Forest mage, p.48
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       Forest Mage, p.48

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

  Day after drab winter day dripped by, slow as cold molasses. The generous firewood stack that had come with my home began to dwindle. One clear winter day, I took an ax, some rope, and Clove and headed for the forest behind the cemetery. I wanted to find dead wood, either standing or fallen. I’d cut the log to a manageable length, have Clove drag it home for me, and then chop it into firewood.

  Clove and I followed my footpath to the spring and then broke a snowy trail into the woods beyond. Here I found giant cedars, towering and stout, their needled branches heavy with snow. Most of them were scarred veterans of a fire many years ago. Around and between those survivors, the younger forest was deciduous, birches and cottonwood and alder, and most of these no bigger around than a child’s embrace. Their bare limbs supported wandering walls of snow. Frozen drops of water hung from the tips of their branches. It was a beautiful snowy scene, yet ethereally foreign to a Plains-bred man like myself.

  A dozen steps into the shelter of the trees, I began to feel uneasy. I stopped and stood very still, listening. A good soldier develops a sixth sense for when he is being watched. I listened, I looked carefully around, and I even flared my nostrils and took a deep breath of the air. Carrion eaters like bears have a distinctive stench. But my physical senses detected nothing that I should fear. Small birds flitted through the trees. Occasionally the weight of one would dislodge a pouf of snow that would fall in a crystalline shower of tiny flakes. Other than that, I detected nothing, not even a winter breeze moving in the upper branches.

  Clove was waiting passively for me to decide what it was I wanted to do here. His calmness decided me; if his senses gave him no cause for alarm or interest, then mine were probably at fault. I tugged at his lead rope and we walked deeper into the forest.

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  All seemed peaceful. The snow was uneven around us, pocked with falls from overhead, crossed with rabbit trails or smoothly hummocked over the forest floor. Clove and I forged uphill, wading through snow that varied from knee- to thigh-deep. Other than birds overhead, I saw no creatures moving in the woods, but I could not shake the feeling that I was being watched. More than once I halted and looked back the way we had come. I wished I had a better weapon than the ancient gun that had been issued to me. I’d cleaned it, the rod waking clouds of rust from inside it, but I still had no confidence that it would either fire well or hit accurately.

  I finally spotted a standing snag. It was uphill from us, and more massive than I’d sought, but I resolved I would have it down and drag at least half of it home with me. The tree was obviously dead. It looked as if a random lighting strike had blackened one side of it. Great scabs of bark had fallen away to reveal silvery-gray wood beneath. It was more than enough to replenish my firewood supply, and dry wood would burn well with little fouling of my chimney. I pushed aside my feelings of unease and labored up the hill toward it. Clove docilely followed me.

  When I finally reached my dead tree, I paused to breathe, leaning against it. My heart hammered in my chest, and despite the chill of the day, sweat coursed down my back. I scooped up a handful of clean snow and ate it from my mittened hand to ease my thirst. But all the while, I kept scanning the woods around me for any sign of an intruder. I moved Clove well out of the way of my operation and took up a stance where I could fell the tree downhill of us.

  The first blow brought down an icy shower of dry snow on me. It fell again on the second and third chops, and then the branches had lost their loads. I’d sharpened my ax that morning, and it bit deep into the dry wood. I tugged the blade loose, set my feet firmly, and swung again. The blade struck at an angle to the first cut. Tug, swing. The first chips flew out onto the trampled snow. I poised my axe for the next blow and clearly felt the presence of someone behind me. My peripheral vision caught motion, and I felt the air of his passage. I turned quickly. No one was there. I spun the other way. There was nothing, no bird on the wing, no random fall of snow load from a tree. Nothing. Clove stood, wearily patient, betraying no interest in anything. I’d imagined it.

  Imagination or not, my heart still thudded in my chest. I took several calming breaths and took up my ax again. I put the energy from my fright into my swing, and the ax bit so deeply I had to wrench it loose. A half-dozen blows later, chips littered the snow and my own sweat warmed me. I labored on, trying to ignore my growing conviction that someone was watching me. “Trust your gut,” Sergeant Duril had always told me. It was getting harder and harder to ignore my instincts. A dozen ax swings later, I straightened up and spun around, my ax at the defensive. “I know you’re there!” I roared at the surrounding woods. “Show yourself!”

  Clove lifted his head and gave a startled snort. I stood, chest heaving, staring wildly all around me. My blood was thundering in my ears. I saw absolutely nothing that could be considered threatening. My horse regarded me with mild concern. I glared at the tree. I was not even halfway through the trunk.

  I set my teeth, steeled my mind, and put myself to chopping. I threw my not inconsiderable weight behind each blow. The sound of my ax rang defiantly through the woods. “I refuse to be afraid,” I said to myself, and then on my next blows, I began my grunting chant.

  “I’m. ”

  “Not. ”

  “Running. ”

  “Away!”

