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Forest mage, p.27
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       Forest Mage, p.27

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

  “How many?” he shouted at me as he approached. I suspected he shouted because he himself was deaf.

  “How many what?” I asked him as Sirlofty lifted his muzzle from the water.

  “How many stone, my man? How many stone do you weigh?”

  “I’m sure I don’t know,” I replied stiffly. I tugged at Sirlofty’s bridle, intending to lead him away. But the old man seized my sleeve.

  “Come to my warehouse. I’ve a grain scale there. Come on. This way. This way. ”

  I tugged my arm free of him. “Leave me alone. ”

  He laughed loudly, pleased at my reaction. Workers gawked at us. “Look at him!” he invited them loudly. “Don’t you think he ought to come to my grain scales for a weigh?” One woman grinned and nodded widely. Another looked away, embarrassed for me, while two young men laughed heartlessly. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. As I set my foot in Sirlofty’s stirrup, it felt higher than it had that morning, and every aching muscle in my body screamed at the prospect of remounting.

  One of the young men guffawed. “Look! His horse doesn’t even want to stand for being mounted by him. ”

  And it was true. The ever-mannered and deeply trained Sirlofty shifted away from me. He was clearly favoring one leg now.

  “Ye’re goina lame him!” the other young man warned me in a sneering, city accent I recognized from Old Thares. “Pity the poor beast. You should carry him for a ways, gutbag. ”

  His warning was a true one. The only reason that Sirlofty would behave in such a way was if he were in pain. I stubbornly mounted him anyway. I rode away from the well and the square, ignoring the catcalls that followed me. As soon as I was out of sight, I dismounted and led my horse. He was not limping yet, but he was moving gingerly. My horse, my fine cavalla steed, could no longer bear my weight for a full day’s ride. If I rode him again tomorrow, he’d be lame before the day was out. And then what would I do? What was I going to do now? I was scarcely a day’s ride from my father’s estate and already into problems. The hopelessness of my situation suddenly crashed in on me. I was pretending that all would be well, that I could provide for myself away from my father’s largesse. Yet in reality, I’d never done that.

  What were my options? Enlist in the military? I no longer had a horse that could bear me, one of the requirements to join the cavalla as an enlisted man. No foot regiment would consider me. I’d always thought that, if need be, I could live as the Plainsmen once had, taking what they needed from the land. In the last day, I’d discovered what the Plainsmen already knew: the open wild lands were vanishing. I doubted a cotton farmer would appreciate me camping in his field, and I knew that wild game retreated from areas where people kept cattle and sheep. It suddenly seemed that there was no place left in the world for me. I recalled Yaril’s wailed words from the night before: “What are we going to do?” The answer seemed more elusive now than it had then.

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  The growing town had all but obscured the stockade of the old fort. The cannons were still outside the gate but could not have been fired. Flimsy market stalls selling warm grain beer and pepperpot soups and bread were set up all around them. I had to look twice to see the sentries. Two stood to each side of the open gates. The rubbish heaped up around the gates proved that they had been closed for months. Two of the sentries were talking and laughing together as a stream of people wandered past them into the fort. The other two were bartering with a half-breed woman over a tray of sweet-blossom pastries. I stood watching them for a time, wondering why I had even come to the gates of the fort. Habit, I supposed. My father and I had always stopped to pay our respects to the commander of the keep whenever we passed this way.

  I led Sirlofty away from the gates, down a side street, ignoring the stares we attracted.

  “You stole him, right? Want to sell him? I can get you the best price, I know all the horse dealers. ” A ragamuffin girl hurried up to trot alongside me. Her hair hung in two tattered braids down her back, and her dress was made from dyed sacking. Her feet were bare. It took me a moment to understand she’d insulted me.

  “I didn’t steal him. I am not a horse thief. This is my horse. Go away. ”

  “No, he’s not. Don’t take me for a fool. That’s a cavalla horse. Anybody could tell that. And you aren’t a soldier, that’s plain. That tack, that’s cavalla tack. Good panniers. I know a man who will buy it all from you, and give you the best price. Come on. I’ll help you sell him. Keep him too long, someone will track you down, and you know what happens to horse thieves in this town!” She rolled her brown eyes expressively as she hoisted tight an imaginary noose around her neck.

