Renegades magic, p.1
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       Renegades Magic, p.1
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         Part #3 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
Renegades Magic
Page 1

 

  CHAPTER ONE

  SOLDIER’S END

  I never spoke up for myself at my court-martial.

  I stood in the box where they put me, and tried not to think of the agonizing bite of the leg irons around my calves. They were too small for a man of my flesh, and the cold iron bit deep into the meat of my legs, burning and numbing at the same time. At the moment, the pain mattered to me more than the outcome of the hearing. I already knew how it would end.

  That pain is chiefly what I remember of my trial. It hazes my memories in red. A number of witnesses spoke against me. I recall their righteous voices as they detailed my crimes to the assembled judges. Rape. Murder. Necrophilia. Desecration of a graveyard. My outrage and horror at being accused of such things had been eroded by the utter hopelessness of my situation. Witness after witness spoke against me. Threads of rumor, hearsay from a dead man’s lips, suspicions and circumstantial evidence were twisted together into a rope of evidence, stout enough to hang me.

  I think I know why Spink never addressed any questions directly to me. Lieutenant Spinrek, my friend since our Cavalla Academy days, was supposed to be defending me. I’d told him that I simply wanted to plead guilty and get it over with. That had angered him. Perhaps that was why he didn’t ask me to testify on my own behalf. He didn’t trust me to tell the truth and deny all the charges. He feared I’d take the easy way out.

  I would have.

  I didn’t fear the hangman’s gibbet. It would be a quick end to a life corrupted by a foreign magic. Walk up the steps, put my head into the noose, and step off into darkness. The weight of my falling body would probably have jerked my head right off. No dangle and strangle for me. Just a quick exit from an existence that was too tangled and spoiled to repair.

  Whatever I might have said in my own defense would have made no difference. Wrongs had been done, ugly, evil things, and the citizens of Gettys were determined that someone had to pay for them. Gettys was a rough place to live, a settlement half military outpost and half penal colony on the easternmost boundary of the Kingdom of Gernia. Its citizens were no strangers to rape and murder. But the crimes I was accused of went beyond the spectrum of passion and violence into something darker, too dark even for Gettys to tolerate. Someone had to wear the villain’s black cape and pay the toll for such transgressions, and who better than the solitary fat man who lived in the graveyard and was rumored to have doings with the Specks?

  So I was convicted. The cavalla officers who sat in judgment on me sentenced me to hang, and I accepted that. I had shamed my regiment. At that moment, my execution seemed the simplest escape from a life that had become the antithesis of every dream I’d ever had. I’d die and be done with disappointment and failure. Hearing my sentence was almost a relief.

  But the magic that had poisoned my life was not about to let me go so easily.

  Killing me was not enough for my accusers. Evil would be punished with as cruel and vicious a vengeance as they could imagine. Darkness would be balanced with darkness. When the second half of my sentence was pronounced, horror froze me. Before I ascended the gallows to make that final drop, I’d receive one thousand lashes.

  I will always recall that stunned moment. The sentence went beyond execution, beyond punishment, to total destruction. As it stripped the flesh from my bones, it would strip away all dignity as well. No man, no matter what his courage, could grit his teeth and keep silent through a thousand lashes. They would mock and jeer me as I shrieked and begged. I would go to my death hating them and myself.

  I’d been born to be a soldier. As the second son of a nobleman, I had been decreed by the good god to be a soldier. Despite all that had befallen me, despite the foreign magic that had infected and poisoned me, despite my ejection from the King’s Cavalla Academy, despite my father’s disowning of me and the scorn of my fellows, I had done my best to serve my king as a soldier. This was what it had earned me. I would scream and weep and plead for mercy before folk who saw me only as a monster. The lash would strip my body naked of both clothing and flesh, exposing the sagging layers of fat that had been their first excuse to hate me. I would faint and be revived with a dash of vinegar on my back. I’d piss myself and dangle helplessly from my manacled wrists. I’d be a corpse long before they hanged my remains. They knew it and so did I.

