Forest mage, p.33
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       Forest Mage, p.33
 

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

  I pushed away the thought that tried to creep to the forefront of my mind: that once she had seen that I could both provide and protect, she might look on me with a more favorable glance.

  I looked at the cottages with an engineer’s eye, and shook my head. They were pathetic. Yet they could be made to serve, at least for now. With timbers and logs from the nearby abandoned huts, I could shore them up to make them last the winter. Surely winter travelers on this road would welcome any sort of a shelter for the night. And the room I would build to connect them would be level and strong, the heart of a new structure that would eventually rise in place of the old. Sem was at my heels as I entered the second cottage. I was pleased to find it had a very functional-looking fireplace and chimney. Like Amzil’s home, the floor was of earth. A table with two broken legs leaned against a bed frame full of rotting straw and bugs. The table was beyond repair, but the bedframe was salvageable. I checked the inside walls of the cabin, testing the wood with my knife. Some rot, but not much. This structure was in much better condition than the first cottage, and I immediately decided I would begin my renovation here.

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  “Sem! Sem, where are you?” There was a frantic note to Amzil’s cry.

  “He’s here with me! We’re coming!” I called back to her, and Sem piped up, “We’re coming!” in such an obvious imitation of me that I had to laugh. As we made our way through the weedy space between the huts, a very familiar smell suddenly rose to my nostrils. Looking down, I found that I was standing on the crushed remains of a small cabbage. I blinked, and recognized the top of a carrot, and there the rounded purple shoulders of a turnip pushing up from the weedy earth. We were standing in the remains of a badly choked vegetable garden. It looked as if the seeds had been randomly thrown on the soil and had sprouted haphazardly. I found another cabbage, not much bigger than my fist but sound. I gave it to Sem to carry, and pulled up both the turnip and the carrot. The carrot was a long, dark-orange root, gone woody in its second year of growth, and root maggots had left a trail on the turnip, but for all that, the good parts could be cut off and stewed down. I felt I had discovered treasure rather than some old and wormy vegetables.

  I looked up from my knees to find an angry-looking Amzil bearing down on us. “What are you doing out here with my son?” she demanded.

  “Seeing how sound this building is. Watch where you step! There’s a vegetable garden gone wild here. ”

  “You have no right…what?”

  “We’re standing in a grown-over vegetable patch. I stepped on one cabbage before I realized it. But Sem has another, and I found a carrot and a turnip, too. ”

  Her eyes darted from her son holding the cabbage to me and back again. Conflicting emotions flashed across her face. “This is wonderful—but never again take my boy out of my sight without my permission. ”

  The vehemence in her voice shocked me, and I realized that however comfortable I had become here, she still regarded me as a stranger. And dangerous.

  “Sem followed me,” I said quietly. I knew it was unreasonable to feel hurt or angry, yet in truth, I felt both.

  “I’m…I’m sure he did. But I don’t like any of my children to wander out of my sight. There are many dangers here in the wild country. ” It sounded like an excuse, not an apology.

  “And you think I’m one of those dangers. ” I spoke flatly.

  “You might be,” she replied frankly.

  “I’m not. Not to you or to your children. I thought I’d been helping you. ”

  “You have. You did. ” She looked down at the small boy. He was frowning as he tried to follow our conversation, looking back and forth between us. “Sem, go home. There’s porridge on the table for you. Eat it up. ”

  The mention of food was enough to send the boy flying. He scampered off, still clutching the cabbage in his arms. When he was out of earshot, she looked back at me. Her expression was not unfriendly, but neither was it kindly. She spoke bluntly. “You have helped us. And in return, I’ve sewn your clothes for you, and allowed you to share our roof and fire, and whatever food we had. And I admit that it’s thanks to you that we’ve had more food in the last few weeks than we’ve had for some time. But—well, but I don’t wish to be in your debt. I don’t want you to start thinking that because you’ve done things for us, we owe you something. Well, I mean, I know that I do, but I won’t…that is—”

