Forest mage, p.19
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       Forest Mage, p.19
 

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

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  JUDGMENT

  I t was past full dark before Sergeant Duril and I reached home. We put our own horses up and said a subdued good night outside the stable. “Clean up that gash before you go to bed,” he warned me, and I promised I would. A gash. I knew Dewara had thrust his swanneck into me. It still hurt, but less than my arse and back hurt from the long ride. I went in through the servants’ entrance and stopped at the kitchen.

  A single lamp was burning there, the wick turned low. The usually bustling room was deserted and quiet. The kneading table was wiped clean of flour and the food all stored away in crocks or covered with clean cloths. The room was still uncomfortably warm from the day’s cooking. The week’s baking of bread was set out in fragrant round-topped loaves on the counter. The smell was heavenly.

  It was my father’s pride that our home had water piped right into it. A large elevated cistern was regularly replenished from the river, and the gravity flow system supplied all our drinking and bathing water. The thick stone walls of the cistern kept the water cool even in summer. I drank three tall mugs of it, one after another, and then slowly drank a fourth. I damped a kitchen cloth and wiped the sweat and dust from my face and the back of my neck. It had been a very long day.

  I wet the cloth well and gingerly opened my shirt. I had bled. I turned the wick for better light. Blood soaked the front of my shirt. The waistband of my trousers was stiff with it. Cautiously, I washed the blood from my gut, wiping it carefully away until a fine seam as long as my forefinger showed on my belly. I gritted my teeth against expected pain and prodded at it.

  It didn’t hurt. I couldn’t even make it bleed. The blade of the swanneck had sunk into me, but this wound was no deeper than a bad cat scratch. Had I imagined it? No. There was too much blood. I traced the puckered seam with my finger. The scratch closed up behind my touch like magic. Like magic.

  A wave of vertigo washed over me. I held on to the edge of the sink until it passed. Then, very carefully, I rinsed my blood out of the cloth and watched the dark water trickle down the drain. I wrung the water out and hung the rag to dry. My wound had healed. Like magic. Because it was magic. Magic inside me. I suddenly thought of Dewara’s purpling face and bared teeth. Had Duril’s lead shot killed the old man? Or had he been dying even as he attacked me? I recalled again the thundering of my heart and the seething of my blood. I poked at the idea that I had killed Dewara with magic. I didn’t much like it. I took a deep and steadying breath.

  The evening’s ride and the weight of the revelations I had received had left me ravenous. I took a loaf of the still-warm bread and a small crock of butter to the table. I filled a mug with the cheap ale that my father kept for the servants. Then I pulled out a chair and sat down with a sigh. For a short time, I just sat in the dim stillness, trying to come to grips with what I had learned.

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  There was nothing new in what Dewara had told me. His words confirmed the fears that had grown in me for the last four years. I had not previously seen the truth because it was not a Gernian truth. To someone like my father, the things I had experienced were simply not real. If I tried to explain them to him, he would think me a liar or a madman. What had I gained tonight? What had Dewara’s death bought me? Duril had overheard what Dewara had said. Duril believed me. At least I had that.

  I sliced off the crusty heel of the loaf, spread it with butter, and took a bite. The simple, familiar food was comfort to me in a time when my world seemed to be distorted beyond recognition. I chewed slowly. I swallowed and took a deep draught of the ale. The mug made a small, comfortable thunk as I set it back on the table in the dimly lit kitchen.

  Magic was the province of the uncivilized world. It was the feeble and untrustworthy weapon of folk too primitive to create the technology to master the natural world with engineering and science. Magic, I had always believed, was suitable for trickery or small conveniences, but useless on a large scale. The little spells and charms I’d known about were handy but scarcely necessary. The “keep fast” charm was an example: it could save a man from having to stop and tighten his cinch. That was not to be confused with a true invention or real technology. Something as simple as a pulley or as sophisticated as a system of pipes that fed water into our house were genuine human innovation. Those were the things that lifted mankind from the squalor and sweat of daily toil.

