Forest mage, p.12
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       Forest Mage, p.12

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  Anger sang in my blood and rang in my ears. I seethed with fury. Words burst from me, coming from whence I knew not. “And you have ignored me, fled from me, and thus insulted me thrice today, and this shall be the last time. There will come a time before you die, Carsina, when you will crawl on your knees and beg pardon for how you have treated me this day. ”

  Her mouth fell open at my harsh words. She looked, in her astonishment, both childish and common. All the prettiness fled from her face as anger flooded it. I’d said too much, spoken too rashly. I could not have done a more awkward, awful thing at my brother’s wedding.

  Carsina’s face went scarlet. In horror, I saw tears flood her eyes. Her freckled dance partner glared up at me. “Now, see here, sir, I insist—”

  “Insist to yourself, then,” I said to him, and strode away. But a fat man is hard-pressed to stride with dignity. I tried in vain to compose my face as I departed the scene. Not that many people, I told myself, had noticed our spat. Neither of us had shouted. I glanced back, but Carsina was gone. I felt a moment of relief, until I saw her hurrying up the stairs, both hands lifted to cover her face. Several women turned to watch her go. My own sister was following her. I cursed myself and wondered where that blaze of temper and my ugly words had come from.

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  I should have chosen to keep my misery and my pathetic hope, I told myself savagely. I left the ballroom for the terrace, and from there descended stone steps to the garden. It was hotter there, not cooler. Many of the flowering bushes had gone yellow with drought; the young trees were spindly and offered no shade. My collar choked me and my jacket was too warm. How could I have been so stupid? Why had I forced such a confrontation? I should have let her snub me. The next time I saw her, I’d be a thinner man, and there would have been no harm done. She’d have rebuked herself for avoiding me. Now what I had said to her must always stand between us. Uneasily, I wondered if she had fled to her mother. She was already with my sister. I wondered which would be worse for me.

  A thick hedge and the sound of a fountain beyond it promised me a shadier retreat. The garden was poorly planned, for I had to walk some distance and follow a turning in the hedge before I found a very small gate. It was closed but not locked. I entered the second garden.

  Here, no expense had been spared. I wondered that guests were not thronging it. A paved walkway led me in a meandering spiral toward the heart of the garden. The beds of flowers were lush, despite the heat and dryness of the last week. Bees hummed among the fairy rosebushes and battled the tall lavender for nectar. The fragrance of flowers and the aromas of herbs were heavy in the still air. I passed an ornamental fish pond. Spatterdock opened the fat petals of its yellow blossoms there, and fish transformed from shadow to gleams as they moved in and out of their shelter. Beyond was a dovecote, styled as a quaint little cottage, full of the preening, cooing creatures. The birds were sunning themselves in the fly pen attached to their shelter. I stood there for some time, letting the restful sound soothe me. Then I followed the winding footpath toward the decorative fountain at the center of the garden and the musical splashing of its waters.

  I never reached the fountain. A sudden reek hit my nostrils, a stench so bad that I nearly gagged. I turned my head at the same time I lifted my hand to cover my nose and mouth. I could not believe what met my eyes. The altar was white marble, but the top of it was spattered with gore and bird droppings. A brass pole arched over the altar. Suspended from the arch was something that might have been a lovely chandelier, save that the arms of it ended in hooks, not lamps, and a dead dove was impaled on each hook. In the center of the altar, a bird had been split open and its entrails spread for reading. Bloody fingerprints smeared the white feathers. A black-and-white croaker bird was perched on top of the brass arch, a streamer of dove gut hanging from his beak. Flies and wasps buzzed heavily around the dead birds. They were grotesque. One white dove was more red than white now, its entrails hanging from its pecked anus. As I stared, dumbfounded, a slow drip of blood dropped to spatter on the altar.

  This had been done today.

  That chilling thought was followed by another. The altar and the hook chandelier were permanent fixtures. Poronte and his family worshipped the old gods on a regular basis. This was a marriage offering. In all likelihood, my brother’s bride and her mother and sisters had sacrificed these birds to celebrate Cecile’s wedding day.

