Forest mage, p.3
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       Forest Mage, p.3

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 
He smiled wearily as he settled into his desk chair. “Well. Let’s pray that it does. You can go, Nevare. But check back with me next week, if you’re still here. Don’t make me remind you. ”

  “Yes, sir. ” I dared a question. “How is your research progressing?”

  “Slowly. ” He scowled. “I am at odds with my fellow physicians. Most of them persist in looking for a cure. I tell them, we must find out what triggers the disease and prevent that. Once the plague has struck, people begin to die quickly. Preventing its spread will save more lives than trying to cure it once it has a foothold in the population. ” He sighed, and I knew his memories haunted him. He cleared his throat and went on, “I looked into what you suggested about dust. I simply cannot see it being the cause of the disease. ” He seemed to forget that I was merely a cadet and, leaning back in his chair, spoke to me as if I were a colleague. “You know that I believe the onset of the plague and the swiftness of its spread mean that sexual contact cannot be the sole method of contracting it. I still believe that the most virulent cases stem from sexual contact…”

  He paused, offering me yet another opportunity to admit I’d had carnal knowledge of a Speck. I remained silent. I hadn’t, at least not physically. If cavalla soldiers could contract venereal disease from what we dreamed, none of us would live to graduate from the academy.

  He finally continued, “Your theory that something in the dust that the Specks fling during their Dust Dance could be a trigger appealed to me. Unfortunately, while I did my best to gather data from the sickened cadets before they became too ill to respond, the disease took many of them before they could be questioned. So we shall never know exactly how many of them may have witnessed a Dust Dance and breathed in dust. However, there are several flaws in your theory. The first is that at least one cadet, Corporal Rory Hart, witnessed the Dust Dance and had absolutely no symptoms of plague. He’s an unusual fellow; he also admitted to, er, more than casual contact with the Specks themselves, with no ill effect. But even if we set Rory aside as an individual with exceptionally robust health, there are still other problems with your theory. One is that the Specks would be exposing themselves to the illness every time they danced the dance. You have told me you believed that the Speck deliberately sowed this illness among us. Would they do it at risk to themselves? I think not. And before you interrupt—” he held up a warning hand as I took breath to speak, “—keep in mind that this is not the first outbreak of Speck plague that I’ve witnessed. As you might be pleased to know, the other outbreak I witnessed was close to the Barrier Mountains, and yes, the Specks had performed a Dust Dance before the outbreak. But many of their own children were among those stricken that summer. I can scarcely believe that even primitive people would deliberately infect their own children with a deadly disease simply to exact revenge on us. Of course, I suppose it’s possible that the dust does spread the disease, but the Specks are unaware of it. Simple, natural peoples like the Specks are often unaware that all diseases have a cause and hence are preventable. ”

  “Maybe they face the disease willingly. Maybe they think that the disease is more like a, uh, like a magical culling. That the children who survive it are meant to go on, and that those who die go on to a different life. ”

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  Dr. Amicas sighed deeply. “Nevare, Nevare. I am a doctor. We cannot go about imagining wild things to try to make a pet theory make sense. We have to fit the theory to the facts, not manufacture facts to support the theory. ”

  I took a breath to speak, and then once more decided to give it up. I had only dreamed that the dust caused the disease. I had dreamed that it was so and my “Speck self” believed it. But perhaps in my dreams my Speck half believed a superstition, rather than knowing the real truth. I gave my head a slight shake. My circling thoughts reminded me of a dog chasing its own tail. “May I be dismissed, sir?”

  “Certainly. And thank you for coming. ” He was tamping more tobacco into his pipe as I departed. “Nevare!” His call stopped me at the door.

  “Sir?”

  He pointed the stem of his pipe at me. “Are you still troubled by nightmares?”

  I fervently wished I’d never told him of that issue. “Only sometimes, sir,” I hedged. “Other than that, I sleep well. ”

  “Good. That’s good. I’ll see you next week, then. ”

  “Yes, sir. ” I left hastily before he could call me back.

