Forest mage, p.17
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       Forest Mage, p.17

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

  “And wasn’t that a rousing success?” Duril asked with quiet sarcasm.

  I knew what he meant, but I was still a bit shocked to hear him say something even mildly negative about my father.

  In the era before the Gernian expansion the Plainspeople had been nomads. Different tribes followed different livelihoods. Some herded sheep or goats. Others followed the migrations of the herd deer that roamed the plains and plateaus, supplementing that meat with the seasonal gardens they planted in one season and harvested in another. Some of them built temporary mud huts along the river, little caring that they did not last long. The Plainspeople had few towns or what we Gernians would recognize as one. They built a few monuments, such as the Dancing Spindle. They kept rendezvous points where they came together each year to trade and negotiate marriages and truces, but for the most part they wandered. To a Gernian eye, it meant that the plains remained an empty place, unclaimed and scarcely used by the migratory folk who criss-crossed it in patterns that were generations old. Such land was ripe for settling, awaiting development of its full potential. The Plainsmen, I suspected, saw it differently.

  Our “tame” Bejawi, as my father referred to them, were an experiment that had largely failed. He went into it with good intentions. When he set out to save them, the Bejawi had been reduced to mostly women, children, and old men. The Bejawi had been herders; killing their herds and a generation of their men had been the fastest way to subdue them. Deprived of their livelihood, the Bejawi were reduced to being thieves and beggars. My father took them in. Not all of them were willing to surrender their old ways in exchange for what he offered. My father bribed them with his promise that he would not let them starve. He had a village built for them, two rows of simple sturdy cottages. He gave them two teams of oxen, a plow, and seed for a crop.

  Within two weeks, they had eaten the oxen and most of the seed grain. He then gave them goats, with far better success. Perhaps the goats reminded them of the woolly antelope they had once tended. Those creatures were extinct now, slaughtered during our running battles with the Bejawi. The boys took the goats to pasture each day and brought them back. The animals yielded meat, hides, and milk. When last I had discussed them with my father, he admitted that he still had to supplement their food supplies, but that some of the women were learning to make a cheese that he hoped they would be able to market. But in other areas, his success was more tarnished. A people who had no traditions of living in a settled village, they were used to moving on when a piece of land became tired of them.

  The “village” stank. The smell of it hung on the still summer air. The tidy little cottages my father had erected with such pride were now derelict shacks. The Bejawi had no concept of how to maintain them. After several seasons of hard use had ruined the cottages, they had returned to their tents and set up a secondary settlement around the row of cottages. Offal and garbage, a problem that nomads left behind for the elements and scavengers to deal with, were heaped between the moldering cottages or piled into noxious waste pits. The children played in the garbage-strewn street, tangle-haired moppets with scabby faces and dirty hands. Few of the young men stayed once they became adults. Too many of the girls went to Franner’s Bend to work as whores as soon as they were developed enough to pass themselves off as women. They returned to the village with their half-blood offspring when their brief blossoming of beauty had been eroded by the hard life of a post whore. The village my father had built never developed beyond houses to live in. There was no store, no school, nothing that offered the people anything beyond eating and sleeping indoors. It was a place where people waited, but did not know what they were waiting for.

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  Yet the Bejawi were not a foolish people, nor were they stupid. They were not even a dirty people when they followed their own ways. They had been dealt a hard blow by fate, and had not, as yet, discovered how to recover. I wondered if they ever would, or if they would vanish, leaving only a legend of what they had once been. Once they had been a proud folk, renowned for their beauty and handiwork.

