Forest mage, p.29
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       Forest Mage, p.29

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

  The smell of the savory smoked fish overpowered me. To scent it was to taste it, smoke, salt, and oil rich flesh upon my tongue. I had to have it. My body demanded it.

  I was too fat to climb the tree. I broke branches and scraped my knees and belly trying. I threw stones at the food, trying to knock it free. I stood and shook the tree like a bear, hoping to make it fall. I even tried, futilely, the edge of my small firewood hatchet against the tree’s thick trunk. In short, I exhausted myself trying to get at a bit of smoked fish.

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  It was full dark before I came to my senses. It was like waking from a dream. I suddenly decided that the food in my pannier would have to suffice. With a startling abruptness, my obsession with the fish departed. I used some of the branches I’d broken to start a small fire.

  I made a very rudimentary camp beside my little fire, ate cold food with hot tea, and rolled myself in a blanket to sleep. The ground was hard and I was cold. Toward dawn, the mosquitoes came out and discovered me. Even pulling my blanket up over my head did not discourage them, and I rose earlier than I was inclined to and traveled on my way. My only act of virtue was to cut the broken branches into firewood and leave them at the base of the supply tree.

  As I traveled on, towns became less frequent and houses more scattered. Traffic dwindled. Every day, two couriers would ride past me, one headed east and one headed west, usually at a canter or a gallop. They carried the king’s dispatches and, if there was room in their pouches, high-ranking officers’ letters home. They did not acknowledge me at all as they passed. Some credited Gernia’s expansion to the king’s dedication to regular communication with even his most distant forts. Daily reports were sent on their way to Old Thares. Some of the courier stations rented space for profit-making messenger services as well. They were becoming more popular as Gernia’s boundary and far-flung population expanded, but they were still an expensive service, patronized only by the wealthy. I did not see their riders as often.

  One windy morning, I passed a place where a spring freshet had washed the road out. It had been repaired, but badly, with a stream still trickling through a wide dip in the road. I could see the remains of the stone culvert; the mortar had failed, I judged, and I suspected that next spring would see the road cut through when the waters ran high again.

  It was not a real challenge for Clove and I, but the deep muddy wagon wheel ruts testified that it was an unpleasant passage for any wheeled vehicle. I saw few other travelers that day, and began to understand why some of the king’s nobles in the west mocked this project and called it the King’s Road to Nowhere.

  Early in the day, I passed a relay station for the king’s couriers. As there were no towns nearby, a small contingent of soldiers were stationed there to protect and maintain the station. There was little there except a stable for the post horses, a small storehouse, and a barracks. The buildings were set up in a defensible square with a stockade wall closing the gaps. The tall gates stood open, and coarse grasses grew along the bottoms of them. Months had passed since they’d last been closed. The surly soldier on watch eyed me unenthusiastically. Not an exciting post, I surmised. I wondered if being stationed here was regarded as punishment.

  I rode Clove in and dismounted. As I let him water from the horse trough alongside their well, I looked around. The barracks and mess were painted in Gernia’s standard green and white. I estimated their strength at about a dozen men. There was a watchtower at one corner of the fortification; a uniformed soldier ostensibly kept watch there for approaching messengers. A couple of men leaned in the open door of the barracks, smoking. Only one courier was currently in residence, lounging on a tipped-back chair on the long porch that ran across the front barracks. The young, skinny rider seemed very full of himself, openly rolling his eyes at my girth and making faces and gestures when he thought I wouldn’t see him. I took some satisfaction in seeing that the men who kept up the station seemed to regard him as a jackanapes. When I mounted the steps to the barracks’ porch, an older man in shirtsleeves came out to meet me.

  “Do you need something?” he asked me brusquely.

  “News of the road ahead would be welcome. And I thought I’d report that there’s a culvert washed out, about an hour’s ride back. ” Military regulations stated that the courier stations were to aid travelers, monitor the road, and report conditions to the proper authority. I considered it my duty, still, to apprise them of the road’s condition.