  The spring afternoon had faded and evening was coming on. Birds were settling in the trees for the night, and lights were beginning to show in the dormitories. The wind had turned colder. I hurried on my way. The shadow of one of the majestic oaks that graced the campus stretched across my path. I walked into it, and in that instant felt a shiver up my spine, as if someone had strolled over my grave. I blinked, and for a moment a remnant of my other self looked out through my eyes at the precisely groomed landscape, and found it very strange indeed. The straight paths and careful greens suddenly looked stripped and barren to me, the few remaining trees a sad remnant of a forest that had been. The landscape was devoid of the randomness of natural life. In true freedom, life sprawled. This vista was as lifeless and as unlovely as a glass-eyed animal stuffed for a display case. I was suddenly acutely homesick for the forest.

  In the weeks following my recovery, I had dreamed of the Tree Woman, and in my dreams I was my other self, and she was beautiful. We strolled in the dappling light that fell through the leafy shade of her immense trees. We scrambled over fallen logs and pushed our way through curtains of vines. Fallen leaves and forest detritus were thick and soft beneath our bare feet. In the stray beams of sunlight that touched us, we both had speckled skin. She walked with the ponderous grace of a heavy woman long accustomed to managing her weight. She did not seem awkward, but majestic in her studied progress. Just as an antlered deer turns his head to maneuver a narrow path, so did she sidle past a network of spiderwebs that barred our way. The untidy, unmastered, lovely sprawl of the forest put her in context. Here, she was as large, lush, and beautiful as the luxuriant life that surrounded us.

  In my first vision of her, when the Plainsman Dewara had told me she was my enemy, I had perceived her as very old and repulsively fat. But in the dreams I’d had following my recovery from the Speck plague, she seemed ageless, and the pillowed roundness of her flesh was abundant and inviting.

  I had told Dr. Amicas about the occasional vivid nightmares I had. I had not mentioned to him that my erotic dreams of the forest goddess far outnumbered the horrid ones. I always awoke from those dreams flushed with arousal that quickly became shame. It was not just that I lustfully dreamed of a Speck woman, and one of voluptuous fleshiness, but that I knew that some part of me had consorted with her, in passion and even love. I felt guilt for that bestial coupling, even if it had occurred in a dream world and was without my consent. It was treasonous as well as unnatural to mate outside my race. She had made me her lover and tried to turn me against my own people. A dark and twisted magic had been used to convert me to her uses. The threads of it still clung to my thoughts, and that was what pulled my soul down to those dark places where I still desired her flesh.

  In my dreams of her, she often cautioned me that the magic now owned me. “It will use you as it sees fit. Do not resist it. Put nothing you care about between you and the magic’s calling, for like a flood, it will sweep away all that opposes it. Ride with it, my love, or it will destroy you. You will learn to use it, but not for yourself. When you use the magic to achieve the ends of the magic, then its power will be at your command. But at all other times,” and here she had smiled at me and run a soft hand down my cheek, “we are the tools of the power. ” In that dream, I caught her hand and kissed the palm of it, and then nodded my head and accepted both her wisdom and my fate. I wanted to flow with the magic that coursed through me. It was only natural. What else could I possibly want to do with my life? The magic coursed through me, as essential to me as
my blood. Does a man oppose the beating of his own heart? Of course I would do what it willed.

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  Then I would wake and, like plunging into a cold river, my reality would drench me and shock me into awareness of my true self. Occasionally, as had happened when I passed through the shade of the oak, the stranger inside me could still take control of my mind and show me his warped view of my world. Then, in a blink of my eyes, a truer perspective would prevail, and the illusion would fade back to nothingness.

  And occasionally there were moments when I felt that perhaps both views of the world were equally true and equally false. At such times, I felt torn as to who I truly was. I tried to tell myself that my conflicting emotions were no different from how my father felt about some of his vanquished Plainsmen foes. He had fought them, killed them, or defeated them, yet he still respected them, and in some ways regretted his role in ending their unbound existence. At least I had finally accepted that the magic was real. I had stopped trying to deny to myself that something arcane and strange had happened to me.