  I had read accounts of them written by Darsio, a merchant trader who had bartered with the Plainspeople in the old days before the Gernian expansion. His writing always made me wish I had been alive then. The descriptions of the Bejawi men in their flowing white robes mounted on their swift horses leading their people, while the women, the children, and the elderly followed, some shepherding the animals and others on the sand sleds pulled by their sturdier draft animals, were the stuff of epic poetry. The women manufactured beads from a certain petrified tree stone, and this jewelry had been the trade good that Darsio had sought from them. They made delicate ornaments from bird bone and feathers, charmed to bring good luck to the owner. Every woman of marriageable age wore a veritable cloak of beads and ornaments and bells. Some of the cloaks, Darsio wrote, were passed down for generations. The children, he wrote, were exceptionally beautiful, open-faced and bold, easily laughing, the treasure of their people. The Bejawi flocks were a peculiar heavy-bodied antelope, prized for the thick undercoat they grew for the winter and shed in spring. This lightweight, warm wool was the basis of Bejawi textiles at the time of Darsio’s writings. The first time I had visited the Bejawi village with my father, that romantic image was what I had expected to see. I had come away disappointed and oddly shamed. I had no wish to visit the village again, but my curiosity was piqued by Sergeant Duril’s assertion that Kidona were there. I knew the Bejawi hated the Kidona with a loathing that went back generations.

  Every creature has a predator that preys on it. The Bejawi had the Kidona. The Kidona did not herd or harvest or hunt. They raided. They had always been raiders, descending on trading caravans or summer villages, or they stole, creeping up on herds, flocks, and tents to take whatever they needed. By their tradition, it was their right to do so. They traveled constantly on their potbellied striped-legged taldi, creatures that had little of a horse’s beauty, but even less of a horse’s weaknesses.

  Dewara had been Kidona. I touched the double ridges on my ear, the healed scars from the notches he’d cut there when I’d disobeyed him. The man had starved and brutalized me, and then, in a turnabout that still baffled me, he had befriended me and attempted to induct me into his people’s culture and religion. He’d drugged me into a shamanic trance, and in that trance I had first encountered Tree Woman. That spirit journey had changed my life and warped my concept of reality. All of it had been my father’s doing. He hadn’t really wanted me to be Dewara’s student so much as he’d hoped Dewara’s harsh treatment of me would finally force me to make my own decisions and stand on my own two feet.

  Well, I supposed it had, but not in the way my father had hoped, nor in any way that had brought me confidence or satisfaction in my life.

  I had come to a deep understanding of Kidona ways before Dewara and I had parted. Theirs was a strange morality, in which the clever thief was held in high esteem, and the clumsy one could claim no protection from anyone’s vengeance. Dewara paid great respect to any man who could beat him, and disdained any fellow he could dominate. Prosperity was the equivalent of the blessing of his strange gods, and thus the opinion of a wealthy man was not to be disputed, while a poor man, no matter how experienced or kindly, was seen as a fool, unloved by the gods. Despite their skewed beliefs, or perhaps because of them, the Kidona were a tough, resourceful, and savagely efficient people. Even though Dewara had damaged my life, I grudgingly admired him, in the same way that one might admire any exceptionally competent predator, without any element of fondness or trust.

  Sergeant Duril hadn’t answered my most important question. I asked it again. “Why are Kidona in the Bejawi village?”

  Sergeant Duril cleared his throat. “I suppose your father didn’t write to you about it. It was an ugly incident, while you were away at school. Not too long after you’d left, farms around here began to lose stock. At first we thought it was wolves returning
to this territory. Then someone pointed out that wolves leave carcasses, and we hadn’t found any. The Bejawi were blamed at first, because of some trouble awhile back, but there was no sign of them having more meat than they should.

  “Well, when the dust settled, it turned out that Kidona were up to their old tricks. A band of them camping mostly out of sight of settled places had been raiding flocks and herds and gardens. They got bold and took a dozen yearlings from a herd that belonged to the garrison at Franner’s Bend. The commander there didn’t take kindly to it and sent some of the fellows out to track down the raiders and teach them a lesson. ” Sergeant Duril’s tone was light, but his face was grim. “The soldiers at Franner’s Bend…well, you know how it is; you’ve seen the place. Those troopers never see any real action. It’s a soft post. And in a way that makes the recruits antsy for it, and when they do have a reason to crack down on something, they get carried away, as if they have to prove they’re as tough as real soldiers out on the border. Well, they got carried away with the Kidona raiding party they tracked down. Killed them all, and that was just about every male that wasn’t still sucking on a titty. Well, that stirred up trouble with the other Kidona groups that were in the area. Especially when it come out that the group our troopers had slaughtered hadn’t stolen the cows themselves. They’d traded for them with the thieves. So we had troopers slaughtering ‘innocent’ Kidonas, and the other Kidona in the area on the verge of an uprising. ”