  I had not thought my horror could deepen. But as I stared, transfixed, the unthinkable happened. One bird abruptly twitched on its hook. Its wings shuddered spasmodically, causing the carousel of dead birds to turn slightly. It unlidded a dull eye at me while its small beak opened and closed soundlessly.

  I could not stand it.

  I had to stand on tiptoe to reach him, and my stretch strained the shoulders of my jacket perilously. I made a grab at him, caught him by the wing, and pulled the gruesome merry-go-round toward me. When I could get both hands on him, I lifted his body from the hook. I’d intended to end his misery by wringing his neck. Before I could, his body gave a final shudder and was still. I stepped back from the altar and looked at my pathetic trophy. The anger I had felt at Carsina suddenly transmuted to fury at the unfairness of it all. Why had this little creature had to die as sacrifice to celebrate a wedding day? Why was his tiny life so insignificant to them? It was the only life he could ever know. “You should not have died. ” My blood pounded through me, thick with rage. “They were wicked to kill you! What sort of a family has my brother joined to us?”

  The bird’s eyes opened. I was so shocked I nearly dropped it. It gave its head a shake, and then opened its wings. I did drop it then, releasing it to a fall that it changed into a frantic launch. One of its wings brushed my face at it took flight. In an instant, it was gone. Small downy neck feathers clung to my fingertips. I shook my hands, and they ghosted away to float eerily in the still air. I was not sure what had happened. I looked again at the gory carousel of dead birds and at the smear of blood on my hand. Repulsed, I wiped my hand clean on my dark trousers. How had the bird survived?

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  I stared too long. In the branches of a nearby bush, a croaker bird suddenly cawed loudly. It lifted its black-and-white wings and opened its red beak wide at me. It had orange wattles on its bare neck; they were fleshy and wobbled cancerously at me as it cawed.

  I retreated a step, but he still challenged me with three loud caws. The cries were immediately echoed by a couple of his fellows perched in nearby trees. As they raised the alarm, I turned and hastily walked away. My thoughts were in turmoil. It was one thing to hear tales of what the worship of the old gods had demanded; it was another thing to see a carrion tree set up for their delight.

  Did Rosse know of his wife’s beliefs?

  Did my father? My mother?

  I breathed through my mouth as I walked swiftly away from that place. When I reached the lavender beds and the drowsing bumblebees mining them, I stopped. I took deep calming breaths of their fragrance. I was sweating. I’d glimpsed something dark and it filled me with a sudden foreboding.

  “Sir. This is a private garden for the family’s meditation and repose. The wedding festivities do not extend to this area. ”

  The woman was dressed as a gardener, in rough brown tunic and pantaloons and sandals. A broad-brimmed straw hat shaded her face. She carried a little basket on one arm with a trowel in it.

  I wondered if she was in charge of burying the birds. No. From what I knew of those rites, they had to remain as an offering until the elements and the scavengers had reduced them to bones. I met her direct look and tried to read her eyes. She smiled at me politely.

  “I’ve lost my way, I’m afraid. ”

  She pointed. “Follow the pathway to the gate. Please latch it behind you, sir. ”

  She knew. She knew I wasn’t lost and she knew about the sacrifice and she guessed that I had seen it. He
r eyes moved over me. Her gaze disdained me.

  “Thank you. I’ll be glad to find my way back. ”

  “You’re welcome, sir. ”

  We were so polite. She made my skin crawl. I walked away from her, trying not to hurry. When I reached the gate, I glanced back. She had quietly followed me down the path to make sure that I left. I lifted my hand and flapped it at her foolishly, as if waving good-bye. She hastily turned away from me. I left the garden, closing the gate firmly behind me.

  My first childish impulse was to run to my father and tell him all I’d seen. If Rosse and Cecile had not already said their vows, I might have done so. But they were already joined, and my mother and father had given oaths equally binding to Cecile’s parents. It was too late to stop them from joining our good name with the heathen Poronte family. I made my slow way back through the first garden and to the terrace. As I went, I decided that I would wait until I could privately pass my knowledge to my father. As the head of our family, he would decide what to do about it. Would it be sufficient grounds for him to contact the High Temple in Old Thares and have the marriage voided? Cecile and the other Poronte family members had called the good god to witness their pledges. Did the sacrifice in the garden mean they did not feel bound by their oaths before the good god? Had they smiled at my parents and mouthed words empty of intent?

