Forest mage, p.26
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       Forest Mage, p.26

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

  I looked around the room. I pulled her dainty white-painted chair out from her secretary, and then knew it would never hold my weight. Gingerly, I sat down on the foot of her bed. It creaked in response. “Yaril. Yaril? Listen to me. You and I know what is true. We have done nothing shameful. We have both done the best we could, while that hateful old man huddled in his bed and did nothing. He has no right to rebuke us. None at all. ”

  She only sobbed harder. I didn’t know what to do. Just an hour ago, she had been a strong young woman defying disaster with spirit and courage. Had that all been a show for me? It horrified me that my father could so quickly reduce her to a shambles. It was a double horror that he would do so. I recalled my earlier skepticism when my Cousin Epiny had told me that a woman’s life was very different from my own, that in many ways she was a valuable asset to be bartered off to the highest bidder. I had scoffed at her, but tonight, witnessing the horrible power my father had over Yaril, I had a glimmer of understanding. I sighed and helplessly patted my sister’s shoulder until she had sobbed herself out.

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  Eventually, she quieted. My belly betrayed me by growling softly. For an instant I thought of the lovely dinner we had abandoned: prairie fowl with an onion stuffing was to have been the main course. Vindictively, I hoped my father would choke on it. My belly growled again, more loudly, and to my surprise, Yaril gave a stifled laugh. Her shoulder muscles relaxed, she gave a great sigh, and sat up on the bed next to me. “He’s a vile man. ” She spoke the accusation hopelessly.

  “He’s our father,” I said reflexively. I wondered if he was that to me anymore. Probably not.

  “He’s our father,” she said, accepting the correction. “And he’s a vile man and still I love him, and long to have his regard and approval. Can you understand that, Nevare?”

  “I can. Because I feel much the same way about him. ”

  “Oh, I don’t think so. Not like I have. ” She pushed her hair back from her wet face. I offered her my handkerchief. She took it and matter-of-factly dried her face. As she gave it back to me, she shook her head wearily. “I’ve always been the ‘extra’ daughter, Nevare. Always striving for any crumb of approval I could win from him. When he turned on you, I joined him. Some part of me even felt glad that you had finally done something disgraceful and fallen out of his favor. Because your failure gave me a better chance with Father. There. Now you know what a coward and a weakling I am. ”

  A year ago, her words would have shocked me. Now I understood them. “I always took his favor for granted,” I admitted. “Not that I didn’t work hard to be exactly what he expected me to be. I did. And I worried, often, that he was secretly disappointed in me. But for all that, I still always believed he loved me. I never thought that he would—” And to my horror, my throat closed up on my words. Yaril’s distress had distracted me. Now the impact of my father disowning me hit me like a musket ball. I wanted to run back down the stairs, fall on my knees before him, and implore him to change his mind.

  Yaril looked at me as if she heard my thoughts. “He’ll never change his mind. He’s too proud. He’ll stand by what he’s said, even when he knows it’s stupid and wrong. He’s broken it all, for all of us. What are we going to do, Nevare? Whatever are we going to do?”

  The words came to me slowly and fell from my lips like stones. “I’ll have to leave. There is nothing else I can do. ” I swallowed past a sudden lump in my throat. Other words came out before I even thought to say them. “I should have left a long time ago, and then none of this would have happened. When I first found out I was dismissed from the academy, I should have run away east. To the forest, where I belong. ”

  “What?” Yaril demanded, distraught.

  “I meant the frontier. Where I could make a new life for myself. ” But that wasn’t what I had meant at all. Like a shadow unfurling, for a moment my Speck self had seized my tongue and spoken to her. I could not imagine a worse time for him to assert his presence. A fresh wave of misery washed over me as I tried to comprehend the full disaster of my father turning me out.

  Yaril made it worse. “I have to go with you, Nevare. No matter where you go. You can’t leave me here. You can’t. I’ll die. ”

  “Don’t say that! You know I can’t take you with me. I don’t even know where I’m going or what I’m going to do. I can’t take you into a situation like that. ” As I said the words, I knew what I had to do. I must obey the good god’s will. I had to enlist as a soldier. Franner’s Bend was the closest military post. I could start there, and build a new life. I instantly rejected that idea. I would go as far away from my father as I could and build a new life where if I failed or disgraced myself, only I would bear the shame.

