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Forest mage, p.35
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       Forest Mage, p.35

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

  When I returned to Hitch, he was pouring some of the re-brewed coffee into his mug. He hunched near the fire on his blanket, looking miserable but alive. “Well, that was quick,” he said.

  “I was just returning her pan. ”

  He smiled knowingly. “She’s a difficult one, isn’t she? Sometimes she will, sometimes she won’t. ”

  Dismay mingled with anger and churned in me. I tried to keep anything from showing on my face. “Meaning?” I asked him.

  He shifted slightly, his brow furrowing deeper. Obviously the move hadn’t eased his pain. He rubbed at his face. “Meaning only that, for a whore, she’s an odd one. Sometimes a man can buy a night inside and a bit of comfort from her. Other times, she’s either boarded the door up tight or there’s no one there. She’s moody. But good when you can get her, is what I heard. ”

  “Then you’ve never had her?”

  A small smile crooked his mouth. “Old son, I never pay for it. Not Buel. I don’t have to. ” He drank the last of the coffee in his mug and tossed the dregs into the fire. He grinned. “Guess that means you ain’t had much luck with her. ”

  “I didn’t try,” I said. “Didn’t think she was that sort of a woman, with three children around her and all. ”

  He gave a choked laugh. “What? You think whores don’t have kids? Well, I suppose they don’t, if they can help it, but most can’t. That woman there, she’s been there, oh, a year I guess. Used to have a husband, but he’s gone now. Probably up and left. But it’s known a man can buy her. Not for coin; she’s got no use for that. No, she only barters it for food, and only when she’s in the mood for it. ”

  I could not begin to sort the emotions running through me. I felt stupid and used; Amzil was only a whore, and even though I’d paid her fee in food, day after day, she’d never allowed me to so much as touch her hand. That wasn’t a fair judgment and I knew it. She’d as much as told me that she’d sold herself for food when she’d had to. Doing what she must to feed her children; did that make her a whore? I didn’t know. I only knew that hearing another man talk of it so bluntly made me intensely unhappy. I’d known what she was, I admitted. But until Buel Hitch had come here, I hadn’t had to face that a lot of other men knew it, too, and far more intimately than I did. I had pretended she was something else, and pretended all sorts of other things about her as well. That she had a heart I could win. That she would be worth winning. That my protecting her and hunting food for her might make her something other than what she really was.

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  “You still up to traveling tomorrow?” I asked Hitch.

  “You bet,” he replied.



  I did one final task before I left the next morning. I got up at dawn and slipped out of the house before Buel was stirring. I needn’t have been so quiet. His cheeks were red, and he slept the slumber of an ill man. But I went like a creeping mouse, for I wanted no witnesses.

  I went to the abandoned vegetable patch. I stooped down and set my hands on the earth. I closed my eyes. I pressed my palms firmly against the wet and matted vegetation and the soil beneath it. I spoke aloud, more to focus myself than because I thought it necessary. “I will travel better and more swiftly if I know that Amzil and her children are provided for. Grow. ”

  After a time, I opened my eyes. A fine misty rain was falling all around me. It beaded in tiny droplets on my shirtsleeves and clung to my eyelashes. My gut was in my way. It was hard to crouch low and touch the ground. I felt like I was folding myself. I couldn’t take a full breath. And nothing had happened.

  But I hadn’t really expected anything to happen, had I?

  Revelation. How could anyone do a magic that he didn’t believe in? I gave up my crouch. I knelt on the wet earth. I pressed my hands firmly to the soil. I took a deep breath, and discarded both my disbelief and my deep-seated fear that the magic was real and I could do this. I made myself recall the sense of power I’d felt when I’d clasped the sapling growing from Tree Woman’s breast. That power. That flowing transference of being. That was what I wanted. I took a deep breath. Then I clenched my fingers in the gritty soil and breathed out, breathed out until there was no air left in my lungs, and still I forced something out of myself, not from my hands but from my gut and through my arms and down and out of my fingers. Colors danced at the edges of my vision. Something was happening. I watched it. The ragged grasses and jagged leaved weeds dwindled, sinking back into the earth. The vegetables I blessed swelled and grew. Turnips shouldered purple tops above the soil. A yellowing stalk of a potato plant went green, lifted from the ground, and thrust up buds that opened to small white flowers. The fronds of carrots lifted above the brown soil, stood tall and dark green. I held the flex of whatever it was I strained, held it until spots danced before my eyes.

