Forest mage, p.44
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       Forest Mage, p.44

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

  The ride home in the dark seemed longer than usual. The rucksack hung at my saddle, a bag full of good intentions. I idly wondered if Colonel Haren would grant me leave to deliver my gifts myself. He’d probably think I was trying to desert. Then I wondered if anyone would notice if I took half a dozen days to ride out to Dead Town and back. Would Amzil be glad to see me? Or would she think that I’d heard of her reputation and come to try my luck with gifts? I clenched my teeth. I had no time for a schoolboy’s infatuation based on a woman being civil to me.

  The year was coming to an end and the night seemed darker and the stars closer. Moonlight made the road a dirty streak between the snow-mounded fields. I trusted Clove to find his way home. The thoughts I’d been avoiding all evening occupied me. Was this duty my destiny, the summit of my life’s ambition? Did my father know I was here? Did I hate him more for how he’d sought to be sure I couldn’t use his name to gain favor? I shook my head to clear it of thoughts of him. Almost immediately, Spink came to mind. How long could I avoid him and my Cousin Epiny? If Spink told Epiny he had seen me, I doubted it would be long. And then what? She’d want to know every detail of my life and I didn’t think I could stomach a long confession, let alone her misguided good intentions to help me. Better for all of us if she never knew I was in Gettys. I offered a vain prayer to the good god I had once so trusted that Spink would have the common sense to hold his tongue and say nothing to Epiny.

  My spirits sank deeper when I perceived that the single window of my little cabin leaked yellow light into the night. I had left the fire banked on the hearth. For light to spill out from the closed shutters meant that someone had lit the lamp. I dismounted from Clove and dropped his reins, creeping toward my dwelling cautiously. Who had intruded and what did they intend? Strangely, I did not fear robbers so much as I dreaded that Spink might have tracked me down.

  Then I recognized Renegade standing outside my door. I advanced, relieved it was not Spink, but puzzled as to why would Hitch visit me. I’d called on him several times while he was recovering from his cat attack, but each time, the differences in our ranks had become more awkward. It had been some weeks since I’d last seen him. As I set my hand to the latch, I wondered how I should greet him. I was annoyed that he would so freely enter my dwelling place; on the other hand, on a night such as this, I could scarcely have expected him to wait outside for me. Curiosity finally overwhelmed all else and I opened the door.

  My cabin had undergone several changes since I’d first moved in. I’d built myself an ample chair, uglier but much sturdier than the original. I’d also reinforced the table and widened and strengthened the bed. Hitch sat in the original spindly chair by the hearth. He didn’t startle when I opened the door, but merely turned his face toward me with a slow grin. The aroma of fresh coffee filled my cabin.

  “Put the wood in the hole, boy. It’s cold out there. ”

  I shut the door as he bade me. Hitch had shed his wet outer garments in an untidy heap on the floor.

  “It’s pleasant to see you, sir,” I said stiffly. The smell of the hot coffee beckoned me.

  “I left my ‘sir’ on the other side of your door. Pardon me if I don’t get up to fetch it. ” He nodded at my pot full of his coffee. “Hope you don’t mind that I extended your hospitality to myself. It’s a black, cold night out there, and a man has to take comfort where he can. ” He looked around my small home. “So. It looks like you’ve done well for yourself. ”

  I wasn’t sure if he meant to be sarcastic or not. “It’s better than some places I’ve been,” I said guardedly.

  He laughed at my cautious tone. “Never, come on in and get comfortable. Pull up a chair, have a cup of coffee. After all, it’s your house. Your life. ”

  “That’s true,” I said pointedly. “Back in a moment, after I put up my horse. ”

  When I returned from seeing to Clove, Hitch had poured me a mug of coffee. Several apples sat on the table next to the mug. As I hung up my cloak and muffler, I asked him, “How on earth did you get apples at this time of year?”

  “I’m an officer. We have access to the better supplies. ” He laughed at the expression on my face. “You’re torn between ‘It’s not fair’ and ‘I should have been an officer, too, so I could have those unfair apples more often. ’”

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  “I think both statements are true,” I said with mangled dignity.

