of grass caught at my dragging feet. I stepped on a flattened thistle and fell over. It was hard to see the tiny pale thorns I picked out of the sole of my bony foot with my silver fingers. I could feel what I could not see, the Silver giving me a sensitivity that my hands had never possessed. I looked at my hands in the sunlight. They glittered, gleaming and bright. It was either more Silver than Verity had ever possessed or a much finer quality than he had used. The coating on Verity’s hands had reminded me of thick mud; mine looked as if I wore elegant silver gloves that clung to every line and fold of my hands. I reinspected the places where the Silver had struck. Had the blast so shredded my clothing or had the Silver splashed and eaten it? Silver gleamed on part of my chest, in splotches on my legs. I knew it coated more than half my face. I wondered what it looked like. My eyes? I pushed the thought away.

  Straggling among the grass were long, crawling threads of clover, both leaves and purple blossoms. Molly had used the flowers to flavour warmed honey and teas. I gathered a handful and put them in my mouth. A faint trace of sweetness and moisture. They helped but not enough.

  I managed to stagger upright and stood unsteady on my feet, trying to decide where I was. I was on one of the rolling hills behind the town, I thought. Below me were the ruins of Clerres Castle. I stared. It was castle no longer, but only mounded rubble scattered across the end of the peninsula. Bee’s fire had not done that. A slow recognition worked into me. The dragons had come. Heeby and Tintaglia. This was the vengeance they had said they would take. Men would have needed months to topple this stronghold so thoroughly, and men tended to keep and exploit what they conquered. Dragon-acid had eaten the walls, melting stone and dissolving wood. It looked like a dropped cake. I saw two figures moving over the rubble and spotted another man along the shore, pushing a barrow down what had been the road. It was littered with the wreckage of the buildings that had lined it. So few people. I wondered how many were buried under the falling rubble. Were my people among them? Where was Paragon?

  Not in the harbour, nor anchored outside it. Paragon was gone. There were no large ships there. Not one. No barrows full of goods moved on the docks, no one strolled the streets of the markets and warehouse areas. All the structures lacked roofs and the walls leaned drunkenly against each other. There was, however, plenty of wreckage sloshing around the pilings of the docks, and many masts of smaller vessels sticking up above the retreating waves.

  In the distant sky, something sparkled. Wings of red and blue. Tintaglia and Heeby, finished with their destruction and winging home. And beneath them, a sailing ship. Paragon? I dared to hope. But it was leaving. Leaving me here.

  At the edge of the harbour below, a ship was putting on sail. I stared at her. No mistaking that stern and house. It was the liveship Vivacia. Departing. Without me.

  ‘Bee!’ I shouted her name, and then, ‘Fool! Don’t go! Wait!’ Stupid. Stupid, stupid. I drew a deep breath, gathered my strength and reached out with the Skill. Bee! Bee, tell them you hear me, tell them to turn back. I’m here, come back! I felt no sense of her, not even the rush and rip of the Skill-current. Was my magic as damaged as the rest of me? I tried again, pushing hard, wordlessly trying for a touch.

  A wave of vertigo sat me down on the grassy turf. Had she heard me? Were her walls up? I watched the ship, hoping to see the sails change, to see it tack and turn. Was she even on the ship?

  Did she still exist for me to Skill to?

  If she lived, she had not heard me. The ship moved slowly and gracefully away. Leaving me. I stood, shaking with hunger and tormented by thirst, and watched the ship grow smaller. What did I do now? A rising tide of despair threatened to engulf me. I needed to know what had happened and there was no one to tell me. What should I do?

  First you live, stupid. Eat something besides clover. And drink. Find water.

  The wolf in me lived ever in the now.

  I looked for tell-tale signs of a stream or sp
ring, taller greener grass or bog-grass. I saw an area down the hillside that showed much trampling by hooves. Of the flocks I had seen, only three sheep remained, cropping the grass near the spring. I went toward it. The area around the welling water was bare of grass and carpeted with sheep dung. I was past caring. The mud rose between my toes as I waded out into a shallow pool and found the coolness where the water had welled from the earth. I scooped up water in my silvered hands. I looked at it, my caution warring with my thirst, and then I drank, not caring if it silvered my innards. I was still scooping water and drinking when I heard a caw.

  I looked up. A flock of ravens are almost always crows, and a single crow is usually a raven. But there was no mistaking Motley with her silver beak. And scarlet plumes? She circled high above me. ‘Motley!’ I cried to her. She cawed back and then slid away from me on the wind, down to the town.

  ‘Stupid bird,’ I said aloud.