  Thoughtfully, I cut another slice from the loaf and buttered it slowly. Over and over, I’d seen technology defeat magic. Iron could destroy magic just by its presence. Iron pellets killed the wind wizard. Dewara blamed the weakness in his magic on having been shot by my father with an iron bullet. I’d witnessed a small steel blade bringing the Dancing Spindle to a sudden halt.

  So how could magic do this to me?

  I touched iron every day of my life. Magic should have no power over me. I was a Gernian, a follower of the good god, and a damn good engineer. Magic was for ignorant tent-dwelling nomads. I picked up the bread knife and studied the blade. Then I set it, flat-sided, against my arm. I felt nothing. No burn, no freezing cold, no antipathy to the metal at all. Disgusted with myself for even trying the experiment, I put the blade to its proper use, carving off another slice of bread. My ale mug was empty. I refilled it.

  For the first time in my life, I wanted to sit down and talk with a priest. Most of them, I knew, dismissed magic entirely. It was not one of the gifts the good god extended to his followers, and therefore not the province of just men. They didn’t deny it existed. It just wasn’t allotted to me. I knew that from the Holy Writ. But what about what was happening to me? I didn’t desire it, so how could magic reach out and take hold of me this way?

  In the next instant, I admitted to myself that perhaps I had desired it. What else had I intended that long-ago night when I had followed Dewara over the cliff? He had made me want to be Kidona, enough that I had been blindly willing to risk my life. Had that been an offense to the good god? Had that been when I had literally fallen into the powers of magic? Unbidden, the image of the sacrificed birds came to my mind. The old gods had been willing to grant magic to those willing to make such offerings, or so the old tales said. I shivered, and the warm and friendly kitchen suddenly seemed darker and more ominous. As a child, I’d been taught that followers of the good god were immune to the horrors and brutality of the old gods. Had I lost that protection when I stepped over the cliff’s edge? An image of a croaker bird came to my mind, wings extended and neck shot out as it cawed at me. I’d interfered with the sacrifice to Orandula, the old god of balances. He controlled death and life, fortune and misfortune. Had I offended him? Was I vulnerable to him now? Superstition stood all the hair up on my arms, and I nearly leapt out of my skin when a harsh voice spoke suddenly behind me.

  “What are you doing?”

  I jumped guiltily and turned. “Just having a quick bite to eat, sir. I came in late and didn’t want to wake anyone. ”

  My father crossed the kitchen with quick strides. I suddenly saw myself as he must see me: a fat boor, hunched over food in the dark, gobbling it down out of sight of others. The half loaf of bread, the greasy knife, the plundered crock of butter, and the ale mug all spoke of furtive gluttony.

  “You pig. You lying pig. You avoid your family and refuse to eat with us so you can do what? Creep down here in the dark and stuff yourself with food?”

  “I didn’t eat that much, sir. ” I came to my feet. I stepped in front of the crumb-strewn table like a guilty child concealing a broken vase. “I ate only a few slices of bread and butter. Sergeant Duril and I went out for a ride and were out much longer than we intended. I came in hungry. ”

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  “You’re supposed to be hungry, you fat idiot! That’s the purpose of the work I gave you, to whittle the fat from your lazy back. I can’t believe what I’m seeing, Nevare! I can’t understand when or why your changed into thi
s…greedy, gluttonous liar! Oh, you had me fooled these last few days. You made such a show of staying away from the family table. I’ve talked to the cooks. They say you eat only one plate of food and then leave. I thought, ‘Well, the boy is trying, he’s recovered some of his self-discipline and he’s saving us having to watch him eat. He’s working hard and eating little and soon enough he’ll put himself right. ’ I could not understand why the weight was not falling away from you, but I thought perhaps I was being impatient. I was even, may the good god help me, thinking of using my influence to get you back into the academy once you’d shown you had the backbone to change yourself. But what do I find tonight? The truth! You put on a show for us, with your hard work and small meals, but in the dark of night, you creep down here and stuff yourself! Why? Didn’t you think I’d work it out eventually? Do you think I’m a fool, Nevare?”

