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Forest mage, p.36
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       Forest Mage, p.36

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

  I tried to find a comfortable way to sit. My arse was sore from a day in the saddle, and there was nothing to lean back against except an uneven tree trunk. “I got Speck fever. Everyone else either died or came out of it like a rack of bones. But I got better. Then I started to gain weight. The doctor at the academy knew what was coming. He said that this is a rare side effect of the plague. And they gave me a medical discharge. ”

  “Academy boy. Should have known,” Hitch muttered. He smiled derisively. “So that makes you Lord Grand Somebody’s son, right?”

  “No. I’m nobody’s son anymore. My father disowned me. I failed him. I disgraced myself. I didn’t get through the academy to be a cavalla officer, and he reckoned that I’d never be a soldier of any kind. ”

  “Probably reckoned right. Most regiments won’t take you in like that, not even as a foot soldier. ” He tossed his empty toasting stick into the fire. “But if you wanted, I could put in a word with Colonel Rabbit for you. ”

  “Colonel Rabbit? Does he command Gettys?”

  He laughed out loud. “Yes, he does. But his real name is Colonel Haren. The other name is a bit more apt. He spends all his time hiding in his hole. But you probably shouldn’t call him that if you’re trying to get on with him. ” His voice was wandering.

  “I think your fever’s coming up. I’m going after some willow bark while I still have light to see by. ”

  “Suit yourself. ” He leaned his head back against a tree trunk. I took my kettle with me, and went back to the streamlet. I knew little other than that willow bark tea was supposed to be good for a fever. I scraped some from the trunk of the tree there, and some from the more supple branches. I filled the kettle half-full of tree shavings and then topped it off with water. I took it back to the campfire, added a few more bits of the dry wood, and left it to heat.

  The light was fading. As much to warm myself as to be a good soldier, I took my hatchet and went looking for more wood. Most of what I found was soaked by the rain, but I cut it into lengths and stacked it for the next traveler who might come this way and read the sign. By the time the willow bark tea was steaming, Hitch was shivering. The tea didn’t smell appetizing, but it was hot and he drank two full mugs of it. Then he abruptly closed his eyes and slumped down in his blankets. I dashed the dregs from his mug and made myself as comfortable as I could.

  It was a long night. Hitch moaned and twitched his way through it. The wind finally blew the clouds on their way, but as the night cleared, it got colder. I was awake and waiting for the dawn when it came, my body tight with chill. Hitch was the opposite. He burned with fever.

  I woke the fire and warmed the willow bark tea for him. I had to help him sit up. He drank the first few sips while I held the mug for him. Then he took it in both hands and nodded at me that he could manage on his own. While he drank, I brought the horses up and saddled them. He had a hard time standing up, but once he was on his feet, he moved around a bit while I loaded our gear. I had to pack the blankets wet. I grimaced to myself, thinking of how unpleasant it would be to sleep in them that night. Before we mounted up, Hitch had me bind his injured arm across his chest. “It’ll joggle less,” was all he said. I did as he asked, trying not to wrinkle my nose at the smell.

  “Maybe we should wash it out again,” I suggested.

  “With no clean bandages, there’s no point to that,” he replied.

  I helped him into his saddle and we set off again. He was quieter, giving all his attention to sitting his horse. The day was a repetition of our first day together, save that we left the river behind and began a steeper climb into the foothills. About midday, the quality of the road sharply declined. A few hours later, it had degenerated to a rutted wagon track, deeply muddy and very unpleasant for the horses. Riding to one side of it was nearly as bad.

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  “Shouldn’t there be a crew at work along here, extending the road?” I asked Hitch.

  He lifted his head suddenly, as if I’d awakened him. “What?”

  “Where are the road crews, the prisoners building the King’s Road?”

  “Oh. ” He looked vaguely around him. “They’ll have taken them on to the prisoner camp outside Getty. The weather is starting to turn. They won’t get any more miles of road until spring comes again. Not that they got many while the weather was good. Can we stop for food and water?”