  “If you leave me, I’ll die, Nevare. Or I’ll go mad. Don’t go off and leave me alone with that crazy, vile man. ”

  The first thought that came to me was that she had to stay, because otherwise our father would be left all alone. Despite all, I thought that too cruel to consider. “He isn’t himself,” I said instead. “Grief has turned his mind. In time, he may recover. And when he does, he will need you. ”

  “Perhaps after he has driven me as mad as he is? Nevare, try to imagine what my life will be here. I will have no one to turn to. No one. ”

  I sought my mind for something to offer her, some shelter or friendship that could sustain her. Carsina came to mind, and then I remembered their falling-out over Remwar. Our family had other friends and neighbors. True, ever since the plague, there had been little socializing. The news we had received from other households was sparse and often somber. But once the rains of fall and the snows of winter were past and the roads were good again, surely people would resume their old patterns of visits and invitations. In the meantime…well, at least she would be safe. I said as much.

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  “Safe. Safe to be belittled and ordered about every day. Safe to be married off to some man Father chooses, who will belittle and order me about in his home. You have a peculiar idea of safe, Nevare. The safest I’ve ever been has been since you brought me home from the Porontes and put me in charge of the household. Nevare, other than my grief, these have been the best days of my life. Oh, I know how shallow that sounds!” she cried out before I could reply to her strange remark. “But please, try to understand. For once I felt like I could relax and be myself. I could request meals of food that I enjoyed, and move the furniture as suited me and not be required each evening to give an accounting of what I had accomplished each day. And as a result, I actually did things that I thought needed doing, without fearing that they would not be approved. My life became more than matching buttons on my frock or learning a new piece of music. ”

  I didn’t know what to say to her. Words came out of my mouth. “This is a journey I must make. Whatever I need to make this journey will be provided to me. ” I felt my blood roil in me as I spoke. I shook it off. This was between my sister and me. It had nothing to do with the Tree Woman’s curse. I tried to think of some way to comfort Yaril. I said the worst possible thing I could have said. “I’ll send for you. When I’ve made a place for myself, I’ll send for you. I promise. ”

  “Will it be long?” she instantly demanded, and then, in the next breath, “I won’t be able to stand it here alone. What if he marries me off before you send for me? Then I’ll be trapped forever. Where are you going? How are you going to manage on your own? Where are we going to live?”

  My heart sank. “I don’t know. I don’t have answers to any of your questions. But I promise that I’ll send for you as soon as I have any sort of a situation. And if you are unhappy with where you are, no matter where you are, you’ll still come to me. I promise. Keep in touch with Epiny. I’ll be able to find you through her, when the time comes. I’ll send for you, Yaril. ”

  Yaril followed me to my room. She looked around it, at the bare walls, the simple desk, and my scant pos
sessions. Her eyes lingered on the broken hasp that dangled still from my ripped door. “He did keep you here and starve you,” she said quietly.

  “Yes. He did. ” And our admission of that suddenly made it easier for me to leave.

  I had little to pack. The only clothes that still fit me were the ones Yaril had had made for me. I took my cadet cloak, for I knew the autumn rains and winds were not far away. I packed a basic medical kit of bandages, healing salts, and salve, and a fine needle and silk thread for stitching wounds. I hoped I’d never have to use it. I took my beautiful soldier son journal because I could not bear to leave it. It was hard to leave my schoolbooks behind and admit that a fine education was no longer part of my future.

  I did not sleep that night. At dawn, I rose. I washed myself, shaved, and combed my hair. I dressed in the clothing that fitted me best, and made sure my boots were well blacked. When I went to get my sword and pistol, I discovered my father’s final blow against me. They were gone. I stood a moment, staring at the empty spot on the wall where they were usually racked with the other weapons of the household. Very briefly, I considered taking Rosse’s weapons. Then I hardened myself against such a base temptation. I would give my father no excuse to label me thief as well as failure. He was driving me out of the family unarmed. Very well.

