Assassins fate, p.93
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       Assassin's Fate, p.93

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

  Later, Nettle called me in for ‘a word’. It was more than one word, and her baby cried and she walked up and down gently bouncing her the whole time she was reminding me that I must bear myself with dignity now. I did not ask her if she had decided about my Skill. Now was not a good time to remind her that I was wilful in many ways. Riddle escorted me back to my chambers afterward. As he left me at the door, he said, ‘If it is any comfort, your father did not enjoy this aspect of his life either. But he managed it, and so must you.’

  I went to bed early that night, thinking that some of Dwalia’s beatings had been easier to take then Nettle’s lecture and disappointed face. As I did now, I set my walls well before I tried to sleep, to keep my nightmares in as much to keep others out. My window was dark and the castle quiet when I awoke to distant music. For a time, I was still and listened, wondering who would be making music at such an hour and for whom. I could not identify the instrument, but the music suited my mood perfectly. It was lonely and yet not fully sad, as if being alone were not such a bad thing.

  I got up out of bed and donned a dressing-gown. The door to Caution’s nook was closed: she was a sound sleeper. I stepped into the corridor and hesitated. But no one had ever forbidden me to move alone in Buckkeep at night. I closed the door softly behind me. I listened but could not determine where the music was coming from. I closed my eyes to better focus and walked, away from my chamber and Nettle and Riddle’s grand rooms at the end of the hall. Door after door I passed. From time to time, I stopped to listen and get my bearings. Then I would go on.

  The music grew stronger. I came to a door and pressed my ear to it. I heard nothing. Yet when I stepped back from it, the music was loud. I argued with myself. My curiosity won. I tapped at the door.

  There was no response.

  I tapped again, louder, and waited. No response.

  I tried the door. It wasn’t latched. I pushed it open to reveal a cosy chamber, smaller than mine. There was a low fire burning in the hearth; even in summer, the old stones of Buckkeep seemed chill. In front of the fire, in a cushioned chair with his short legs propped up on a padded stool, a round-faced man was Skilling out the music he dreamed.

  I was utterly charmed by this and felt a lift of heart, as if I had stepped into an old tale. A grey cat was asleep on his lap. She lifted her head. We are comfortable, she informed me.

  ‘Does he always Skill music when he sleeps?’ I spoke softly.

  The cat just looked at me. Then the man opened his eyes and looked at me. He showed no surprise or alarm. His eyes were cloudy, like an old dog’s. He had odd features, little eyes with fat eyelids and small ears tight to his skull. He licked his lips and left the end of his tongue out. Then he said, ‘I was dreaming a song for Fitz’s little girl. If I ever got to meet her.’

  ‘That would be me,’ I said, and ventured closer.

  He pointed to a cushion on the floor near his chair. ‘You can sit on that, if you want. It’s Smokey’s cushion, but he’s sitting with me right now. He won’t mind.’

  Yes, I will.

  I sat on the hearth and looked up at him. ‘Are you Thick?’ I asked him.

  ‘They call me that. Yes.’

  ‘My father wrote about you. In his journals.’

  A wide smile opened his face. He was simple, I realized. ‘I miss him,’ he said. ‘He used to bring me candy. And little cakes with pink sugar frosting on them.’

  ‘That sounds lovely.’

  ‘They were delicious. And pretty. I liked to put them in a row and look at them.’

  ‘I liked to put my mother’s candles in a row. And smell them. But never burn them.’

  ‘I have four brass buttons. And two wooden ones, and one made from shell. Do you want to see them?’

  I did. I wanted simple things, like sharing buttons. The cat made a rumble, jumped off his lap and arranged himself on a cushion. It hurt Thick to get up to open a cupboard and take his box of buttons out, and I knew that he was old. Walking was not easy for him, but his buttons were important. He brought their box back to his chair. His blanket had fallen to the floor. I picked it up and put it over his legs again. As he showed me each button, he told me the story of finding it. Then I asked him, ‘Can you teach me to make the Skill-music?’

  He grew very still. ‘My music?’ he said very softly. He was uncertain. Guarded.

  I was quiet. Had I spoiled everything by asking for this?

  He held out his hand to me. I hesitated, then I set my hand in it and his fingers closed around mine. His touch hummed with power. ‘We have to be very quiet,’ he told me. ‘I’m not supposed to let my music be loud.’ He did something to my walls and suddenly we were behind his in a very peculiar way. ‘Now,’ he said. ‘This is how to make the music.’ He smiled and said, ‘We will start with the cat’s purr.’

  On that night, I gained a friend and a teacher.

  I was back in my bedroom well before dawn. He had taught me a music made of cat purrs, the creak of a rocking chair and the low crackling of a fire. He had cloaked me in ‘See her not!’ before I crept back to my room. I was sleepy the next day. I didn’t care. He was waiting for me when I returned that night. I helped him build the ‘tent’ as he called it that was stouter than any Skill-wall I’d ever managed. He had saved some gingerbread from earlier in his day, for all his meals were brought to him now. We shared that, and shared our cat-purr music, adding more things to it. I felt honoured when he put in me laughing at the cat as he danced after a dropped spool. It was more fun than I’d ever had with anyone in my whole life.

