Forest mage, p.45
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       Forest Mage, p.45

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
Page 165


  “Well, who wouldn’t dream of such a life?” Hitch asked with false enthusiasm.

  “You can mock me if you like,” I replied grumpily. “It wasn’t a bad dream. If I’d been posted to the right regiment, I’d have had a chance for adventure and glory. And I don’t see anything wrong with looking forward to a well-bred wife, and quiet waters and a snug home at the end of one’s days. What do I have to look forward to now? If I get really good at burying bodies, perhaps I’ll earn a corporal’s stripes. And when I’m too old to dig graves, what then? What then?”

  “You can’t really believe that you’re stuck here the rest of your life?”

  “Well, I don’t really see what else there is for me!” I retorted. Saying it aloud made it more real. Maybe I’d be promoted. Maybe I’d get a few stripes on my sleeve, but I’d still be fat and alone and digging graves. And when I couldn’t do that anymore, when my body gave out under the strain of carrying all this extra flesh, then I’d be one of those ex-soldier beggars in some dingy town. I sat back in my chair. I couldn’t catch my breath.

  “Take it easy, Never. You’ve got all this magic running through you. And you’re worried that you’ll have a boring life. Actually, you should be praying for that. Boredom is vastly underrated. Boredom means that nothing is trying to kill you every day. ” He smiled grimly at his own wit.

  “I almost wish—” I began, but stopped at a sharp motion from Hitch.

  “You, of all people, should be very careful what you wish for. If you haven’t heard a word I’ve said all evening, then listen to me now. Your wishes have an uncanny habit of coming true. Be careful where you bend your will. Magic seems to go with it. ”

  “Perhaps once or twice,” I began, but again he cut me off impatiently.

  “You wished to enlist here. And because it served the magic’s purpose, you were allowed to. This duty you’ve been given—do you think this was a random choice by our colonel? I venture to say there is Speckish benefit somewhere here. ”

  “How could my guarding the cemetery be of any benefit to the Specks?”

  “I don’t know,” he finally retorted in a low voice. “But it’s something you’d best think about, Never. Why would they want you here? What do they want you to do?”

  “I don’t know. But whatever it is, I won’t do it. I won’t betray my people. ” I thought I knew what he feared. “I won’t be lax at my guardianship. I won’t allow them to mock and desecrate our dead. ”

  “Mocking the dead would be very un-Speck-like. ” Hitch said quietly. “They show their own dead vast respect. They claim that wisdom gained never passes away, not even with death. Did you know that?”

  I shook my head. “This part of me that is here and speaks to you knows very little about the Specks. But there is another part of me that I fear knows too much and too well. ”

  He allowed himself a smile. “That you know that part exists and that you admit it to me shows me that you are gaining wisdom, Never. ” He heaved a sudden sigh and stood up. “It’s late. I’m going back to town. There’s a new whore at Sarla Moggam’s brothel. I plan to sample her before she’s worn out. ”

  “But you said you had a Speck woman. ”

  He lifted one shoulder and gave a smile both sheepish and defiant. “Once in a while, a man likes to be in charge of things. Speck women don’t give you much chance of that. They do things their own way and expect you to follow meekly along. ”

  For some reason, that put me in mind of Amzil. “You’ve reminded me. I’ve still got Amzil’s carry sack. Next time you go by Dead Town, would you take it back for me?”

  “I could,” he conceded. “If you think you must. Nevare, it’s just a rucksack. Don’t put too much importance on it. ”

  “I promised her that I’d return it. My promise is worth more to me than the rucksack. Besides, I’ve put in a few gifts. For the children. ”

  He shook his head at me. “I’ve warned you, old son. Amzil’s a hard nut to crack. I don’t think you’ll get to her through the children. Save your time and effort. Come to Sarla Moggam’s with me. ”

  The invitation was more tempting that I wanted to admit. “Another time,” I said regretfully. “When I’ve got more money. Will you take the carry sack to Amzil?”

  “I said I would,” he agreed. “And will you be more careful in how you spend your magic?”