  I walked quietly down the hallway and entered my mother’s room. I had intended to make a sort of final farewell. The stripped bed and bare windows made the room skeletal and cold. Little remained of the woman who had raised me. There were a few pots of her cosmetics at her dressing station, and her heavy silver-backed brush with its matching comb beside it. I walked to her dressing table, thinking to find a few strands of her hair to take with me. Instead, I caught my reflection in her mirror. I froze, staring at a man I didn’t recognize.

  I’d been carrying my mental image of who I’d always been. I’d been remembering that I had a sculpted face, high cheekbones, and short blond hair. I remembered a tall man who stood erect, with delineated muscles in his arms and chest. When I thought of myself, despite knowing I’d gotten fat, I still pictured myself that way. That man was gone.

  My cheekbones and jaw were lost in the softness of my rounded face. I’d begun a double chin. I stood as straight as I could and vainly attempted to suck in my gut. It availed me nothing. My belly was a bulging sack. My shoulders were rounded with fat, my neck lost in them. My arms looked shorter, pushed away from my sides. My longer hair looked lank and greasy. I had dressed in my best, hoping to look like a cavalla trooper as I rode away. Instead, I finally saw myself as others did. I was fatter than ever. The extra flesh was like a badly fitting garment that I’d slung on over my real body. I could grab handfuls of flesh on my ribs, on my thighs, and even on my chest. The features of my face were sinking in doughy flesh. I turned from that nightmare image and walked sharply from my mother’s room, closing the door firmly behind me.

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  I was not surprised to find Yaril waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. I managed a smile for her. She had packed food for me, a generous packet. I thanked her and hugged her one last time. She leaned against my belly to reach me for a kiss on my cheek. I felt my body as a wall around me that held my loved ones at a distance. Fort Nevare.

  “Don’t you forget your promise!” she hissed fiercely in my ear. “Don’t abandon me here, thinking that I’ll be safe. Send for me as soon as you are settled anywhere, no matter how rough. I’ll come. ”

  I bade her farewell at the door, and turned away from the house where I had grown up.

  In the stables, I saddled Sirlofty and loaded my possessions into my saddle panniers. When I led him out of the stables, Sergeant Duril was waiting to say good-bye. The old soldier looked grim and tired. He already knew that I’d been disowned. Very little of what happened in any noble family remained private for long. I shook his hand.

  He wished me well. “Write to me,” he said, his voice going husky. “I know, I can’t read, but if you write to me, I’ll find someone who can read it to me. Let me know what happens to you, lad. Don’t leave me wondering. ”

  I promised him I would. I mounted, levering my weight up onto my saddle with difficulty. Sirlofty shifted under me as if startled by the load. My buttocks settled onto my saddle in a new and disconcerting way. I took a breath. I hadn’t ridden in quite a while, but I’d soon be back in condition. The next few days would be uncomfortable, but I’d survive. As I rode away, I glanced back at the windows of my former home. Yaril was framed in hers, watching me ride away. She lifted her hand in farewell. I waved in response.

  There was a twitch of the curtains in my father’s room. That was all. When I reached the end of the drive and looked back a final time, I saw a croaker bird lift from the chimney pot. He circled my old home once, and then flew off ahead of me. He seemed an ill omen to follow, but follow I did.



  I t was midmorning before I felt I had truly left my home behind. I knew the lands around my father’s holding so well and he made such extensive use of them for running cattle and sheep that they felt as if they, too, belonged to him. I rode in a daze, my mind occupied with my own inner turmoil.

  My father had disowned me. I was free. Those two thoughts seesawed in my mind. Free to wander, to give a different name when people asked me. No one would rebuke me if I abandoned the destiny the good god had set upon me and became something other than a soldier. I was also free to starve, to fall victim to robbers, to suffer the misfortunes that befell those who challenged the good god’s will. Free to struggle to find a place for myself in a world that largely disdained or ignored me because of my size.

