Forest mage, p.34
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       Forest Mage, p.34

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

  “You’re a well-prepared traveler,” Hitch said tightly. Sweat beaded on his face from the pain he’d endured.

  “I was,” I said with scant humor.

  “Don’t worry. When we get to Gettys, I’ll see that everything you used for me is replaced. ”

  “When we get to Gettys?”

  “You said you’d help me. Even if I didn’t demand it of you. Well, I’ve got to get to Gettys. And I know damn well that I won’t get there on my own. You’ll have to go with me. ”

  The soup was beginning to bubble. I could smell the dried smoked meat and the carrots simmering. I stirred it a bit. I looked around the room. I could still see the possibilities there. I knew they didn’t belong to me. “I’ll take you. ”

  He gave a short nod. “I want to rest for the rest of the day and the night. And then we’ll start at dawn. You’ve done a good job on me, but I know these things will pus up again in no time. There’s a doctor at the fort. He’s my best chance. Is that soup done yet?”

  “How good are your teeth?”

  “Good enough. I’m famished. ”

  I gave him my bowl. I ate from the pot. The carrots were hard and stringy, but they still tasted good to me. I ate as my habit prompted me, carefully, savoring every bit. I drank the hot broth slowly, closing my eyes as it passed over my tongue and down my throat. I felt the warmth of it reach my belly. I opened my eyes and saw the bottom of the pot. I lowered it to find Hitch staring at me. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand.

  “Where did you come from?” he asked me, and it seemed like more than a request for my hometown.

  “Back west,” I told him, and found I didn’t want to tell him even that much. I used my favorite trick to shift his thoughts away from me. “What happened to the cat that attacked you?”

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  He grinned humorlessly. “It won. I broke free of it and ran. Luckily, it let me go. I suppose it decided the dead bird was enough. When I got back to my camp and my horse, I fixed myself up as best as I could, and then headed back toward the road. That was four days ago. No, five. Four? Four, I think. ”

  He pursed his lips for a moment and continued to regard me steadily. I stood up. He asked, “Can you get my sleeping roll for me? I’m going to rest now. ”

  “Good plan. I’ll build up the fire for you. ”

  “Thanks. ”

  I got him settled, built up the fire, and then left, shutting the door behind me. Outside the cabin, I wiped my hands down the front of my trousers and heaved a huge sigh. My feet had carried me to Amzil’s door. I didn’t knock on it or try to open it. I stood outside and announced, “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I have to get that man to Gettys so his wounds can be treated by a doctor. ”

  She didn’t reply. I could hear the children inside, their higher voices raised querulously. I turned to walk away. Behind me, I heard the door open a crack. “You think I’m a terrible person,” she accused me.

  I thought and then replied, “I think you’re very afraid. And that makes you hard. ”

  “Hard is better than dead, or raped and left for dead. ”

  “That man was injured. He was no threat to you. ”

  “He was a soldier, a scout. I’ve seen him before. And I know that where one soldier is, others follow. If I’d let him in and he died, I’d have been blamed. Better to have nothing to do with him. ”

  “He’s a human being in need, Amzil. How can you just turn your back on that?”

  “Just like they done it to me. That’s how. How many times have soldiers ridden through here? At first, when my husband was dying, I asked for help. They told me I’d brought my own troubles on myself, marrying a convict and having his babies. Well, that’s what I say to that soldier now. Whatever happened to him, he brought it on himself, by riding about being a soldier. ”

  It was true, so I couldn’t argue with her. I no longer saw the point of arguing with her at all. “I’ll be taking him on to Gettys tomorrow morning,” I said.

  Her mouth went sullen. Almost angrily, she asked, “And what about all your fine talk of building an inn here, and taking trade from the road and all that? What about that?”

  I was startled. “You told me it wouldn’t work. You gave me a dozen reasons why it was a stupid idea. ”

  “If I was trying to do it alone, then, yes. But if a man were running it, even a man like you, travelers might respect it. It might work then. ”

  Even a man like me. A fat man like me, that was what she meant. Scarcely a man at all in her eyes, but big enough to be scary. I looked away from her. “I have to take him to Gettys. If I don’t, he’ll die from infection. He might still die. ”

  “Then why bother?”