  “True has nothing to do with what is,” he said blithely. “Sit down, Never. Drink your coffee and eat an apple. Let us discuss our lives with one another. ”

  “Let’s not,” I said succinctly, but I took an apple and the mug from the table and moved my chair to join him by the stove. “What really brings you to visit me?” I asked after my first sip.

  “Renegade,” he said, and laughed at his own feeble joke. Then he cleared his throat. “I don’t know, Never. I just had an impulse. Do you ever get impulses like that? You suddenly feel like you ought to do a thing without knowing why?”

  “Not really,” I said.

  “Really?” he asked conversationally. “Let me rephrase that. Have you ever done something impulsively, and suddenly felt that your careless words or passing touch would have far greater significance than you’d intended?”

  A creeping dread invaded my bones. “No, I don’t think so. ”

  “I see. So you never attempted to enlist at a small courier station? And as you left, you never departed with a quote from the Holy Writ? Something like, ‘As you have seen to the needs of the stranger, so may your own wants be met in your time of need?’”

  I sat very still, looking at him. He smiled mirthlessly. “I range a bit. Sometimes I go a bit beyond the scouting missions I’m sent on. Sometimes I’ve a mission of my own. Such as when I’m sent out to set something to rights after someone else has unbalanced it. ”

  “Do you do that often?” I managed to ask. The apple sat round, smooth-skinned, and untasted in my hand. I could smell its end-of-summer fragrance. It spoke of sweet juice and tart flesh just under the red-streaked skin.

  “Not before you came along. ” He shifted in his chair, stretching his stockinged feet closer to the fire. “Things are pretty strange at that courier station, Never, my lad. Think about it. I’m guessing you wanted food and they sent you away empty-handed. They remember you quite well, by the way. It was the day after you passed through that the first supply wagon arrived empty. No one had any explanation. The wagon pulled in, the troopies came out to unload, and the crates were empty. ”

  “Bizarre,” I managed to say. A stillness was growing inside me.

  “Once would be bizarre. The second supply wagon never arrived. Nor the third. Well, let me make the tale short. In an incredible string of bad luck and odd mishaps and inexplicable events, that particular courier stop has gone unsupplied since you—or someone very like you—passed through and cursed it. At least, that’s how the tale is being told. ” He paused for a moment and then added, “They’re not starving, exactly. They can go out and hunt for themselves. But it’s been very disruptive. A lot of people have heard about it and are paying attention to it. That could be bad for you, Never. ”

  He was no longer asking if I’d done it, and I saw no point in denying it. “The words just came out of my mouth,” I said. “I just meant to be sarcastic. Not to curse them. ”

  He sank a bit deeper into his chair. “Speck magic has a life of its own, Never. You might think you’re using it, but it’s always using you. Always. I warned you to be careful of it. ”

  “That happened before I ever met you,” I retorted, and then felt childish for needing to make the excuse. I took a bite out of the apple. The taste of it overwhelmed me for a few moments. My head reeled with sweet and sour, with the crisp texture of the flesh and the sturdy flap of apple skin that I ground between my teeth.

  “There he goes again,” Hitch muttered to himself. “You don’t listen to a wor
d I say. The more you use it, the more power it has over you. There. Is that plain enough for you? The magic isn’t yours, Nevare. You belong to it. And the more you use it, the more hold it has on you. ”

  “Like the ‘keep fast’ charm,” I said slowly. “Only it doesn’t seem to work anymore. ”

  He shot me a look. “Yes. I was coming to that. You do seem to get around, and to do a lot of damage in the process. ”

  Uneasiness ran over me with cold, wet little feet. “I don’t believe that you’ve gone as far as the Dancing Spindle on a scouting expedition. ”

  “Me personally? No. But there were witnesses. And information like that travels. If a person wants to hear about it, he only has to listen. And some people very much wanted to hear what had suddenly impacted the whole system of Plains magic. You’re fair on your way to being a legend in your own time, Never. ”

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  “Just who do you ‘scout’ for, Hitch? The information you’re gathering doesn’t sound like something Colonel Haren sent you after. ” I was beginning to feel angry, the kind of anger that comes when fear threatens and one doesn’t know the exact source.