  “I don’t think you’re a whore, Amzil. I won’t try to buy you with coin or food. Nor would I do any harm to any of your children. You seem to think me some sort of a monster, capable of anything!” Then the hurt did break into my voice, despite my best efforts. She looked startled. I felt embarrassed. I looked away from her. I tried desperately to think of something to say that would change the topic. I cleared my throat. “Someone stole from us last night. They took a rabbit from one of our snares. They reset it, but poorly. I could tell what had been done. ”

  “I’m not surprised. ” She spoke quickly, as if glad to talk of something new. “It was bound to happen. ” Then anger flared again in her voice. “But what can I do? If I stay up all night to watch the snares in the stump field, the rabbits won’t come. And I’ll be too tired to take care of the children by day. It’s hopeless. ”

  “Have you ever thought of trying to form an alliance with some of your neighbors?”

  She gave me an incredulous glance. She began to walk back to her cottage and I followed her. “I told you what they are. Murderers, thieves, and rapists. I don’t trust them. ”

  “But your husband was a thief. ” I tried to speak the words gently, but they still sounded like an accusation. “Oh, look there,” I added before she could reply. “Lettuce. ”

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  “It doesn’t look like lettuce. It’s tall with little leaves. ”

  “It’s gone to seed. ” I went down heavily on one knee in the sodden weeds. I broke the top off the plant and lifted it carefully, my hand cupped under the seed head. “You can save these and plant them next spring. Or you can dig up the ground and plant them now. The plants here either wintered over or reseeded themselves, so it didn’t get cold enough here to kill them completely. Actually, if you plant some now, you might get an early crop in spring. And then plant the rest of the seed after that, for more lettuce later. But always leave a few plants in the garden to go to seed, so you’ll have seed for the next season. ”

  “Oh,” she said faintly. She stopped walking and looked back at the overgrown garden. “I feel so stupid. It makes sense now. ”

  “What?”

  “That they gave us seed, and told us it should be enough to last us. I had nothing to plant this spring. I was lucky enough to find some onions and potatoes growing where I’d planted them last year. I thought I’d just missed them when I harvested them. ”

  “It was a cruel thing they did, putting you out here without teaching you first how to grow a garden or catch a rabbit. ”

  “They did give us some chickens. For a short time, we had eggs. Then someone stole them and ate them, I suppose. That happened soon after we first arrived, when more people lived here. ” She gave me a very uncomfortable glance. “Thank you. What’s your name?”

  I realized she’d never asked me and I hadn’t told her. “Nevare Bur—” I stopped short. My father no longer claimed me. Did I wish to claim his name?

  “Nevare Burr. Thank you, Nevare. ”

  She said my name, and for a moment I felt an odd thrill, similar to the first time that Carsina had touched my hand. She was walking in front of me and could not see my cynical smile. Of course, Nevare. Fall in love with the first woman you befriend, simply because she is willing to say your name. Ignore how she looks at you; ignore how frightened she was just a few moments ago when she thought you had lured her child away. I forced myself to confront how desperately lonely I’d become. I was so alone. As alone, I reminded myself, as Yaril.
I did not need to fall to a wild schoolboy infatuation with Amzil. I had my sister and her affection to sustain me. Instead of thinking how I could change Amzil’s life if she allowed me to, I knew I should focus my efforts on creating a life for myself, one that would eventually allow me to send for Yaril.

  Amzil hurried ahead of me; I walked more slowly. I stopped. I turned to look back at the two cottages that had, for a few moments, been in my imagination an inn. Yet, why not here? I asked myself. Why should I not build the inn, just as I had imagined it, but for myself and eventually for Yaril? And if my efforts here produced benefits for Amzil and her children as well, that would simply be an additional good. “I could stay here and build a life for myself,” I said softly.

  At my words, lightning flashed through me. I remembered my dream, all in that instant. In the next moment, I stood trembling in full daylight, possessed of a knowledge I did not want. I could not stay here. I couldn’t build an inn or make a place for Yaril. I was supposed to go on, to the land of the Specks. If I did not, evil would befall me. No. Not just me. Evil would befall any who held me back from that quest.