  The man scowled at me. It had been at least three days since he’d shaved. The only clean spot on his cheek was an old knife scar. Even without his jacket and stripes, I could tell he was in charge here. “I’ve been reporting that for two months. They keep saying they’ll send a road crew, but the plague hit everybody hard. They don’t have the men to spare. Nothing happens. ”

  “And the road east of here?” I pressed him.

  “It’s no better. It was built fast with unskilled men, and the need for maintenance was underestimated. It’s passable for a man on horseback, and there are only a few places that would give a wagon serious trouble. But once the rains start again, that story will change quickly. ” He spoke as if it were my fault.

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  Intending it more as a pleasantry than as a true query, I asked where their command was, and if their regiment had any openings for recruits. The old veteran looked me up and down and gave a contemptuous snort. “No. We’ve plenty of our own youngsters to sign up when we need more men. No need for outsiders. ”

  I took that rebuff in stride. “Well. Any chance I can replenish my supplies here? Any food you could sell me?”

  The courier had been listening in on our exchange. He interrupted mockingly with “You need to buy food? It doesn’t look to me as if you’ve been going without! Or are you fattening up before you hibernate for the winter?”

  It was a feeble jest, but the other man laughed at it. I forced myself to smile. “I’ve a way to travel. I’d buy whatever you could spare—flour, grain, travel bread, bacon?” I could smell stew simmering and longed to beg for a hot bowl. As always, any aroma of food roused a ravenous hunger in me.

  “We’ve nothing to spare,” the sergeant decided abruptly. “This is a way station for couriers, not an inn. The supply wagons haven’t been as regular as they should. I’m saving what I’ve got for my own men here. ”

  “Of course. But could I at least buy some oats for my horse?” Clove was not the forager that Sirlofty was. The constant travel and sparse grazing were starting to show on him. Because my father was responsible for the king’s courier station closest to Widevale, I knew they were required to keep well stocked with feed for the horses.

  The men exchanged glances with each other. Then the sergeant spoke again. “No. I’ve told you. We’ve nothing to spare. Best you be on your way. ”

  “I see,” I said, though I didn’t. Plainly he was lying. I could not discern why, but I suspected it was simply because I was fat. I think he perceived me as self-indulgent and felt justified, even righteous, in denying me food. I looked at the circle of faces around me. Every one of them evinced some level of satisfaction in my disappointment. They put me in mind of how Trist had rejected Gord from the first moment he’d met the fat cadet. Gord hadn’t had to say or do anything. Just being fat had made Trist despise him and seek to thwart him at every opportunity.

  I needed supplies. My horse needed something more than grass. My experience with Jirry flashed back through my mind. On some level, I’d already accepted that the magic that had so cursed me could also work in my favor. I tried it. “I really need fresh supplies to continue on my journey. ” It was my first effort to bend the magic to my will. I pushed insistence through my words and deliberately sought to bend their wills to mine.

  A few of the idle men got the same poleaxed look that Jirry had worn. But the old sergeant was made of sterner stuff. His eyes widened, and then, as if
he sensed what I was trying to do, his face reddened with anger. “I said no!” he barked. He came to his feet and pointed commandingly at my mount. I’d failed. I turned away from him, trying to keep my dignity. But anger at their self-satisfaction seethed through me. I mounted Clove and then looked back at them. My own anger suddenly rose to meet the sergeant’s, as if they were two swords clashing.

  “As you have seen to the needs of the stranger, so may your own wants be met in your time of need. ” It was a verse from the Holy Writ, and I’d heard it most often used as a formal thanks at dinner parties. I’d never said it with such vehemence, nor had I ever moved my hand in such a strong gesture of dismissal as I said it. I had deliberately sought the magic’s intervention, but now as I felt it rattle through my blood like pebbles tumbled in a torrent, I feared it. The gesture meant something, and the words I had uttered in a mockery of thanks now bristled like a curse. I saw one man startle, as if I’d dashed him with cold water, and the rider’s chair tipped over under him, dumping him to the porch with a crash. The sergeant was transfixed for a moment, and then he charged at me with an angry shout. I kicked Clove hard, and for once he surged immediately into a canter that carried us away from their stronghold and back out onto the road.