  “Damn you, Never. You sit there and I talk to you and you hear the words, but it’s like you don’t listen to what they mean. It’s Speck magic, old son. It’s got you. I told you before, it’s got me, too. It uses me. It uses you. The scary part is that you seem to be using it and I don’t think you have any concept of what you are doing. Or how heavily in debt you are to it. When it demands to be paid back, you’re going to have to give it more than just yourself. You’re going to have to give it things that don’t belong to you, things I care about. I’m here to tell you that you have to draw a line with it and fight. Be a Gernian, man, at least a little. ”

  “It seems to me that a few weeks back, you didn’t think so highly of my patriotism. If I recall correctly, you mocked me for it. ”

  “I mock anyone who does things without thinking for himself why he does them. And that is what you’re doing with your magic. You took out the Dancing Spindle. And when you did, I think that what the Plains magic lost, Speck magic gained. And certainly you seemed to have gained. You do things I’ve never seen anyone do, and I’ve seen quite a bit of Speck magic in my wandering. Last time I went through Dead Town, I saw your little vegetable garden. You told it to grow. It’s still growing. Just as the people at the courier station are still not receiving supplies, just as they denied them to you. You’re setting things in motion, Never, with no heed as to the ultimate consequences. You stopped the Spindle turning, but you’ve set all sorts of little things spinning for you. ”

  “Look,” I said bluntly. “I did those things. Well, I guess I did them. You say so, and I’m going to believe you. But I don’t know how I did them. And I don’t know how to undo them. If anyone is at fault here, it’s the damn magic, not me. It came into my life and took it over. I never sought it out. It’s ruined everything for me. It’s taken my body, my career, my fiancée, my family, even my name. I’ve lost everything to it. And I still don’t know how it works or why it works or what it wants of me. But with all the things it has done to me, why can’t I use it to do a little good? Amzil and her children were starving. Was it so bad, what I did?”

  He huffed out his breath in a blast of disbelief. “Damn me. You did do it. You really did!” He took a breath as if to restore him steadiness. “Was it so bad? You ask that as if you think I know the full answer. All I can tell you is that this magic gets into you, like ivy putting roots into a tree trunk. And it climbs up you and it steals your light and sucks out your sustenance. It uses you, Never. And every time you use it, you give more of yourself to it. Do you understand me? Tell me that you know what I’m talking about. ”

  “I don’t! That is, I do and I don’t. How do you know so much about it, anyway?”

  “I told you. There was a woman, a Speck woman. She wanted me, and what a Speck woman wants, she takes. And a Speck woman is just like their magic. She makes you her own, and that’s it. ” He stood up so suddenly his chair nearly fell over. With lightninglike reflexes, he caught it and then stepped clear of it. He walked a turn around my small house, staring at the walls as if he could see through them. “Never met a woman like her before. Once you start going among them, you’ll see what I mean. They got a whole different way of seeing the world, a whole different idea of how life works. And once they take you in, suddenly it seems that it’s the only way to see things. They just accept the magic. They don’t go around thinking that they’re going to decide how their lives go. They laugh at us for that. Once, that woman showed me a little plant growing by a stream. She said, ‘You see that little plant, all by itself, having its own life?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I see it. ’ And she said, ‘That’s you. And you see that other little plant over there, on the other side of the stream? You see it, all by itself over there? That’s me. ’

  “So I thought she was trying to tell me something, about how the stream separated us, about how different we were. But then she went over and grabbed the plant that was me and she pulled it up out of the ground. But its tough little roots came with it. And she started following that root, lifting it up out of the ground, and that root went from my plant to another to another and to another and finally it went right under the stream and come up on the other side and she pulled it up and it went to the plant she said was her. And she stood there, holding up all this network of roots, and she said, ‘See. There isn’t one little plant growing alone. It’s all of us. ’”

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  He fell silent, palm up and empty, reached out toward me, waiting for a response. He seemed terribly moved by what he had told me. “It’s a nice story,” I said at last. “But I don’t see how it helps me understand whatever it is you’re trying to say. ”

  He shook his head at me in disgust and went back to sit in his chair. “For her, it’s not a metaphor. It’s reality. She truly believes that we are connected to one another and that in some way we are all part of one big…something. ”

  “Some big what?”