  Page 166


  “I would if I knew how. I wish I could undo what I did to the men at the courier station. It was only their sergeant who was so hard-hearted to me. I’d no wish to curse them all. ”

  “All the more reason for you to be careful. If that’s what you do when you don’t mean to harm anyone, what would happen if you really intended it?”

  It was a sobering thought. “I’d undo it if I could. I don’t know how. ”

  He was standing by the door, the laden rucksack in his hand. “That’s a feeble excuse, Never, and you know it. You said you did it without knowing how. If I were you, I’d be trying to undo it. ” He shook his head at my expression. “Don’t be stubborn. This isn’t something you want connected to you. You’re a dangerous man, Never. The fewer people who know that, the safer you are. Good night. ”

  And so he left me to what was not a good night at all. I didn’t like that he thought I was “dangerous,” and I liked it even less that, on consideration, I concluded that I was. I was like a foolish boy with a loaded gun. It didn’t matter if I knew how the gun worked; I’d fired it, and someone had suffered the consequences. Was I so different from the two young fools on the riverboat who had felled a wind wizard with iron shot? They’d probably had no real notion of the harm iron could do him. I’d despised them for it. But here I was, spraying magic out just as carelessly. According to Hitch.

  I lay in my bed and stared up at my shadowed ceiling. I wanted so desperately to be able to go back to where magic was the stuff of tales, not something that affected my life every day. I didn’t want it to be a power I had, with no concept of how it worked or was controlled. The light danced with the flames in my hearth and I decided I should try to undo whatever I had done to the courier station. It wasn’t easy. In the moment I’d said those words, I’d wholeheartedly desired that they suffer exactly as I did from their lack of charity. There was still a hard part of me that thought they deserved what had happened. I discovered that I would need to forgive them before I could truly wish to undo what I had done to them. That forgiveness was an easy thing to say, but a harder thing to feel in my heart.

  I groped toward an understanding of the magic I had done. It had gone beyond what I’d said to what I’d felt toward them. Feelings, I discovered, did not yield to logic or even to ethics. Why should everyone at the relay station suffer because their sergeant had been so stiff-necked? Why should any of them suffer at all, at my say-so? Who was I to judge them?

  I chased my morality in circles that night, trying to find it. When it came to actually living as an upright man, I discovered that I was no more truly tolerant and forgiving than any worshipper of the old gods.

  The moment that I realized I was no better than the men who had turned me away when I begged their help, I was able to forgive. I felt something move through me, a prickling in my blood, followed by a stillness and a sense of effort expended. Had I worked magic? I couldn’t tell. I had no way of knowing, no way of proving that I had or had not. Perhaps all of this was a silly illusion, a game that Hitch and I played, pretending to powers that didn’t exist.

  My refusal to surrender and completely believe in magic was my final defense that enabled me to live in a world that made sense to me. The early morning was a pearly darkness of falling snow. I burrowed deeper into my blankets and finally slept.



  I tried to find the rhythm of my days again, but it was broken. The snow was too deep and the ground too frozen for me to dig graves, an
d there was very little else for me to do. I missed my schoolbooks. Writing in my journal almost made things worse. I had far too much time to think. Magic, my father’s opinion of me, Spink’s knowledge that I was in Gettys, Colonel Haren asking my opinion on the road dilemma: I had too much to ponder.

  I tempted myself to go into town, thinking that any sort of company might be a welcome distraction, but I felt an almost irrational fear that I would encounter someone who knew me from my academy days. I isolated myself at the graveyard until a rider came out one day to fetch me. An old man had died. I hitched Clove to the wagon and went to town for the coffin and corpse. The old man had been an ex-soldier and a drunk who had died in debt to everyone who had tried to befriend him. The poor fellow had no mourners to follow me out to the grave site.

  Once I had him loaded, I steeled my heart to my own callousness and completed my own necessary errands. I picked up hay and grain for Clove and some basic food supplies for myself. I forced myself to take my noon meal in the mess hall. Ebrooks was at table, shoveling his food into his mouth as if it were a competitive sport. From him I learned that Kesey was sick in bed with a toothache, but hadn’t the courage to have the molar pulled.

