Forest mage, p.32
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       Forest Mage, p.32

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

  Three times in that period, I saw travelers pass. The couriers who served the king passed every day, but other than them there was little traffic on the road this time of year. Once it was a train of wagons pulled by oxen, heading toward Gettys. The men driving them were hard-eyed, and both the first and the last wagon had guards perched on the wagon seats, long guns slung across their knees. Plainly they wanted nothing to do with anyone. We stared at one another, but no one called out a greeting. Another day, it was a man riding a horse and leading two mules laden with furs. He was headed west on the road. He nodded to my “Good day” but kept on his way. And the other traveler I saw was a tinker with a wagon pulled by a mismatched team. The wagon was painted with pictures of his wares, but the bright panels were thick with dust and the tall yellow wheels of his wagon were crusted with mud. I was on the edge of the stump field. I waved my arms at him, hoping he’d stop. I wanted to see what tools he had for sale. He waved back at me, but then stirred up his team to a trot, plainly disinclined to pause. I shouted after him, but he was gone, leaving only dust hanging over the road in his wake.

  Often the children would come out to watch me at my tasks. I began to teach them the nursery rhymes I knew, the counting songs and memory games. They liked the one about the farmer calling his five goats. Kara wanted to learn how my sling worked. I made her a smaller one, and set her targets. She became a fair shot, but Amzil seemed reluctant to let me take her out to hunt. I could not decide if she did not trust me alone with the child or did not think it a proper task for her.

  I cut firewood every day. It became a wall between Amzil’s cottage and the hut where the old man lived. At night, our fire was more generous and it filled the small space with both warmth and light. One night I took it upon myself to be the storyteller, and it flattered me that Amzil listened as attentively as her three small children. I told them two tales that my mother had told me when I was a boy, and then I found myself telling a story that I did not remember hearing, yet I knew I was not making up. It was the tale of a young man who sought to avoid doing a task that his mother had given him, and of all the misfortunes that befell him as a result of his attempt to ignore his duty. The ending was, in a way, quite comical, for when the boy finally surrendered and went to do his task, he found that his mother had already done it. The children seemed to enjoy the story, but after Amzil had put them to bed she said to me, “That was a rather strange story. ” Her tone made it clear that she did not quite approve of it.

  “It’s a story that the Speck tell to their children,” I said, and then wondered how I had come by such knowledge. “I think it’s to teach them that some tasks are so important, they cannot be ignored. Someone will do them. ”

  Amzil raised her eyebrows me. “And your telling it makes it all the stranger,” she said with even greater disapproval. A short time later, she sought her bed with the children, and I rolled myself in my blankets to sleep before the fire.

  That night I dreamed of the Tree Woman’s forest. I walked alone down paths where once we had walked as a couple. It was autumn in the forest and the leaves on the deciduous trees were turning. I had never seen such a spectacle. In the area of the plains where I had grown up, there were groves of trees along the river or following the streambeds. In autumn, their leaves turned a soggy brown and hung on the branches until the frost and falls of snow took them down. Never before had I experienced walking in a forest where the leaves had gone yellow and gold and scarlet. When I lifted my eyes, the brilliance of their color against the bright blue autumn sky was shocking. The leaves had already begun to forsake the trees; there were drifts of them across the path, and as I waded through them they rustled around my feet. There was an incredible smell in the air, a rich odor of decomposing leaves and fresh rain and the promise of a sharp frost in the night to come. I felt alive, and in the strange clarity of that dream I felt that this life was larger and brighter and sharper-edged than in my waking world. I was going somewhere. I could not have said where, and yet I was hurrying to get there, eager to arrive. I went down a hillside through a forest of white-trunked birches with golden leaves fluttering in the autumn breeze. At the bottom, I came to a swampy place where high-bush cranberries dandled their translucent scarlet fruit below palm-sized leaves that had gone red with the frost. Willows grew there, and their long narrow leaves had gone a different shade of red. I cupped a scant handful of the fruit and tasted it. The berries burst in my mouth with the sweet of summer ending and the sharp tang of winter yet to come. I chewed the seeds as I walked on, deeper into her world.