  Even my corrupted and maimed life seemed a better choice than that death. The magic had sought to take me from my own people and use me as a tool against them. I’d fought it. But that final night in my cell, I knew the magic of the Speck folk offered me my only opportunity to save myself. When the magic tore down the walls of my prison, I took the opportunity. I escaped. Page 2

 

  But neither the magic nor the good folk of Gettys were done with me. I think the magic knew that I’d given only lip service to my surrender to it. But it demanded all of me, my entire life, with no ties left to bind me to this place and this people, and what I had never given willingly, it now took from me.

  As I fled from the fort, I encountered a troop of returning cavalla soldiers. I knew it was not my bad luck that put Captain Thayer in charge of the troop. It was the magic that put me in the hands of the man whose dead wife I had apparently despoiled. It had ended predictably. The tired, frustrated men he led had rapidly degenerated into a mob. They had killed me in the streets, his soldiers holding me for him while he beat me to death. Justice and vengeance were sated on that dusty street in the small hours of the morning. Then, slaked with violence, they had dispersed to their homes and beds. They did not speak to one another of what they had done.

  And in the hour before dawn broke over Gettys, a dead man fled the town.

  CHAPTER TWO

  FLIGHT

  The huge hooves of my big horse made a steady drumming as we fled. As we passed the last outlying farms of the scattered town that surrounded the King’s fort at Gettys, I glanced back over my shoulder. The town was silent and still. The flames on the burning walls of the prison had subsided, but a dark smear of smoke still smudged the graying sky. The men who had fought Epiny’s sabotage all night would be trudging home to their beds now. I kept my gaze fixed on the road before me and rode grimly on. Gettys had never been my home, but it was hard to leave it.

  Ahead of me, light began to spill over the mountaintops. The sun would soon be up. I had to reach the shelter of the forest before men began to stir. There would be some early risers today, people anxious to secure good vantage points to watch my flogging and execution. My mouth twisted, imagining their disappointment when they heard of my death.

  The King’s Road, that ambitious undertaking of King Troven of Gernia, unfurled before me, dusty, rutted, potholed, but arrow straight. I followed it. It led east, ever east. In the King’s vision, it threaded through and over the Barrier Mountains and on, until it reached the far sea. In my king’s dreams, the road would be a lifeline of trade for landlocked Gernia. In reality, his road ended only a few miles past Gettys, its growth foundered at the edge of the vale where the Specks’ ancestor trees grew. For years, the indigenous Specks had used their magic to incite fear and desolation in the road workers and halt the road’s march. The spell the Specks cast varied from a sharp terror that made men crawling cowards to a deep despair that sapped them of all will to work. Beyond the end of the road, the forest awaited me.

  On the road ahead of me, I saw what I’d been dreading. A horseman was coming toward me at a weary walk. The rider sat tall in his saddle, and that as much as the brave green of his jacket labeled him a cavalla soldier. I wondered where he was coming from and why he rode alone and if I’d have to kill him. As I drew closer, the rakish angle of his hat and the bright yellow scarf at his throat be
trayed what he was: one of our scouts. My heart lifted a trifle. There was a chance he’d know nothing about the charges against me and my trial. The scouts were often out for weeks at a time. He showed no interest in me as our horses approached one another, and as I passed him, he did not even lift a hand in greeting.

  I felt a pang of sharp regret as I went by. But for the magic, that could have been me. I recognized Tiber from the Cavalla Academy, but he did not know me. The magic had changed me from the slim and fit cadet I’d been. The fat, disheveled trooper lolloping along on his ungainly mount was beneath the lieutenant’s notice. At his current pace, it would be hours before he got to the town and heard that the mob had killed me in the streets. I wondered if he’d think he had seen a ghost.

  Clove cantered laboriously on. The crossbred draft horse was no one’s idea of a mount built for either speed or endurance. But he was big, and for a man of my height and bulk, he was the only possible steed that could carry me comfortably. It came to me that this would be the last time I’d ride him; I couldn’t take him into the forest with me. Pain gouged me again; he’d be one more beloved thing that I’d have to leave behind. He was running heavily now, nearly spent by our mad flight from Gettys.