  Page 167


  “That side of his face is swollen like a melon, and so tender he can’t eat a bite. Even drinking water hurts him. I told him, go have it pulled and be done with it. How could the pain be any worse? He still hopes it will go down by itself. But he almost counts himself lucky to have been sick in bed last night after what happened in the streets. ”

  “Why? What happened?”

  He shook his head and then lowered his face to his plate to shovel in another large spoonful of beans. He spoke around them, muffled. “Ain’t sposed to talk about it. Gonna be hushed up and smoothed over, like they allus do. ”


  He swallowed noisily and gulped coffee to be sure the food had gone down. He glanced around the mess and then leaned closer to me. “Murder last night. I heard something ’bout a whore, an officer, and some soldiers. What I heard was the officer fancied the bit and got mad when the soldiers had her first. He shot one of the boys. Something like that. ”

  “That’s ugly,” I said, leaning away from his breath.

  “Life’s ugly,” he agreed, and went back to his food.

  I turned my attention to my own plate, and a short time after that, Ebrooks pushed back from the table and left. My meal was four rashers of bacon and a steaming sea of brown beans with biscuits. I enjoyed it more than the food merited, until I noticed Sergeant Hoster at a nearby table with a couple of his cronies. His friends were grinning broadly as they watched me eat, but Hoster was regarding me with a stare of flat dislike. One of Hoster’s friends rolled his eyes and muttered something to Hoster. The other man snorted wildly into his cup of coffee, spattering liquid all over their table while the first one leaned back, choking with juvenile laughter. Hoster’s expression didn’t change. He rose slowly and approached my table. I kept my eyes on my plate, pretending I didn’t know he was coming. I refused to look up until he addressed me directly.

  “You look tired, Burv. Keeping some late hours?”

  I had to swallow before I could reply. “No, Sergeant. ”

  “You sure about that? You didn’t come to town last night for a bit of fun?”

  “No, Sergeant. I stayed home last night. ”

  “Did you?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Must get lonely out there. A man lives alone all the time, he can get real hungry for the company of a woman. Isn’t that so?”

  “I suppose. ” I suspected he was setting me up for mockery. I was trying not to rise to the bait.

  He leaned very close to me and spoke softly. “Did you hear the news, Burv? She didn’t die. In a few days, the doctors think she’ll feel well enough to talk. She’ll be able to describe who attacked her. And I’d say you’re a hard man to mistake. ”

  He was accusing me of being one of the rapists. Outrage vied with shock. I kept calm with difficulty. “I was at my cabin all last night, Sergeant. I’ve heard about the attack on the woman. It’s a terrible thing. But I had nothing to do with it. ”

  He straightened up. “Well. We’ll see, won’t we? Don’t think about running off. You wouldn’t get far. ”

  All around the mess hall, men had stopped eating to stare at us. They continued to stare even when Hoster sauntered away to rejoin his friends. I glanced around at the speculation on their faces and then back at my food.

  All pleasure in my meal vanished. I kept my eyes on my plate as I finished eating, ignoring the sergeant and his friends even when they walked out right behind my seat. The company of others, I reflected hotly to myself, had done little to distract me from my own dark thoughts. I left the mess and walked out into what was left of the cold day,

  I buried the old soldier as the last of the day’s light fled, and I’m afraid the only words I said over his body were a feeble prayer to the good god that I would not end up just like him. The day was unpleasantly cold, the kind of cold that cracks lips and numbs fingers even when a man is working hard. The hair inside my nose froze and prickled me, while the muffler over my mouth grew frosty from my breath. The soil that I threw down on the coffin was as much ice and snow as earth. I mounded it well over the grave and then trampled it down as tightly as I could. By the time I sought my fireside, afternoon was darkening into evening.