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  Her world it was. I came to her at last, supine on the earth. My sword had bitten deep into her trunk, and she had fallen, just as a tree would have crashed to earth if most of the trunk had been severed. The stump of her body stood and her torso had fallen beside it, but that torso was still connected to the stump by a thick bend of bark. By that, she lived. She was somehow a great tree and she was an immense woman, with all the attributes of both. She had stretched her length out on the forest floor when she fell, a glorious statue toppled from its pedestal. Her torso and head melded with the fallen portion of the tree. The mass of her hair ranged from glossy curls around her face to flowing tresses that merged with the rough bark of the trunk beyond her head. Like a nursery log, a sapling was sprouting from her, a slender tree growing up from between her breasts. The felling of her tree had created a clearing in the forest canopy. Light spilled from above to warm the earth. A host of plant life had sprung up around her. I knelt beside her, knees cushioned by moss and leaves. I took her hand. “So I didn’t kill you. You didn’t die,” I said with gladness.

  She smiled up at me. “I told you. Such as I do not die in that way. We go on. ”

  Cautiously, I set a hand to the smooth bark of the slender sapling. “This is you?” I asked her.

  She put her hand over mine, closing my fingers around the growing trunk. “It is me. ”

  Wonder caught me. Life pulsed in the sapling. Skin to bark, I could feel her magic at work as she transferred her power into the new life springing up from her bosom. Even in that place, a shiver of awe ran over me.

  She had shifted her gaze to speak to me. Now she looked up at the infinite blue sky above us. Her long hair coiled and looped around her head like a corona. “Soldier’s Boy, you know you have a task. It was given to you by the magic. I know what the task is. You are to save us. But only you know how you are to accomplish that. That was why the magic was given to you. Not so that you might amuse yourself, but because you are the one who would know what you must do to accomplish your task. With power comes responsibility. You understand this. ” Her voice was gentle but her words were absolute.

  “Of course I do,” I said readily, though until that moment, I do not think that I had.

  “You must come to where the destruction is. See it for yourself. Then tell me how you will defeat it. It is my weakness that I hunger to know these things. When I walked in the world that you now tread, I was a curious woman. Even here, even now, that curiosity remains. I know the magic, I trust the magic, and still I want to know. Will not you tell me?”

  “When I know for myself what it is that I must do to defeat the end of our world, then I will tell you. I promise you that. ”

  She relaxed more deeply into her mossy couch. Ferns had sprouted around her where she had fallen. The fallen leaves of autumn had drifted around her supine form, cushioning her curves with their gold. I cannot describe how glorious she was. When I looked on her, I saw her as a Speck would. She was not fleshy, but lush; her rounded belly, her voluptuous breasts, the softness of her face all spoke of a time of plenty, of fruition and harvest. “I hold you to your promise, Soldier’s Boy. Do not tarry. There are others, less patient than I, who think that a swifter solution must be reached. I have told them of you, in dreams and visions. Nonetheless, they will soon take steps of their own to rid our lands of the invaders. They
say that the dance has failed. They say it is time to use the intruders’ own ways against them. ”

  A deep foreboding rose in me, tainting my dream. I smelled smoke, and the fallen leaves suddenly became sodden and black and rotting. I sank into them. All around me, the forest became a cemetery of snaggled stumps and bare, oozing earth. The tree woman sagged into a rotting corpse. Her lips, mottled with mold, tore as she spoke her last words to me. “The magic was not given to you to use for yourself. Be wary of that temptation. Tarry no longer, but come to us. Our need is great. ”

  And then she was gone, flesh and bones sinking into a swamp of rot that was not the healthy compost of a living forest but the stink of too many dead things left heaped in a pile. I tried to get away, but my feet and legs sank into the muck. I struggled wildly, wallowing deeper. It reached my thighs, and with infinite loathing I felt it close around my loins and lap against my belly. I tried to open my eyes, knowing that I dreamed, but no matter how I contorted my face, I could not waken myself. I gave a sudden wild cry of absolute despair.