  She saw us. Wait. Such counsel was very unlike Nighteyes. I went back to drinking water. When my belly would take no more, I waded to the edge of the muddy watering hole, and then out onto cleaner grass. ‘Can I sleep now?’

  If you can’t eat, sleep. But not out in the open. When did you become so foolish?

  When I stopped caring. I did not share that thought with him. It would almost have been a relief to have someone attack me, someone I could throttle and bite and kick. My worry had become anger at everything I didn’t know and couldn’t control.

  I sensed her with my Wit and turned my head before she landed onto the sheep-cropped sward at my feet. Motley dropped a large piece of something and then did a bobbing crow greeting. ‘Eat, eat, silver man,’ she urged me. She paused to groom her feathers. They had become even more resplendent, with a few scarlet flight feathers in each wing, and a steel-blue sheen to the black ones.

  ‘Silver beak,’ I responded to her, and she tilted her head and gave me a knowing look.

  ‘Consorting with dragons again,’ I hazarded, and her caw was like a pleased chuckle. ‘What is this?’ I asked as I stooped to look at a moist brown cube. I didn’t want to touch it.

  ‘Food,’ she told me, and lifted into the air again.

  ‘Wait!’ I cried after her. ‘Where are the others? What happened?’

  She did a circle around me. ‘Dragons! Lovely, lovely dragons! Paragon is dragons now.’

  ‘Motley, please! Where are my friends?’

  ‘Some died, some left.’ She called the words down. ‘One comes.’

  ‘Which some? Left for where? Who comes? Crow! Motley! Come back!’

  But the crow did not heed my cries. She flew away in a straight line, back to the fallen city, probably back to where she had pilfered the food. If food it was. I picked up the sticky cube and smelled it. A rich brown meat smell came from it.

  Eat it!

  Nighteyes’ assurance was all I needed. Without hesitation, I took a bite. It was delicious, salt and beef, a chunk of food almost as big as my fist and doubtless as much as she could carry. I surrendered my annoyance with her. I still needed to know, but my body said that food was more important than information at the moment. And more water. I went back to the spring.

  I drank, splashed my face and neck, and then scrubbed at the remaining crust of filth that clung to my trouser legs. Washing my hands had no effect on the Silver that coated them.

  The sheep lifted their heads and I looked up with them. Prilkop was slowly climbing the hill toward me. A White followed him at a discreet distance. I stood and watched them come. Prilkop regarded me with dismay and perhaps horror. Did I look so terrible? Of course, I must. When he was close enough that I did not have to shout, I asked, ‘Who lived?’

  He stopped. ‘Of yours or mine?’ he asked gravely.

  ‘Mine!’ His question angered me with its subtle accusation.

  ‘Bee. And Beloved. The boy you had with you, and the young woman.’

  I tamped down my joy with my next question. ‘And Lant?’

  ‘The warrior you brought with you? When last I saw your folk, he was not among them. Probably lost in the water when the ship changed into dragons.’

  Another jolt to my tottering mind. I waded out of the now muddied water and away from the dung-strewn area surrounding it. Prilkop came and walked beside me but did not offer his arm. I didn’t blame him. ‘Where did my people go?’

  ‘Another ship came to the harbour and carried them away. They are gone.’

  I met his gaze. His dark eyes were full of anguish. ‘Why did you come to me?’

  ‘I saw a crow with a few scarlet feathers. I dreamed of that crow, once. When I called to it, it came to me and spoke your name, and said I would find you with the sheep.’ He looked around. ‘The few that remain,’ he added, and again I heard that accusing note in his voice. ‘I saw him with your friends, when last I spoke to Beloved.’

  ‘Her,’ I corrected. ‘You spoke to Beloved?’ The grass under my bare feet was relatively free of sheep dung. I sat down like an old tapestry falling from its hooks. Prilkop was more graceful, but not much. I wondered how old he was. The White he had brought with him didn’t sit but stood at a distance as if he would flee at any moment.

  ‘Leave the food and wine, and you can go,’ Prilkop told him. The White unslung a canvas bag from one shoulder, dropped it, then turned and ran. Prilkop made a sound between a sigh and a moan. He worked his way to his feet, retrieved the bag and seated himself beside me again. As he opened it between us, I asked him, ‘Am I that frightening?’

  ‘You look more statue than man, something wrought of silver attached to a skeleton coated with flesh. Did Capra do this to you? Or a dragon?’

  ‘My own doing and no one else’s. A magic gone wrong,’ I told him, for I was too weary to bother with more words than that. ‘What happened? To Bee and to Beloved? To everyone else?’

  ‘They believe you dead. All of them. They mourn you savagely.’

  Vanity is such a strange thing. They mourned me, and I was warmed that they loved me.