  I divested myself of my chilled garments, built up my fire, and swung the pot on its hook over the awakening flames. This week’s stock was a good one, with barley and a meaty beef bone as the base for it. I had taught myself, via trial and error, to make hearth cakes using saleratus as leavening. They were not bread, but my recent efforts had been palatable. I stirred up some to go with my soup. Bending over my belly to crouch down by the hearth to watch them and then turn them was uncomfortable. Some days, I scarcely noticed the inconvenience and simply accepted my body. At times like tonight, I felt as if like I were bound up in someone else’s garments. I could recall so clearly how my body used to work. I felt I should still be able to crouch low and jump high, to chin myself or reach down and tie my shoe without holding my breath. But every time I forgot the flesh that enclosed me and attempted such a movement, I paid with a twinge or a cramp or failure.

  Page 168


  When all my hearth cakes were browned, I stacked them on my plate and with a grunt heaved myself to my feet. I set them on my table and then ladled a generous helping of soup into my bowl. By virtue of great self-control, I still had one of Hitch’s apples left to accompany my meal. I sat down to my repast with anticipation. Food always worked. No matter how distressing the rest of my life might become, food and the sensations of eating it were always pleasant. Food had become my comforter and my companion. I refused to dwell on what Hoster had implied. As he had said, we would see. When the woman recovered enough to describe her attackers, my name would be cleared of the sergeant’s foul accusation. I was an innocent man with nothing to fear.

  Just as I sat down, I heard a sound outside. I froze, listening. There were the small sounds of a man dismounting from a horse, and then the squeak-crush of boots on packed snow. I expected a knock at the door. Instead I heard a voice say firmly, “Nevare, let me in. ”

  I had an almost overwhelming urge to sit silently where I was. I didn’t answer. But after a moment I went to the door and lifted the latch. Spink stood on my doorstep. The cold had pinched his face white, save for his red nose and the tops of his cheeks. Steam came out of his muffled mouth as he asked, “Can I put my horse in with yours? It’s cold out here and getting colder. ”

  “If you want,” I said, for there seemed nothing else to say.

  “I’ll be right back,” he told me, and turned to lead his horse off to Clove’s lean-to. I shut the door to hold both the cold and my past at bay. And then I did something that was probably childish. I went to my table a
nd drank down my hot soup as fast as I could, and gobbled down as many of my hearth cakes as I could manage, listening always for the sound of Spink’s boots outside. It was not greed. I was hungry, and I did not want to be thinking about food while Spink was there, nor did I want to watch him watching me eat. It was going to be hard enough to sit across from him and try to ignore how his eyes would wander from mine to the rest of my body, wondering and speculating on how I could have changed so much.

  When I heard his footsteps outside, I went to the door and opened it. “Thanks!” he exclaimed and came quickly in, immediately opening his coat and moving closer to the fire. “That’s the coldest I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m afraid the ride back to town will be worse. It’s absolutely clear outside; the stars seem like you could reach up and pick them out of the sky. ” He drew off a set of heavy mittens, and then awkwardly peeled off his gloves before thrusting his hands toward my fire. His fingers were nearly white. His breath came in shuddering sighs.

  “Spink, why did you come out here tonight?” I asked him sadly. I dreaded the confrontation that I knew must follow this meeting. Why couldn’t he just have let things alone?

  He mistook my meaning. “Tonight was the first chance I’ve had to slip away without Epiny demanding to know where I was going and why. She’s having some kind of meeting at our house tonight, with women from all over Gettys. All sorts of talk about bettering their lot and providing more opportunities for soldiers’ widows and daughters. We don’t have a large house; in fact it’s quite small, even by Gettys standards. Fill it full of women who all seem to be talking at once and it gets even smaller. When I told Epiny quietly that I simply must leave for a time, she scowled at me, but let me go. And here I am. ” He smiled sheepishly, as if loath to admit that Epiny had so much management of his time.

  I had to smile back. I’d never imagined it would be any other way.

  The moment I smiled, Spink burst into a grin like a sunrise. He came quickly to me and seized my right hand in both his icy ones and shook it, saying, “Nevare, I’m so glad to see you alive! Everyone thought you were dead!” He let go my hand and flung himself into my spindly chair by the fire.

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