  I think my own shout awakened me. It was small comfort at first, for I was sprawled in mud and leaves and surrounded by ghostly stumps. Rain was falling all around me. I was wet, cold, and completely disoriented. How had I got here? The moon glided briefly from the shelter of the clouds and granted me a gray wash of light. I staggered to my feet and wrapped my arms around myself, shivering. I was barefoot, and my clothes were coated with mud and dead leaves. My hair, long grown out of a soldier’s cut, dangled wet on my brow and dripped into my eyes. When I pushed it back from my face, I smeared my forehead with muck from my wet, gritty hands. I cursed myself for an idiot for making it worse. I stumbled back through the storm and the treacherous stump field to Amzil’s door. It was closed tight, with the latch string pulled inside; I wondered if I’d shut it behind me when I went sleep walking, or if Amzil had wakened to a draft and closed it.

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  I wanted to pound on it and gain swift admission to the dry fireside. The thought of waking not only Amzil but also her children dissuaded me. Reluctantly, I sought the shed. I was glad we’d tightened up the roof. It was dry inside, and Clove’s huge body radiated warmth into the small space. In the darkness, I found the saddle blanket and made a rough bed for myself until dawn. Then I rose, cold and stiff. I took Clove out and hobbled him in deep grass near the river’s edge so he could graze. I went for a walk along the riverbank until I was sure that Amzil would be awake. Then I returned to her cottage.

  “You’re up early,” she observed softly. The children were still sleeping.

  “Fish are jumping after mosquitoes in the shallows of the river. If we had fishing tackle, you could have a nice breakfast on mornings like this. ”

  She smiled sourly. “If I had fishing tackle. If I had a net. If I had seed, or a loom, or yarn, or fabric. There are so many ways I could better our lot, if I had even the most basic tools to begin. But I don’t, and I’ve nothing to trade or sell, and even if I had something to trade, it would take me days to walk to a marketplace, and I’d have to take the children with me. I’ve had months to think my situation through, over and over. There’s no reason for a town to be here. There’s nothing to make people come here. It’s just a place to pass by on your way to somewhere else. I have no way to acquire even the most basic things I’d need to make a life here. Perhaps if my husband had lived, we could have managed, for one of us could make the long trip to Gettys while the other stayed here with the children. But I cannot take them so far alone. Sometimes I think that was what the king intended. He took all the poor folk who broke the laws to live, and sent us out here to die. ”

  Her words nudged my dormant loyalty to the king. “I don’t think that was his intent. I believe he truly thought you could make a new beginning here. He spoke of the road becoming a great river of trade between west and east, and of towns springing up along it and becoming centers of commerce. When more people begin to travel the road, there will be trade opportunities. Even as it is now, any sort of an inn here would be welcome by travelers, I’m sure. ”

  “An inn. ” She looked at me with tried patience. “That’s an old idea. There was an inn here, for a very short time. You’ll find the burned timbers at the east end of town. ”

  “What happened to it?”

  She sighed with exasperation. “It was burned down by angry patrons who claimed they had been robbed while they slept. ”

  “Were they?”

  She shrugged one shoulder and looked almost guilty. “I don’t know. Perhaps. Probably. ” She poked at the fire angrily, stirring the coals to flame as she added a small piece of wood. “Do you forget who we are here? Do you forget why the king chased us out of Old Thares? When you make a town of pickpockets, thieves, murderers, and rapists, what do you think will happen? What happens when a family of thieves opens an inn?”

  That silenced me for a time. I had not stopped to think about what it would be like to settle in a town where the entire population consisted of criminals and their families. Unwillingly I asked, “Your neighbors. Were they…?”