  “Because he’s a soldier. And I’m a second son. I’m meant to be a soldier. ”

  “You never told me that. ” She spoke as if I had lied to her.

  I felt her eyes run over me, and knew how unlikely she thought it that I’d ever be anything of the kind. I admitted it. “Well, I’m not exactly what any commander wants when he thinks of a recruit. Nonetheless, the good god made me a second son. My plan was always to go to Gettys, to see if they’d accept me as a recruit. If I can serve as a soldier, I will. ”

  “So you’ll just ride off and leave tomorrow. ”

  I wanted her to ask me to stay. Or at least, invite me to come back. I stood straight before her, meeting her eyes as I looked down at her, and wondered if she even guessed at what I hoped. “I have to take him to Gettys. ”

  She looked away from me, as if there were something important on the hillside behind me. I knew there wasn’t. “You’ve helped me a lot in the time you’ve been here. ” She paused, wet her lips, and then said, “The children will miss you. ”

  “I’ll miss them,” I said sadly, and found it was not just a nicety. I would miss them. But Amzil would not say she would miss me, nor ask me to stay or if I might come back. “Thank you,” she called to my back when I had gone a dozen steps. “For the meat, you know. And the firewood. ”

  “You’re welcome. ” I shifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Thanks for the roof and the fireplace. And for sewing my clothes. ”

  “They look much better on you now. ” She called the words after me.

  “Thanks,” I said, not calling the word out, but loud enough that she would know I had said it. I walked back to the cottage that might have made a good common room for an inn. Hitch was still sleeping. His face was slack, his mouth ajar. I put water within easy reach of him, took my sling, and went out and up the hill.

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  I hunted until dusk. “I owe her,” I said aloud to the magic. “If she hadn’t let me rest here, do you think my horse would have lasted? If I hadn’t taken the time here to rest myself, and eat decently, do you think I’d be on my way to Gettys now? No. I’d be dead by the road somewhere. I owe her and I want to pay her. ”

  I waited to feel something, that tingling stir of my blood that came when the magic moved through me. Nothing happened. I hunted anyway. I missed the first rabbit I saw, and a tree trunk deflected my missile from the second. It was not the right time of day for hunting. And I’d been a fool to think I could wield the magic. An hour later, I decided I’d been a fool to believe in it at all. There had been coincidences and I’d had nightmares. My faith and my rationality chased one another in circles until I was certain that I was a fool to attempt to know the truth of anything.

  When I saw the deer, I cursed the fate that had made my father withhold my weapons from me. He was not a large animal; probably he was a yearling. I looked away from him, recalling that Dewara had told me that any prey could feel the stare of a hunter’s eyes. I mouthed my new words silently. “I need food for my journey to the territory of the Specks. ”

  There was a rock in my sling, smooth and hefty. It would easily have stunned a rabbit or a bird. It would not kill a deer. When I moved my
arm to wind up momentum for the sling, the deer would startle and be gone. I knew there was no magic in me, no magic anywhere. I was merely a fat man, my body the freakishly rare result of my exposure to Speck plague. My heart thundered in my chest as I let the stone fly.

  It hit the young buck just above his left eye. I heard the crack of stone against bone. The animal started, and a tremor ran through him. He took two steps. His front legs folded under him as if he were going to bed down for the night. He sank down. With a heavier crash, his hind legs teetered under him and he fell. His entire body gave a jerk.

  I did not wait. I rushed forward, running down the hill at him, drawing my sheath knife as I ran. I turned one ankle slightly, hit a sapling with my shoulder, and plunged on. When I finally reached him, he was trying to get up. I fell on him. Using every bit of my strength, I punched my knife into his throat just behind the curve of his jawbone. He gave a wild leap and an inhuman cry of pain. I threw my weight on him then, and held him down as I sawed with my knife, groping for some vital artery. He tossed his head wildly, crashing his skull into mine. I shouted wordlessly and worked the knife in him. A leap of bright red blood rewarded me. Still, his hind legs kicked and it was some moments before he subsided into death.

