Forest mage, p.28
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       Forest Mage, p.28

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

  The man’s jaw dropped at my bold words. He literally goggled at me, as if I’d hit him with a club rather than baldly stated my need. Plainly I’d insulted him by speaking the truth. Before he could rant at me, I turned away.


  I turned back to Jirry’s shout. He looked upset. I braced myself for a tirade, but he looked more confused than angry. “I thought we were striking a bargain here. Don’t walk away from me. ”

  I lifted my hands and let them fall. “You’re asking far more than I can pay. ”

  “So. What would you pay for him?” He had his fists on his hips, leaning toward me as if I’d already insulted him. “What’s he worth to you?”

  I spoke carefully. “I won’t presume to tell you the value of your stock. You’ve named your price, sir. Frankly, I don’t have it. Even if I did, I couldn’t afford to spend that much on a horse without tack. I’ve a long way to go. ”

  He got that addled look again, and then said reluctantly. “I might have a Plains saddle that would fit him. ”

  “It’s still more than I can afford. I’m sorry. ” I turned again.

  The man actually stepped in front of me. His face was reddened. “Make me an offer, before you walk away,” he growled.

  It offended me to the roots of my soul. I’d been raised as the son of a nobleman. I was not a traveling tinker, to stand in the street and haggle price. A flush of shame spread up my cheeks. Was this what I had come to? Nevertheless, I steeled myself and revealed the extent of my finances. “The most I could give for any horse right now is five hectors. ”

  “Oh! You’re robbing me! You can’t imagine I’d sell that animal for half what he’s worth!” The volume of his outraged shout turned heads toward us.

  I spoke stiffly. “Of course I don’t expect you to sell him for half your asking price. But five hectors is the most I can offer. Good day. ” Before I could turn away, he’d seized the sleeve of my shirt.

  “Surely you’ve got something else you could throw in to sweeten the pot? Come on, man, in the spirit of the trade, at least offer me something, to salve my pride if nothing else. ”

  Mentally, I squirmed. I thought through my paltry possessions. Was there anything I was willing to part with? I had so little. I could feel him watching me. “I have nothing else,” I said at last. “I’m sure he’s worth more than five hectors, but that’s the best I can do. ”

  “May the good god witness that you are robbing me!” he shouted. We’d acquired an audience. I was sure they stared at the fat man. I resented Jirry making me into a spectacle.

  “Have done, sir,” I said with what dignity I could muster. “I must go. ”

  “Give me the money, then, for I’ve a family to feed! And when people ask you where you got such a fine beast, be sure to tell them you stole him from poor Jirry!”

  I took the coins carefully from my pouch, striving that he should not see how many more I actually had. I felt shamed at having driven his price down so far. I felt worse when he dragged out a very worn but serviceable Plains saddle. It was a rudimentary thing, a cross between a real saddle and the dab of padding used by the nomads. The tree was not a good fit for Clove’s back, but it would have to do for now. Jirry helpfully offered a small cask as a mounting block. It gave way under me when I attempted it. I thanked him stiffly and led my new purchase away from the grinning bystanders. I glanced back as I left, still puzzled at how easy it had been to bargain the man down. Jirry was looking after me incredulously. I saw him glance down at the coins in his hand and then back at me as if he, too wondered at the deal.

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  Out of sight of my circle of gawkers, I climbed a low stone wall to get on top of my new horse. Clove seemed startled to find that such a load could be a living thing. I kicked him several times before he understood I wanted him to move. Then he went forward at his own pace, turning his head from side to side at every distraction, and once craning his head back at me as if he couldn’t quite believe I was riding him. I suspected that he hadn’t truly been ridden but perhaps had tolerated people sitting on his back. I rebuked myself for not trying to ride him before buying him, for I now saw that a rein against his neck meant little to him. I literally had to pull his head in the direction I meant him to go.