  I leaned forward on my big horse and urged him to run until his sides were heaving and sweat runneled the sides of his neck. When I pulled him in and let him walk, the courier’s station was lost behind us. No riders swarmed out to pursue me, as I had half-feared they might. I knotted my fists and shivered suddenly. I’d done magic. I had felt the power surge through me and pass out of me. But exactly what I had done, I did not know. I passed a patch of brush by the riverbank, and a flock of black-and-white croaker birds flew up screaming, angry that I had frightened them off whatever carrion they had found. They seemed an ill omen, a sign from an elder god that he would take my blackened soul if the good god would no longer have me. I rode grimly on.

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  My meals for the next few days consisted of whatever game I could bring down with my sling. It wasn’t much. In the short time between stopping for the night and falling asleep, I hunted what I could, and if I got a rabbit or a bird every other day, I thought myself fortunate. I still had a good supply of tea, sugar, salt, and oil, but a man cannot make a meal from those things alone. The lean meat of hares did not satisfy me, and if my clothes hung a bit looser on me for a few days, I attributed it to my diet.

  For several long days, the scenery did not change. It seemed as if Clove and I followed an endless circular path, with the river always to the right of us, wide and gray between its brushy, gravelly banks, and to the left of us, the gentle rise of the rolling prairie. The hills were ahead of us. Their flanks were gray-green or purplish with gorse, and in the higher regions, clumps of buckbrush and nettleme grew. Regularly spaced towns and real inns were left far behind me.

  The next courier station I passed was larger and better fortified. They sold me oats and journey bread, but other than that, they seemed as unfriendly as the last station had been. A full troop of foot soldiers was stationed there, with a score of cavalla. A small village of former penal laborers flanked the station, and were engaged in making more formidable the wall and ditch defenses that surrounded both station and village. If any engineering had been applied to the enterprise, it was well concealed from my eyes.

  I gathered my courage and then asked for a meeting with the commander, and was shown into the offices of a very young captain. When I told him I was a second son and interested in becoming a soldier, he looked incredulous. I’ll give him credit for attempting to be tactful. He leaned back in his chair, looked at me, and then said in measured tones, “Sir, despite your birth order, I do not think the life of a military man in our region would suit you. Here, we endeavor to recruit our men at an early age, the better to shape them to the lives they will lead. Perhaps you would fare better in the west. ”

  “I am still short of my twentieth birthday, sir. And I know I do not look fit or able, yet if you will try me, I’m sure you’ll find me more capable than you might think. ” Those words consumed all of my humility. My cheeks burned with shame.

  “I see. Well. You look older than your years. ” He cleared his throat. “Our resources here are limited, and right now our supplies must stretch to support the road workers the king has lent us for the fortification of this place. Much as I would like to take your oath and find you a place where you could serve both your king and the good god, I must turn you away. I do think you would fare better applying to one of the regiments in the west. In the more settled areas, a man may still serve his king and obey the will of the good god in less strenuous ways than the borderlands demand of a soldier. ”

  I heard the finality in his words. I knew he was attempting to let me leave with my pride and dignity intact. It was more than most folks had done for me on my journey. So I thanked him, and Clove and I went on. But as always, we rode toward the east and the mountains.

  I came to a decision point when we reached the fork where the Mendes River joins the Tefa. I rode north for half a day, following both the road and the river. When I came to a new town with the ambitious name of Kingsbridge, I crossed the Mendes on the town’s namesake, and then halted, considering my options. If I followed the Mendy trail north, I’d have several options for enlistment. There was Mendy itself, a substantial bastion and one of our earliest strongholds on the plains. In its earliest incarnations, before we had come to open strife with them, Mendy had been a place for Gernian merchants to enjoy commerce with the Plainspeople. Traditionally, the Third, Seventh, and Eighth Regiment of foot called Mendy home, as well as Hoskin’s Horse. There was opportunity for me there.