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  “Why didn’t they just buy them off? The Kidona feel no shame about taking blood money. ”

  He nodded. “That’s what we did. But that left the women and tykes from the dead raiders to provide for. You know the Kidona. Practical and hard as stone. The survivors had nothing left in the way of resources. No taldi, no sheep, tents burned. The other groups of Kidona saw them as a liability. They didn’t want to take them in, but they didn’t want to see them starve, either. So this was the compromise. Your father said the Franner’s Bend commander could settle them here, as long as he supplied shelters, food, and a pair of taldi for them to get started with again. ” He shook his head. “Putting Kidona in a village. That’s like putting your foot in a hat. ”

  I could easily distinguish the cottages and tents of the Bejawi from the shelters of the Kidona newcomers. There was not one village but two, forced into proximity. A line had literally been drawn, a row of stones and trash set as a boundary between the Bejawi area and the four military tents given to the Kidona survivors. As we approached, a Bejawi youth came to his feet. He appeared to be about fourteen and wore what looked like a dirty nightshirt and a drooping hat felted from goat hair. His pale eyes fixed on us accusingly as we approached. He leaned on a stave, watching us silently, no sign of welcome on his face. When Duril reined his horse toward the Kidona area, the young man sat back down and pointedly ignored us.

  “Have they always kept a sentry like that?” I asked Duril.

  “Doubt it. I think he’s there to keep an eye on the Kidona, not us. But I could be wrong. I don’t come here unless I have to. It’s depressing. ”

  It was. We rode past the wall of garbage that fenced the Kidona from the Bejawi settlement. The insult was obvious. Equally obvious was the misery of the Kidona tent village. The thin wailing of children was as pervasive as the ripe smell of the rubbish. The tents were pitched with military precision, so the troopers had at least set up the shelters for the widows and orphans. There were two cook fires, one burning and one a nest of banked coals. Sticks had been wedged against boulders to form a sort of drying rack, and two blankets festooned the ramshackle invention. About ten women, all middle-aged, sat on makeshift benches in front of the tent. One sat and rocked from side to side, droning a song under her breath. Three of them were employed in tearing old rags into long strips that one of them was braiding. I surmised they were making rag rugs to soften the tent floor. The others sat, empty-handed and still. Several taldi, one a pregnant mare, grazed on whatever they could find at the edge of the campsite.

  A scatter of children idled in the area around the cook fires. Two were toddlers who sat bawling near a granny’s feet. She did not appear to be paying any attention to their cries. Three girls of seven or eight years of age were playing a game with pebbles and lines drawn in the dirt. Their faces were dirty, and their braids looked like fuzzy blond ropes. A single boy of thirteen sat by himself and glared at us as we approached. I wondered how he had survived and what would become of him in this settlement of old women and children.

  When we dismounted, all activity ceased. Duril took his saddlebags from his horse’s back and slung them over his shoulder. “Follow me and be quiet,” Sergeant Duril instructed me. “Don’t look at anyone. ” I did as he told me. They stared at my body and a slow flush crept up my cheeks, but I didn’t make eye contact with any of them. Duril walked up to the granny and her howling charges. He spoke Jindobe, the trade language of the plains. “I bring you fat meat. ” He lowered the saddlebags to the ground and opened them. He took out a side of bacon wrapped in cheesecloth and offered it to her. Her mouth twitched, carrying her chin with it. Then she lifted her old blue eyes to his and said, “I have nothing to cut it with. ”

  He didn’t pause. He unhooked his belt and slid both knife and sheath from it. He offered them to her. She stared long at the proffered gift, as if weighing what she lost by taking it against what she gained. The boy had drawn closer and was watching the exchange intently. He said something in rapid Kidona. In response, she made a quick flipping gesture with her hand, as if throwing something aside. His face set in an expression of anger, but he made not a sound as she took the knife and sheath from the sergeant. Turning, she handed it immediately to the woman next to her. “Cut meat to cook for the children,” she said. Then she stood up, grunting with the effort. She stepped over the small children, who had never ceased their wailing, turned, and went into the tent behind her. We followed.

