Forest Mage, p.16Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
I expected him to snort in disbelief, or laugh. Instead he nodded. “Iron. Cold iron could stop it. But what’s that got to do with my cinch coming undone?”
“I don’t know, exactly. It seemed to me that…well, I guessed that maybe if iron stopped the Spindle, the Plains magic might all go away, too. ”
He took a little breath of dismay. After a moment, he wet his lips and then asked me carefully, “Nevare. What do you know?”
I sat for a time and didn’t say anything. Then I said, “It started with Dewara. ”
He nodded to himself. “I’m not surprised. Go on. ” And so, for the first time, I told someone the whole tale of how I’d been captured by the Plains magic, and how it had affected me at the academy, and the plague, and how I thought I had freed myself, and then how the Spindle had swept me up and showed me the power it held before a boy’s mischief and an other self I could not control had stopped the Spindle’s dancing.
Duril was a good listener. He didn’t ask questions, but he grunted in the right places and looked properly impressed when I told him about Epiny’s séance. Most important to me, as I told my story, he never once looked as if he thought I was lying.
He only stopped me once in my telling, and that was when I spoke of the Dust Dance at the Dark Evening carnival. “Your hand lifted and gave the signal? You were the one who told them to start?”
I hung my head in shame, but I didn’t lie. “Yes. I did. Or the Speck part of me did. It’s hard to explain. ”
“Oh, Nevare. To be used against your own folk like that. This is bad, boy, much worse than I’d feared. If you’ve got the right of it at all, it has to be stopped. Or you could be the downfall of us all. ”
To hear him speak the true magnitude of what I’d done froze me. I sat, staring through him, to a horrible future in which everyone knew I’d betrayed Gernia. Wittingly or unwittingly didn’t matter when one contemplated that sort of treachery.
Duril leaned forward and jabbed me lightly with his finger. “Finish the story, Nevare. Then we’ll think what we can do. ”
When I had finished the whole telling, he nodded sagely and leaned back in his chair. “Actually, I’ve heard about those Speck wizards, the big fat ones. They call them Great Men. Or Great Women, I guess, though I never heard of a female one. Fellow that spent most of his soldiering days out at Gettys told me. He claimed he’d seen one, and to hear him tell it, the man was the size of a horse, and proud as could be of it. That soldier told me that a Great Man is supposed to be all filled up with magic, and that’s why he’s so big. ”
I thought that over. “The Fat Man in the freak show claimed he got so fat because he’d had Speck plague. And the doctor at the academy, Dr. Amicas, said that putting on weight like this is a very rare side effect from the plague, but not completely unknown. So how could that have anything to do with magic?”
Sergeant Duril shrugged. “What is magic anyway? Do you understand it? I don’t. I know I’ve seen a few things that I can’t explain in any way that makes sense or can be proved. And maybe that’s why I say that they were magic. Look at the ‘keep fast’ charm. I don’t know how it works or why it should work. All I know is that for a lot of years, it worked and it worked well. And lately it doesn’t seem to work as well. So, maybe that magic is broken now. Maybe. Or maybe I’m not as strong as I used to be when I tighten a cinch, or maybe my cinch strap is getting old and worn. You could explain it away a thousand ways, Nevare. Or maybe you can just say, ‘it was magic and it doesn’t work anymore. ’ Or maybe you could go to someone who believes in magic and thinks he knows how it works and ask him. ”
That last seemed a real proposal from him. “Who?” I asked him.
He crossed his arms on the table. “It all started with Dewara, didn’t it?”