  The corollary to that axiom fell into place for me. Misfortune had befallen my home and family in Widevale because they had sought to keep me there. The plague had come to Widevale, and scoured me of my family because I had defied the magic. The magic had cut me free of my old life. I shook my head. It could not be true. It was a stupid uncivilized superstition, something an ignorant man or a savage might believe.

  My gut cramped with guilt and pain.

  I bent over, clasping my great wobbly belly in my hands, sickened with the knowledge that filled me as much as by the emptiness of the hunger that suddenly assailed me. It was not a hunger for simple sustenance. I needed to eat to feed the magic that dwelt in me. It demanded food, and it demanded that I continue on my way to Gettys, to the territory of the Specks.

  “You. You! Help me! In the name of the king. Help me. ”

  The voice was faint, both from distance and weakness in the man who called. I looked around me, and then lifted my eyes to look up the hillside, past the stump field to where the uncut trees began. A man stood there, leaning heavily on a tough little horse beside him. He was bearded and without a hat, dressed in rough, ragged clothing. His head wobbled on his shoulders. When he saw me looking at him, he took two steps toward me, and then collapsed. He rolled a short way and then lay still.

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  I ran toward him. For a very short way. Then I stopped, caught my breath, and hurried on as best I could, through the crooked lanes between the ramshackle houses and across the stump field and then up the steep rise of the hill. In all that time, the man did not move. When I reached him and knelt beside him, I saw he was a larger man than I’d thought. He’d finished his tumble flat on his back. His eyes were closed. His clothing was not ragged from long use, but hung in tatters where something had attacked him and torn his garments with its claws. His cavalla trousers were stained with blood and dirt. He’d bound rags from his shirt across his chest and his upper right arm. Lesser gashes scored his belly, and showed on his legs through his torn trousers. The cuts were crusted dark with scabs and soiled with leaves and dirt. It was hard to guess his age through his whiskers and shaggy hair, but I thought him a man of middle years. “Sir! Wake up!”

  He groaned, his chest rising and falling with it. His eyes fluttered a bit and then opened. “Big cat got me,” he said, as if I’d asked him. “I’d just downed a fat grouse. I was plucking it. Cat decided that me and the bird would make a nice meal for him. ”

  “Let’s get you down the hill and into the house. ”

  “I got to get to Gettys. I was due there today. Supposed to report in. ”

  I took his shoulders and raised him to a sitting position. He silently snarled his pain as I did so. “You’re a scout?”

  He caught a ragged breath. “Lieutenant Buel Hitch. ” He grunted with pain, and then found breath to speak again. “And by the king’s authority, I can order you to help me. I got to get to Gettys. ”

  “You don’t have to order me. I’d help you anyway. ”

  “I’m sure you would,” he replied with tight sarcasm. “You just love the king and his soldiers, don’t you?”

  “I am loyal to my king. And as a second son, it is my fate to be a soldier. Not that I’ve had much success at it. But if you have finished insulting me, I’ll take you down to where your injuries can be cleaned and properly tended. ”

  He looked at me for a few moments. His hoarse breath sawed in and out of him. Then he said, “You’re no convict. What are you doing in Dead Town?”

  “I was passing through on my way to Gettys. I ran out of supplies. So I stopped for a few days, to barter work for food. ”

  “This town, I’m surprised you got anything at all for your trouble, other than a rock behind the ear. Stoop down and let me get my arm across your shoulders. You’re a big one, aren’t you?”

  There seemed little need to reply to that observation. I did as he asked, and once he had his grip, I grasped his belt and raised him to his feet. He swayed against me. I carried most of his weight, but he tried to walk. He gasped and groaned as we tottered along. It was slow progress down the hill. I glanced back to see his horse following us.