  “Go away. No. Wait. ” She’d spun aside from me, but halted at my call. “You know so much, missy. Where’s a cheap inn?”

  “Cheap? You want cheap? I can show you cheap, but first it will cost you. Not much, not much at all, and what you pay me will be far less than what you’ll save by letting me show you the cheapest inn I know. ” She instantly shifted her tactic, grinning up at me. One of her front teeth was missing. She was younger than I had thought.

  I did not have much money. My father had not given me any since I reached home, and though tempted, I had not taken any cash when I departed. So my funds were limited to what I’d had left from the money he’d sent me to travel from Old Thares to home. I had seven hectors, fifteen talleys, and six pewters. I took two pewt from my pocket and rattled them in my hand. She looked interested.

  “It can’t be some dump with moldy hay for my horse and a fleabag for me to sleep in. It has to be decent. ”

  She feigned astonishment. “I thought you said cheap. ”

  “Cheap but decent. ”

  She rolled her eyes as if I were asking for the moon, and then held out her hand. I put one coin into her palm. She cocked her head at me and frowned.

  “The other if I like the place you show me. ”

  She sighed theatrically. “Follow me,” she said in an exasperated voice. She led me around a corner and down a side street toward the river. As we passed through a narrow alley, she asked without malice, “How did you get to be so fat?”

  “It’s a curse,” I said.

  “Oh. ” She nodded sagely. “My mother gets that, too. But when she gets fat, she has a baby. ”

  “I’m not going to have a baby. ” I discovered it was possible to feel offended and amused at the same time.

  “I know that. I’m not stupid. Here. This is the place. ” She’d stopped outside a large house that fronted onto the river. The fenced yard and several outbuildings within its enclosure looked maintained but not well tended.

  “This isn’t an inn. ”

  “I know that, too. That’s why it will be cheaper and not have fleas. Guff! I’ve brought you a paying guest!”

  She sang it out before I could say anything. In response, an old man stuck his head out the window. “Who’s there?”

  “Farvi. And I’ve brought you a man who needs a bed for himself and a stall for his horse tonight. He wants cheap with no fleas. I thought of you immediately. ”

  “Did you? Well, aren’t I lucky?” He looked at me skeptically for a moment, and then his glance fell on Sirlofty. “I’ll be right out. ”

  He popped out the door seconds later. He reached eagerly for Sirlofty’s reins. “I’ll put him in back where he won’t be seen. Isn’t he a fine one!”

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  “Leave off, sir! He’s battle-trained. ” Sirlofty had instantly reacted to a stranger trying to seize his headstall. I put a hand on my horse to calm him, and then said coldly, “I’ve no need to hide what is mine. All I’m need is a place to sleep for the night, and a stall for my horse. ”

  The man looked at me, glanced back at the child, and then looked at me again.

  “Very well. But the only place I can put him is around the back. I’ve a paddock there. Shall I take him there?”

  “I’ll bring him. ” I was already feeling dubious about the man. But he led and I followed to a shed and small paddock behind his home. Two milk goats were the only occupants; there was plenty of room for Sirlofty. It was relatively clean, and the hay looked decent. I nodded my approval and put my horse up. The man fetched a bucket of clean water for him and I gave him a good feed of hay. While he was eating, I went down on one knee to check his hooves and legs. His left foreleg was warmer than the others but not badly swollen. I grunted my dismay, and hauled myself to my feet.

  “Are you going to stay here?” the girl asked pointedly, holding out her palm.

  I flipped her other pewter into the air. She snatched it and was gone.

  “Precocious little wench,” I observed to the man.

  He shrugged. “Most convicts’ get are. Or they don’t survive. ”

  “Her father’s in prison?”