  By the time we reached Guff’s house, Clove was reacting reasonably well to my kicks and knee presses. He was not anyone’s ideal mount, but he was not stupid and seemed like a willing beast. My dismount was more of a slide from his back. It was not graceful, and I was disgruntled to hear someone muffle a laugh. I turned, but Guff’s daughter was already retreating into the house. Red-faced, I led Clove to the water trough and then put him in with Sirlofty. Then I stood looking at the two animals in the paddock. Sirlofty was tall and rangy, straight-legged, and black as coal from his nose to the tip of his tail. He wasn’t young, but he had many good years left in him. He lifted his head and looked over at me, his small ears flicking forward as if asking why my attention was so intent. There was no doubting the intelligence in his eyes, or the years of schooling that my father had put into him. The horse had taught me almost everything I knew about riding like a cavalla man. He was the best and most valuable possession I’d ever owned.

  Next to him, Clove was a clod. He was big. Everywhere. His head was big, his neck was thick, and his haunches were wide and round. His hooves looked the size of dinner plates next to Sirlofty’s trim feet. At some time, his tail had been bobbed, badly. The hair that dangled from the shortened stub looked stringy. He was a clownish-looking horse, a fit mount for a fat man like me.

  My horse came over to me, to sniff my chest and then push his head against me. I finally voiced the decision that I had already made. “I can’t keep you, Sirlofty. If I do, I’ll ruin you. You’ll end up lamed in the middle of nowhere. You deserve better than that. ”

  With many regrets, I separated my panniers from my saddle. It was a cavalla saddle, a relic of a lost dream, and my father’s spond tree crest was embossed into the leather. I didn’t want to carry that forward into my new life. I kept the bridle. It was well made and I thought could adapt it to my new mount. I set the saddle onto Sirlofty’s back. As I made the “keep fast” sign over the cinch, tears gathered in my eyes and then spilled down my cheeks. I wiped them away with the back of my hand. Useless, senseless things.

  Evening was deepening into night. It seemed a fit time for my last hours with Sirlofty. I led him through the wandering streets of Franner’s Bend. The cool night was moister than the day had been, enriching the smells of that rancid city. Sirlofty’s sore leg had stiffened, and he now walked with a marked hitch to his gait. I didn’t hurry him. As we walked, I told myself that he was only a horse, and that a cavalla man changed mounts any number of times in his career. The best I could offer Sirlofty was constant travel on an injured leg and short rations. Besides, I looked ridiculous on him. Better to part with him while he had some value, before I had ruined him. Clove would serve me well enough. When I got to wherever I was going, then I could see about getting a better mount, if my life demanded it. That wasn’t likely. If I managed to enlist, it would probably be as a foot soldier, not cavalla. Likely I’d be relegated to cooking or totting up numbers or some similar task.

  Outside the gates of the fortifications, I stopped for a moment. I dried my face of the tears that had run unashamedly as we walked together in the darkness. Then, like a boy, I leaned against my horse’s shoulder and tried to hug him good-bye. Sirlofty put up with it.

  I held to my purpose. I led Sirlofty through the gates. Even this late in the evening, the so-called sentries allowed us to pass unchallenged. I went directly to the commander’s headquarters. I was fortunate to arrive before the commander had left. I passed myself off as a servant, and lied to his adjutant to see him. I told him that Nevare Burvelle’s horse had come up lame, and he’d had to find a fresh one to continue his travels. I said that both Nevare and his f
ather, Lord Burvelle, would be indebted to the commander if he would have the regimental veterinarian look at the animal, and then arrange for him to be taken back to Widevale as soon as he could make the journey without further injury. As I had expected, the man was happy to oblige. “Anything for Lord Burvelle,” he assured me, and I bowed gravely and said that when I caught up with my master, I’d be sure to let Nevare know that his mount was in capable hands and would be awaiting him when he returned home.

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  On the way back to my rented room, I stopped at a tavern, got drunk, and paid a yellow-haired whore three times her usual rate to bed her. If I had thought to make myself feel better, I failed. I spent money I could ill afford to discover that intercourse had become a challenge. When the jut of a man’s belly exceeds the length of his member, coupling with a woman requires imaginative positioning and a cooperative partner. The whore was barely that, and only did what she must to earn her coins.