  It was a gray canvas barracks tent, long and wide, with side walls. It was dim and stuffy inside the tent. To one side, there was a row of army blankets arranged as pallets. On the other side, there were several casks of hardtack, a tub of dried corn, and a wooden crate of withered and sprouted potatoes. Neatly arranged beside these donations were the remnants of their former lives. Tin and copper cooking pots were stacked beside a row of baked clay jars and plates next to folded bedding with the characteristic Kidona stripes.

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  They had cut a flap in the side wall of the tent. She unpegged the sewn strips that had fastened it shut, and sat down beside the small rectangle of light and fresh air it admitted. After a moment, Sergeant Duril sat down facing her and I took my place beside him. “Did you bring it?” she asked him.

  I thought the bacon had been his bribe, but evidently that had only been for show. He reached into his shirt and took out his wallet. He opened it, and took out something I recognized from my childhood. I’d only seen it once before, but it was not a thing to forget. He held out the darkened and shriveled ear on his palm. Without hesitation, she took it.

  She held it to the light, and then brought it close to her eyes, examining it closely. I was surprised when she sniffed it, but tried not to show my disgust. I knew the tale. In a moment of youthful rage, Sergeant Duril had taken the ear as a trophy from the body of a warrior he’d killed. In the same fracas, he’d gained the scar that had severed part of his own ear. He’d once told me that he was ashamed of cutting off the dead warrior’s ear, and would have undone the deed if he could. But he couldn’t return it to the body for decent burial, and he’d felt it would be wrong to discard it. Perhaps he’d finally found a way to be rid of it. She held it in her hand, looking down at it with a contemplative air. Then she nodded decisively. She rose and went to the tent door. She shouted something, a name, I guessed, and when the boy came, she spoke to him rapidly. He argued back, and she slapped him. That seemed to settle his di
sagreement. He looked past her at us.

  “I’ll take you now,” he said in Jindobe. And that was all he said.

  By the time we were mounted, he was on a taldi stallion and riding out of the camp. We had to hurry the horses to catch up with him. He didn’t look back to see if we followed him, and never spoke another word to us. Instead he rode inland, away from the camp and toward the broken lands where the plains gave way to the plateaus. He kneed his taldi into a gallop. If he followed a trail or path, I could not see it, but he never hesitated as he led us on. As the shadows grew longer, I began to question the wisdom of what we were doing. “Where are we going?” I finally asked Sergeant Duril.

  “To see Dewara,” he said curtly.

  It hit me like one of Duril’s ambush rocks when I was a boy. “We can’t be. My father did everything he could to find Dewara after he dragged me home. There was no sign of him, and the Kidona said they didn’t know where he went or what became of him. ”

  Sergeant Duril shrugged. “They lied. Back then, Dewara was something of a hero for what he’d done to your father’s son. But petty glory is faded, and Dewara has fallen on hard times. That woman back there believed me when I said I’d give her brother’s ear back to her if she’d give us Dewara. ”

  I rode for a time in shocked silence. Then, “How did you know it was her brother’s ear?”

  “I don’t. But it could have been. I left it up to her to decide. ”

  We followed the boy into a narrow, steep-sided canyon. It was a perfect site for an ambush, and I rode with a chilly spot on my back. The boy’s taldi still had a good lead on us. He started up a narrow path across a rock face and I had to rein Sirlofty back to follow Duril’s horse up the treacherous way. I was becoming more and more dubious of our mission. If the boy was leading us to another Kidona encampment, I didn’t like the odds. But Sergeant Duril appeared calm, if watchful. I tried to emulate him.

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