  The ax bit deep and the chips flew. On my next four strokes, I said the words louder, and soon I was shouting with every blow, putting all my strength into each strike of the blade. The tree shuddered. I struck again, and again, and then as it groaned, I jumped back out of range, for the trunk seemed to literally jump from the stump as if fell with an explosive crack that echoed through the frozen woods. It came down with a crash, falling through the frozen branches of the adjacent living trees, injuring them as it fell, shattering the stiff branches or leaving them to dangle brokenly. For a brief moment, the falling snag jammed against the trunk of a live tree, and then it fell with a resounding crash to the snowy forest floor. I stood blinking in the hanging mist of crystalline flakes that the falling snag had released. They stung my face like a cold rebuking slap from the forest.

  I had underestimated the task I’d taken on. After the tree had fallen, I had to divest the trunk of all its branches. This included the ones that lay underneath the fallen snag. The early evening of winter was threatening me before I finally had a section of trunk cut that I thought Clove could manage. I put a rope on it and fastened it to Clove’s harness.

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  I had never been so glad to put a place behind me. I wanted to hurry, but dragging the log downhill through the snowy forest was not as simple as it had seemed it would be. I put a rope on it so I could guide it to keep it from running up on Clove or snagging on trees. I could not focus on the task. The sensation of being watched blazed up in my mind, and I kept glancing back over my shoulder at nearly every step. The sweat that soaked and then chilled me was as much from fear as exertion. I could just glimpse the open area beyond the outskirts of the forest’s edge by the spring as the bluish shadows of the trees on the snow were turning to black.

  In Widevale, evening and night had always fallen slowly, with twilight a long process of losing the sun to the flat horizon. Here on the edge of the mountains, night came like the drawing of a curtain as rumpled hills swiftly devoured the pallid sun. I felt the darkness coming on, and suddenly I could no longer control my terror. I ran forward, floundering heavily through the deepening snow, startling Clove by seizing his headstall and tugging him along, urging him to haste.

  We must have made a comical sight, the fat man and his heavy horse, floundering through deep snow, encumbered by the tree trunk that Clove dragged. I was making small sounds of terror, my panting becoming higher-pitched. I tried to swallow my fear and could not; the more I gave in to it, the greater it became, like the boy who gives way to shrieks of hysteria when night terrors convince him that he cannot escape into the sa
fe world of day. There were no sounds in that darkening world save the ones we made: the thud-crunch of Clove’s hooves through the dry, crusty snow, my terrified panting, and the slow whoosh of the timber as it cut a trough through the snow behind us. No sound at all, save a single peal of laughter, clear and pure as any birdsong that rang out in the forest as we left it behind us.

  It was the final spur to my fear. Dignity abandoned, I ran, outstripping my placid horse. I ran all the way to my own front door and burst into my tiny cabin as if all the nightshades of the old gods were in pursuit of me. I slammed the door behind me and stood panting and shaking. My heart hammered in my chest, and my ears rang with it. The fire was blazing in the hearth and the kettle singing next to it. I smelled hot coffee. Scout Hitch was ensconced in my big chair by the fire. He looked up at me and smiled.

  “I see the forest is breathing terror today. ” He rose slowly from my chair, and sauntered to the door I had slammed shut behind myself as I entered. He opened it and looked out over the dimming landscape. He whistled softly, as if in admiration, while I stood burning with shame. But when he glanced back at me over his shoulder, the wonder on his face seemed genuine. “It’s later than I thought. I must have taken a nap while I was waiting for you. Have you been in the forest all this time?”

  I gave a stiff nod. My terror had fled, cast out by my embarrassment, but my heart still pounded and my throat was parched too dry to speak. I began to peel off my outer garments. Opening my coat released the stench of my own fear-sweat. Never had I been so ashamed.

  Hitch had continued to stare out of the door. “And you plundered a log for yourself as well. Damn. Nevare, you never cease to amaze me. No, you take your things off and get settled. I’ll put your horse up. I want to talk with you. ”

  By the time Hitch came back from seeing to Clove, I’d changed into a dry shirt and felt a bit more like myself. He’d made free with my hospitality but also contributed, I saw. He’d brought the coffee, and there were another three apples on my pantry shelf. The crowning gift was a loaf of bread that had been kneaded full of raisins and cinnamon. A dusting of sparkling sugar crowned the round loaf. It sat amid its wrappings like a king on a throne. I didn’t touch any of it. Instead, I drank three dippers full of water from my water cask, and then washed my face and combed my unruly hair back into order. I was mortified by my terror and humiliated that he had seen it. And try as I might, I could not forget that clear peal of mocking laughter.

  Hitch opened my door, stamped the loose snow off his feet, and came in, shutting the door firmly behind him. It was full dark outside now. “Ain’t you cut up that bread yet? It’s best toasted,” he greeted me, as if he had not seen me quaking like a coward.

  I was grateful that he’d turned the subject aside and yet shamed even more that he did. “I’ll do it now,” I said humbly.

  I cut thick slices of the fragrant bread, and we improvised toasting forks to warm it by my fire. The heat released the scent and flavor into the room. We both ate it greedily, dunking the slices in the hot coffee and then devouring the dripping edges. As I ate, I could almost feel my courage coming back to me, as if I sated something more than hunger. Hitch watched me knowingly, and after a time, I could not stand it.

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  “So. What brings you to visit me?” I asked him.