  I opened my eyes, lost my balance as the world spun around me, and rolled over on my side in the soil. I breathed, deep gasping breaths. My arms and legs tingled as if they’d fallen asleep. I worked my aching hands, flexing them, trying to get the blood flowing through my numbed limbs. When I could, I sat up.

  I had expected the vision to pass. It had not. All around me, in a perfect circle, the weeds had vanished. My chosen vegetables remained, crisp and tall, ready for harvest. There were round heads of cabbage set in wide-leafed cups of foliage and the tall feather fronds of carrots, there were turnip leaves and red-stemmed beet tops and a patch of potatoes gone to bloom.

  It took me three efforts to push away from the ground and stand up. Then I teetered on my legs like a new colt. I was giddy, not just with what I had achieved, but from the effort I’d spent achieving it. It took me a few moments to realize another, even more amazing change.

  My clothing hung almost loose on me.

  It was a minor change, or would have been to anyone else but me. The uncomfortable binding of my trouser waistband, the way my shirt cut into me under my arms, the tightness of my collar—in short, in every place where a moment ago my garments had been uncomfortably tight, they now rode looser. To prove it to myself, I seized the waistband of my trousers and shifted them around my waist. They moved freely. I was still a fat man. But I was marginally less fat than I’d been a few moments before.

  And I was ravenously hungry.

  With that realization, my senses woke to the bounty all around me. An overpowering drive to replenish what I had lost drove all awe from my mind. I tugged a carrot from the earth. It was long and a deep orange-red. The end of it broke off in the soil. I forced my fingers through the packed earth, seized the broken piece, and pulled it up. I wiped the loose damp soil from the pieces and then crunched into the carrot. The grit on it ground between my back teeth as I chewed it, adding its own earthy note to the flavor. I ground the orange root to juicy sweetness in my mouth. Never had I tasted such a remarkable vegetable. The innermost core of it was sweet, and the whole of it was crisp, not tough at all. I chewed on the thick end of the green, curiously tasting the feathery tops of the carrot. My glance fell on a turnip. The leafy top came off in my hand when I tried to pull it. No matter. I stuffed the greens into my mouth and chewed them as I dug my fingers into the earth around the purple-and-white root. I pulled it up in one try. Smaller roots like seeking tendrils hung from it, crusted with dirt. I shook it and then wiped it on my trouser leg.

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  The skin was fibrous and peppery. I peeled it away in a layer and ate it before I went on to the shiny inside of it. My fingers left muddy prints. No matter. I finished it and then stood tall, looking for what I wanted to devour next. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. My lips left a mucky smear. I frowned at it, trying to recall something.

  And in that moment, Nevare the soldier son came to the fore again. I scrabbled backward from the now thriving vegetable garden into the dank weeds that ringed it. Despite the haphazard placement of the plants,
it looked as if someone had tended it, watering and weeding it, and now, at full peak, it awaited harvest. I had been the center of the circle of tended earth. Heart pounding, I stepped away from the garden and back into the real world. Almost, I expected it to have vanished when I glanced back, but no, it remained, as real as the misting rain falling all around me.

  I fled. I brought in both horses that I had picketed for the night, for neither had wanted to enter the shed with the hanging deer in it. Feverishly, I readied everything for our journey. I moved like a hunted man, darting in and out of the cabin with my arms full of Hitch’s gear and my own. I went to the hanging deer and peeled back enough hide to cut strips of journey meat for Hitch and me, packing as much as my cooking pot would hold.

