Forest mage, p.49
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       Forest Mage, p.49
 

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

  “Pining away for Amzil? Put her out of your mind, man. No one rides that mare, save that she want to carry him. ”

  “I’m not pining for Amzil. I just owed her a favor in return for her hospitality. That was all. ”

  “I’m sure it was. So. The whores, then?”

  It was a cold dark ride to town, and all the way there, I questioned my own wisdom. But there are times in the heart of winter when a man doesn’t want to be wise, only satiated. If Hitch hadn’t brought up the idea to me, I doubt that I’d have gone. But once it was presented, I couldn’t think of any good reason to turn it down. I was tired of being alone and cold, and I needed something to scrub the shame of cowardice from my soul. So I went.

  We rode up to a long low building on the edge of Gettys Town. The snow was well trampled outside it, and six saddled horses waited sullenly in the cold. There were no windows.

  I suggested that we enter separately. Hitch told me he didn’t particularly care who knew that we knew one another, but he gave way to my request. So, some moments after he had thumped on the rough wooden door and been admitted, I knocked. They let me stand outside in the dark for a few more moments. The man who opened the door was a big, burly fellow. He wore a white shirt, a bit grimy at the collars and cuffs, and made-over cavalla trousers. He was thick-necked and solidly muscled and scowling. Yet as he ran his eyes over me, his scowl gave way to a delighted grin. “Hey, Glory-girl!” he shouted over his shoulder. “I got a fellow here who’ll match you pound for pound. Here’s finally a man you’ll notice when he’s between your thighs. ”

  “Clamp your jaws, Stiddick. You know I’m not working tonight. My Auntie Flo’s come calling. Less that’s something you prefer, big man?” A large, heavy woman in a very tight pink gown loomed up from the dimness behind the man. Tall as he was, she looked over his shoulder easily; I’d never seen a woman so tall. She raised the corner of her upper lip at me in a crooked cat smile. “Well. Look at you. Let him by, Stiddick. Mama Moggam, come take a look at this one!”

  Sarla Moggam stepped up, seized my wrist, and dragged me past both of them. With both Stiddick and Glory no longer blocking my view, I was finally free to peruse the room.

  Erotic tapestries draped the walls. Several scantily clad women lounged on chairs scattered throughout the room. The lamps on the low tables had their wicks turned down, and their glass shades were pink or violet. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness and my nose took in the smells of the place, my expectations dropped. I was still in Gettys. The trappings of the brothel were tired and worn. Smoke had dimmed the florid pink flesh of the preposterous nude in the painting over the fireplace. The dingy carpet that floored the room needed beating. A huge fire roared in the big hearth at the end of the room, but its warmth was feeble where I stood. There were three tables with chairs around them, mostly unoccupied. At one a man sprawled, facedown on the table. His lax hands still clutched at an emptied bottle. Hitch was nowhere to be seen.

  There were four other women in the room besides Glory. Sarla Moggam was the one who commanded my attention. She was a small woman, well past her middle years, with unlikely yellow hair that fell in loose ringlets to her bare shoulders. I don’t know what to call the garment she wore. It had a black lace skirt that barely brushed the tops of her knees and a beribboned top that held her breasts up as if they were in goblets. The brazenness of it would have been shocking on any woman; on someone of her years, it was appalling. The flesh of her throat was lined with wrinkles. Even in the dim light, I could see how her rouge was caught deeper in the lines of her face. She held me firmly by the wrist, as if I were a petty thief she’d caught and cackled as she turned to her girls. “Look at this one, sweeties! Who’ll have him?”

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  “Don’t even look at me,” a raven-haired woman warned me in a faked Landsing accent. She rolled her eyes in disgust that I’d even consider her, and I felt a tingle of both anger and desire at how she disdained me, for in truth she had been the first to catch my eye. I considered the other woman. She was either drunk or exceptionally tired. She couldn’t seem to make her eyes focus on me. One sleeve of her green dress was torn free of the bodice and dangled at her side, unnoticed. She gave a few blinks and then forced a sloppy smile onto her face. She muttered some sort of greeting, but it was so slurred I couldn’t make out what she said.