  On the terrace, people were resting and talking, the women fanning themselves against the rising heat of the day. I kept my smile in place and avoided making eye contact with anyone. No one spoke to me as I passed.

  The musicians were still playing in the ballroom. Dancers still spun to their notes. I told myself there was no sense on dwelling on the ugliness I’d witnessed. I’d set it out of my mind until I could consign it to my father’s judgment. The spinning dancers made a lovely picture, and I was almost calm when Carsina, apparently fully recovered from our scene, swept by me, once more in the arms of Kase Remwar. I turned and moved on to the dining room.

  There, the hubbub of conversation was nearly as loud as the music in the ballroom. Servants bustled around the room, setting out fresh platters of food, refilling glasses, serving people, clearing away dirty plates, and putting out fresh settings. The smells of food assaulted me. My stomach rolled over inside me and my hunger became a sharp ache that reached all the way up the back of my throat. I stood still for a moment, swallowing saliva. My conservative breakfast that morning had not assuaged the insult done to my body by my days of fasting. I felt that I could have cleared one of the laden tables by myself.

  Guests were helping themselves and chatting with others as they meandered among the tables, taking a serving of fruit there, a sweet from that platter, and a pastry from another. I knew I could not trust myself. I found an empty chair at a clean setting without anyone near me. It seemed to take decades before a servant noticed me. “May I bring you anything, sir, or would you care to make your own selection?”

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  I swallowed and had to take a breath. I ached with emptiness. “Could you bring me a small portion of meat, a roll of bread, and perhaps a glass of wine?”

  He startled as if I’d flung cold water at him. “And that is all, sir?” he asked me solicitously. “Or shall I select other foods for you and bring them to you?” His eyes roved over my bulk as if disputing my request.

  “Just meat and bread and a glass of wine. That will be fine for me,” I assured him.

  “Well. If you are certain? Only meat, bread, and wine?”

  “I am. Thank you. ”

  He hurried off, and I saw him summon an underling. The servant gestured at me as he passed on my request to the man. The new servant met my glance and his eyes widened. He grinned, bowed obsequiously, and hurried off. I realized my hands were clenched at the edge of the table and folded them in my lap. Food. I was trembling with need for it. The intensity of my awareness of the smells and of my urgency frightened me. For the first time, I wondered if this was an unnatural appetite. Despite my fast, my clothing had become tighter. How could I not eat and become fatter? A frightening suspicion came to me. Magic. Was this the lingering effects of Tree Woman’s intrusion on my life? I recalled my vision of my “other self” in her world. He had been heavy of belly and thick-legged. When I took him back into me, had I taken those attributes into my body as well?

  It could not be. I didn’t believe in magic. I didn’t believe in magic desperately, in the same way that a badly wounded soldier did not believe in amputation. Take it away, take it away, I prayed to the good god. If this be magic, put it out of my life and save me from it.

  The Dancing Spindle had moved for me. I had ridden it and I had witnessed it stopping. Did I not believe that had happened? I thought of my cinch that had not stayed tight on Sirlofty. But the modern rational man in me wondered if I deceived myself. Could not my saddle’s cinch loosening be a result of my greater weight? If the halting of the Spindle meant that all Plains magic was failing, would not it affect every cavalla man’s cinch?

  I thought that I could ask Sergeant Duril about his recent cinch experiences. Then I sighed, thinking that right now I didn’t have the courage to seek him out for anything. I’d disappointed him, and in some ways, disappointing my old teacher was a more personal failure than disappointing my father. And where was that food? The hunger boiled up in me again, driving all other thoughts from my mind.

  Yet it was not food that came to my table next, but my father and mother. I had not noticed them enter the room, and yet there they were. My father took the chair next to me, and my mother seated herself just beyond him. A glance at their faces reassured me that, as yet, they had heard no gossip about my confrontation with Carsina. A servant followed them, carrying their prepared plates. As he set the food before them and the aroma of the rich foods floated toward me, I nearly swooned.