  “He was. Then he came out here, working off his sentence on the King’s Road. When his stint was done, he got his land allotment. And like a lot of the convicts, he had no idea what to do with it. They send thieves and rapists out here from Old Thares and say, ‘Here you go, be a farmer. ’ They don’t know how to milk a goat or plant a seed in the ground. Farvi’s father wasn’t a bad fellow, but stealing was the only way he knew to make a living. So someone killed him. Franner’s Bend is full of men like him, and their half-wild children. Farvi’s a smart little girl, but when she’s old enough to turn to picking pockets or whoring, she will. There isn’t much else for girls like her. Now. You wanted a room?”

  The bluntness of his words took my breath away. I just nodded. I followed him through the yard where a young woman gaped at me, and then quickly resumed sweeping the flagstones. My host showed me to the back door of his house, and then to a very small room, not much bigger than the cot it held. I nodded it would do. “How much?” I asked warily.

  “Six talleys. ”

  At the look on my face, he added, “And I’ll throw in your horse’s food and a meal tonight and breakfast tomorrow for you. ” He cleared his throat. “Not large meals, mind, but enough to keep you going. ”

  It was still more than I wanted to pay, but I nodded sourly. “I’m going out to walk about town a bit. Franner’s Bend has changed a lot since I was last here. ”

  “Oh, I’ll wager that’s true. It’s changed since the beginning of summer, and not just from the plague sweeping through here. Keep your hand on your purse, that’s my advice. Half the whores in this town will rob you blind. The other half have friends who will kill you and strip your body of everything you’ve got. ”

  I wondered if he’d known I’d had a stray thought about that possibility. I shook my head at both of us. “Where would I find the horse dealers in town?”

  The man squinted his eyes at me. “You want to sell that horse, I’ll give you a fair price for him. Like I said before, you won’t get far with him. It’s too obvious that he’s not yours. ”

  “But he is. ” I spoke each word deliberately. “And I’m not interested in selling him. I want to buy a horse for my journey. A large sturdy one. Where would I look?” I knew what I had to do and was already steeling myself for the task.

  “Big horses? Down near the Rivergate. There’s usually a good selection there, because of the canal boats. Look for a man named Jirry and tell him Guff sent you. ”

  “And he’ll give me a better bargain. ”

  Guff grinned. “No. But he’ll know that he owes me a favor if you do buy an animal from him. And he’s a competitive trader. He isn’t the cheapest down there, but that’s because he doesn’t deal in worked-out animals. Try him, at least. ”

  I promised I would and set out on foot for the Rivergate. Franner’s Bend had become a sprawling warren of little mud-brick houses. The huts and cottages contrasted sharply with one another. Some were plain and others had been slapped with a lime whitewash. Miniuscule gardens grew vegetables and a few flowers. Dogs and children ran loose in the streets. A few people looked prosperous, but a far greater proportion of the residents were ragged and scrawny folk.

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  The streets wound and wandered and abruptly ended or became so narrow that a single horseman could barely pass. In a few places, folk had dug shallow wells. With no planning for rainwater runoff or for foul water, I suspected that this was a miserable, fetid place during the rainy season. I thought of what I’d learned in the academy about engineering a sanitary, defendable fortification and wondered why the commander of Franner’s Bend had allowed this slum to develop around the fort. If the Plainspeople did rise up against us, only a fraction of these folk could take refuge behind the stockade walls.

  I stepped over a shallow, foul ditch and then found that my path would follow it down to the river. The reek from it was obscene and the objects in it were very recognizable. I walked as far to one side of it as I could, subduing my gag reflex. The passersby seemed immune to the stench.

  My path led me through a section of Franner’s Bend that seemed populated mostly by Plainspeople or half-breeds. The difference, oddly enough, was that the bricks of their houses were better formed, and their mud-plastered outer walls were decorated with images of deer, flowers, and fish. One structure with open sides sheltered several large ovens and brick cook stoves surrounding a large central table. In this community kitchen, people kneaded bread, stirred pots, and talked. The smells that wafted out reminded me of my childhood visits to the marketplace outside Franner’s Bend. My stomach rumbled lovingly.