  I wasn’t sure that stopping was a good idea. I was afraid that if he got off his horse, I wouldn’t get him back on it. But I’d underestimated his toughness. He dismounted and stood by Renegade, holding onto his saddle while he drank deeply from his water skin. I took out the other half of the smoked rabbit, and we made short work of it standing there. Lieutenant Hitch sucked a stubborn bit of meat from a bone and then gestured at the low hills to our left. “If we left the road and cut across those hills, we could save half a day’s travel time. ”

  I looked at him and then spoke frankly. “I think I should stay to the road. It’s plainly marked and takes the easiest path there. If I get you up in those hills and you reach a point where you can’t tell me where I’m going, we’re both going to be lost. And you’ll pay for it with your life. ”

  He set his hand briefly to his chest, winced, and then said, “We’re racing against time now. Half a day might mean I live. I’m willing to gamble it. Are you?”

  I thought for a few moments. “It’s your life,” I said reluctantly. I didn’t want to take a relative stranger into unknown territory and have him die on me. But it did seem to me that he had the right to make the decision.

  “That’s right. It is,” he said.

  When we were mounted again, he turned Renegade’s head away from the road. I followed him. He cleared his throat. “Renegade knows the way home. If I die, you sling me across his saddle, and let him lead. Don’t you leave me in the woods to rot. ”

  “Of course not. One way or the other, I’ll take you to Gettys. ”

  “Good. Now talk to me, Never. Keep me awake. ”

  “My name’s Nevare, not Never. What do you want me to talk about?”

  “Anything. Women. Talk to me about women you’ve had. ”

  I thought back. “Only one worth mentioning,” I said, thinking of the warm-hearted farm maid.

  “Only one? You poor bastard! Well, tell me about her. ”

  So I did, and then he told me a rambling and feverish tale of a Speck maiden who chose him as her own and fought two other women over him, and how she had ridden him “like a lord riding to the hunt” for fifteen nights in a row. It seemed wildly improbable to me, and yet parts of his tale rang true with some hidden truth within me. Somehow I knew it was the custom of Speck women to be the instigators of such a relationship, and that they jealously possessed the men they chose. He talked until his mouth was dry, and then drank all the water that remained in his bottle, and most of what I had. All the while, he, or perhaps Renegade, led us further and further from the road, up into rolling hills. The lower slopes were thick with bracken and buckbrush, but as we went higher, we entered an open forest of deciduous trees. We crested the first row of hills, descended into a shallow valley, and then began a second, steeper ascent. The vistas were astonishing. Some of the bracken had gone scarlet with early frost. The buckbrush was thick with its seasonal white berries, while the leaves of the alders and birch of the open forest were scarlet and gold. The day had stayed clear but the air was moist, and the smell of the forest with rich and gentle. Something inside me relaxed and felt a sense of homecoming. I said as much to Hitch.

  He was swaying in his saddle as he rode now, holding unabashedly to the horn with his one good hand. A smile crossed his pained face. “Some men feel it. Others don’t. Me, once I got away from houses and streets and bricks and noise, I suddenly knew that I’d never belonged there in the first place. There’s men that need that, you know. They need the shouting and the crowds. They get two nights away from an ale
house, and think they’ll die of boredom. They need other people to make them think they’re alive. They only feel like they’re important if someone else tells them they are. ” He snorted out a laugh. “You can always tell who they are. They aren’t happy just living their own lives. They want to control yours, too. You know the men I mean…”

  I smiled stiffly. “My father. ”

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  “Your father. You don’t even have to tell me, Never. He’s still got his boot on your neck. I can just about see it if I squint. ”

  “Explain yourself. ” I spoke abruptly, stung by his words. He laughed at me.

  “I don’t have to, Never. You feel it yourself, don’t you?”

  “I left my father’s home. And when I did, I left him behind as well. ”

  “Sure you did. ” His tone was mocking.

  I reminded myself that he was a very sick man. But in the depths of my soul, I suspected that Hitch had always been a needler and a digger, always a man who took pleasure in provoking others. I made no response.

  The silence lasted a bit. Then he laughed oddly, long and low. In a reedy, childish voice he said, “I know you. I see you, Never. You can’t hide from Buel Hitch. He’s been too long in the forest. You can’t hide behind the trees. ”

  “I think your mind is wandering from the fever,” I said reasonably.