  He spoke words carefully as he dug a cork out of a web-coated bottle of wine. He set it down between us and began to arrange a strange picnic. ‘It’s good wine, from the best tavern in town. I had to choose from what folk had left behind. The eggs are raw, from a half-fallen chicken house. The apricots are not quite ripe but the tree was down, so I picked them. The same for the fish; I took it from a fallen smoking rack, and it’s still wet inside.’

  ‘And you brought it for me?’

  ‘I was gathering food when I saw the crow. I think you are hungrier than I am.’

  ‘Thank you.’ I cared nothing for the condition of the food or its source. I was barely able to restrain myself until he had set out the food on the coarse sack it had been carried in. ‘Eat while I talk,’ he suggested, and I was happy to comply. The food was as flawed as he said it would be and I devoured it. Raw eggs are fine as long as the belly expects them.

  There were gaps in the tale he told me, but I learned much that calmed my heart. He had seen Bee with the Fool and Spark and Per. Lant was possibly lost. Someone had been badly burned. Harder to grasp was that when the ship Paragon had sunk, two dragons had emerged from the waters of the harbour. I had my own thoughts on how that had happened. And other dragons and a scarlet man had come to destroy all of Clerres. I was astounded when he spoke of a black dragon. It had to be IceFyre. The scarlet man that Prilkop had glimpsed was probably Rapskal.

  There were things he did not know and could not explain. I could not imagine how Paragon had found the strength to become dragons. Then I recalled the Fool’s words about my missing tube of Silver. Tintaglia and Heeby had said they would come as soon as they could, but I was surprised that IceFyre had made the journey. Prilkop knew little of the Vivacia other than that a ship with a living figurehead had come into the bay, the dragons had flown in circles above, shouting down to it, and then all the folk that remained from those who had arrived on the Paragon had departed on board.

  Logic told m
e that I should be glad they were safely on their way. But being left for dead, even when one has insisted on it, creates a gulch of hurt in the heart. No matter how foolish, it stung that they had gone without me. It echoed painfully how Molly and Burrich had continued their lives when they believed me dead. Stupid, stupid emotion. Would not I have done exactly the same? I pushed my thoughts into a new channel, forced myself to confront the tragedy in Prilkop’s eyes.

  ‘They have treated you badly ever since you returned to Clerres but I know this is not what you would have wished on them. How have the folk of Clerres fared? What of your Whites?’

  He made a small sound. ‘I have lived a long life, FitzChivalry Farseer. I’ve seen the fall of the Pale Woman’s holdings on Aslevjal, and rejoiced in it. Remember, I had my part in preserving IceFyre’s life while he was encased in the ice. But Clerres, here … yes, they treated me badly.’ He looked down at the white tracery of scars on his black hands and arms. ‘Worse than badly,’ he admitted. He lifted his eyes. ‘As your own family treated you, as I recall from Beloved’s telling. But never did you confuse one of your uncles with the others, did you? When I was a child at Clerres, so long ago, it was a place of learning. I loved the libraries! They told me who I was! There were all the deeds of the White Prophets who had gone before me. There were the adventures of them finding their Catalysts, but also there were collections of lore, and accounts of ancient queens, as well as maps and histories of far away places … you cannot imagine what Bee destroyed with her fire. I do not blame her; she could not argue with the forces that shaped her and set her on that path. But I mourn what was lost.

  ‘I mourn, too, the Whites in their pretty little cottages, now buried under the fallen stone of Clerres Castle. Some were only children! Their dreams may have been used for selfish purposes, but you cannot blame them for that any more than I can blame Bee for what she became. So many of them are dead. So many.’

  He fell silent, strangled by his emotions. I had no reply. Innocents had died. But those who had tormented and tortured the Fool, those who had stolen and abused my Bee, they were dead, too, and I could not regret that. ‘So. The Four are dead. What will become of you now?’

  He lifted his eyes. The look he gave me was guarded. ‘Three are dead. Capra survived.’ He studied my impassive face. Could he read my thoughts? ‘You and your dragons killed almost all of us. I have gathered seventeen of the Whites. Once there were over two hundred Whites and part-Whites. Those who survived take comfort in Capra’s leadership. For generations, she has guided them. Already she tells us that the weakness was that there were Four. She will be the One, now, and will keep our purpose clear. I have spoken with her and she has promised that we will go back to our old ways. I set out to gather food for those who remain. But when I saw the piebald crow and called to her and when she came to me, I knew my best course was to seek you out. To ask for mercy for those who remain. To diverge from your path, just a little. For the sake of those under my protection.’

  Was that why he had come? Or only now did he read my intent?

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