Forest mage, p.18
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       Forest Mage, p.18

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

  There was another switchback in the trail, very tight for our horses, and then the ground suddenly leveled out. We had reached a long, narrow ledge that jutted out from the rock face. As soon as Duril and I were out of the way, the boy turned his taldi and silently started back down the path. Before us was a patched tent set up with a neat stack of firewood beside it. A blackened kettle hung from a tripod over a small smokeless fire. I smelled simmering rabbit. Dewara stood looking at us with no trace of surprise on his face. He had seen us coming. No one could approach this aerie without his being aware of it.

  He was a changed man from the tough warrior I’d known. His clothing was worn and rumpled; dust stood in the ridges of the fabric. His dingy long-sleeved robe reached just past his hips and was belted with a plain strip of leather. The brown trousers he wore beneath it were faded to white at the knees and frayed at the cuffs. His swanneck hung at his hip, but the hair sheath looked dirty and frayed. The man himself had aged, and not well. Four years had passed since I had last seen him, but to look at him, it had been twenty. His gray eyes, once so keen, had begun to cloud with cataract. He had a stoop in his back. He had allowed his hair to grow, and it hung in a thin yellowish-white fringe to his shoulders. He licked his lips, giving us a brief glimpse of his filed teeth. No fear showed in his face as he greeted me. “Well. Soldier’s son. You come back to me. You want a new notch in your ear, maybe?” His bravado did not fool me. Even his voice had aged, and the bitterness in it surprised me.

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  Sergeant Duril had not dismounted, and he did not speak. I sensed he deferred to me, but I didn’t know what to say or do. The old Kidona warrior looked shriveled and small. I remembered belatedly that when I first met him, he had been shorter than I, and I had grown since then. But that was my “real-life” memory of him. In the far more vivid dream memory, he had been much taller than I, and had the head of a hawk and feathered arms. I struggled to reconcile those memories with the withered man who stood squinting up at me. I think that puzzle kept me from feeling any one emotion clearly.

  I dismounted and walked up to him. Behind me, I heard Sergeant Duril do the same. He stood behind my shoulder when I halted, allowing me this battle.

  Dewara had to look up at me. Good. I stared down at him and spoke sternly. “I want to know what you did to me, Dewara. Tell me now, without riddles or mockery. What happened to me that night when you said you would make me Kidona?” My Jindobe had come back to me without hesitation. I felt as if I had leapfrogged back through the years to confront the man who had abused, befriended, and then nearly killed me.

  He grinned, his pointed teeth shiny with saliva. “Oh, look at you, fat man. So brave now. So big. Still knowing nothing. Still wishing you were Kidona. Eh?”

  I towered over him, dwarfing him in girth as well as height. Still he did not fear me. I summoned all my disdain. “If you are Kidona, then I do not wish to be Kidona. ” I drew on all my knowledge of his people to make my insults sting. “Look at you. You are poor! I see no women here, no taldi, no smoke rack of meat. The gods despise you. ”

  I saw my words hit him like flung stones. Shame tried to stir in me, that I would attack someone in his situation, but I held it down. He was not beaten. If I wanted to wring answers from him, I must first dominate him. From some depth of courage in his soul, he summoned a grin and retorted, “Yet I am still Kidona. And you, you are still her plaything. Look at you, all swollen up with her magic like a sore toe full of pus. The fat old woman claimed you, and made you her puppet. ”

  His words jabbed me and I retorted without thinking, “Her puppet? Her plaything? I think not. I did what you could not do. I crossed the bridge, and with the iron magic of my people, I laid her belly open. I defeated her, old man. What you could not do, even using me as your tool, I did alone. ” I struck a pose I remembered from our days together. I threw out my chest and lifted my head high, the same posture he had held whenever he wished to express how far above me he was. “I have always been stronger than you, Dewara. Even when I lay unconscious before you, you still dared not kill me. ”