  “You see,” she said righteously as I stepped away from the edge of the bed where I had knelt, “why I had to charge you more. That wasn’t easy for me. You fair disjointed my hips!” She lay as I had left her on the edge of the bed, skirts dragged up to her waist and her legs spraddled wide to accommodate me. I recall thinking that it was the least alluring posture that I could have imagined a woman assuming.

  “I’m finished,” I told her abruptly.

  “That’s obvious,” she drawled sarcastically.

  I dressed and left.

  My knees were sore as I walked back to my rented room. Pleasure was a word that didn’t apply to what I’d done. The physical release I had experienced was inextricably mixed with the humiliation she had dealt me. Rather than taking comfort in the woman, I had completely proven to myself how much my life had changed in a few short months.



  T he good god never intended for people to live here. ”

  The woman’s words were to stay long in my mind. Her house was one of six inhabited structures in a ramshackle settlement near the second rise of the foothills before the mountains. There was little there save misery. Stumps dotted the sloping fields behind the town. The constant wind, heavy with wet chill, warned of winter. Dead Town was a “road town,” a temporary settlement thrown together to house the penal workers and their families as the King’s Road was pushed ever eastward.

  Once I had believed in King Troven’s dream of a wide road that led across the plains, over the mountains, and to the sea beyond, a road that would restore Gernia’s power as a seagoing and trading nation. The farther east I went, the harder it was to sustain that vision.

  Calling the structure she lived in a “house” was charity on my part. It was built of large stones and roughly skinned logs. The badly warped logs were smaller in diameter than anything I would have used for a structure. The gaps between the corkscrewed logs were chinked with wadded reeds and moss, with plastered mud over it. I judged the coming rains of winter would soon melt that chinking away. She had three small children, but if she had a husband, he was not to be seen.

  My food had run out and I’d stopped to see what I could buy. The inhabitants of two other houses had already turned me away. They had little enough for themselves and no use for my coins. The irony was that I’d discovered, too late, that I was not as poor as I’d thought. When I repacked my panniers as I left Franner’s Bend, I discovered a little yellow purse tucked in among my shirts. When Yaril had slipped it in, I didn’t know. It contained fifteen hectors, a very substantial sum coming from a young woman. I resolved to use it well, and to pay it back to her when we were reunited. The extra money could not restore my battered self-respect, but it did shore up my sagging confidence. I invested some of my windfall in a battered draft saddle with a tree that fit Clove’s back and a seat that didn’t insult my own. After several fruitless efforts, I admitted that Sirlofty’s bridle and bit would never adjust to Clove. I traded them away for a bridle that fit my plug horse, some straps to adapt my cavalla panniers, and a couple of heavy blankets in case I had to sleep outside. In the market, I stocked my panniers with hard bread, smoked meat, raisins, tea, and charily, a Plains food of meat and fruit ground together into a sort of sausage bound with sweetened suet. I bought tools for rough travel: a small hatchet, sulfur matches dipped in wax, and some strips of leather to make a sling. I wanted a firearm, but that was beyond the reach of my coins. The sword I bought was not well balanced and the blade was pitted from poor care. It was better than nothing. When I rode away from Franner’s Bend, I felt I was as well supplied for the road as a man of my means could be.

  In return, the road offered me next to nothing. Water was not a problem while my trail followed the river. Heat, flies, and boredom were my chief irritations by day, cold and mosquitoes by night. Clove ambled along.

  For my first day’s travel from Franner’s Bend, the road was good. I passed several small villages huddled on the riverbank. They seemed prosperous, feeding off both the river and the road trade. They were older than the explosive growth of town around Franner’s Bend, but in some ways they still exuded the rough, raw aspect of a frontier settlement. All the buildings were constructed from river offerings: stone rounded by the passage of water, mortar speckled with the tiny pebbles one always found in the river sand, and an occasional embellishment of wood. There was little real timber on the plains or plateaus, but rafts of immense spond logs from the wilderness passed by on the river. Spond timber was far too dear for these townspeople to afford; the wooden parts of their houses came from river driftwood largesse or salvage from broken log rafts.

