Forest mage, p.31
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       Forest Mage, p.31

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

  A long silence fell and then she said, “I fear we’re going to die here. And my biggest dread is that I’ll die before my children do. And there will be no one left to protect them from whatever comes next. ”

  I had never heard such black despair. Worse was to see in the children’s eyes that they fully understood what their mother said. My heart spoke. “I’ll stay a day or two, if you want. I can at least help you make this place tight for the winter. ”

  She looked at me flatly and then asked with acid sweetness, “And what will you want from me in exchange?” Her eyes traveled over me disdainfully. I knew what she thought I would ask of her, and that it disgusted her. I also read in her eyes that if that were what I demanded, she’d give it to me, for the sake of her children. She made me feel like a monster.

  I spoke slowly. “I’d like to sleep in here, near the fire instead of out in the shed. And I’d like a day or two of rest and grazing for my horse, and some time out of the saddle. That’s all. ”

  “Is it?” She was skeptical. Her mouth pinched again, bringing out the cat in her again. “If that’s all, I’ll say yes to that, then. ”

  “That’s all,” I said quietly, and she nodded sharply to the deal we had struck.

  She and her children slept in the only bed, across the room from the fire. She put herself between me and her children, and her pistol between her and me. I slept on the floor by the fire.

  The next day, I built a wood crib for the firewood, so I could stack it so it would stay dry. It was crudely built from salvaged wood and nails, but it worked. I put a roof over it to keep the snow off the firewood. Amzil and Kara stacked the wood between the supports as I showed them while the other children played nearby. I found good thick logs and cut them into stout chunks. “These will burn a long time, once you’ve got a bed of coals going,” I told her. “Save them for the worst nights, when the snow is deep and the cold hard. Until then, use up the small stuff, and whatever else you can forage for yourself. ”

  “I’ve had one winter here. I think I know how to manage,” Amzil said stiffly.

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  “Probably better than I do,” I conceded grumpily. I’d worked all morning. My shirt was stuck to me with sweat despite a chill wind blowing off the rain-soaked hills. Hunger gnawed at my guts. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I rolled my shoulders and stretched. I leaned the ax up against my chopping block.

  “Where are you going?” Amzil demanded suspiciously.

  “Hunting,” I decided abruptly.

  “With what?” she asked. “For what?”

  “With a sling, for whatever I can get,” I replied. “Rabbits, birds, small game. ”

  She shook her head and folded her lips, obviously thinking I was wasting time when I could be cutting more wood. But the morning’s work had already convinced me that I’d need a more substantial meal than watery soup. I’d begun thinking of food, against my will, and had suddenly become aware of the birds calling to one another.

  “Can you do that?” she asked me suddenly. “Kill birds with a sling?”

  “We’ll see,” I said. “I used to be able to. ”

  I was fatter than I’d been as a boy, and out of my territory. Dawn and dusk were the best times to hunt, and this was neither. I tried the woods first, where tree trunks that spoiled my swing and tiny branches that deflected my missiles frustrated me. From there, I moved to the logged-off hillside behind the town, and there I did better, braining a rabbit that foolishly stood up on its hind legs to see what I was.

  It wasn’t much of a hunter’s bag, but Amzil seemed delighted with it. She and the children gathered round me as I gutted and skinned it and cut it up for the pot. While she took it inside to start it cooking, I scraped the skin and stretched it as tightly as I could before tacking it, skin side up, on a board to dry. “You’ll need to keep this out of the weather,” I told her. “Once it’s dried, it will be hard and stiff. You’ll have to work it, rolling it slowly until it softens up again. But it will give you a rabbitskin with the fur on. Four or five of these sewn together would make a blanket for the little one. ”

  I’d kept back the sinew from the rabbit’s hind legs. I showed it to her. “This makes the best snares. There was a lot of rabbit sign out there. If you set two or three snares each evening, you’d have a fair chance of having some meat in your diet on a regular basis. ”

  She shook her head. “They’re too smart. I’ve seen rabbits out there, at dawn and in the evening. But I’ve never been able to catch one, and the traps I’ve made don’t hold them. ”

  “What kind of traps?”

  “I dug holes for them to fall into. I caught a couple of babies like that in the spring. But the others soon learned to go around them. ”

  My amused smile offended her. I quickly wiped it from my face. She knows nothing of rabbits, or of hunting, I thought to myself. Her skills from her life in the city were useless here. That wasn’t her fault, and I shouldn’t look down on her for trying. At the same time, I could not help feeling a bit superior. “We’ll make the snare lines very fine, so they’re almost invisible. And I’ll show you how to know where the rabbit will lift its head as it comes down the trail and out of the brush. That’s the best place to hang a snare, to make sure you get a quick, clean kill. ”

  “The young ones I caught were alive. I wanted to try to cage them and breed them, like people do pigeons and doves in the city. But…” She glanced at the children. “Sometimes meat today is more important than saving for a tomorrow. ”

  I found myself nodding. She was right. With the right kind of trap, live rabbits would provide her with a ready source of meat. “I might be able to come up with a pit trap that would work, then,” I offered.