“Ah, well. ” I leaned back in his chair; it creaked a warning at me. I sat up straight. “It’s useless to try and find him. My father tried for months, right after he sent me home in shreds. Either none of his people knew where he was, or they weren’t telling. My father offered rewards and made threats. No one told him anything. ”
“Maybe I know a different way of asking,” Duril suggested. “Sometimes coin isn’t the best way to buy something. Sometimes you have to offer more. ”
“Such as what?” I demanded, but he shook his head and grinned, enjoying that he knew more than I did. Looking back on it, I suspect the old soldier had enjoyed being my teacher. Supervising men clearing a field of rocks was no task for an old trooper like him. “Let me try a few things, Nevare. I’ll let you know if I have any success. ”
I nodded, refusing to hope. “Thanks for listening to me, Sergeant Duril. I don’t think anyone else would have believed me. ”
“Well, sometimes it’s flattering to have someone want to tell you something. And you know, Nevare, I haven’t said I believed a word of any of this. You have to admit it’s pretty far-fetched. ”
“And I haven’t said I disbelieve any of it, either. ” He shook his head, smiling at my confusion. “Nevare, I’ll tell you something. There’s more than one way to look at the world. That’s what I was getting at, about the magic. To us, it’s magic. Maybe to someone else, it’s as natural as rain falling from clouds. And maybe to them, some of what we do is magic because it doesn’t make reasonable sense in their world. Do you get what I’m trying to tell you?”
“Not really. But I’m trying. ” I attempted a smile. “I’m ready to try anything. My only other idea was to run away east on Sirlofty. To the mountains. ”
He snorted a laugh. “Run away to the mountains. And then what? Don’t be a fool, Nevare. You stay here and you keep on trying. And let me try a few things, too. Meanwhile, I suggest you do things your da’s way. Get out and move. Show him you’re still Nevare, if you can. Don’t make him angrier than he already is. In his own way, he’s a fair man. Try it his way, and if it doesn’t work, maybe he’ll concede it’s not your fault. ”
“I suppose you’re right. ”
“You know I am. ”
I looked at him and nodded slowly. A spark had come back into his eyes. Purpose burned there. Perhaps I had done as much for him by coming to him as he had done for me by simply listening.
I thanked him, and there we left it for that night.
I knew when my father decided to inform everyone of my utter failure. When I descended the stairs the next morning and went to the kitchen for a quick bite of food, the servants already knew of my disgrace. Previously they had treated me with a puzzled deference. I was a son of the household, and if I chose to eat in the kitchen instead of with my family, it was my own business. Now I sensed my diminished status, as if they had been given permission to disdain me. I felt like a stray dog that had crept in and was hoping to snare a few bites of stolen food. No one offered to serve my meal to me; I was reduced to helping myself to whatever was there and ready, and all the while stepping back and out of the way of servants who suddenly found me invisible.
The gossip of the servants revealed that my brother and his new bride would be returning that evening. There would be a welcoming dinner tonight, and perhaps guests on the morrow. No one had bothered to tell me any of this. The exclusion from the family news was as sharp as a knife cut.
I left the house as soon as I could, taking a fishing pole from the shed and going down to the river. I baited for the big river carp, some the size of a hog, and each time I caught one, I battled it to the river’s edge and then cut it free. I wasn’t after fish that day, but after something I could physically challenge and defeat. After a time, even that ceased to occupy me. The heat of the sun beat down on me and I started to get hungry. I went back to my father’s manor.
I tried to go in quietly. I’m sure my father was laying in wait for me. The mome
I knew he expected me to follow him into the study. My Speck obstinacy surfaced. I stood where I was. “Yes, Father. What do you want of me?”
