Forest mage, p.37
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       Forest Mage, p.37

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 135

 

  “It wasn’t you, Never. It was the magic. You can’t hold yourself responsible for what it makes you do. ”

  I winced. He had confided much to me. He had done things that shamed him, though nothing so foul as what I had done. Nevertheless, although I did not utter the thought aloud, I thought his sentiment a cowardly one. “I think I have a duty to my own people to resist it,” was all I said.

  “Do you?” he asked me quietly. “Do you believe that Gernians are the most important people in the world? Or do you think so only because you were born one? If you’d been born anywhere else, would you still think that you had a duty to protect the interest of Gernia, no matter what it cost other people?”

  “I don’t see anything wrong with being a patriot. I love my country and I respect my king. As soldiers, should we do less?” I felt pushed by his words.

  “As soldiers, that is very admirable. It’s only when we are being more than soldiers that it comes into question. ”

  I let a silence fall. I considered all he had said. Realization dawned on me. “You pretend to be common-bred. But you’re not. ”

  “I never said I was. ”

  “But you talk like it. Sometimes you sound like an ill-bred, ignorant man, but I think you do that on purpose. There are moments when your thoughts are too exact, too concisely phrased. I believe you were nobly born. ”

  “And?”

  “So why do you deceive people?”

  He lifted one shoulder. He didn’t look at me. “Isn’t that what we scouts are supposed to do? We blend. We cross borders. We live in the space between peoples. ”

  “Did you want to be a scout? It doesn’t sound as if you admire what you do. ”

  “Did you want to be a soldier? Pass me more meat, please. ”

  I did as he asked. “I had no choice in being a soldier. I’m a second son. It’s what I am destined to be. ” I took another skewer of meat off the fire for myself. “But that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to being a soldier. On the contrary. It’s what I always dreamed of doing. ”

  “You took your father’s ambition for you and made it your own. ”

  “No. I think that my father’s ambition for me and my ambition for myself happened to be the same thing. ” I said the words firmly, perhaps to cover that I suddenly wondered if they were true.

  “So you did consider other careers. Poet, engineer, potter?”

  “Nothing else appealed to me,” I replied staunchly.

  “Of course it didn’t,” he replied agreeably.

  Stung, I demanded, “What do you want of me, Hitch?”

  “Me? Nothing at all. But I’m not what you have to worry about. ” He shifted, grunting as he did so. His injuries were improved, but they still pained him. “I don’t know why I’m even badgering you about it. Listen, Never. I know a bit about this, but not everything. And maybe all I’m trying to do is offer you my knowledge in exchange for yours. So I’ll go first, and you tell me if anything I say goes counter to what you know. ”

  I nodded tersely, and tossed my toasting stick into the fire. “Very well, then. ” He cleared his throat, paused, and then laughed. It was the first honest laugh I’d heard from him. “Damn. I still feel like a boy, telling ghost stories by the fire. There’s a part of me that can’t let go of everything I learned growing up, a part of me that just can’t believe this is real, let alone happening to me. ”

  I suddenly felt a loosening in my shoulders. Quietly I said, “That lines up exactly with what has bothered me the most about this. When I try to talk about it, people think I’m crazy. My father was furious with me. He just about starved me to death, trying to prove I was lying about it. ”

  “I’m surprised you even tried to tell him. Did anyone believe you?”

  “My cousin. And Sergeant Duril, an old fellow who was my tutor. And Dewara. He believed me. ”

  He squinted his eyes at me. “I’m not sure you should have told him. It seems dangerous to me. ”

  “How?” I hadn’t told him Dewara was dead.

  “I’m not certain. It just does. ” He smiled grimly. “The magic has had me for a long time, Never. A good ten years. I’ve grown accustomed to it, just as a horse learns to wear his harness, no matter how much he might resent it at first. And I’ve come to have a feel for it. I know a little of what it can do for me. But I know a lot of what it can make me do. It’s ruthless. Always remember that. Always remember that you are just a tool to it. ”

  Page 136

 

  His words put a chill in me. “I’ve used it,” I admitted. “At first I didn’t know what I was doing. But in the last few days, I’ve used it twice, knowing that I did so. Yet each time I was shocked when it worked. ”

  He raised an eyebrow. “What did you do?”