  “I’ll take him, Mama. ”

  I turned my head to see who had spoken.

  I saw a woman about my own age, but only a third of my size. Her brown hair hung loose to her shoulders in waves. Despite the chill of the room, she was barefoot. She wore a simple blue shift, and I realized that I had seen her, but had immediately classified her as a maidservant rather than one of the prostitutes. She walked toward me with the assured arrogance of a house cat. “I’ll take him,” she repeated.

  Sarla Moggam had never relinquished her grip on my wrist. “Fala, you greedy girl!” she rebuked her with a smile. Now she put my hand out to the girl as if I had absolutely no say in the matter, and at that moment, I didn’t. Fala smiled at me as she took my hand in hers; the simple warmth of her touch inflamed me, and the light in her eyes grew knowing, as if she sensed my immediate response to her. “Come with me, big man,” she said, and led me away from the hearth, toward a long hallway that ran down the center of the building. I followed her, docile as a lamb.

  The brothel’s doorman stepped suddenly between us. “Pay first,” he growled at me. Then, grinning at Fala, he asked her, “Aren’t you afraid of biting off more than you can chew?” This provoked a round of general laughter from the room.

  His manner was offensive and I felt a flash of anger. But the girl ignored him, smiling at me so beguilingly that I handed over to Stiddick more than twice what Hitch had told me a whore cost here. I didn’t even quibble, and Fala laughed delightedly as Stiddick stepped out of my way and I lumbered down the hallway behind her. He leered after us, and chuckled knowingly. I ignored him.

  Doors opened off the dim hall at regular intervals. Grunts and rhythmic thudding left no room for doubt about what went on in the rooms. I heard a muffled yell from one, of anger or ecstasy, I could not tell. My guide had taken my hand again and she tugged me on. “The last door,” she told me breathlessly, “is mine. ”

  She halted outside it and turned to face me. I could not help myself. I pressed close to her. She set her small hands against my chest and laughed up at me. “You like me already, don’t you, big man?”

  “That I do,” I breathed down at her. I reached past her for the doorknob. Her hand was there first, stopping mine.

  “I’m going to do you special,” she said quietly. “Trust me. I know what you’ll like. ”

  She turned from me to face the door, and as she did, she let her breasts, free beneath her simple shift, brush against me. Was it deliberate that her buttocks rested lightly against my thighs before she opened the door and drew me into the small room?

  A single candle, a tall fresh taper, burned in a clay holder beside a rumpled bed. The room smelled of sex and other men, and at any other time, I think I would have found it a repulsive odor. Tonight, it was an aphrodisiac. I followed her in, shutting the door behind me. “Sit down,” she bade me, and when I started for the bed, she caught at me and said, “No, not there. In my chair. Sit down. Lean back. Be comfortable. I want to show you something. ”

  It had begun to seem to me that she was much more like the friendly little kitchenmaid of my first experience than the whores I’d known since then. I could not take the foolish smile from my face. I sat down in a chair in the corner of the room. “Watch me!” she bade me, as if I could have stopped myself from doing so. She reached down and took the hem of her shift in both her hands, and then, in one smooth movement, she lifted it up and over her head and then tossed it to one side. She shook her tousled hair free, and her breasts moved with the gesture. She was completely, smoothly naked. She danced toward me. “Let
s not hurry. Touch me first. However you want. Then I’ll touch you. ” She halted before me, feet a little apart and eyes closed, inviting me.

  I leaned forward in my chair and ran my hands over her warm, soft flesh. I touched as I pleased, hefting the weight of her soft breasts, discovering the warmth between her thighs. She gave a sudden shiver as I did so. I tried to pull her to me, but she jumped back and then said suddenly, “My turn. Lean back. Shut your eyes. ”