  He grinned. “Told you before. Renegade. ” He snorted a laugh at his tired joke, and then said, “You were probably asking me why I come here, right?”

  I nodded and tried not to scowl. It irritated me when he used language that made him sound like an ignorant fool. I knew it was a masquerade. Why did he continue to mask himself before me?

  A second smile flitted across his face, and I suddenly knew why he did it. To needle me. To remind me that I, too, pretended that I was not the soldier son of a noble family.

  “I come to let you know that I delivered your little present bag to Amzil. ”

  My interest leapt. “Did she like it?”

  “Can’t say. She made me leave it on her doorstep; said she’d take it in after I rode away. ” He shook his head. “She’s cut a new hole by her door. A horizontal slot that she can poke that old gun out of and threaten people without opening the door. ”

  Unease replaced my anticipation of pleasure. “That doesn’t sound good. ”

  “No, it doesn’t. And it isn’t good. ” He watched my face as he said, “Probably the only thing more unlucky than being the poorest family in a poor town is being the richest family in a poor town. ”

  “What do you mean? I didn’t send her that much; certainly nothing that could be considered riches. ”

  “Well, it doesn’t take much to be the richest family in a poor town. A few bulging sacks of potatoes, a cold bin full of cabbages and carrots, and the like…that might wake the avarice in your neighbors. Folk have been known to kill over a lot less than food. ”

  If he had hit me in the belly, the spreading pain could not have been worse. I felt my heart lurch and then thud on unevenly. “What have I done?” I asked myself softly. The vegetable garden intended to tide her over through a harsh winter had made her a target among her neighbors. Why could I not foresee that would happen?

  “You used the magic for your own ends, and it hit back at you. I warned you about that. ’Course, I warned you about that after you’d done it, so I can’t really say, ‘I told you so. ’ Only, learn from it, old son, and don’t let it happen again. ”

  “How bad is it for her? Is she all right?”

  “All I saw of her was the business end of her gun, and it seemed just fine to me. Ever noticed how much bigger the muzzle of a gun looks when it’s pointed at you? I swear, she stuck that thing out the hole, and it looked just like a cannon to me. She’s smart. She cut that hole at gut level. Biggest target on a man, and the worst way to die that I know. ”

  My question had gone unanswered, but my imagination was glad to supply a hundred dark possibilities. I wondered if my good deed had had the worst possible consequences for her and her children. Did she sleep always with one eye open, afraid to leave her children for even a few moments? The cynical side of my mind asked me if she had not always done that.

  I couldn’t bear to think about it anymore. My mind leapt sideways and I found myself asking, “What did you mean when you said the forest breathed terror today?”

  He looked at me curiously. “How is it possible you don’t know? You live right on the edge of it here, where most men can’t stand to be for long. Except for people like us, of course. ” He suddenly dropped his voice a note and looked at me with sadness in his eyes. “The magic owns us, Nevare. I can warn you not to do foolish things with it. But nothing I can say will save you from the things it can make you do. I can’t even save myself from that. ”

  I couldn’t decide if he was being dramatic or deeply sincere. I leaned back in my chair and balanced my coffee cup on top of the swell of my belly. “Hitch, I’m not going to drag it out of you. Either you explain it or you don’t. ”

  He leaned forward for the pot, poured himself more coffee, and then settled back in his chair with a groan. “Spoil all my fun,” he complained. “Oh, very well. I know you’ve been to the end of the road, so you know the terror that’s there. It’s worst there, and always there. The rest of the forest isn’t so bad. Sometimes the forest breathes terror. Other times, it’s utter weariness. And over all, always there is discouragement and despair. That flows over all the land surrounding the King’s Road. You have to ride for at least two days before you get away from it. Three if you’re following the road itself. Some people are more vulnerable to it than others, but no one, not even us, is completely immune. ”

  I tried Epiny’s theory on him. “That’s what is wrong with the morale at Gettys. That’s why top regiments come here and within a year become slovenly and prey to desertion. ”

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  He opened his hands
wide, as if acknowledging the obvious. “Prey to desertion is an understatement. ” he added quietly. “And things will only get worse after our ‘visiting dignitaries’ see how we’ve lost our shine. ”

  “Do you think they’ll rotate us out of Gettys?” I asked him, and felt a vague stirring of hope.

  He looked at me flatly. “Never, never, Nevare. ” He smiled at his own words. “They may rotate the regiment out, but you and I, we shall never leave this place. The magic lives here, and the magic owns us. ”

  “Speak for yourself,” I told him irritably. I was getting more than a bit tired of being told I was a puppet plaything. “Where my regiment goes, I follow. I’m at least that much of a soldier still. ”

  He smiled a different kind of smile. “Well. I’m sure there’s no arguing with you. When the time comes, we’ll see who stays or goes. Right now, I’m the one to go. I’ve a dark cold ride ahead of me, and a warmer one after that. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I’m off to the whorehouse, man. ” He looked at me consideringly. “Why don’t you join me? Probably do you good. ”

  “Thought you said you never paid for it. ”

  “You know any man who admits that he does? Why don’t you come with me, and you can pay for both of us?”

  “Another time,” I said reflexively.

 
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