  “We don’t have a word for it. She’s told me about it a hundred times, but her truth is in a place where our words don’t reach. It’s like disease. Our children get sick, we try to find out why, and we try to make them better. We cover them up with blankets to try to sweat the fever out or we give them willow bark tea. Because we think sickness means something is wrong with a child. ”

  “And Specks don’t think something is wrong when a child gets sick?”

  “No. Do you think something is wrong when a boy’s voice changes or he sprouts whiskers out of his face? They think children are supposed to get sick. Some get better and live, and that’s fine with them. And some die, and that’s fine with them in a different way. ”

  “Do you see her often?”


  “Your Speck woman!”

  “Yes. In a way. ”

  “I’d like to meet her,” I said quietly.

  He seemed to think about that for a long time. “Maybe you can, if she wants. In spring. ”

  “Why not sooner?”

  “Because it’s winter. No one sees Specks in the winter. ”

  “Why not?”

  “Are you playing with me, Never? You are so damn frustrating. How can you have Speck magic all through you and not know a thing about them? Specks don’t come around in winter. They just don’t. ”

  “Why not?”

  “Well—I don’t know. They just don’t. They’re gone in winter. ”

  “Where? Do they migrate? Do they hibernate?” I was getting as impatient with Hitch as he was with me. He’d come here, full of mystical hints and warnings, and told me next to nothing.

  “I just told you, I don’t know. They keep to themselves in winter. No one will see a Speck around here until spring. ”

  “I saw a Speck woman here, but it was only a dream. ” I think I
threw the words out just to see what he would say.

  He gave a huff of displeasure. “I like how you say ‘only,’ Never. Are you that comfortable with it? Speck comes walking around in my dreams, it still puts the wind up my back. Of course, to them it’s nothing; they go journeying by dream all the time. Noselaca, she can’t understand why I make such a fuss about it. ”

  “So you dream of your woman—Noselaca?”

  “She’s not my woman, Never. ” He spoke quietly, as if sharing a dangerous secret with me. “Never talk about a Speck woman that way. She could put you in a bad way over something like that. And I don’t dream about her. She comes into my dreams. ”

  “What’s the difference?”

  “In the world you and I grew up in, nothing at all. In her world, well, in her world she walks into a dream like you walk into a different room. ”

  I’d almost forgotten the apple in my hand. I took another bite of it and chewed it slowly, thinking. “She believes that she can visit you in your dreams. ”

  “She not only believes it, she does it. ”


  “Are you asking how I experience what she does, or how she does it? The answer to the first is that I fall asleep, and I think I’m having an ordinary dream, and then Noselaca comes into it. As to how she does it, I’ve no idea. Maybe you should be telling me. You seem to be the one using a lot of magic. ”

  The apple was down to a stem and the core. I looked at it for a few moments, then put the core in my mouth and chewed it up. I tossed the stem in the fire. “A year ago, I would have thought this whole conversation was utter nonsense. Now half the time I don’t know what I think. A dream is just something that happens in your mind at night. Except when a Speck woman walks into it and starts teaching you things. Hitch, I can’t make sense of my life anymore. Once, it was all laid out for me so clearly. I’d go to the academy, graduate with honors, and I’d get a good commission with a top-notch regiment. I’d move up fast as an officer, I’d marry Carsina, the girl my father had chosen for me, and we’d have children, and eventually, when I was old, I’d retire from the military and go back to Widevale and live under my brother’s roof until I died. ”

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