  My father leaned over to hiss at me, “Don’t take it to extremes, Nevare. You should eat at least something, to show your enjoyment of what was prepared for the wedding. To sit here at a wedding feast with nothing in front of you makes it seem you don’t approve of the joining. It’s an insult to our host. And may the good god save us, here he comes with his lady. ”

  It could not have been worse timing. Lord and Lady Poronte had not entered the room to dine, but were merely strolling among their guests, greeting them and accepting congratulations and compliments on the gathering. They approached us, smiling, and there I sat, literally the starving man at the feast. I wanted to vanish.

  Lady Poronte reached us, smiled at us, and then looked puzzled at the empty place before me. As if she were talking to a child, she wheedled in dismay, “Could not you find anything to tempt your appetite, Nevare? Is there something I could ask our cook to prepare for you?”

  “Oh, no, but many thanks, Lady Poronte. Everything looked and smelled so wonderful, I did not trust myself to make a choice. I’m sure the serving man will be here directly. ”

  Then came the final blow to my dignity and to my father’s pride. The serving man arrived with my food. He carried a filled platter on each arm. Not two plates, but two platters, and each were laden to overflowing. Meat of every kind was heaped on one, slices of ham, half a smoked chicken, slices of beef cut so thin that they folded into ripples, tender lamb cutlets, each mounded with a spoonful of quivering mint jelly, and a spicy pâté ensconced on a special round of bread. On the other platter was the extreme opposite of my request for a simple roll of bread. There were two croissants, a scone, two muffins, rye bread in dark rounds nestled against its paler wheaten cousin, and dumplings in a ladling of rich brown gravy. Grinning as if he had accomplished some marvelous feat, the serving man placed both platters before me. He bowed, well pleased with himself. “Never fear, sir. I know how to properly serve a man like yourself. As you requested, only meat and only bread. I shall return immediately with your wine, sir. ” He turned with a flourish and left me surrounded by food.

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  I stared at the wealth of bread and meat before me. I knew my father was aghast at my wanton display of gluttony. My shocked hostess was striving to look pleased. Worse, I knew that I could consume every bite of it with relish and pleasure. My mouth was running with so much saliva that I had to swallow before I could speak. “This is far too much food. I asked for a small portion of meat and bread. ”

  But the serving man had already hastened away. I could not stop looking at the food, and I knew that no one at the table believed me.

  “But it is a wedding!” Lady Poronte ventured at last. “And surely if there is a time to celebrate in plenty, it is at a wedding. ”

  She meant well. She probably intended to put me at my ease over possessing such an undisciplined appetite and displaying such wanton greed at her table. But it put me in a very strange social situation. If I only sampled a tiny portion of the food now, would it appear that I had disdained her hospitality, or found her cook lacking in talent? I did not know what to do.

  “It all looks absolutely wonderful to me, especially after the very plain food they serve us at the academy,” I ventured. I did not pick up my fork. I wished they would all vanish. I could not eat with them watching me. Yet I also knew I could not refuse to eat, either.

  As if he could read my thoughts, my father said in a chill voice, “Please, Nevare, don’t let us inhibit you. Enjoy the wedding feast. ”

  “Please do,” my host echoed. I glanced at him but could not read his face.

  “Your serving staff is far too generous,” I ventured again. “He has brought me much more than I requested. ” Then, fearing that I would sound ungracious, I added, “But I am sure he meant well. ” I picked up my knife and fork. I glanced at my parents. My mother was attempting to smile as if nothing were amiss or unusual. She cut a tiny bite from her portion of meat and ate it.

  I speared one of the dumplings swimming in gravy. I put it in my mouth. Ambrosia. The inner dumpling was fine-grained and tender, the outer layer softened with the savory broth. I could taste finely chopped celery, mellowed onion, and a careful measure of bay leaf simmered with the thick meatiness of the gravy. Never before had I been so aware of the sensations of eating. It wasn’t just the aroma or flavor. It was the sweet briny ham versus the way the spicy pâté contrasted with the tender bread beneath it. The croissant had been made with butter, and the layers of the light pastry were as delicate as snowflakes on my tongue. The chicken had been grain-fed and well bled before it had been carefully roasted in a smoky fire to both flavor it and preserve the moistness of the flesh. The rye bread was delightfully chewy. I washed it down with wine, and a servant brought me more. I ate.

 
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