  Panting, I rolled off him, feeling shaken and bruised. For a time, I lay on my back next to the dead yearling, staring up at a blue sky through yellow leaves. I tried to decide if I’d been lucky, or if magic had prevailed. I decided that as long as it came down to having meat, I didn’t care.

  Dragging the dead deer through the forest was a trial that I shall never forget. It would have been a task even if I’d been my old fit self. It had no antlers to drag it by, only nubby spikes. I tried hauling it by the hind feet, but the grain of its hair created more drag than I would have thought possible. I ended up gripping the front feet and dragging it that way, with the head flopping about and snagging on every imaginable obstacle. As soon as I had it to the edge of the stump field, I left it and went back to the door of Amzil’s house.

  “I’ve killed a deer,” I said to the closed door. “If you help me butcher it, I’ll leave you a goodly share. But some I’ve got to take with me, to travel on. ”

  “A deer?” The door all but flew open. “How did you kill a deer?”

  “With a rock,” I replied.

  “That’s impossible,” she said.

  “I used my magic to help me,” I answered, and she took that for a joke.

  I gutted the deer and cut its head off. I gave the liver, heart, kidneys, and tongue over to Amzil, since they were best used fresh. With the hide still on to keep flies off it, I hung the animal, head down, in the shed to bleed. Even with a small deer, it was a lot of work. I left it with the dark blood dripping onto the earth floor. I got my extra set of clothing from my panniers. Hitch slept on. I went down to the river to wash.

  I was sweating and sticky with blood. I gritted my teeth against the chill, stripped, and waded out into the river to wash myself. It was an unpleasant experience. I realized that it had been some time since I’d washed myself, not because I enjoyed being dirty but because I’d been avoiding my own body. I used sand from the riverbank to scrub myself. In some places, I had to lift my flesh to wash in the deep fold beneath it. There were sweat scalds under my arms and starting between my thighs, the result of the afternoon’s endeavors. My navel had retreated into a deep dent in my belly. A second pouch of fat beneath my belly had formed over my genitals. My buttocks sagged, and my chest was fleshy with breast fat. The experience of washing my own body shamed away any triumph I might have felt in taking the deer. If this sagging fleshy body was the price of having magic, I didn’t want it. It was small good to me. It only answered at its own fickle will, and then only if what I was attempting benefited its command for me. This magic offered me no power, only a tether to people and forces that I did not understand.

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  And tomorrow morning, I would leave Amzil and her children and go on to Gettys. The part of me that persisted in being my father’s son said that I would once again attempt to enlist. If the commander at the stronghold there took me, then I could write to Yaril and tell her that soon I’d have a place for her. I wondered what the magic would think of that.

  On the heels of that thought, I wondered what I would do if the commander turned me away. I could come back here. I wasn’t sure that I should, but I could.

  I waded out to the bank and dashed the water from my body. I dried myself on my dirty shirt, dressed, and then spent some time scrubbing the worst of the dirt from the clothing I’d been wearing. I wrung out my laundry and carried it back to the cabin where Lieutenant Hitch slept. I built up the fire and then stretched my wet clothes over the broken table. I hoped they’d be dry by morning.

  With the next day’s journey in mind, I emptied out my panniers and repacked them. When I came to the pouch of my remaining coin, I smiled, thinking how little good it had done me. I stowed it carefully. There was very little to pack in the way of food. I glanced at the scout. Hitch must have wakened at some point, for the water I’d left him was gone. I wondered how well supplied he was; in his condition, I judged it best that we push for Gettys with all possible speed. Stopping each evening early enough to hunt was not going to be an option. Sheepishly, I wondered if Amzil would let me take some of the smoked rabbit with me. I could take a day or two of venison, but the uncured meat would not travel as well as dried or smoked would.

  I was just marshaling my courage to go back to her cabin when the door opened. Amzil was preceded by an amazing smell: fresh deer liver sizzled in goose grease and flavored with onions. My body came to alertness like a hunting dog pointing out a bird. She halted just inside the door; she was carrying the hot pan in her heavily padded hands. Her gaze didn’t quite meet mine. “I thought you might be hungry. ”

  “I’m ravenous, and that smells wonderful. ”

  “There should be enough for the hurt fellow. My mother always said that liver was wondrously healing food. ”

  The smell alone seemed to be working wonders. Lieutenant Hitch stirred in his pallet and then opened his eyes. “What’s that?” he asked groggily.