  I told him first about the deer. He nodded slowly. “But that could have been sheer dumb luck. You know how it is. You believe you can do a thing, and then you actually do it. ”

  I nodded. “That’s what I thought. So I decided to prove to myself I wasn’t imagining things. ” And I told him about the vegetables.

  He whistled low and shook his head. “That’s more than I’ve ever done. More than I’ve ever seen done, even by the Speck village mages. I think you’d best tread more carefully, my man. What you did was like flinging down a challenge to the magic. You may think you mastered it and made it do as you wished. But I think that sooner or later, it will demand payment of you for that. ”

  “What can it ask of me?” I demanded with a bravado I didn’t feel.

  “Anything, brother. Anything at all. ”

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  GETTYS

  T hree days later, we finally rode into Gettys. We made an odd sight, I’m sure. I sat on big Clove while Hitch rode hunched beside me on Renegade. The drawroot had doubtless saved his life by sucking much of the toxic infection from his flesh, but that did not mean he was a well man. His fever had not abated. By night, it rose and tormented him. It had burned the flesh from his bones. I took him straight to his regiment’s doctor.

  That morning we had descended from the hills into a wide, shallow valley. As we finally broke clear of the cover of the trees, I reined in, startled at what I saw.

  I’d always had a clear image of Gettys in my mind. I’d pictured it like the great stone citadels of the west. It would have watchtowers on its high walls, and secondary earthworks surrounding it. There would be banners flying from its ramparts, and it would bristle with soldiers and artillery. The flags would snap smartly in the breeze on that last fortification of the Gernian kingdom. Savage wilderness would surround it.

  What I saw was a cruel joke on my boyhood vision. On the hillside on the other side of the valley, commanding a view of the valley, was a wooden palisade that boasted a mere four watchtowers, one at each corner. In the valley below us, we could see the King’s Road, cutting a straight line toward the stronghold and continuing past it up the hills and toward the mountains. Behind the fort, the land rose abruptly in steep foothills that were the final line of defense before the Barrier Mountains. The mountains, which loomed above them, were steep and tall and thickly forested.

  On the north side of the fortress, there was a compound with several long, low buildings that reminded me of barracks surrounded by a lower palisade, with two watchtowers looking over them. On the opposite side, a neat town had been laid out, with straight wide streets and sturdy structures. But outside that tidy heart a hodgepodge of makeshift cottages and houses scabbed the valley floor. Smoke from several hundred chimneys smudged the clear autumn air. The streets straggled and wandered among the houses like a child’s scribble on rough paper. The valley trapped the smoke, the smells, and the distant sounds of the disorderly settlement below us. What struck me the most about the sprawling community was that so much of it was made of wood. Old Thares had been brick and stone, and Franner’s Bend had been constructed of mud bric
k. I had grown up on the plains, where lumber was used to decorate stone buildings. Never before had I seen so many structures in one place all built entirely of wood. On the valley floor, between the settlement and us, farms had been claimed. Few looked prosperous. Rail fences had fallen, and in some fields the weeds stood tall and brown. In others, the stumps of trees still stood where some ambitious settler had logged off a pasture but gone no further with it. The whole panorama of fortress, town, and surrounding farmlands spoke of an endeavor begun with energy and order that had wavered and fallen into disrepair and despair.

  “There it is,” Lieutenant Hitch said without enthusiasm. “Gettys. Your new home. My old home. ”

  “It’s bigger than I expected,” I said when I had recovered somewhat.

  “Regiment’s about six hundred strong. It was almost a thousand in our peak days, but with plague and desertion, it’s all the colonel can do to keep us above five hundred men. We were supposed to get reinforcements this summer, but the plague got them first.