  When all else was loaded on the two animals, I went and tapped on Amzil’s door. She opened it, her hair still tousled from sleep. “Is something wrong?” she asked me anxiously. I suppose my shock at the proof of my magic still showed in my face.

  “No,” I lied. “I just have to make an early start to use the daylight as best we may. I’ve come to ask if I can take some of the smoked meat away with me. I took some of the venison already, but I left all the rest of it for you. ”

  “Of course,” she said distantly. She turned from me, and I left her door to go back to the other cottage and awaken Hitch.

  He jerked awake at my touch, and then slowly sat up, shivering. “Is it time to go?” he asked me miserably, knowing full well it was.

  “Yes. If we leave now, we can put a good distance behind us. How far do you think it is to Gettys from here?”

  He knew I did not mean in miles. “If it were just Renegade and I, and I were myself, we could cover it in four days. But that isn’t the case, is it?”

  “No. But I think we’ll still make good time. ” I tried to be reassuring. The cockiness the man had exhibited yesterday was gone. I wondered if it were because the infection was gaining on him, or if he could simply let his guard down now, knowing there was someone to offer him aid.

  “Well, then. Let’s go. ” He wobbled to his feet and walked the few steps to the hearth. He leaned there, taking in the fire’s warmth, while I packed the few items that remained. When it was time to leave, I avoided the garden patch. He leaned on his horse for a few moments before he mounted, but he did that on his own. “I’ll just be a moment,” I told him, and turned to go back to Amzil’s cabin for the meat she’d said we could have. But as I looked up, she was coming toward me. She chose to walk down the road in front of the houses. I breathed a sigh of relief. She wouldn’t yet have seen the change in the garden. I didn’t want to answer any questions. She carried a canvas sack in her arms. As I took it from her, she said, “You’ve got two rabbits in there. ”

  “Thank you. That should get us there. ”

  “And you’ve got my best sack. ”

  I frantically racked my brains for something else I could put the rabbits in. They’d have to be packed loose in my panniers. But when I started to open the bag, she said quietly, “No. You can use it. But I expect to get it back. ”

  “I’ll make sure you do. ” I was a bit startled by her demand.

  “I’ll hold you to that,” she said. She was standing very straight. She looked almost angry. I didn’t know what to say to her. She had very few possessions. To trust me with this simple sack was evidently difficult for her.

  “Good-bye, Amzil. Tell the children I said good-bye. ”

  “I will. ” She kept looking at me, as if she were waiting for something.

  “Will you be all right on your own?”

  Then the anger did glint plain in her eyes. “I’ve been so before. Why wouldn’t I be again?” she asked me tartly. She turned away from us and walked back toward her house.

  I wanted to just let her go, but I also wanted to be sure that she was the one who had the advantage of what I had done that morning. “Harvest those vegetables as soon as you can,” I called after her. “Before someone else discovers them and takes them. ” She didn’t turn. “Good-bye,” I said more quietly.

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  Lieutenant Hitch coughed and then spat to one side. “You sure stepped on that cat’s tail,” he observed mildly.

  “Let’s go,” I responded. I mounted Clove. From the draft horse’s back, I towered over my companion. I felt foolish. We followed the road and it took us out of the dilapidated ruins of the failed town. I glanced back once at the rising chimney smoke thinking, Almost. Back there I’d almost taken control of my own life. Now I was back to duty.

  The misty rain lasted all day. I’ll say this of Buel Hitch: he wasn’t a whiner. He rode beside me and didn’t say much. Now and then he coughed and spat. He drank frequently from his water skin. When we came to the river, I halted and refilled both our water bottles. Before we went on, we ate half of one of the rabbits. It wasn’t enough for me, but Hitch looked as if he had to force down every bite.

  “Are you ready to go on?” I asked him when he cast the last of his bones aside.