  Well outside Gettys, a wagon trail diverged from the King’s Road and led up to the cemetery. Clove slowed as we approached it, and I abruptly changed my plans. The cabin I had called home for the past year was up that trail. Was there anything left there that I’d want to carry forward into my new life? Spink had removed my soldier-son journal and taken it to his home. I was grateful for that. My journal held the full tale of how the magic had entered my life and slowly taken it away from me. There might still be letters in my cabin, papers that could connect me to a past and a family that I needed to abandon. I would let nothing tie me to either Lord Burvelle, neither my uncle nor my father. Let my death shame no one except myself.

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  Clove slipped into his ponderous trot as he labored up the hill. It had been only a couple of weeks since I’d last been here, but it felt like years. Grass was already sprouting on the many graves we had dug for the summer victims of the plague. The trench graves were still bare soil; they had been the last graves to be covered, when the plague was at its height and we grave diggers could no longer keep up with the steady influx of bodies. They would be the last scars to heal.

  I pulled Clove in outside my cabin. I dismounted cautiously, but felt a mere twinge of pain. Only yesterday the leg irons had cut into my tendons; the magic was healing me at a prodigious rate. My horse blew at me, shuddered his coat, and then walked a few steps before dropping his head to graze. I hurried to my door. I’d quickly destroy any evidence of my former identity and then be on my way.

  The window shutters were closed. I shut the door behind me as I stepped into the cabin. Then I recoiled in dismay as Kesey sat up in my bed. My fellow grave digger had been sleeping with a stocking cap on his bald head to keep the night chill away. He knuckled his eyes and gaped at me, his hanging jaw revealing gaps in his teeth. “Nevare?” he protested. “I thought you were going to—”

  His words fumbled to a halt as he realized exactly how wrong it was for me to be standing in my cabin.

  “Hang today,” I finished the sentence for him. “Yes. A lot of people thought that. ”

  He stared at me, puzzled, but continued to sit in the bed. I decided he was no threat to me. We’d been friends for most of a year before everything went wrong. I hoped he would not judge it his duty to interfere with my escape. Casually, I walked past him to the shelf where I’d kept my personal possessions. As Spink had promised, my soldier-son journal was gone. A wave of relief washed through me. Epiny and Spink would know best how to dispose of those incriminating and accusatory pages. I felt along the shelf to be sure that no letter or scrap of paper had been missed. No. But my sling was there, the leather straps wrapped around the cup. I put it in my pocket. It might be useful.

  The disreputable long gun I’d been issued when I first arrived at Gettys still rested on its rack. The rattly weapon with the pitted barrel had never been reliable. Even if it had been sound, it would soon have been useless when I’d expended the small supply of powder and ball I had. Leave it. But my sword was another matter. The sheathed blade still hung from its hook. I was reaching for it when Kesey demanded, “What happened?”

  “It’s a long story. Are you sure you want to know?”

  “Well, of course I do! I thought you were going to be lashed to pieces and then hanged today!”

  I found myself grinning. “And you couldn’t even get out of bed to come to my hanging. A fine friend you are!”

  He smiled back uncertainly. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but I welcomed it. “I didn’t want to see it, Nevare. Couldn’t face it. Bad enough that the new commander ordered me to live out here and keep an eye on the cemetery because you were in prison. Worse to watch a friend die, and know that I’d probably meet my own end out here. Every cemetery sentry we’ve ever had has met a bad end. But how’d you get out of it? I don’t understand. ”

  “I escaped, Kesey. Speck magic freed me. The roots of a tree tore the stone walls of my dungeon apart, and I crawled out through the opening. I nearly made it out of Gettys. I made it past the gates of the fort. I thought I was a free man. But then I met a troop of soldiers coming back from the road’s end. And who should be in charge of them but Captain Thayer himself. ”

  Kesey was spellbound, his eyes as round as bowls. “But it was his wife—” he began, and I nodded.

  “They found Carsina’s body in my bed. You know, if not for that, I think the judges might have realized there was very little to link me to Fala’s death. But Carsina’s body in my bed was just too much for them. I doubt that even one ever considered that I might have been trying to save her.

  “You do know I didn’t do any of those things, don’t you, Kesey?”