  “We’ll set some of both,” she decided firmly.

  I was feeling rather satisfied with myself as I followed her and the children into the little house. The rabbit was simmering with onion and potato in a pot near the edge of the fire. The aroma of the cooking meat assaulted my senses. I almost lost myself in it. Then I saw my panniers open on the floor. All my possessions were stacked around them. I could not keep the chill from my voice as I asked her, “Did you find what you were looking for?”

  She met my gaze, and her cheeks went a bit pink. But she did not look guilty. Instead, her chin came up. “Yes. Your washing and mending. That seemed a fair trade to me for the work you’ve done with the wood and the hunting. And when I found you had salt in there, I took some for cooking the meat. As you were going to be eating it alongside us, I thought nothing of it. Do you find fault with it?”

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  I didn’t like it. Everything I had in the world was in those panniers, including my journal and what money I had. A sneaking part of me resolved that at my earliest opportunity, I’d make certain it was still there. She was meeting my eyes in a very direct way. I took a breath. She’d meant well and she was honest about it. Traveling can make a person suspicious. “It took me aback, yes. ”

  “It was something I was willing to do for you. ” From the emphasis she put on the words, she made it clear that there were other things she’d be unwilling to do for me. “My mother was a good seamstress and she taught me well. She sewed for some of the best families in Old Thares. She knew how to make clothing fit a…portly man. And I learned it at her knee. I can make your garments more comfortable on you. So you can chop wood without straining the seams. ”

  Why was it so hard to say, “Thank you. I’d welcome that”? I suppose it was because I wished she could see me as something other than a fat stranger who wanted to lie with her. I had to admit that in many ways, it was a fair appraisal of me. It wasn’t that I was infatuated with her or wished her to like me. She was pretty enough, in a weary way, and she was a woman, and the first woman other than my sister I’d spent any appreciable time with in weeks. That was all, I told myself. It was simple proximity and honest lust
. A man didn’t have to be ashamed of that, as long as he didn’t force himself on a woman. It was just the way a man was made.

  That evening was both more comfortable and less easy. The food was more substantial, and once again we had tea to finish with, even if there was no sugar. But she had told me her story the night before, and I had no wish to tell her mine, so talk was scarce. Firelight was the only light in the room. We sought our beds early. I lay on the floor, rolled in my blanket. I tried not to think of her, soft and warm and only a few steps away. For all my harsh training to be a soldier, I thought to myself, this family lived in harder circumstances than anything I’d ever experienced. There were no evening pastimes for the children, no storybooks or music, no toys save what they had invented for themselves. Amzil had little education; I doubted she could read. Whatever culture she had absorbed growing up in the grand city of Old Thares would be denied to her children, growing up in poverty in this wilderness. It was grim to speculate on their future, not just during the harshness of the coming winter but for all the years after that.

  I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t shut down my thoughts. She’d as much as admitted that she’d whored for passing travelers last winter to get food for herself and the children. With such an example before them, what would Kara and little Dia expect of life? What sort of a man would Sem grow to be, watching his mother sell herself to support him? It was tawdry and disgusting. Yet when she looked at her children, her gaze was familiar, for it was the same way my mother had always looked at us. In the last year, I’d had my eyes opened to my mother’s place in our world, and had come to realize that in many ways she had sacrificed her own interests to ours. The seeds of thought that Epiny had sown in my mind were growing in uncomfortable ways. My mother had always been my mother and my father’s wife. I don’t think I’d ever stopped to wonder who else she might have wanted to be, outside of those roles. Now I’d glimpsed, several times, how she had had to bow her head to my father’s decisions for her children, and witnessed more clearly how she had battled him for a say in our lives. She’d never expected to be a nobleman’s wife; she’d been married off to the soldier son of a good family, with no higher expectation than that he would advance in his career as an officer. When she’d left her father’s house, she would have believed that eventually, when my father retired from the military, she would return to Old Thares, to live at the Burvelle mansion there, to visit her childhood friends, to go to the theater and enjoy the cultural and social events of her home city. Instead, my father’s elevated status had meant that she lived far from the capital city and that her social friendships were limited to women similarly uplifted. She had traveled to visit her family in the city perhaps once every five years, and only after we children had become mostly self-sufficient. Until then, she had not left us for a single day. Was that what it meant to be a mother?

  I shifted uncomfortably on the packed earth floor. The cold from it seeped up through my blankets and made me ache. I tried to fall asleep, but my eyes kept opening, to stare around the dismal little room. I didn’t want to think about my mother and how life had trapped her in a similar way to how life had trapped Amzil. That led to wondering how deep of a trap I had fallen into myself. Here I lay, the son of a nobleman, a soldier son destined to be an officer, and I’d begged shelter and food from an ignorant seamstress, the widow of a thief. And I’d been grateful for what I’d received.