He tightened his lips and anger flared in his eyes “Very well, Nevare. It can as well be said here. Your mother shared with me the wild tale you told her. ” He shook his head. “Was that the best excuse you could manufacture? Mocking our god because you ruined your future? Now that you have destroyed all your prospects and cannot return to the academy, you think that we must support you for the rest of your days. I warn you, I will not shelter and feed a lazy leech. In the doctor’s opinion, you are incapable of soldiering for the king in your present condition. But I intend to change your condition, while wringing some worthwhile work out of you, and eventually I intend to send you off to enlist as a foot soldier. You will never be an officer, but I will not support you in thwarting the good god’s plan for you. ”
I held up my hand, palm toward him. I met his gaze in a forthright manner. “Simply tell me what tasks you want me to do. Spare me a lecture I’ve already heard from you. ”
His surprise only lasted for a moment. Then he gave me his list of dirty tasks. All involved heavy labor and most had something to do with dirt, excrement, or blood. A manor is like a farm, and tasks of those sort abounded, but always before, he had assigned them to hirelings. Now he chose them for me, and I was well aware it wasn’t because he thought I could do them well but because he found them distasteful and therefore assumed that I would. I lost most of the remaining respect I had for him then. All the education he had poured into me, and in a fit of pique, he would waste it. I did not let my thoughts show. I nodded to him gravely and promised to begin my work. It involved a shovel and a lot of manure and a farm wagon. Actually, it was fine with me, and in accord with what Sergeant Duril had suggested, that was how I spent my afternoon. When I judged I’d put in a fair day’s work, I left my task and walked down to a shoal water of the river. Thick brush guarded the riverbank, but there was a deer trail through it. The slower water in the shallows was sun-warmed. I stripped and waded out and washed away the sweat and grime of my work. I’d often swum here as a boy, but now it felt strange to stand naked under the sun, even in such an isolated place. I was ashamed of my body and afraid I’d be seen, I realized. The increased weight I carried brought more problems than simply ill-fitting clothes. My feet ached just from carrying my weight. I sweated more and smelled stronger after a day’s labor. My clothing often chafed me. Nevertheless, after I’d sloshed water over myself, it was restful to lie in the shallows and feel the contrast between the warm sun on my skin and the cooler water flowing past me. When I finally came out, I sat on a large rock and let the sun dry me before dressing again. I’d regained a small measure of peace.
I stole an evening meal from the kitchen, much to the annoyance of the cooking staff. They were overtaxed that night, serving an elaborate meal to my family and the new daughter of the house. I wondered how my father would react if I walked into the room in my rough, ill-fitting clothes and took a seat at the table. There was probably no place set for me there. I ate a modest meal sitting in a corner of the kitchen, and left.
That became the pattern of my days. I arose, chose a task from my father’s list, and worked all day at it. He intended such work to humiliate me, but I found it strangely satisfying. By my labor, I would either prove to my father that my fat was a magical result of the plague, or I would regain my former condition and perhaps be able to reclaim my place at the academy. I pushed myself each day, deliberately striving to tax my body even beyond the chores my father had given me. When frustration or humiliation gnawed at me, I shoved them resolutely aside. This, I told myself, was exactly what I needed to be doing. I ate frugally and worked my body steadily. And it responded, though not as I had hoped. Beneath the fat, my arms and legs bulked with new muscle. I gained stamina. I could lift more weight than I’d ever been able to lift in my life.
It was not easy. My heavy body was unwieldy for a man accustomed to being lithe and limber. I had to plan how I moved, and likewise plan my tasks. Strange to say, that, too, was satisfying. I applied what I’d learned in my engineering. When my father set me to building a stone wall to enclose a hog sty, I went at it as if I were establishing a fortification, laying it out to grade, leveling the first run of stone, making it wide at the base and less so at the top. I would have felt more satisfaction if it had won approval from anyone besides myself and the croaker bird that watched me all day. My father seldom bothered to view what I accomplished every day. He had written me off as a bad investment, like the peach trees that had gone to leaf curl and insects. Rosse made no effort to see me, and I responded in kind. I became invisible to my family. I still gave my mother “good day” if I saw her in passing. I did not bother speaking to my sisters, and they were likewise silent to me. I resolved that it did not bother me.
A simple life of arising, working, and going to bed held its own sort of peace. The physical labor of each day was not nearly as demanding as my studies at the academy. I wondered if other men lived this way, rising, working, eating, and sleeping with barely a thought beyond doing the same thing the next day. I’ll confess that I felt a strange attraction to such a simple life.
When a week had passed by and I’d heard nothing from Sergeant Duril, I sought him out one afternoon. When he opened his door to my knock, the first words he said were, “You didn’t tell me you’d been kicked out of the academy for being fat!” I couldn’t tell if he was outraged on my behalf or angry with me for holding back information.