  “Of course. Why do you think I live apart from them? That old man Reeves? He was sent from the city for raping young girls. His wife will tell you they all tempted him, if you let her speak to you for more than five minutes. He strangled the last one; that was how they caught him. Merkus, who you plowed for? He murdered a man in a tavern fight. Teme and Roya, up the hill with their youngsters? They were both in the jail. He stole from the old woman he worked for, and Roya helped him sell her furs and jewelry. ”

  “But you are not a criminal. And travelers do pass this way. Merchants, new recruits for Gettys, the soldiers, and the prisoner workers they escort. Even if there is not yet much traffic, there are enough people going by for you to make something from their passage. ”

  She glanced at me. “Pretend, for a moment, that you are a woman alone with three small children. Some travelers might be glad of a clean bed and a warm room, even if I have no food to sell them. Some would pay for it, with coin or barter. But others would simply take whatever they wanted from me and be on their way. If I was lucky. Don’t you see that I’d be tempting danger by opening my door to strangers? When the soldiers and the long prisoner trains pass, do you know what we do? We run down to the river and hide there until they have gone by. The soldiers who guard the prisoners know that this was a town made for criminals. They don’t trust anyone who lives here, and they don’t respect the lives of anyone who lives here. ”

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  “You have a gun,” I pointed out.

  She hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and then said abruptly, “And they have many guns, and far more ammunition than I do. How do you imagine they would treat us if I killed one of them trying to defend what we have from them? Would any of my children survive? I doubt I would, and I don’t like to think what their suffering would be after I’d died. ”

  I had no reply to the grim picture she painted. She seemed to take angry satisfaction in my silence. She mixed two handfuls of coarse meal into a pot of cold water and set it over the wakened fire. Breakfast would be the same thin porridge she had cooked every morning since I arrived. I’d been intending to tell her that I’d be leaving that day. Suddenly, it seemed that I couldn’t just yet, that there had to be something I could do for them before I went. I went out to check the snares.

  We had one rabbit. But one of the other snares looked odd to me. A moment of considering it proved all Amzil’s suspicions of her neighbors’ were correct. The thrashed ground around the snare showed me that a rabbit had been caught there. Someone had come, taken it, and awkwardly reset the snare. Anger flamed through me. I wondered who would stoop so low as to steal from a woman and three small children. The answer came to me: anyone who was hungry enough. I moved the snare, and took our catch back to Amzil’s cottage.

  As I skinned it, my mind
was spinning with thoughts. There was so much I could do if I stayed here. I could teach her to use a sling. That would work on birds as well as rabbits. I could make a fish spear and show her how to use that. I was far from the wide plains where I had grown up, and I did not know as many of the plants here as I would have at home. But there were still some I knew. The roots of the cattails along the river; did she know she could dig them and grind them into a sort of meal? And the cottage next to her shed was not in terrible shape; I could patch the roof of it and tighten the walls. It would not be an inn, but it would be shelter she could rent to travelers in need, without bringing them under her own roof.

  I suddenly understood my friend Spink’s restlessness when he watched his elder brother run the family holdings and suspected that he could make a better job of it. I looked at Amzil and her children and her situation, and knew that with time and the strength of my hands, I could better things for all of them. I wanted to do that, in the same way that one wants to right a crooked picture on a wall, or smooth the upturned corner of a rug. To me, the tasks were relatively simple, and the benefits to Amzil and her children might be the difference between starvation and well, not prosperity, but at least less want.

  For the first time in my life, I felt I might be free of the fate that the good god had decreed for me. I felt sinful even to consider that idea, and yet there it was. If, through no fault of my own, I could not find a place for myself in military service, then what was I to do? Become a beggar on the streets? Or make a place for myself somewhere, a place where I could be useful to others and take some satisfaction in my own achievements? The children were awake. Kara came out and squealed gleefully at the sight of the skinned rabbit. I gave it to her to take to her mother. Little Sem stood under my elbow and nearly got nicked by my knife as I scraped the hide clean and then added it to the other skins. He followed me as I walked past the shed to the next cottage. It was as poorly built as Amzil’s, and had a decided lean to it. I walked all the way around it, the little boy at my heels. There was another cottage built just off the corner of the first one; it would be fairly simple to build a room to connect them into one, larger structure. The idea of an inn had taken hold in my mind, and it now seemed the inevitable answer to Amzil’s situation. It was easy to dismiss her naysaying. She was a woman alone, and thus it had all appeared impossible to her. But if I stayed on, I could show her how it could be done. And with a man in charge, other men would be less prone to attempt to take advantage of her. I could do it. I could become her protector.

 
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