  “Thanks for getting me here. Let’s go down and see if one of the Gettys doctors can mend me. And if they can’t mend me, let’s hope they’ll have enough laudanum that I won’t care. ”

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  We rode across the brushy plateau to the King’s Road, and followed it down toward the city.

  I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing dirtier than a very old city is a rather new one. In an old city, people have established where the garbage and waste of all kinds will go. It’s not that there is less of it, but that it has been channeled to one place, preferably in a less desirable area of the town. Gettys had no such protocol. Nor had it grown naturally, with farms supporting a growing population and a pleasant setting that attracted more settlers that in turn stimulated more commerce. Instead, there had been a military occupation inside a fortification, followed by a population of deportees that had scant skills for settling a wilderness. Their failed efforts were manifest. Fields had been plowed and perhaps planted once, but now were a rumpled tapestry of stones, broken earth, and weeds. Drunken fences wandered across the land. Feral chickens scratched in the earth and fled at our approach. We passed open waste pits just off the side of the road. A flock of croaker birds hopped and squabbled on one fresh rubbish heap. They did not flee us, but opened their black-and-white wings and squawked menacingly to warn us off their feast. I could not repress a shiver as we passed them. Always, they reminded me of that dreadful wedding offering. We saw some scattered cattle and one small flock of eight sheep with a little boy watching over them. But for every sign we saw of industry and effort, a dozen failures flanked them.

  The outer town around the fort was a mixture of old shacks and hasty new construction, interspersed with collapsed remnants of earlier efforts at housing. The smells and sounds of dense human population surrounded us. Cart and foot traffic vied with one another at the intersections of the rutted, mucky roads. A bony woman in a faded dress and a tattered shawl gripped two small children by the hands as she hurried along the windy street. The children wore no shoes. One was bawling loudly. Hitch nodded his head at them. “Prisoner’s family. Free workers live in this part of town. Poorer than dirt, for the most part. ”

  At the next corner, I was shocked to see two Speck men sitting cross-legged. They wore wide brimmed hats of woven bark and castoff rags. The begging hands they reached out to passersby were disfigured with peeling blisters. “Tobacco addicts,” Hitch told me. “That’s about the only thing that makes a Speck leave the forest. They can’t take direct sunlight, you know. Used to be a lot more of them, but a lot of them caught a cough and died last winter. We’re not supposed to sell or trade tobacco to Specks, but everyone does. You can get just about any Speck-made thing you want for tobacco. ”

  “This place is even worse of a slum than Franner’s Bend,” I observed. “All of this will need to be razed if Gettys is ever to become a proper city. ”

  “Gettys will never be a city. None of this will last,” Hitch pronounced. “The Specks resist it with every bit of magic they can muster. That’s why it can’t prosper. The Specks dance to make it fail. For five years now, they have danced. No town can stand against that. It will wither and die and go back to the earth. Wait a day or two. You’ll start to feel it, too. ”

  His words were no stranger than many of the things he had told me over the last couple of days. I only wished I knew how many to give credence to. The tales and admonitions he offered me were sometimes so far-fetched, it seemed it must be the fever talking rather than a rational man. I now felt that he knew more of me than I’d ever shared with anyone, and that I knew far more of him than I was comfortable with. Even so, he remained a stranger to me, for I wondered who he would be if I removed the fever that both clouded and colored his thoughts.

  We drew curious glances from the people in the streets. Their attention lingered on Hitch slouching in his saddle as much as they did the fat man on the big horse. I soon discovered one advantage to Clove and that was that people gave way to him. Even in the crowded marketplace, the gathered folk parted to let us pass. Renegade and his burden followed in our wake.