I spoke evenly, without anger. “That’s because it isn’t true. ”
He stared at me, waiting.
“Dr. Amicas gave me a medical discharge from the academy. I wasn’t kicked out. He felt I couldn’t serve as a cavalla officer as I am. If I manage to regain my old shape, I’ll be able to continue my studies. ” I wasn’t sure of that, but I had to hold onto the hope or sink into despair.
Duril stood back from his door and motioned me in. His apartments were stuffy after the sunny day, even with the door left ajar. I took a seat at his table.
Slowly he sat down across from me and admitted, “I took a lot of pride in your being at the academy. It meant a lot to me to think of you being there and being one of them, and knowing just as much as any of them fancy city boys, thanks to what I’d taught you. ”
That took me by surprise. I’d never paused to consider that my success might mean a personal triumph to Sergeant Duril. “I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I was doing well until this befell me. And once I’ve straightened it out and returned to the academy, I’ll do you proud. I promise. ”
As if his first admission had opened a door, he suddenly added, “You never wrote to me. I had sort of hoped for a letter from you. ”
That surprised me even more. “I thought you couldn’t read!” I said, and then flinched at how blunt my words were.
“I could have had someone read it to me,” he retorted testily. After a pause he added, “I sent you a letter. When I heard you’d been sick and nearly died. ”
“I know. It reached me right before I came home. Thank you. ”
“You’re welcome,” he said stiffly. He looked away from me as he added, “I’m not an educated man, Nevare. I’m not even, as you well know, a proper soldier son, born to the career. What I know about soldiering, I taught myself or learned the hard way. And I did my best to pass it on to you. I wanted you to be an officer that, well, understood what it was to really be a soldier. Not the kind of man who sits in his tent and orders men to go out and do what he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself. Someone who knew what it was like to have to go a couple of days with no water for yourself or your horse, someone who knew about the salt and sweat of soldiering for himself. So you could be a good officer.
And here was another man I’d failed. My heart sank, but I tried not to let it show. “You didn’t waste your time, Sergeant Duril. I’ve no intention of giving up my career. Even if I have to enlist as a common soldier and rise as a ranker, I’m determined to do it. ” As I said those words, I was a bit surprised to find how deeply I meant them.
He cocked his head at me. “Well. I guess I can’t ask more of you than that, Nevare. ” He smiled suddenly, pleased with himself. “And I think you can’t ask more of me than what I have for you. Fancy an evening ride?”
“I’m not averse to it,” I replied. “Where are we going?”
His smiled broadened. “You’ll see. ” He went back into his apartments, and then emerged with a fat set of saddlebags slung over his shoulder. I wanted to ask what was in them, but I knew he was enjoying making his revelations as we went along. I held my tongue.
It had been some days since I’d ridden Sirlofty. Ever a willing mount, he reached for the bit, eager to go. Duril had the use of a clay-colored gelding. As we stood together in the paddock, saddling our mounts, we both glanced at each other. Then, as one, we made the “keep fast” sign over the cinches. I feared it would soon be an empty ritual, with no more true power than the acorns that some troopers carried for luck in finding shade at the day’s end. We mounted, he took the lead, and I followed.
We struck the river road and traveled east for a short way before Duril turned his horse away from the river to follow a dusty, rutted trail. We topped a small rise, and in the distance I saw the Bejawi village. An upthrust of stone granted it some respite from the endless sweep of the prairie winds. Brush grew in the shelter of the stone barrier, and even a few trees. My father had chosen the location for it and laid out the original village for them. My father’s men had built the dozen houses that stood in two neat rows. At least twice that number of traditional Bejawi tents surrounded the houses. “Is that where we’re going? The Bejawi village?”
Duril gave a nod, silently watching me.
“Talk to some Kidona there. ”
“In the Bejawi village? What are they doing there? Kidona and Bejawi are traditional enemies. And the Kidona don’t have villages. The only reason the Bejawi live here is that my father built it for them and they had nowhere else to go. ”
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