  I was standing at attention now. I reined in my anger. “No, sir. Never, sir. ”

  “Then what, Nevare? What? Have you heard the reports of fresh skirmishes with the Landsingers and renewed clashes with some of the Plainsmen? They’re blaming us for the damn Speck plague and rising up. In times like these, a good officer can make his career. But you seem to be running away from all your opportunities! Are you a coward? Are you too afraid to serve your king as a soldier? You’re not lazy; I’ve had reports, you do your work each day. What? What is it?” His bafflement was driving him to rage. “Why do you want to bring shame on us all this way?” My father advanced on me, his eyes never leaving mine as he came on. He reminded me of a stiff-legged circling dog, selecting his position before he attacked. My thoughts ran in tiny circles. He was my father. He was being unjust. Most of this was his fault, not mine. I was transfixed by a question I could not answer: if he struck me, did I accept it, or did I strike back?

  Perhaps he saw that uncertainty in my eyes, or sensed that I held fury in check. Whatever the reason, he stopped where he was. I heard his teeth grind, and then he spoke. “Discipline should come from within a man. You should have learned it by now. But as you have not, I will impose it upon you, as if you were a spoiled child. You will go to your room tonight, Nevare, and you will stay there. You will not leave it again until I give you permission to do so. I will regulate what you eat. Before the good god, I vow I will take that fat off of you. ”

  “We can try that,” I agreed, my voice flat. “But I don’t think it will work, Father. ”

  He snorted in disdain. “It will work. You’ve never seen a prisoner kept on bread and water for two months. You’d be amazed how fast a man can dwindle away. ”

  “Probably I would, Father. And if this fat were because I’d been greedy or slothful, such a cure would probably work. But it isn’t. ” The truth was all I had to offer him. With no forethought, I went on, “I’ve explained this to Mother. I know she told you. I know you believe I lied to her. I didn’t. I’ve put on this weight because of a curse from a Speck wizard-woman. Or a goddess. I don’t know exactly what she was. But she is the one who has done this to me, by claiming me for her magic. And she was able to claim me because you put me in harm’s way when you fostered me out to Dewara the Kidona for training when I was fifteen. He ‘trained’ me, all right. He starved and abused me, and eventually he convinced me that the only way to be a true warrior was to become as Kidona as he was. ” My voice rang with accusation. My father stared at me, his mouth slightly ajar.

  “I was drugged with something he put on our campfire one night. The smoke was sweet and very thick. And when he told me to follow him, I did. I jumped off a cliff after him, and I found myself in a different world. We traveled in that world for days, perhaps weeks. We reached a dangerous bridge and he commanded me to do battle with its guardian. And that was where I encountered the Tree Woman. But I could not bring myself to fight a woman; I underestimated the sort of enemy she could be. And so I fell to her, and came under her control. And this, this body that looks so fat, this is what she did to me. Inside this body, I’m the same person I’ve always been, with the same dreams and ambitions. I’ve never stopped wanting to be a soldier. I’m trying to undo what happened to me. Tonight, I went to a Kidona encampment, to try to find a way to break free of her magic. But there isn’t, or at least that’s what—”

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  “Silence!” My father roared the word. His face had grown starker and whiter with every detail of my story. I had thought it filled him with horror for what he had unwittingly done to me. For an instant, his mouth trembled, and then he demanded, “Are you mad? Is that what ails you? Insanity? What is all this talk of magic and Dewara? You are going to blame your gluttony on something that happened years ago, and make it my fault? Nevare! Look at yourself! Look at your belly, look at the mess you’ve left on that table, and then tell me you haven’t done this to yourself! Magic! What idiocy! Or have you somehow gulled yourself into believing it has power over you and thus it does? I’ve heard of such things, men convinced they were under a curse and dying from it because they believed in it. Is that your problem, Nevare? Truly, you think magic did this to you?” He laded the word with scorn.