  We came to the older, more prosperous section of Gettys. The main street was lined with stores and warehouses. Their proprietors had smelled a profit to be made off this ragtag town, and come east to take advantage of it. Their dwellings were neatly maintained and tightly roofed, with glass windows and rain gutters and sheltered porches. The side streets were straight, and I glimpsed well-built if poorly maintained houses. “The cavalla families live here,” Hitch told me. “This part of town was built a long time ago. Before the Specks turned against us. ” Outside a tavern four men in cavalla uniforms sat on a bench, smoking and talking. They were all thin and hollow-eyed. I stared at them for a moment, and then grasped the reality of something I’d known for years. Plague regularly swept through this town. Most of the regiment would be plague survivors. We rode past a bake house, the clay ovens bulging from the side of the structure out into the street. For a few moments we were warmer as we passed. The aroma of fresh bread assailed me so strongly I nearly tumbled from Clove’s back. I imagined it so strongly that I could feel the chewy texture on my tongue, taste the golden butter that would melt as I troweled it onto the bread, even the rasp of the crust against my teeth. I gritted my teeth and rode on. Later, I promised my rumbling gut. Later.

  Page 138

 

  We reached the wooden palisade. The skinned logs had been set vertically in the ground. Weathering had silvered them, and bits of moss and tiny plants had found purchase in the cracks. In a few places, ivylike vines were twining up the logs as if they were a trellis. The plants, I thought to myself, would devour those walls. Whoever had let them get started near the fort was a fool. The gates stood open, but the sentries on duty there possessed a military bearing that those at Franner’s Bend had lacked. I pulled in Clove, but Hitch lifted his head and rode around me. “Let us through,” he said gruffly. “I’m in a bad way and I need the doctor. And he’s with me. ”

  To my surprise, that was all that was needed. They did not salute the lieutenant or ask him any questions, but mutely nodded and let us pass. Renegade and Hitch had taken the lead and we followed. A few heads turned to mark our passage, but no one impeded us. They seemed unsurprised to see Lt. Hitch in such dismal condition. I merited longer stares than he got.

  The inner Gettys disappointed me as much as the outside had. Instead of crack soldiers, I saw men who wore their uniforms with days of dust settled in the wrinkles, and frayed cuffs and stained shirtfronts. Some of them wore their hair longer than mine. I saw no one walking with purposefulness, no troops drilling, and felt no sense of military preparedness. The men on the streets looked listless and unhealthy. I had expected to endure the avid curiosity of their stares. Instead they regarded me with an almost bovine acceptance.

  Lieutenant Hitch kept up his façade until we reached th
e doors of the infirmary. This structure appeared to be better maintained than the rest of the buildings inside the fort. I dismounted, exchanging the discomfort of riding for the new aches of standing on my own feet, and went to help Hitch.

  “I can do it myself,” he said, and then fell off his horse. With difficulty, I kept him from hitting the street. He gave a soft caw of pain as I hauled his good arm over my shoulder and walked him into the infirmary. The front room was whitewashed with a single desk in it and a bench along the wall. A pale young soldier looked up at me in surprise. His uniform was badly fitted; his jacket, cut for a man with broad shoulders, drooped oddly over his concave chest. He did not look competent to be left in charge, but there was no one else there.

  “Lieutenant Buel Hitch has been mauled by a wild cat. The wounds are badly infected. He needs a doctor’s skills right away. ”

  The boy’s eyes grew very wide. He looked down at the logbook and the two pens and inkwell carefully arranged on the bare desktop as if hoping to find some advice there. After a moment, he seemed to make a decision. “Follow me,” he said. He opened a door opposite the one I had entered by, and I found myself in a wardroom. There was a long row of beds along one wall. Only two were occupied. In one, a man was sleeping. In another, a man with his jaw bandaged stared disconsolately at the wall. “Put him on an empty bed,” my guide instructed me. “I’ll go fetch the doctor. ”

  Hitch roused himself slightly. “Get me Dowder. I’d rather have a drunk who knows what he’s doing than old Poker-up-his-ass, I’m-a-doctor-because-I-read-a-book Frye. ”

  “Yes, sir,” the boy replied, unsurprised, and hurried off to do as he was bid.

  I sat him down on a tautly made bed. “You seem very familiar with this place. ”

  Hitch began fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. “Too familiar,” he agreed, but did not elaborate. As he worked his slow way down the row of buttons, he asked me, “Do you have a pen and paper?”

  “Do I have what?”

 
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