  I hastened my steps, detouring down an alley that I thought would lead to the riverbank. That was a mistake. I ducked under twine strung between the cottages that supported fillets of fish or twists of meat or laundry hanging to dry. Milk goats hobbled with string pulled forage down from dried bundles tied to the cottage eaves.

  Gernians obviously did not belong in this part of the Bend. Plainswomen, their hair bundled into bright scarves, sat on benches outside their huts, smoking long pipes as they worked their odd one-handed looms. As I passed, one stopped, nudged the woman next to her, and then turned to call something in her own language through the open window behind her. In an instant, two men crowded one another in the narrow door frame and stared at me as I passed. I kept my eyes straight ahead and strode on. One called out something to me, but I ignored it. I turned a corner at random to escape their lingering gazes and finally emerged onto a wider road paralleling the river. Rivergate was merely the gate in the stockade wall that was closest to the docks. Beyond a district of warehouses and wharves, I found the stockyard. Corrals full of dray horses belonged to one of the canal boat companies. Past them, some horse traders had staked out their wares along the riverbank, their asking prices chalked onto their horses’ haunches. As Guff had warned me, I saw plenty of worn-out nags. Pulling laden barges against the river’s current was heavy work for a beast. The freight companies worked their animals to the last shred of strength. Some of the poor creatures on display had obviously been treated with drugs to make them look livelier. Others were unapologetically labeled as meat animals.

  After several queries, I found Jirry. To give Guff credit, his animals were in better condition than most I’d seen, but they were also priced accordingly. Jirry was not what I’d expected, either. He was a large man, yet not so when he stood next to me. His loose white shirt was soiled at the cuffs and collar, and he wore an ornately embroidered purple vest that only emphasized the swell of his belly. He wore the waistband of his trousers under his gut. His blond hair was almost to his shoulders, and elaborately curled. Looking at him was like looking at a mockery of myself. I didn’t want to do business with him, but he had the best stock. Jirry appraised my purse while I looked over his horses.

  When I asked him if any of them had ever been ridden, he nodded sagely to himself. He had a booming voice that made my business known to everyone in the street. “I thought you might be looking for a mount. Well, that narr
ows it down fast, doesn’t it, my friend? Men like us, we need more than a pony! Let me show you the two I’d recommend. Clove there, he’s carried a man before. And Sassy I bought from a farmer. She knows how to do just about anything you could ask of a horse. Gentle as a kitten, too. ”

  His idea of a gentle kitten and mine were at odds. I narrowly missed having the dull imprints of Sassy’s teeth in my forearm. I do not think she was placid so much as disinclined to move any part of her body to please anyone else. I settled on Clove. The dark brown horse was larger and heavier than Sirlofty, probably a cross between a draft horse and a riding horse. He was too small to be harnessed with other dray animals, and too heavy to keep up with a good saddle horse. But for me, he might be perfect. I inspected him as carefully as I knew how. I was horribly aware of how little cash I had and that I’d never bought a horse before. Always my father and brother had done the inspection, the selection, and the decision-making. I had no idea what the customs were, or even how much such an animal should cost. I did know Clove was sound, and better suited to my present weight than Sirlofty was. “Does he come with any tack?” I asked him.

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  “I’ll toss in the halter he’s wearing. That’s about it. ”

  “How much do you want for him?”

  “Ten hectors. ”

  My jaw dropped. I shrugged. “Sorry to have wasted your time. ” Good horses were a lot more expensive than I’d thought, but the plugs up the street looked like they’d die in the next fortnight.

  A dire thought came to me. Perhaps I’d have to stay in Franner’s Bend and take whatever work I could find. Perhaps this was my journey’s end.

  I clenched my jaw, shocked at how my whole soul revolted at the idea. I didn’t want to stay anyplace where I might be recognized as Nevare Burvelle. I had to go on, I had to go east to the new life I would build. But I couldn’t without a horse. My blood bubbled with frustration, and something more. I spoke my thought aloud. “I cannot pay that much. But I must have this horse to go on. Can’t you make me a better price?”

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