  I took a deep breath and clenched my hands, but my voice still shook. “Magic is real, Father. We’ve both seen it; we’ve both used it! The ‘keep fast’ charm over our saddle cinches, and the wind wizard flying his boat upstream despite the river’s current, and—”

  “Nevare! Shut up! ‘Keep fast’ is just a soldier’s superstition, one of the sillier bits of our traditions. You’ve believed it, all these days, even when you are a man grown? And that wind wizard was a Plainsman, so, yes, he could work his pathetic little magic. In the end, it couldn’t save him, could it? Because what we have, our technology and our faith in the good god, is much stronger. Son. Listen to me. Magic didn’t make you fat. It has no power over you. You listen to me and do as I say, and I’ll prove it to you. ”

  His voice had gone gentler, ever since he had said the word “son. ” I so wanted to simply agree with him, to put him back in charge of my life and let there be some sort of peace between us, even if it was a peace born of deception.

  I couldn’t do it. Was I finally finding what he had once sent me out with Dewara to seek, the courage to make my own decisions when I knew my commander was less informed than I was?

  “I’ll do as you say, Father. I’ll confine myself to my room and subsist on whatever you judge is right for me. If that is what it takes to prove to you that I am correct and you are wrong, I will do it. But in the end, I think we will both have to admit that when you entrusted me to Dewara, you began the chain of events that did this to me. If anyone bears the fault for what I have become, Father, it is you, not me. ”

  He slapped me. He didn’t hit me with his fist. I think if he had, I would have struck him back. He slapped me as if I were an upstart child, and I knew I was not that, and so I let him. I felt it as a small triumph when he shakily told me, “Yes. We will prove which one of us is right. Go to your room and stay there, Nevare, until I myself come to your door. And that is an order. ”

  I went, but not in obedience. I went with defiance, determined to let him regulate me as he wished and so prove to him that I was correct. I went to my room and shut the door firmly behind me. I seethed as I stripped off my bloodied clothes. I should have shown them to him, I thought furiously, and then realized that the dried blood on the dark fabrics could have been nearly any dark liquid. I lifted the side of my belly and pulled hard at where the wound had been, halfway hoping that it would suddenly open and gush blood that I could present to him as evidence of the night’s adventures. It didn’t. There wasn’t even a mark there. I prodded it with my fingers and woke only a vague pain inside me. My body told me that nothing had happened tonight. I thought of getting up and going to Duril, but suspected that if I stirred out of my room, my wakeful father would descend, accusing me of more deceptions. The only thing that would possibly convince my father was allowing him to control my life a
nd seeing that not even he could take the fat from me. I was not resigned to it. I was eager for it, in the way a warlike man is hungry for a confrontation.

  I lay down to sleep on my bed. As I closed my eyes, I told myself that only the outside of my body had changed, that within I was still Nevare, and if my father could not see that, then he was both blind and stupid. But before I drifted off to sleep, I finally admitted that I had changed. My body had healed itself tonight of a potentially fatal wound. The fat and the shape of my body were an external change, but internally, I had changed also. The Nevare he had sent away to the academy would never have stood up to him as I had tonight. It was ironic that my father had finally got what he wanted out of me. He was not enjoying it very much.

  And so began our battle of wills. The next morning, I awoke early, as I always did, and dressed and sat down on my bed wondering what the day would bring. Several hours later, my father entered my room, a very burly man at his heels. He didn’t address me, but spoke to the servant. “He’s to chop wood all day. He can have three water breaks. No food. At the end of the day, you’re to bring him back up here. That’s all. ”

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  The man knit his brows. “That’s all I’m supposed to do? Watch him and make sure he chops wood and only drinks three times and doesn’t eat anything?”

  My father spoke in a flat voice. “If you don’t think that will tax your abilities too much, Narl. ”

  The servant scowled. “I can do that. Just seems like you’d want me to do more. ”

  “No. That’s all. ” My father turned on his heel and left the room.

  I pulled on my boots and stood up. “Let’s go chop wood,” I suggested.

  The man scowled so that his forehead stood up on ridges. “You want to go? I don’t have to force you or nothing?”

  “I assure you, I’m as eager to do this as my father is. Let’s go. ”

  “He’s your father?”

  I gave up trying to converse with Narl. “I’m going downstairs and outside to chop wood now,” I told him. I started out the door and he followed me like an obedient dog.

 
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