  Halfway across the stump field, I shouted for Amzil to put water on to boil. I called twice before she came to the door of the cottage. Her eyes widened, and she darted back inside. When we approached the door, I was shocked to see her standing in it, her huge gun once more leveled at my midsection. “What?” I asked her.

  “You’re not bringing him in here. ” She spoke the words flatly.

  “But he’s hurt. ”

  “This is my home. I’ve my children to protect. You’re not bringing that stranger in here. ”

  I just shook my head at her. Then I turned and started limping him toward the other hut I’d inspected that morning. “Put my panniers outside your door, then,” I said, and did not bother to hide the disgust in my voice. Behind me, I heard the door of her cottage slam shut.

  I took Lieutenant Hitch into the cottage that had the sound fireplace. I eased him down, and then went to the shed for Clove’s saddle blanket. I made it into a flat pallet and then fetched kindling and firewood from the pile I’d made for Amzil. My panniers were outside her closed door, along with a tumble of my other possessions I’d left inside her home. The message was plain. I carried them all back to the hut where the soldier waited.

  “Looks like you pissed her off right good,” he observed. I couldn’t tell if he was grinning or gritting his teeth with pain.

  “It’s a talent I have with women,” I told him.

  He hissed through his teeth and then fell silent.

  I made a fire, and then fetched water and set my small pan over the flames. When the fire had warmed the room a little and the water was hot, I helped him undress.

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  I tended the minor wounds first, washing the ragged scratches as best I could. Every one of them was warm to the touch and suppurating. He hissed and swore as I washed them clean. The deeper ones bled a bit.

  When I reached to undo the bandage on his chest, he stopped my hand with his. “Got anything to eat or drink?” he asked me shakily. “I could do with a bit of fortifying before we take this on. ”

  “I think I have a little bit of tea left. That’s about it out of what I can call mine. ”

  “That would be good, then. There’s some dried meat in my saddlebags. Could you bring them in?”

  I took the saddlebags from his horse’s back, and then slipped his bit so he could graze easily on the weeds between the huts, carefully moving him away from the half-choked vegetable garden. As I passed the garden again, I found two overgrown carrots and tugged them from the ground. When I carried them into the cabin, the lieutenant looked at me curiously. “Soup,” I explained. “They
’re too tough to eat any other way. With the dried meat tossed in, they ought to stew up fine. ”

  That was easier said then done. They were so woody I had to chop them up with my hatchet. I cut them fine and tossed them in a pot of hot water. I then went into Hitch’s saddlebag. He watched me, and as I took out a large packet tightly wrapped in several layers of oilcloth, he said, “No. Not that one. Put that one back. ” The second packet, wrapped in greasy brown paper, proved to be the smoked meat. I took a slab of it the size of my hand, chopped it fine, and added it to my carrots. By then my kettle was boiling. I made the lieutenant a cup of hot tea and waited while he drank it. When he set down the empty mug, he nodded to me. “Let’s get at it,” he said grimly.

  I took out my untouched medical kit. Hitch’s eyes widened at the sight of it. He clenched his teeth as he watched me dissolve the healing salts in the hot water; he knew how they would burn and sting, but also knew they were necessary. The bandaged claw slash across his chest was a nasty one. The cat’s claws had gone deep and the wound, unbandaged, gaped open. It, too, was festering. I washed it out with the warm salted water, an operation that left Hitch hammering his fist against the dirt floor. He swore, but did not cry out with the pain. “It should have been stitched,” I said. “I think it’s too late to do it now. ”

  “I know that. Do you think I’m an idiot? Or that I could have stitched myself up one-handed out there in the dark?”

  I bit my tongue and made no reply. Instead I smeared the edges with salve and rebandaged it more firmly, strapping the flesh back in place and hoping it would find a way to heal together. The gash on his arm was similar, deep and gaping and oozing pus. The smell was foul; my gorge rose. Breathing through my mouth didn’t help. I gritted my teeth against my nausea and treated the arm wound as I had his chest. It used up the last of my bandaging and salve from home.

 
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