  “No. I can see a part of you that ain’t no soldier son. I see something stronger than your pa’s boot on your neck. You’re going to the Specks, ain’t you? You got the call to be a Great Man. ”

  I knew it was a sick man’s rambling thoughts. Nonetheless, it stood the hair up on the back of my neck and on my arms. “We’d best start looking for a place to camp tonight,” I said uneasily.

  “Very well,” Hitch replied agreeably. For a time we rode in almost companionable silence. Renegade moved steadily along, and the horse truly seemed to know where he was going. There was no true trail; instead we had followed a deer track up a hill, diverged to follow a stream as it wound down the next slope, traversed a valley beside it, and then climbed the next hill on a game trail. We had been following a ridge as the sun moved ever closer to the horizon. Now, as we descended again, the shadow of the hill falling across us made evening seem much closer.

  “You don’t much like it, do you?” he asked me. Then, before I could ask him what he meant, he gestured at a stand of mixed trees. “There’s a good place. There’s a spring down in those rocks beyond the trees. You don’t much like the magic telling you what to do. ”

  “We’ll camp there, then,” I said, ignoring the words I didn’t want to hear from this stranger.

  “It’s a good spot. The evergreen trees break the wind. You don’t need to be ashamed. I don’t like it, either. It was a poor bargain. Not that I had much say in the terms of the bargain. You decide you want to live, and then it’s got you. One way or another. I was sent to fetch you. I said no. But you don’t say no to the magic, do you?”

  “You’re raving, Hitch. Ride quiet. Save your strength. ”

  He coughed, and it was too weak a sound for a grown man. “I don’t have any strength left, Never. Save what the magic gives me. I said, ‘No, I don’t have time. ’ And the magic sent me the cat, and I knew that if I wanted to live, I had to do what it wanted. And I always want to live. Looks like you do, too. But I think you got a dirtier shake of it than I did. Them Specks and their diseases. You know, they don’t call them diseases. Or even sicknesses. No. To them, they’re magic spells. Well, that’s not quite the way they’d call them. The word doesn’t translate. But it means like a gate or a funnel. The magic sends it, and the people go through it, and they come out dead or changed. Even fevers from wounds, like I got. Even this fever now, they’d say it’s a melting. A burning to purify the body and the spirit. If a Speck does something really bad, they’ll put a fever in him to cure him. Scratch him with something that makes him sick, or put him in a hut with a fire in the middle and build fires all around, to fever the wickedness out of him. You got any more water, Never? I’ve talked myself dry. ”

  We’d reached the campsite. The ring of fire-blackened stones said the place had been used before, and the grass growing against the stone said that it had been at least a season since it had last seen use. There was no ready-cut supply of firewood, but the trees around the spring had shed dead branches. I gathered what I needed and soon had a fire going. Hitch just sat on the ground, his blanket around his shoulders, staring at the fire. I was pretty sure I was looking at a dead man, and he knew it.

  My mind had been sifting his ravings and finding far too much that made sense, if the crooked logic of Speck magic could be said to make sense. I felt caught in the middle of a bridge. On one side was the insanity of believing that magic had made me fat, and that the magic had a plan for me. On the other side was my faith in the good god, my destiny of being a soldier son, and all the logic and science of Gernia. Somehow it seemed that neither one worked for me, but that trying to weave them together in the middle worked worst of all. I could disregard Lieutenant Buel Hitch and his wild talk. I could put it down to a fever and ignore it. Or I could encourage him to talk and try to find some sort of handle on whatever I was battling.

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  I did my camp chores while I pondered it. I fetched water and set it to heat, and cut toasting sticks for the venison. I was filling our water skins at the spring when I noticed a water plant I didn’t recognize. Its leaves were wide and a few were green, but most had gone spotty and pale with the threat of winter. I stared at them. I was sure I’d never seen it before, but it was uncannily familiar. I gave in to the impulse and reached into the water to pull one up. It came up reluctantly, a thick white root sucking out of the mud as I dragged on it. I rinsed it off and took it with me when I went back to our campsite.