  My most sensible choice would have been to follow the river to Trade Post, or cross it and try to enlist at Lakegard or Laston. North offered me more opportunities. And yet, when Clove tossed his head and tugged at his bit in annoyance at standing so long, I did not follow the Mendy Trail. Gettys was the only Gernian outpost in our new direction. With the loss of Cayton’s Horse and Doril’s Foot, Gettys would be severely undermanned. Their misfortune might be to my benefit.

  I did not allow myself to think that Gettys was in the foothills before the Barrier Mountains, the home territory of the Specks.

  As each day passed, the land slowly changed. Trees began to appear, as scattered thickets and then as a solid forest that covered the hillsides. The quality of the road declined as it climbed higher into the foothills. The Tefa River was to my left now, and half the size it would be when it passed my old home in Widevale. I became resigned to sleeping outside each night and supplementing my rations with wild plants and whatever small game I could hunt as I traveled. The road was an anomaly here, a man-made thing that ran through a land that didn’t seem to recognize humanity’s reign. My journey seemed endless. At intervals I would see derelict wagons and other broken and abandoned equipment at the side of the road, the detritus of the road’s continuing growth. Several times I passed large cleared areas, where rags of canvas and other garbage spoke of a large encampment of men, probably for the penal crews building the road. The few other travelers I encountered were brusque, hurrying past me as if I were a threat. I encountered a train of supply wagons, returning empty from the farthermost road construction camp. The dust they raised was swept away by the endless wind. The quiet that flowed back after their passage seemed final. Winter and the snows it would bring had slowed all trade by road or water to a trickle.

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  I could scarcely believe my eyes when I topped a rise one afternoon and saw a small town in the distance. The land had been cleared around the settlement; it crouched on a steep hillside dotted with stumps. My heart lifted at the thought of an inn, an opportunity to resupply, to eat a hot meal, to sleep under a roof. But the closer we came, the more my hopes sagged. Chimney smoke rose in only a few places. The first structure I passed might onc
e have been a house. It had slipped to one side and then collapsed. Beyond it there was a rail-fenced area. A double row of depressions in the earth were the only indications that it was a graveyard.

  I rode on, passing other empty houses. The houses, both fallen and standing, had been built of logs rather than plank. The town was abandoned, or nearly so. When I finally sighted a house with a trickle of smoke rising from its chimney, I halted and dismounted. I approached the door cautiously, knocked, and then stood back from it. Some moments passed, then a very old man opened the door slowly. Before I could offer any greeting or even ask to buy food and a night’s lodging, a woman’s voice shrieked from inside. “Close it! Close that door, you old fool! Why do you think I barred it? He’s here to murder us and rob us. Shut the door!”

  “I’ve money to pay for a meal!” I shouted hastily, but the old man only looked at me with pale, rheumy eyes and then obediently but gently shut the door in my face. “I can pay!” I shouted at the closed door. There was no response. I shook my head in frustration and walked on, leading Clove.

  I passed five shells of houses and then stopped outside a fenced area where a man was digging potatoes. His cottage looked well-tended, as did the little garden that surrounded him. At sight of me, he stopped his digging. He switched his grip on the shovel, holding it as if it were a pike.

  “Good day, sir,” I offered him.

  “Keep on your way,” he advised me gruffly.

  “I’d like to buy a meal and a night’s lodging from you. I can pay. I can show you the coin. ”

  He shook his head. “I’ve no use for coins. What would I do with them? Make soup?” He looked at me more sharply, and then, perhaps deciding a fat man was not much of a threat, asked shrewdly, “Got anything to barter?”

  I shook my head slowly. I had nothing I could afford to part with, nothing I could give up that would not leave me in worse need.

  “Well, we’ve nothing to spare for beggars. Be on your way. ”

  I opened my mouth to say that I had not begged. I could feel my resentment rising in me. I thought of the soldiers and how the magic had boiled with my anger. No. I would not do that again. I would not loose that which I did not understand. I turned away from him and led Clove on.

 
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