  I watched him, trying to gauge his weakness in this battle of exchanged brags. To the west of us, the sun was dying in a welter of reds and purples. It was hard to read his features in the fading light. Perhaps a shadow of doubt brushed Dewara’s eyes, but he brazened it out. “I could have killed you if I wished,” he said disdainfully. “It would have been like crushing a hatchling in the nest. I thought of it. You were useless to me. You claim to have killed her? Well, where is your proof? You brag like a child. When I sent you against her, you fell like a child. I witnessed that! The weakness of your people made you fail, not my Kidona magic. You were not strong of heart; you did not have the will to do what you should have done. If you had not spoken to the guardian, if you had rushed forward and killed her as I commanded, then all of our lives would be better now. But no! You are so wise, soldier’s boy, you think you know more than a Kidona warrior. You look, you think, Oh, just an old woman, so you talk, talk, talk, and all the while her wormy white roots sink into you. Look at you now, like a fat grub from under a rotting log. You will never be a warrior. And you will ever belong to her. She will puff you up full with her magic, and when you are full, you will do whatever her magic makes you do. Or maybe you have already done it. Has the magic turned you against your own people?” He laughed triumphantly and pointed a crooked finger at me. “Look at you! I didn’t need to kill you. Better to leave you alive. Think. Is there a better revenge on your father? Fat one! You belong to the Dappled People now. You’ll never be a soldier. Your father put iron in me to kill my magic. But I had enough magic left in me to give his son to my other enemy. I had enough magic to make my enemies become the enemies of each other. Long after I am dead, you will fight and kill one another. The corpses you make will pile up at my feet in whatever afterlife I am banished to. ”

  I cannot describe how his words affected me. I had expected him to profess ignorance of everything I said. I hadn’t wanted him to admit that somehow we had shared that dream, and that he recalled as clearly as I did what the Tree Woman had done to me. He had just confirmed my worst fears. A terrible cold welled up inside me. I crossed my arms on my chest and held myself tightly, afraid I would start shivering. The last walls inside me were breaking; it felt as if cold blood were leaking inside my gut. I gritted my teeth to keep them from chattering. My heart thundered in my chest. Then, out of that turmoil, a terrible black calm emerged in me. I spoke in a soft voice I scarcely recognized.

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  “You still lost, Kidona. You lost to her and you lost to me. I went to your Dancing Spindle. I am the one who put the iron in the Spindle’s path. I am the one who destroyed the Plains magic. You can no longer draw on its strength. I made you an old man. It is done, Kidona. Done forever. You cling to shreds and threads, but the fabric is gone. And I come here tonight to tell you, I am the one who tore it from your people and left you cold and shivering in the dark. I, Soldier’s Boy of the People. Look at me, Dewara. Look at the end of your magic and your folk. ”

  There paraded across his face such a progression of emotions that they were almost laughable. He did not comprehend what I said, and then suddenly he did. Disbelief dawned on his face, and then I saw him admit the truth of what I’d told him. I’d killed his magic, and the knowledge of that was killing him.

  His face turned a terrible color and he made a strangling noise.

  I never even saw him draw his swanneck. Foolish me, I had never thought it would come to blows. Aged he might be, but fury renewed his strength and speed. The curved blade swept through the air toward me, the bronze catching the red of the firelight and the sunset, as if it were already bloodied. I skipped back, feeling the wind of its passage in front of my face. As I drew my own sword, Dewara, his face purpling with effort, leapt forward. All the weight of his hatred was behind the sharpened blade. I had scarcely
cleared my own sword of its scabbard before the tip of his swanneck sank into my belly. I felt the sharp bite of it, felt the ripping of my shirt as the fabric gave way to the metal and then, oddly, nothing. I grunted and my sword fell from my hands as I clutched at my gut as he pulled his weapon free of me. I stood there, my hands clutched over my wound, feeling blood seep out through my shirt and between my fingers. Shock stilled me. What a stupid way to die, I thought as he swept his blade back for the strike that would behead me. His lips were pulled back from his pointed teeth and his eyes bulged out of his head. I thought how disgusted my father would be with his soldier son for dying in such an ignominious fashion.

  The explosion behind me jolted me with a shock of light and sound. The impact of multiple balls striking Dewara’s chest stopped him in midlunge. For an instant, he hung suspended, caught between his momentum and the stopping power of the lead. Then he fell like a puppet with his strings cut, his swanneck bouncing free of his nerveless hand as he struck the earth. I knew he was dead before his body even fell to the ground.