  Hitch had made an effort to be useful. He’d scraped together a couple of mounds of fallen leaves and pine needles. One-handed, he was trying to put my blanket on mine.

  “In the good god’s name, Hitch, just rest. I can take care of that in a moment. ”

  He turned his whole head to look at me. “I hate being useless. ” Nonetheless, he sank down to sit on his own leafy bed. “I hate owing anybody anything. ”

  “You don’t owe me anything. Stop worrying about it. ” I handed him his water bottle.

  “What’s that you’ve got there?”

  “These? Some kind of water plant. It looked vaguely familiar. You know it?”

  He leaned closer, peering at it, and nearly fell over. He swayed back into place, chuckling grimly. “Yes. I do. The Specks use it. They call it drawroot. ”

  “How do you cook it?”

  “You don’t. It’s medicinal. For a fouled wound. ” With his good hand, he fumbled at the buttons of his shirt. “You cut the fresh root and put it, cut side down, on the wound. It sucks the foulness out. ” He gave an exclamation of disgust as his opened shirt permitted a wave of stench to waft from his chest injury. “Damn magic seems to be working again. At least this time it’s to my good. ”

  I helped him get his shirt open, tugging it gently free from his injured arm. He gritted his teeth so hard I heard them grind. He directed me as I cut the root and placed it. I had to go back to the spring for more of it. Luckily, it seemed plentiful, so I harvested a good supply. He lay back on his bed near the fire, sections of cut root arranged over his pus-oozing wounds. I had small faith in their efficacy. He closed his eyes and dozed as I finished the camp chores and arranged our venison to cook over the fire. The fresh meat was starting to sour, so I decided I’d cook it all. It made a fine, toothsome smell as it sizzled over the fire. I looked up at the deep blue of the evening sky. Scudding clouds obscured the early stars. I hoped we’d have no more rain.

  “Food’s done,” I announced, and he opened his eyes. He didn’t sit up at first. Instead, one by one, he peeled the slices of root off his a
rm and chest. They came free stickily, with sucking noises. He shied each one off into the woods as he loosened it. Where the roots had rested, the angry wounds had calmed from red to pink, and the swelling was substantially reduced.

  “That’s amazing,” I said.

  “That’s why they call it magic,” he replied.

  I handed him a stick laden with dripping meat and took one for myself from the fire’s edge. “How did you get caught by it?” I asked him quietly.

  He smiled slightly in the firelight. “A woman. Of course. ”

  I was quiet, waiting.

  He took a bite of the venison, holding the meat on the stick to rip it free. The meat was good, juicy and flavorful, but not very tender. I was chewing a mouthful myself when he added, “I wanted her. Not that it would have mattered if I didn’t. She’d made up her mind to have me and with a Speck woman, what she wants is what she gets. But there was a sort of initiation she put me through. The first time it was a holy smoke she made on a fire inside a small hut. We sat there, breathing it. And the second time, it was a tree resin that she made me chew. I…traveled. I saw things and I was tested. ” He stopped speaking for a few moments and then said, “I don’t really want to talk about that part of it. Does any man want to admit he found the limits of his courage? When they asked me if I wanted to live, I said yes. And they let me. As a servant of the magic. ”

  I swallowed my meat and took another skewer from the fire.

  “You know how it is,” he said, and it wasn’t a question.

  We talked that night. At first, we feinted and dodged, but slowly our two stories were spilled to one another. They were in some ways similar and in others wildly different. I told him how my father had given me to Dewara, and how the Plainsman had sent me up against the Tree Woman. I spoke of my other self, the one who lived and learned in a dream world. There were two places where I faltered and nearly lied to him. I didn’t want to admit that I had loved the Tree Woman. That I still did love her. And I didn’t want to confess that I was the one who had given the signal to the dancers she had sent to Old Thares. With a motion of my hand, I had bid them do their Dust Dance, and in that motion, I had betrayed all of Old Thares. Hundreds of people had died because of me. I confessed that guilt to Lieutenant Hitch. He shrugged his shoulders to it.

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