  “Fresh deer liver cooked in goose fat with onion,” I told him.

  “Help me sit up. Please. ” The eagerness in his voice even woke a smile from Amzil.

  She set the pan down near our fire. “I have to get back to my children,” she said awkwardly to me.

  “I know. Thank you. ”

  “It was the least I could do. Nevare, I’m…I’m sorry I can’t be more…welcoming to strangers. But I have my children to protect. You know that. ”

  “I do know that. And you do a good job of it. Before you go, I’ve another favor to ask. Can I beg some of the smoked rabbit from you? We’ve a way to go, and fresh venison won’t travel as well. ”

  “Of course. It’s your meat. You killed it and smoked it. ” Despite her words, her voice was stiff with dismay.

  “And I gave it to you. Do you mind if we take some? I’ll be leaving almost all the venison. ”

  “Of course it’s fine. I’ll be grateful for whatever you leave me. My children have eaten well in the time you’ve been here, hunting for us. I’m grateful for that. ”

  “The venison. You should let it hang for a few days before you skin it out. Let it bleed well. It will be more tender that way. You can use it fresh, but you’ll want to smoke or dry most of it. ” It suddenly seemed to me that I was leaving her an immense task.

  “I have to get back to my children,” she said again, and I realized how uncomfortable she felt without quite understanding why.

  “Of course,” I said. “I’ll bring your pan back to you tonight. ”

  “Thank you. ” And with that she was gone as abruptly as she’d come.

  Buel Hitch had levered himself up onto his elbows. He looked toward the pan longingly. “Coffee and some of that meat, and
I’ll feel like I’m alive again,” he said.

  “No coffee, I’m afraid. But we have water and fresh-cooked liver, and that’s not bad at all, really. ”

  “That’s true. But there should be some coffee in my saddlebags, if you want to brew some up for us. It would go a long way toward putting me on my feet again. ”

  The mere thought of coffee set my mouth watering. I put water to boil and then served up the meat for us. Hitch’s mess kit was of battered tin, a pan and bowl and an enameled mug. The precious horde of coffee was packed inside it. The aroma of the beans dizzied me.

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  We ate in silence. I gave my complete attention to my meal, only pausing to add the coffee to the water when it boiled and then set the pot where it would stay hot while it steeped. The smell of the brewing coffee enhanced my appreciation for the meat.

  She’d cooked the liver perfectly. It was moist and tender still; I could cut it with the side of my fork. She hadn’t used much onion, but what she’d used was evident in tender translucent pieces of the vegetable and its affable flavor throughout the goose grease. The meat was the most alive thing I’d eaten in a long time. I can think of no other way to express it. Liver is always rich and flavorful, but that evening I was suddenly aware that I had transferred life from the deer’s body to my own. There was something so essential in that meat; I had no name for it, and yet I felt it replenishing me as I chewed and swallowed. The taste was so thick and strong, the goose grease so satisfying that when I scraped the last sheen of it from my plate, I felt more satisfied than I had in days. I looked up to find Hitch staring at me.

  As I returned his stare, he grinned honestly at me. “Can’t say that I’ve ever seen a man enjoy his meal as much as you do. That coffee done yet?”

  He had wolfed down his portion of the meat. I doubt that he’d even tasted it, and somehow that seemed a shame, that he did not realize as I did that the life I’d taken from the deer had passed into us with this meal. It diminished what I’d done in taking the deer’s life. I felt oddly disgruntled, as if his gobbling of the meat were disrespectful of something. But I said nothing of that, only poured coffee for both of us. He gulped his down and had a second mug-full. I drank mine in long, lingering sips, and then put more water onto the grounds to try to get a second brew out of them. While it simmered, I took Amzil’s pan outside, cleaned it, and then returned it to her. When I tapped on her door, she opened it a crack. She took the pan from me with a quiet “thank you. ” She didn’t invite me in and I didn’t try to intrude.

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