  There was a moment that seemed to last as long as a whole day. The sulfurous stench of black powder hung in the air. The magnitude of so many things happening at once paralyzed me. I stood, clutching my belly, knowing that a gut wound could fester and kill me as surely as being beheaded. I could not comprehend my injury, any more than I could grasp that Dewara sprawled dead at my feet. I’d never seen a man shot to death. Instantaneous death was shocking enough, but Dewara had been more than just a man to me. He’d figured in my most horrendous nightmares. He’d nearly killed me, but he had also taught me and shared food and water with me. He had been an important figure in my life, and when he died, a significant part of my experiences died with him. Of all that we had experienced together, I alone remained to recall it. And I might die. My own blood sang in my ears.

  As if from the distance, I heard Sergeant Duril say, “Well, I didn’t think much of this at first, but now I’m glad I bought it. The shopkeeper called it a pepperpot. Guess I peppered him, didn’t I?”

  He stepped past me to crouch over Dewara’s body. Then he stood up with a grunt and came toward me. “He’s dead. Are you all right, Nevare? He didn’t get you, did he?”

  Duril still held a small, multiple-barreled gun in his hand. I’d heard of them, but I’d never seen one before. They were good only at short range, but fired several balls at once, making it more likely that even without a chance to aim, you’d hit your target somewhere. My father had spoken of them as a coward’s weapon, something that a high-priced whore or a table gambler might carry concealed in a sleeve. I was surprised that Sergeant Duril would carry such a weapon. Surprised, and very glad.

  “I’m not sure,” I said. There wasn’t much pain. But I’d heard that the shock of a wound could keep a man from feeling pain at first. I turned away from Duril and staggered a few steps toward the fire, fumbling at the front of my shirt as I went. It seemed a private thing; I wanted to be alone when I discovered how bad it was. I managed to unbutton my shirt and pull it open just as he caught up with me.

  “Good god, help us!” he muttered, and it was a prayer the way he said it. Before I could stop him, he leaned forward to probe the injury with his fingers. “Oh, thank all that’s holy. It’s just a jab, Nevare. You’re hardly hurt at all. A flesh wound. And there was a lot of flesh there to wound, begging your pardon. Oh, thank the good god! What would I have said to your da before he killed me?”

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  His knees seemed to give out on him and he sank down to sit beside Dewara’s fire. I turned a bit away from him, strangely embarrassed that I was not hurt more severely. I wiped my bloodied hands on my shirt and then gritted my teeth as I prodded at the cut on my belly. The sergeant was right. It was scarcely bleeding now. I felt humiliated that such a minor injury could have stopped me in my tracks and made me drop my own sword. A fine soldier son I was! The first time I actually faced an enemy in combat, the old man had disarmed me with a minor poke in the gut. The thought of my own proud sword lying in the dust shamed me. I went to retrieve it.

  The light was going rapidly. I found my blade by touch, sheathed it, and then stooped to pick up Dewara’s swanneck. For one boyish instant, I thought of keeping it as a trophy. In the next, I felt repulsed by such a vainglorious thought. I hadn’t even killed the man who’d wielded it. I shifted it in the firelight, and watched as it illuminated the gleaming bronze blade. Then I went queasy at what I saw. A full four fingers of the blade’s tip was bloodied. It had gone that deep. With my free hand, I groped at my injury. No. There was almost no pain.

  It made no sense.

  I carried the swanneck back to the fire where I could look at it more clearly. Sergeant Duril was recovering from his fright at my injury. He stood up as I approached the fire. “Leave that!” he ordered me harshly. “Leave everything, just as it is. We need to get down that trail before it gets any darker. ”

  He walked away from me. I stood alone in the firelight and stared at my blood on the blade. I lied to myself, pretending that perhaps it had run there. I knew it hadn’t. The swanneck had pierced me, had gone right into my gut. And my flesh had simply closed itself when he pulled it free. The blade fell from my hand and landed in the flames. I turned and walked away from it.

  I didn’t look at Dewara’s body as I passed. When Duril announced, “We’re leading the horses down the trail, at least as far as the switchback,” I didn’t argue with him. Instead, I followed him just as trustingly as I had always followed him when I was a boy.