  I’d reached my dormitory. I took the steps two at a time. Bringham House had its own small library and study area on the second floor. Most of my fellows were gathered there, heads bent over their books. I ascended the last flight of stairs, and allowed myself to pause and breathe. Rory was just coming out of our bunkroom. He grinned at me as I stood panting. “Good to see you sweating a bit, Nevare. Better drop a few pounds or you’ll have to borrow Gord’s old shirts. ”

  “Funny,” I gasped, and straightened. I was puffing, but having him needle me about it didn’t improve my temper at all.

  He pointed a finger at my belly. “You popped a button there already, my friend!”

  “That happened at the doctor’s office, when he was poking and prodding at me. ”

  “Course it did!” he exclaimed with false enthusiasm. “But you’d better sew it on tonight all the same, or you’ll be marching demerits off tomorrow. ”

  “I know, I know. ”

  “Can I borrow your drafting notes?”

  “I’ll get them for you. ”

  Rory grinned his wide froggy smile. “Actually, I already have them. They’re what I came upstairs to get. See you in the study room. Oh! I found a letter for you mixed in with mine. I’ve left it on your bunk. ”

  “Don’t smear my notes!” I warned him as he clattered off down the stairs. Shaking my head, I went into our dormitory room.

  I took off my jacket and tossed it on my bunk. I picked up the envelope. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, then smiled as the mystery came clear. The return address was a letter writer’s shop in Burvelle’s Landing, but the name on it was Sergeant Erib Duril. I opened it quickly, wondering what he could be writing to me about. Or rather, having someone else write to me about. Most reading and all writing were outside the old cavalla man’s field of expertise. Sergeant Duril had come to my father when his soldiering days were over, seeking a home for his declining years. He’d become my tutor, my mentor, and toward the end of our years together, my friend. From him, I’d learned all my basic cavalla and horsemanship skills, and a great deal about being a man.

  I read the curiously formal letter through twice. Obviously, the letter writer had chosen to put the old soldier’s words in more elegant form than Duril himself would have chosen. It did not sound at all like him as he sympathized with my illness and expressed fond wishes that I would recover well. Only the sentiment at the end, graciously phrased as it was, sounded like advice my old mentor would have given me:

  Even after you have recovered from this dread epidemic, I fear that you will find yourself changed. I have witnessed, with my own eyes and often, what this devastating plague can do to a young man’s physique. The body that you so carefully sculpted for years under my tutelage may dwindle and serve you less well than it has in the past. Nonetheless, I counsel you that it is the soul of a military man that makes him what he is, and I have faith that your soul will remain true to the calling of the good god.

  I glanced back at the date on the envelope, and saw that the letter had taken its time to reach me. I wondered if Duril had held it for some days, debating as to whether or not to send it, or if the letter writer had simply overlooked the missive and not sent it on its way. Well, soon enough I’d see Sergeant Duril. I smiled to myself, touched that he’d taken the time and spent the coins to send me this. I folded the paper carefully and tucked it away among my books.

  I picked up my jacket again. From the chest at the foot of my bed, I took my sewing kit. Best to get it done now, and then study. As I looked for the place where the button had popped off, I discovered they all were straining, and two others were on the point of giving way.

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  Scowling, I cut the buttons off both my shirt and my jacket. I was absolutely certain that my newly gained bulk would vanish in the next month or two as I grew taller, but there was no sense in failing an inspection in the meantime. As I refastened the buttons with careful stitches, I moved each one over to allow myself a bit of breathing space. When I put my shirt and jacket back on, I found them much more comfortable, even though it still strained at my shoulders. Well, that couldn’t be helped. Fixing that was beyond my limited tailoring skills. I frowned to myself; I didn’t want my clothing to fit me poorly at my brother’s wedding. Carsina, my fiancée, would be there, and she had particularly asked me to wear my academy uniform for the occasion. Her dress would be a matching green. I smiled to myself; girls gave great thought to the silliest things. Well, doubtless my mother could make any needed alterations to my uniform, if the journey home did not lean me down as I expected it to.