  The older man licked his lips. He looked uncertain. “I didn’t want to believe any of that about you, Nevare. None of it fit with anything Ebrooks and I had ever seen of you. You were fat and a loner and hardly ever had a drink with us, and Ebrooks and I could see you were sliding toward the Speck way. You wouldn’t have been the first to go native.

  “But we never saw nothing mean in you. You weren’t vicious. When you talked soldiering with us, seemed like you meant it. And no one ever worked harder out here than you did. But someone did those things, and there you were, right where they happened. Everybody else seemed so certain. They made me feel a fool for not believing you done it. And at the trial, when I tried to say that you’d always been a stand-up fellow to me, well, Ebrooks shoved me and told me to shut up. Told me I’d only get myself a beating trying to speak up for you, and do you no good at all. So, I kept quiet. I’m sorry, Nevare. You deserved better. ”

  Page 4

 

  I gritted my teeth and then let my anger go with a sigh. “It’s all right, Kesey. Ebrooks was right. You couldn’t have helped me. ”

  I reached for my sword. But as my hand came close to the hilt, I felt an odd tingling. It was an unpleasant warning, as if I’d just set my hand on a hive of bees and felt the buzzing of the warriors inside. I drew my hand back and wiped it roughly down the front of my shirt, puzzled.

  “But you escaped, right? So me keeping quiet, it didn’t do you no harm, right? And I’m not going to try to stop you now. I’m not even going to tell anyone that you come this way. ”

  There was a note of fear in his voice that wrung my heart. I met his eyes. “I told you, Kesey. It’s all right. And no one will be asking you if I came this way, because I met Captain Thayer and his men as I was leaving town. And they killed me. ”

  He stared at me. “What? But you—”

  I stepped forward quickly. He flinched from my touch, but I set my hand to his forehead as he cringed away. I put my heart in my words. I wanted to protect him, and this was the only way to do i
t. “You’re having a dream, Kesey. It’s just a dream. You’ll hear about my death next time you go to town. Captain Thayer caught me escaping and beat me to death with his own hands. His wife is avenged. There were a dozen witnesses. It’s over. Ebrooks was there. He might even tell you about it. He took my body and secretly buried it. He did the best by me he could. And you, you had a dream of me escaping. It comforted you. Because you knew that if you could have helped me, you would have. And you bear no guilt for my death. All of this was just a dream. You’re asleep and dreaming. ”

  As I’d been speaking, I’d gently pushed Kesey supine. His eyelids shut and his mouth sagged open. The deep breathing of sleep sighed from his lungs and in again. He slept. I heaved a sigh. He’d share the same false memories I’d left with the mob that had surrounded me. Even my best friend Spink would recall that I’d been beaten to death in the streets and he’d been powerless to stop it. Amzil, the only woman who’d ever looked past my fat and unlovely body to love me, would believe the same. They’d bear that tale home to my Cousin Epiny, and she would believe it. I hoped that they would not mourn me too sharply or for too long. I wondered briefly how they would break the news to my sister, and if my father would care when he heard it. Then I resolutely turned away from that life. It was gone, over, finished.

  Once I’d been tall and strong and golden, a new noble’s soldier son, with a future full of promise. It had all seemed so clearly mapped for me. I’d attend the Academy, enter the cavalla as an officer, distinguish myself in the King’s service, marry the lovely Carsina, have a fulfilling career full of adventure and valor, and eventually retire to my brother’s estate to live out my declining years. If only I’d never been infected with the Speck magic, it would all have come true.

  Kesey snorted and rolled over. I sighed. I’d best be gone. As soon as the news of my death spread, someone would ride out to tell him. I didn’t want to expend any more magic; I already felt the aching pangs of hunger that using magic brought on. As soon as I had the thought, my stomach growled furiously. I rummaged hastily through the food cupboard, but all the food looked unappetizing, dry and old. I longed for sweet berries warmed by the sun, earthy rich mushrooms, the spicy water plant leaves that Olikea had fed me the last time I’d seen her, and tender crisp roots. My mouth ran at the thought of such foods. Instead, I glumly took two rounds of hardtack from the shelf. I took a large bite and, still chewing the loathsome stuff, reached for my sword. It was time to be gone from here.

 
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