  I didn’t dwell on what we left behind us. I doubted that either the boy or the old woman would admit to anyone that they had betrayed Dewara’s hiding place. Even if they did, even if we were connected to his death, he had attacked me, and Duril had saved my life. It felt strange to leave him lying where he had fallen, but it would have felt even more wrong to take his body and bury it elsewhere.

  Darkness filled the narrow canyon like water fills a bucket. “Can you ride?” Sergeant Duril asked me gruffly.

  “I’ll be fine. It wasn’t much more than a scratch. ” I hesitated, and then asked him, “Are you going to report this to my father?”

  “I’m not going to report this to anyone. Neither are you. ”

  “Yes sir,” I said, relieved to have that decision taken from me so firmly. We mounted our horses and he led the way back toward home.

  We rode without speaking through the deeply shadowed canyon. When we emerged onto the plain, we came back out of night into evening. The last light of the setting sun still washed red across the flatlands. Duril stirred his mount to a faster pace and I pushed Sirlofty up alongside him. He didn’t turn to look at me when he spoke.

  “Well. You got what you were after?”

  “I did and I didn’t. Dewara’s dead. I wasn’t after that, not really. But I don’t think he would have let it end any other way, once he knew what I’d done. But I don’t think I solved anything tonight. I’m still fat. According to Dewara, I’m still in Tree Woman’s power. ” I shook my head wildly. “And it all sounds like a strange old tale told by a fireside. How can I believe anything so bizarre?”

  He didn’t say anything. I kept my eyes straight ahead as I pondered everything that had happened. “He knew,” I said at last. “Dewara knew what had happened in my dream. And he couldn’t possibly know that unless he was there. And to him, it was just as real as our visit today. According to what he believed, the Tree Woman somehow enslaved me with her magic and doomed me to be, to be—this!” I could scarcely contain my disgust. “If I believe him, I’m doomed to be this for the rest of my life, and perhaps worse things will befall me. Maybe I will go on to betray all of Gernia!”

  “Easy, boy. Don’t give yourself too much importance,” Duril warned me, a sour touch of humor in his voice. It jabbed me.

  “But if I don’t believe him, if I say magic doesn’t exist or has no power over me, well, the
n, none of it makes sense. Then there’s no reason for me being fat, and that makes it even harder for me to know what I’m going to do about it. How do I manage it, Sergeant? What do I do? Believe Dewara’s truth, and give up because the magic will use me as it wills, or believe in my father’s world, where I don’t know why I got fat and nothing I do seems to change it?”

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  “Hold up a minute,” he suggested. He reined his horse in and I pulled Sirlofty to a halt beside him. He dismounted and tightened his cinch. “Came loose coming down that trail,” he observed. Then he looked up at me, squinting his eyes against the fading sunset. “Never used to do that, Nevare. The ‘keep fast’ charm held it tight. And now it doesn’t. That’s proof enough for me. The Plains magic is fading. Will you think me a fool if I say I’m sorry to see it go?”

  “I’ll never think you a fool, Sergeant Duril. But are you saying that you believe in magic? You believe I went somewhere with Dewara and that Tree Woman stole part of my soul, and that I took it back and killed her? And you believe that my being fat is not my fault but the magic affecting me?”

  Duril mounted his horse again. He didn’t say anything as he kicked him to a trot. I started Sirlofty after him, and in a few moments we were cantering. Before full night fell, we were back on the river road. We went more slowly in the dark, and finally he answered me.

  “Nevare, I don’t know how to tell you what to believe. On the Sixday, I worship the good god, same as you. But every time I saddled my horse for the past thirty years, I’ve made the ‘keep fast’ sign over my cinch. I’ve seen a wind wizard, and I’ve seen gunpowder send a bullet on its way. I don’t really understand how either one worked. I guess what I believe in is whatever works best for me at that time. I think most men are like that. ”

  “What am I going to do, Sergeant?” I didn’t expect him to have an answer. I was shocked when he did. His voice was grim.

  “We both have to pray to the good god that you can find a way to turn the magic against itself, I suppose. ”

 
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