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  Clove had had a couple of days’ rest and some grazing. The days were getting cold and the nights even colder. It was stupid to linger here. The sooner I reached my journey’s end at Gettys, the sooner I would know what awaited me there. There was a danger to waiting too long. If the commander there didn’t accept me for enlistment, I’d probably have to winter there, and then ride out in spring to try my luck at other citadels and forts. There was no guarantee that any regiment would have me. My thoughts spiraled into darker speculation. If no regiment would have me, what then? What if I had to face being a soldier son who could not be a soldier, a noble’s son who had been disowned? A brother who had not kept his word to send for his sister? A fat man who begged shelter and food of strangers? A man who looked at a woman with interest, only to have her turn away in disgust?

  I didn’t much like any of my possible new identities. I made an abrupt decision. I would leave at first light tomorrow.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  BUEL HITCH

  I stayed with Amzil nearly a month. I think that almost every night I made a resolution to leave in the morning. But every morning brought some small task that I thought I could do before I left. And somehow each of those tasks led to others. It was always the task of the day that I stayed for; I never allowed myself to think how pleasant it was to have the company of this woman, how enjoyable I found it to be the one who could provide. My father had rubbed my nose in my failures for so long that even I was astonished at how much I could do for this orphaned and destitute family. It felt good.

  It began with keeping my promise to show her how to snare rabbits. I convinced myself that I had to stay an extra day to be sure that the snares were working and that she knew how to reset them. I spent the afternoon of that day cutting more wood and mending the roof of the shed that Clove had been using as a stable. Midway through that task, the man who had turned me away from his door only a few days before came to ask if he could barter with us for a few days of Clove’s labor. The man had devised a sort of plow and hoped that with the use of Clove’s strength, he could plow a much larger garden area for the next spring. I pointed out to him that it was the wrong season for plowing. He retorted that he was not stupid, but that breaking the soil now might make it easier for him to plant a larger area next spring.

  Fabricating a harness for Clove proved to be the trickiest part of the project. Yet by evening’s end, and with a lot of sweat, Merkus and I had managed to break the sod on a quarter-acre of land. It was rocky soil, threaded through with old roots. A good part of our toil went to chopping side roots so that Clove could jerk old stumps free of the earth. Merkus traded us a sack of potatoes and half a day of his labor the next day.

  So I had little choice but to decide to stay for another day. Our evening repast seemed very rich, for in a surge of optimism, Amzil had used the meat from two rabbits and five whole potatoes to make the meal. We had caught a total of three rabbits, so I showed her how to hang the extra meat in the chimney to smoke it and preserve it. The three rabbitskins joined the first one to dry.

  The extra food seemed to give the children more energy. They were not as willing to go to bed that night, so we sat up for some time by the fire. Amzil surprised me by telling the children several stories to pass the time. Then, after she had settled them into bed, we sat up a short time longer talking about what projects were most crucial for the coming winter.

  When Merkus arrived the next morning to work off his debt, he and I tightened the roof and door of Amzil’s house before moving on to make the roof of the shed sound. Long before noon, I had earned his grudging respect. Over the next few days, Clove’s great strength made short work of tugging down several ramshackle structures so that we could reduce them to usable timbers. Once I had stockpiled the lumber that I thought I could use for Amzil’s dwelling and the adjacent shed, I put Merkus in our debt once more by using Clove to haul a number of heavy timbers down to where he wished to use them.

  All this activity roused the curiosity of the other scattered dwellers. The old man and his nagging wife came to the door of their hut to watch Clove pass. I discovered there was one other family in the otherwise deserted town, a man and a woman of middle years with two half-grown children and a baby. They watched us from afar, but did not speak to us that day.

  Amzil and I checked the snares together that evening. We had only caught one rabbit, but she still seemed very pleased with it. Under my guidance, she moved the snares to fresh locations on some of the many rabbit trails throu
ghout the stump field.

  “If the game becomes scarce here, then you can always set snares along the river, especially in the wintertime. ” I told her. “Watch for the paths where animals go to water. Set them there. ”

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  “The river freezes along its bank in winter,” she told me.

  “There will still be tracks to it. You’ll see. ”

  Kara had tagged along with us, and to my surprise Amzil had the child set the final snare. She seemed very young to me to be doing such a task. Nonetheless, I held my tongue, suspecting that in this, Amzil probably knew best. Small as she was, the sooner Kara stepped up to help provide for her family, the better they would do.

  The cottage became a snugger place as each day passed. We mixed grass, moss, and mud, and chinked the gaps between the logs. With our salvaged wood, we put a floor in the cabin. I hunted each morning with my sling. My best day was when a lucky shot brought down a goose that I’d startled off the river. It was fat. Grease had never tasted so good to me. Amzil caught every drop of it before it could drip into the fire and saved it to flavor the lean rabbit that made up most of our meals.

  Our days began to have a pattern. Each morning I hunted. I brought my kills home to Amzil, and she cooked them. In the afternoons, I did whatever I thought best to improve her cottage. It was rough, crude work for the most part, but even so, it made a difference. A slab of wood and three stick legs made a stool. I longed for an awl, but managed to bore and whittle the leg holes with my knife. I made a low table so that the children could sit on the floor in front of the fire and have their meals more comfortably. Every day, Amzil set aside a part of my catch to either smoke or dry as jerked meat. It pleased me to watch her little larder grow full. I built her another shelf.

 
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