  Even better than the day my father had taken me to the market in Oaksbywater, for there were no slain dogs or stabbed beggars. We just played.

  For someone who had never had a playmate, it was astonishing.

  FORTY-SIX

  * * *

  The Quarry

  The Six Duchies has many folk-tales about people vanishing into Skill-pillars. And many about people suddenly stepping out of one. In many of them, people are fleeing unjust punishment, and the stones give them sanctuary from their attackers. In ones in which foreign or peculiar folk appear, they grant wishes, such as improved health.

  All those tales, I believe, are rooted in the inadvertent use of a Skill-pillar by someone who is untrained.

  A history of the Skill-pillars in the Six Duchies and beyond,

  Chade Fallstar

  Something is wrong with the moon.

  I blinked my eyes. Yes. There was a moon. A moon in the darkness meant we were not inside the Skill-pillar any more. Nor between Skill-pillars, wherever that ‘between’ was. We were on the ground somewhere and looking up at the moon. The crow was standing on my chest. As I stirred, she hopped off me and away. For an instant, moonlight ran down her scarlet feathers, then she was gone. Cool night air was soft against my skin. Hard stone was under my back. I lowered my eyes from the moon and saw the Skill-pillar that had dumped me out. Beyond it, forest.

  This was not Kelsingra.

  The moon, Nighteyes insisted.

  I lifted my eyes to it. Oh. It was nearly full. It had been full when we entered the pillar. Either we had come out of the pillar before we had left, or we had been inside it close to a month.

  Or longer?

  ‘Where are we?’ I asked aloud to avoid thinking about days lost. Or months. Years? There were legends of people vanishing into standing stones and emerging years later, either unchanged or very, very old. I wondered if I had aged. I certainly felt older. Weaker. I imagined Nettle an old woman, Bee a mother. I sat up with a shudder.

  Where are we?

  Where we need to be. The only place left for us to be.

  It took an effort to rise from my sprawl. I rolled onto my hands and knees and stood up. Above me, stars and the almost full moon. I looked up at sheer, rocky walls, and beyond them the dark shapes of evergreen trees. I smelled water. I turned my head and followed the scent. My sandals gritted on sand and small pebbles. The ground sloped down slightly and
I came to an immense square pond of standing water. It smelled green. I knelt at the edge, cupped water and drank. And drank some more.

  I sat back. I was still hungry but having my thirst quenched also deadened a headache that I had simply been accepting. I looked around in slow recognition. The quarry. The place where the Elderlings had once cut and carved blocks of Skill-stone. I was not far from the place where Verity had ended his days as a man. He had carved his dragon from gleaming black-and-silver stone, and had risen as a dragon to defend the Six Duchies.

  Exactly where we need to be.

  No! I meant to touch the face of the pillar that would take us to Kelsingra.

  I know. But this is where we need to be.

  I pushed his words to the back of my mind. I had known this place, once. It had changed greatly, and not at all. I tried to recall where Verity’s shabby tent had been, where we had set a fire, where we had camped. The moonlight glinted on the thick silvery veins in the rock. My meandering path took me between and past rejected blocks of memory-stone. Once, Elderling Skill-coteries had come here to select a stone and carve the creature that would become the repository of their memories and bodies. I suspected that it had been an Elderling tradition then was somehow shared with a few Six Duchies coteries. Perhaps somewhere in the walls of Kelsingra or in the memory-blocks of Aslevjal, that tale was stored.

  I found Verity’s old campsite. Next to nothing was left after all those years. I had hoped to find more, for we had left all behind when we had fled it. What might have been there? The remains of Kettricken’s bow, a knife, a blanket? The night was chill and I would have welcomed any additional covering. It was strange to have stepped from summer in a warm land to summer in the Mountains.

  Not much left of summer, I fear. Lift your head and sniff, brother. I smell the end of summer, and leaves soon to fall.

  Is it possible we were in the stone that long?

  Do you remember nothing of our passage? The wolf seemed genuinely surprised.

  Nothing at all.

  Not Verity? Not Shrewd? Not our passing brush with Chade?

  I was shocked. I stood very still, groping back. I remembered the rogues who had attacked us in the old city, and I remembered carelessly putting my hand on the wrong face of the Skill-pillar. I pushed at my memory.

  There you are, my boy!

  Leave him be. This is not his place, not his time for this. He has a task.

  Present that pin and you will ever be welcome into my presence.

  I had been lying on my back, looking up at a moon approaching full. Had I imagined those touches of minds against mine? Did I pretend it to myself, now? Weariness swept over me in a wave.

  Something is very wrong with us. Something like a sickness, but not.

  The pillar journey. I felt this way that time I left Aslevjal and was lost in the stones for a time.

  No. This is something else, the wolf insisted.

  I ignored that. How long? At least a month we had wandered between the pillars. It was likely that Bee and the others had reached Bingtown now.