  “Do I have a choice? I know what’s happening to me. Cat claws are dirty. The infection will spread. ” He touched his chest gingerly. “I can feel it. The heat. Let’s go. ”

  So on we went that day. Early in the afternoon, a couple of traders’ wagons passed us going west. The men were crouched on their seats, hats pulled low and shoulders hunched against the rain. I called a greeting, but received only a sullen nod from one of them. I decided there was no point in asking them for help. I glanced at Hitch. He made a scornful face, evidently sharing my opinion.

  As we continued on our own way, I found myself wondering if the carters would stop in the abandoned town, and then tormented myself with wondering if Amzil would make them welcome. It was stupid. I had no claim on her and she had made it clear she had no interest in me. I should not care what she did, if she whored herself out to strange men or not. She was out of my life, merely a woman I’d met as I stopped on my way east. I’d forget her. I’d find someone to take her stupid canvas sack back to her, and I’d put her out of my mind. I wouldn’t think about her anymore.

  The wet penetrated our clothes and soaked the horses’ coats into runnels. I began looking for a likely place to camp before dark. I saw the stacks of rocks, three and then two on top of each other, and turned our horses off the road and into the brush. The trail was narrow, winding uphill through the trees, but as the scout’s sign had promised, it led me to a cleared campsite with a covered supply of firewood.

  I dismounted. Hitch sat his horse a few moments longer. “So,” he observed gruffly as he swung himself stiffly down, “maybe you are a soldier son. What branch was your da?”

  “Cavalla,” I said briefly. I had no wish to discuss my father or family with him. I took firewood from the stack and dug in my panniers for my hatchet to reduce some of it to kindling. The wind gusted and the trees released a shower of raindrops and wet leaves on us. It was going to be a nasty night. “Let me get a fire started, and then I’ll rig a shelter for us. ”

  He nodded, grimly silent. I could only guess at his level of pain. He stood stiffly, his arms crossed as if to hold something in. He didn’t offer me any help; I hadn’t expected any. His roll of canvas was designed to shelter one man, not two, but I managed to rig it to the tree trunks in such a way that it cut most of the wind and shed rain. It was not perfect. Errant gusts still drove rain and wet leaves in at us, but it was far better than simply sitting in the storm. The half-naked trees provided little shelter from the incessant rain. I picketed our horses, got water from a nearby streamlet, and brought it back to the fire, putting it on to heat while I took out the venison. I cut it in strips, poked holes in the strips, and then threaded the meat onto some skinny branches. I toasted them over the fire, and we didn’t much care that the meat stayed bloody in the middle. We made coffee from Hitch’s supply and ate the hot dripping meat from the skewers.

  I’d spent far
worse nights on the road, but not as a fat man. My weight and size made every small task of sharing a camp more difficult. The shelter belonged to Hitch and he was injured. It was only fair that he get the most benefit from it, but my bulk meant that part of me was always out in the storm. Rising to bring more firewood, bending over the fire to set the coffee in the coals, cleaning the pot and cups afterward: every small task was made more onerous by the weight of flesh I carried. Even just rising and then sitting down on the ground again was more of a chore than it had been when I was fit. I told myself that it was my imagination that Lieutenant Hitch watched every move I made. I angrily decided it was what I must expect. People had paid to see the Fat Man in the carnival at Old Thares. I was not as large as he had been, but a man of my bulk was still a noteworthy sight anywhere. Once I arrived at Gettys, people would stare. I’d best get used to it.

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  “You ain’t always been fat,” Hitch said suddenly.

  I gave a snort of amusement. “How would you know?”

  “The way you move. You act like a packhorse who’s carrying more than his fair share, or one that’s been badly loaded. If you’d carried that fat all your life, you’d be used to it by now. But I been watching you, and how you set your feet before you try to sit down, and how it takes you two tries to get up. ”

  I shrugged. “You’re right. This time last year, I was leaner than you. ”

  “What happened?”

  Hitch’s eyes were a bit too bright. Fever burned in him. “If you want, I could go back to those willows and shave off some bark. Willow bark tea is supposed to lower a fever. ”

  “It’s supposed to, yes. It tastes awful. But actually, I’d rather you answered my question. What happened to you?”

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