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  Despite their humble roots, these settlements were growing into organized towns. The road between the towns was better maintained, as were the way stations for the king’s couriers. Between the towns, fields had been cleared and the discarded stones used for rough fences. The brush that had sprouted among those stones had grown into hedgerows. Most of the outbuildings were still of mud brick, but the farmhouses were of worked stone. Gernian settlers were making their tenuous grip on the land more certain. Those households would stay.

  On the evening of the second night, I came to a well-maintained farm with a signboard that showed a dangling cup and a handful of feathers, the old symbols for board and lodging. I stopped there for the night, and discovered that it meant a cold meal and a blanket spread over straw in the barn. Still, I’d slept in worse places, and I rose the next day better rested than if I’d slept by the side of the road.

  The draft horse was not a bad mount, for what he was. Clove was big-boned and ponderous. I put him through his paces on our third day of travel. By then, he was answering the bridle and my heels, though not sharply. He didn’t seem to mind being ridden, but he was not my partner in it as Sirlofty had been. He made no effort to stay under me. His trot rattled my teeth. His canter was actually rather smooth, once I finally persuaded him to that pace, but he could not sustain it for long, and I had no fixed destination or schedule. I followed the road, hoping that one of the fortifications along the way would take in a stray recruit.

  My body was more at fault than my horse’s for the discomforts of that journey. As an engineer, I could see that I was like an overburdened suspension bridge. Too much flesh was heaped around my bones and dependent on my muscles. My body no longer worked as it had been designed to do. Flexibility had been lost. Strength had been gained in my major muscles, but my back complained constantly. Clove’s bone-shaking trot was also a fat-wobbling quake for me. My cheeks shook, my belly jounced, and the flesh along my arms and legs jostled in syncopation to his hooves. At the end of each day’s ride, my ass hurt more than it had the day before. My expectation that I would soon toughen up and regain my ability to ride a full day without soreness was a vain hope. There was simply too much of me pressing my buttocks against the saddle, with the predictable consequences of dev
eloping sores. I tried to be grateful that they were on my flesh rather than my horse’s, but that was grim comfort. I steeled my will and went on, wondering how long my determination would last.

  Three days past Franner’s Bend, I passed the site where Cayton’s Horse and Doril’s Foot had met their end. Someone had put up a wooden sign. The crude letters read “SITE OF THE SPECK PLAGUE BATTLE. ” If it was meant to be humor, it left me cold. Beyond it, row upon row of shallow depressions in the earth showed where the ground had sunk on the hastily buried bodies. Beyond them, a large ominous scorch mark on the earth was gradually giving way to encroaching grasses. I fancied that a smell of death lingered there; Clove and I hastened past it.

  The first time the sun began to set with no shelter of any sort in sight, I turned Clove from the road and followed a tiny trickle of a stream up a gentle hill and into the brush. The faint trail I followed and a blackened ring of fire stones at the end showed I was not the first traveler to camp here. Hopeful, I lifted my eyes and soon found the sign that Sergeant Duril had taught me to look for so many years ago. Carved into a tree trunk was the outline of two crossed sabres. Wedged into a crotch of branches well above it was a bundle of dry firewood. Farther out on the branch dangled the bag that would hold kindling and emergency food. The courtesy among scouts and cavalla troopers was to take what one needed from such caches and replace it with whatever one could spare. The smoked fish I could smell was far more appetizing than the travel bread in my pack.

  Hunger was a constant companion that rode heavily in the pit of my belly. It hurt, but less than my saddle sores. I could, by an act of will and intellect, ignore it. Despite its pangs, I knew I was not starving, and for the most part, I pitted my will against the magic’s outrageous demands for food with determination. I knew that my rations were sufficient to my needs, and by that logic I could ignore my hunger pangs until I saw or smelled food. Then my appetite awoke, a ravening bear roused out of hibernation and commanding all my attention.

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