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  I did as she bade me, lost in delight at her playfulness. I felt her tug at my belt, and then the bliss of buttons giving way to her nimble fingers. For one instant, I was free, and then, to my shock, I felt her clamp her mouth on me. I opened my eyes, jolted to my core at such wild and strange behavior. I knew it was not what I wanted. I tried to pull free of her, but she held me fast, and in another moment, I suddenly knew it was what I wanted beyond all else. I gave a groan of protest and delight and then surrendered to her. It was happening far more quickly than I intended, and with an intensity that left me mindless. I had read of such an act, in one of Caleb’s more depraved journals, but I’d certainly never expected to take part in such perversity. I felt unmanned that she had taken such control of me, and yet completely dominant as she knelt before me with my fingers tangled in her hair. Her small hands pressed against the overflow of my belly, holding it back. I clasped her head between my hands and feared my own strength, for her skull felt fragile as a child’s. Sensations I’d never even imagined coursed through me. In the moment before her skillful tongue freed me from all thought, I knew that I wanted, more than anything, to grant her such bliss as she worked upon me.

  And even in the midst of sexual release, I felt the telltale tingling of the magic moving in my blood. Her mouth came suddenly free of me and she gave a wild cry, a sound as elemental as a doe calling for a mate. She fell bonelessly to the floor in front of my feet, her wet mouth ajar and moaning. “Are you all right?” I asked her in alarm. I clutched my clothing around me and knelt next to her. Her eyes were rolled back in her head. She took a shuddering breath, coughed it out, and then gasped in another one.

  “I’ll get help,” I told her, and tried to rise. She grasped at me with vague hands.

  “No. No, please. I’m all right. I think. ” She tried to sit up, and then collapsed back to the floor. “That’s never happened to me before,” she said in faint wonder. “That was…oh. I don’t know what that was…” Her voice trailed off into incoherence.

  “Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?” I asked her. “Mutual?”

  “I…don’t know, I suppose. I didn’t know. ” She caught a ragged breath. “I didn’t know,” she said, almost defensively. “I didn’t know it was supposed to be like that. ”

  Her comment stunned me. It had never dawned on me to wonder if whores enjoyed their work. I had assumed they did, for the most part, or why had they become whores? Then I recognized the cruelty of that thought. Had I ever imagined that Amzil enjoyed the whoring she did to keep her children alive? “I’m sorry,” I said quietly, not quite sure what I apologized for.

  “Don’t be,” she said, slowly sitting up. She peeked up at me shyly, her face full of confusion touched with awe. “You didn’t even touch me,” she said. “I don’t understand what happened. ”

  Her hair had fallen across her face and clung to her sweaty brow. With one finger, I lifted a sheaf of it so I could see her eyes. She continued to look up at me. “It is supposed to be like that,” I assured her. “It’s always supposed to be this good. ”

  I helped her crawl up on her bed and tenderly tucked a blanket around her. I knew she was a whore and I’d had the time I’d paid her for. She owed me nothing more than what she had already given me. Reluctantly, I started to leave her there, but with a cry, she caught at my hand and drew me down beside her. “Stay a little while,” she said quietly. “I don’t want Mama Moggam to make me bring another man back here. Not just yet. ” She gave a sudden shiver. “It’s like it’s echoing in me,” she said.

  I lay down beside her. “You’re warm,” she said, and moved closer to me. She put her head on my chest. “I feel like I could fall asleep. ”

  “If you want, you can,” I told her. For a time, I held her close in a warmth that I suspect neither of us had felt in a long time. In its own way, it was better than the sex had been.

  The candle had long since guttered away to leave us in blessed darkness when I heard a heavy pounding on the door. Stiddick’s voice rousted us. “You! In there! You’re done now. Leave!”

  I startled awake, for I’d dozed off for the second time. Even so, I would have lingered for another go-round, but she pushed at me lightly. “No. Enough. Good-bye, big man. ”

  As I walked out, Stiddick was waiting in the hall. He pushed past me to get inside. As the door swung shut, I heard him ask her, “Did he hurt you? I never known you to let a man stay so long. ”

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  When I walked down the long hall to the entry room, I found it deserted and the fire burning low. Hitch was long gone, I was certain. I rode a surly Clove home in the cold and dark of early morning. Several days later when I came to town again and dined in the mess hall with Ebrooks and Kesey, I heard that rumors about me had circulated through the lower folk of the town. Ebrooks muttered that some were saying I was strangely endowed or unnaturally skilled. Fala had told the other whores that she’d never had such a man. The next night, she’d refused to work. Within the week, she’d abruptly left the brothel’s employ. No one knew where she’d gone, and Kesey warned me to stay away from Sarla Moggam’s, for the brothel owner blamed me personally for the ruination of one of her most profitable whores. My brief spark of fame among the enlisted men was poor compensation for the loss of a welcome at the brothel, nor did Hitch’s evident enjoyment and mockery of me about it make it any easier to bear.