  The day was warm, but I already saw the early signs of the season’s change. The tall grasses were turning gold and nodded, their heads heavy with seed. The cooler nights meant that more moisture condensed on the ground, and I could see the green fronds unfurling at the base of the winter-growing prairie fern. The tiny purplish flowers of the ground-hugging birdbrush on the gentle hills were giving way to the little black berries that birds and rabbits so loved. The land would give forth one final burst of generosity to all the life that teemed over it before it subsided into the cold hostility of winter.

  I had not ridden Sirlofty for any great distance since I’d returned from my useless visit to Dewara. He was restive and willful, and I soon felt all the aches of a man who has been out of a saddle for too long. I gritted my teeth, knowing it would pass in the next few days. Until then, it simply had to be endured. My greater weight amplified every twinge and ache, and by midafternoon my lower back throbbed with every step my mount took. Sirlofty had become lazy as well. His pace was not what it should have been. Toward noon, I noticed a slight hitch in his stride.

  I began to watch anxiously for the silhouette of the Franner’s Bend stockade wall against the horizon. I had not made good time, I realized. I kicked Sirlofty up into a trot, but he soon lapsed back into a walk, and I let him. When he trotted, my body shook all around me as if I were encased in a pudding. It was a horrid feeling.

  My world had changed. I remembered the long ride to Franner’s Bend as a journey through wild lands, with nowhere to stop for refreshment, and no scenery other than the natural vegetation on the rolling plains. That was no longer so. The Midlands were becoming settled. There was sporadic traffic on the King’s Road that paralleled the river, wagons and people on horseback and families traveling on foot or with donkeys heaped high with possessions. There was habitation, too. I passed several cotton fields, fringed with cottages for the workers. Just beyond them, I came to a long, low building immediately alongside the road. The outside of it was freshly plastered and painted a pale blue that was a shocking contrast to the sere land around it. The new signboard that swung from its post proclaimed it was The Last Bale, and it offered beer, food, and rooms for travelers. I marvelled at the thought of a real inn along this road. Fa
rther along my way, a Plainsman herder in a conical hat and his two dogs shepherded a flock of flat-tailed sheep past me. I passed a little landing on the river with a cluster of buildings around it, the seed of an as-yet-nameless town. Just past it, a boy on a donkey watched over a grazing flock of goats. He watched me pass as if I were the intruder.

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  I had always thought of my family as living on the edge of the wild lands. Clearly, that was no longer so. Civilization had crept up and flowed around to encompass us. The land was becoming settled. I didn’t like it. I had taken pride in growing up on the far reaches of the civilized world, tough and schooled in survival in a land that offered no refuge to the weak. All that was changing now.

  I reached the outskirts of Franner’s Bend as the sun was venturing toward the horizon. The Bend had changed even more than the countryside. When I’d visited it as a boy, the old fort had crouched in the bend of the river amid a hodgepodge of huts and a rudimentary market. Now ranks of baked-brick houses clustered on either side of the road as I approached the fort. The mud swallows that yearly invaded our barns and plastered their homes into the eaves were more competent builders. The roofs were roughly thatched with broom from the surrounding prairie.

  Handcarts and foot traffic meandered along the road and down the alleys. Busy people still stopped and stared at me. One small boy shouted into the open door of a house, “Come see the fat man on a horse!” and a gaggle of children rushed to the threshold to watch me pass. The boy trotted along behind me for some way, gawking at me in amazement. I tried to ignore him. I’d have skirted this warren if I could, but the King’s Road went right through the mongrel settlement.

  The road passed a roughly paved square centered on a well and bustling with commerce. The buildings that fronted it were painted ochre and white and yellow-brown, with roofs of baked tile. In an open-fronted building, workers were lifting long swathes of fabric from dyeing vats. Men were unloading sacks of grain from a heavy wagon and carrying them into the warehouse like a trail of ants. I dismounted to allow Sirlofty to water at the animal trough by the well. Almost immediately, I drew attention. Two women who had been filling their water jugs homes giggled and stared at me, whispering like girls. One gangly old man from the grain warehouse was even ruder.

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