  It was like the slap of a cold wave. They would all think me dead! I had to let them know I lived. Then I could wait a few days to recover from my pillar journey. Then I would hike the old Skill-road to the abandoned market and its pillar. From there, I could enter that pillar and be back in Buck Duchy. How long before I was home? Before the next full moon! Time to let Dutiful know that I was alive, and as soon as Bee arrived, he would tell her.

  I wrapped my arms around myself and stood very still, gathering and centring myself. But I was abruptly aware of how thin I was. I felt my own ribs. And I was chilled to the bone. Make a fire first. With what? The old way. Spinning a stick in a notch if I had to, but I suddenly felt I needed a fire. A light and a warmth to centre myself, and then I would Skill.

  Verity suggested you not do that. Remember? Save that strength for your task. You will need it.

  No. I remember nothing of our passage. What task? I recall nothing.

  You would if you truly wanted to remember.

  Such an odd and irksome thing for him to say to me. His sulky words dangled between us as I went looking for wood. The moon gave a ghostly light to the rocky, barren quarry. Rain and wind had deposited branches and dead leaves, but little grew on the stony bone of the earth. My hunger had its claws set in my belly.

  Forest rimmed the quarry, and I moved along the edge of it, gathering dry wood. Insects chirred, and overhead bats frolicked in their pursuit of food.

  Porcupine!

  I sensed it at the same time Nighteyes’ excitement burst through to me. I had to smile. Never had he been able to control his fascination with the prickly creatures, and more than once I’d pulled quills from his nose and paws. I dropped my firewood, and then selected one hefty piece from it.

  Porcupines rely on their quills for defence. They are slow-moving, one of the few game animals one can kill with a club. He kept his back and tail toward me as I tried to circle around him to where I could bash his head. By the time I killed him I was winded. My dread at the work ahead before I could eat him almost outweighed my hunger. Almost.

  I made two trips to get my firewood and my dead porcupine to a place in the quarry near our old campsite. The woods around the quarry were dry as dust. I had no wish to set them alight with a careless spark. But I soon wished for any sort of a spark. My attacker’s knife was my only large tool. I sharpened a stick for a fire drill, and bored a hole in the driest piece of firewood. Then I began the endless task of spinning the stick between my palms, trying to build up enough warmth to make the wood smoulder. I kept having to stop and rest. My shoulders and elbows ached abysmally.

  Try again! Nighteyes bade me softly and I realized I had dozed off hunched over my fire making. I took up the stick in my silvered hand and began to spin it. It suddenly seemed a hopeless task, and I stabbed the stick savagely into my drill bed, shouting, ‘I just want a fire! Is that so much to ask? Fire!’

  It burst into flames. Not a spark, not a trickle of smoke. Flames leapt up from both pieces of wood and I scrabbled back and away from them. My heart was hammering in my throat.

  I didn’t know we could do that!

  Neither did I.

  Don’t let it die!

  No danger of that. I piled my wood onto it, and watched it catch. The blaze pushed back the shadows and set the silver in the black stone sparkling. And my silvered hand gleamed in the light as I examined it, caught between wonder and dread. Practicality asserted itself. I plodded back to the forest’s edge and came back with as much firewood as I could carry. Twice I did that, and then I turned to my meat.

  Skinning a porcupine is as ticklish a job as one might expect. The best way is to hang them spread-eagled and work on them, but I had no string and there were no trees in the quarry. In the end, it was worth the work and nuisance. He was as fat as a fall hog, and as I cooked the meat over the fire, it sizzled and sent up a fine greasy smoke. I ate until I was full, and then slept rolled in a dead woman’s cloak. In the dawn’s light, I awoke under a wide blue sky. I built up my fire and ate more of my kill. I went back to the water caught in the low end of the quarry, washed my hands and drank deeply. With my belly full I felt as if I could face the day.

  I recalled that there had been a stream not far from the quarry. A stream with fish. Starling. On the banks of that stream, I had told her that I did not love her, in an effort to be honest. Then we had joined our bodies in what had been little more than animal comfort, but had begun a strange and difficult relationship that would continue, on and off, for over a dozen years. Starling, in her fine striped stockings with her proud, wealthy husband listening as she sang the tale of our quest. Well, that was a verse she had omitted, I thought, and even smiled.

  I returned to our fire. Motley was picking through the porcupine’s entrails. She looked up with a bit of gut dangling from her silver beak. ‘Home?’ she cawed hopefully.

  I spoke aloud. ‘Today I sleep and catch
fish. Some to eat and some to dry. I don’t plan to travel hungry again. Three days of resting and eating, and we continue our journey.’

  It would be wiser to choose our piece of stone and begin now.

  I crouched in stillness by my fire. I knew what the wolf was suggesting. I’m going home. Not into a stone.

  Fitz. Long have we known it would come to this. How often did we dream of returning here and carving our dragon? Here we are, and it is time, and perhaps we have enough time and strength to do it. I would not wish to remain mired in stone like Girl-on-a-Dragon was.

  I framed the thought sternly and spoke it aloud. ‘I do not think we have reached that time. I’m not old. Just tired. A bit of rest and—’

  ‘Home?’ Motley asked persistently. ‘Bee! Bee! Per! Fool! Lant!
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