  But I held tight to the moment of true tenderness that I’d shared with Fala, and wished her well, wherever she had gone. It was the one warm night I enjoyed that winter.

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  SPRING

  E very season must eventually give way to the next.

  There were times, during that winter in Gettys, when I doubted the truth of this. It was the darkest, coldest time I’d ever passed in my life. Now that Spink had enlightened me as to the nature of the magic that seeped through Gettys’ streets like a fog and Hitch had confirmed it, I was more attuned to it. I could feel the ebb and flow of the bleakness that afflicted the town. I could sense, without entering the woods, the days on which terror and panic emanated from them, and the days in which weariness and discouragement lurked there. None of that, however, put me any closer to bettering my own state of mind, let alone to breaking the magic’s hold on me.

  There were even times when I allowed myself to wonder if that was what I truly desired. As the days slowly lengthened and spring softened the snows by day, I had time to ponder Hitch’s warnings. I could see, now, the danger of using the magic I’d been given. I’d intended good for Amzil, and perhaps exposed her to danger. Had I cheated the man who had owned Clove? But there were times when I’d felt the magic’s tingle, and no evil had come of it that I had seen. Perhaps it was not as Hitch saw it, a dangerous balancing act between my will and that of the magic, but only the much older idea that the more power one has, the more carefully it must be wielded. If I was trapped in this fat body, and if the magic was to have a hold on me, might I not learn to use it wisely and perhaps even well? Such were my thoughts in the evenings, at least, when I lay alone in my bed. I will confess that, a time or two, I tried to summon the magic so that I could use it in small and harmless ways. Could I kindle a fire with it? Command water to freeze or turn a stone to bread as magicians did in the old Varnian tales of magic? Those were feats I attempted and failed at. Afterward, I laughed at myself for such foolish fancies. But late at night, I would again wonder if such magic wa
s that different from commanding vegetables to grow, or waking a whore to true passion’s reward.

  Summoning the magic, I decided at last, demanded not will or intellect, but emotion. I could not raise such emotions in myself simply by thinking of them, any more than a man can truly make himself laugh heartily when nothing has amused him. Recognizing that the magic raced in my blood only when strong emotion summoned it was a solid warning to me that it was unlikely to be something I could ever rationally control. Wisely, I decided to leave it be.

  During the day, I did my best to keep myself busy. I missed books desperately, so much so that I often resorted to rereading my own journal entries and adding notes in the margin from my older and wiser perspective. I’d lost a strap from Clove’s harness somehow. It took me most of a day in town to get another one from supply. I saw Spink there, but we gave no sign of knowing one another. I came home feeling angry and depressed.

  I cut and stacked the wood that I’d brought from the forest. When that log had been reduced, I forced myself to once more take Clove and reenter the woods. I chose a day when only fatigue threatened, and forced my way through the glum discouragement that tried to overwhelm me. My trophy was another section of the trunk from the dead snag. Resisting the urge to lie down even in the snow and take a rest demanded all my willpower. Even after I reached my cottage, weariness debilitated me, and there I did surrender to a long afternoon nap.

  Having to battle magic just to have firewood awoke me to what the road workers had to endure daily. Hitch had said that my connection to the magic gave me a slight immunity. I wondered what Spink and Epiny battled each day.

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  When I was a boy, my father had kept me continuously occupied with lessons and chores. At the academy, the first-year schedule was deliberately designed to be both demanding and exhausting, the better to keep young men from finding mischief when they had free time. That winter was the first time in my life that I’d had dragging hours with nothing to fill them. There were dozens of ways I could have improved my cabin, of course, but the most I did was devise elaborate plans. The dull seep of magic from the forest drained my will.

 
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