  After a moment’s hesitation, I cut the buttons off my trouser waistband and moved them over as well. Much eased, I took my books and headed down to the study room to join my fellows.

  The scene in Bringham House library was much different from our old study room in Carneston Hall. There were no long trestle tables and hard benches, but round tables with chairs and ample lighting. There were several cushioned chairs set round the fireplace for quiet conversation. I found a spot at a table next to Gord, set down my books, and took a seat. He glanced up, preoccupied, and then smiled. “A messenger came for you while you were gone. He gave me this for you. ”

  “This” was a thick brown envelope, from my uncle’s address. I opened it eagerly. As I had anticipated, it contained a receipt for my shipboard passage as far as Sorton, and a voucher written against my father’s bank in Old Thares for funds for my journey. The note from my uncle said that my father had requested he make my arrangements for me, and that he hoped to see me again before I left for the wedding.

  It was strange. Until I held the envelope in my hand, I had been content, even satisfied to stay at the academy. Now an encompassing wave of homesickness swept over me. I suddenly missed my whole family acutely. My heart clenched as I thought of my little sister Yaril and her constant questions, and my mother and the special plum tarts she made for me each spring. I missed all of them, my father, and Rosse, my older brother, even my older sister Elisi and her endless good advice.

  But foremost in my thoughts was Carsina. Her little letters to me had grown increasingly fond and flirtatious. I longed to see her, and had already imagined several different ways in which I might steal some time alone with her. For a short time after Epiny’s wedding to Spink, I had entertained doubts about Carsina and myself. My parents had chosen my fiancée. On several occasions, I’d had reason to doubt that my father always knew what was best for me. Could they truly select a woman I could live with, peacefully if not happily, the rest of my life? Or had she been chosen more for the political alliance with a neighboring new noble, with the expectation that her placid nature would give me no problems? I suddenly resolved that before I returned to the academy I would know her for myself. We would talk, and not just niceties about the weather and if she enjoyed di
nner. I would discover for myself how she truly felt about being a soldier’s bride, and if she had other ambitions for her life. Epiny, I thought with grim humor, had ruined women for me. Prior to meeting my eccentric and modern cousin, I had never paused to wonder what thoughts went through my sisters’ heads when my father was not around to supervise them. Having experienced Epiny’s sharp intelligence and acid tongue, I would no longer automatically relegate women to a passive and docile role. It was not that I hoped Carsina secretly concealed an intellect as piercing as Epiny’s. In truth, I did not. But I suspected there must be more to my shy little flower than I had so far discovered. And if there was, I was resolved to know it before we were wed and promised to one another to the end of our days.

  “You’re a long time quiet. Bad news?” Gord asked me solemnly.

  I grinned at him. “On the contrary, brother. Good news, great news! I’m starting for home tomorrow, to see my brother’s wedding. ”

  CHAPTER TWO

  HOMEWARD BOUND

  M y departure from the academy was neither as swift nor as simple as I had hoped. When I went by the commander’s office to inform him that I had my ticket and was ready to leave, he charged me to be sure I had informed each of my instructors and taken down notes of what assignments I should complete before my return. I had not reckoned on that, but had hoped for freedom from my books for a time. It took me the best part of a day to gather them up, for I dared not interrupt any classes. Then my packing was more complicated than I had planned, for I had to take my books, and yet still travel light enough that all my provisions would fit in Sirlofty’s saddle panniers.

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  It was some months since the tall gelding had had to carry anything besides me, and he seemed a bit sulky when I loaded the panniers on him as well. In truth, I was as little pleased as he was. I was proud of my sharp uniform and fine horse; it seemed a shame to ride him through Old Thares laden as if he were a mule and I some rustic farmer taking a load of potatoes to market. I tried to stifle my annoyance at it, for I knew that half of it was vanity. I tightened my saddle cinch, signed the ancient “hold fast” charm over the buckle, and mounted my horse.

 
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