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       Forest Mage, p.5

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

  I offered to pay for a meal as well, so he rousted out a kitchen girl. I expected to get the cold leavings of whatever they’d had earlier, but she chatted to me merrily as she heated up a nice slice of mutton in some broth. She warmed some tubers with it, and set it out for me with bread and butter and a large mug of buttermilk. When I thanked her, she said, “It’s a pleasure to cook for a man who obviously enjoys his food. It shows a man has a hearty appetite for all of life’s pleasures. ”

  I did not take her words as a criticism, for she herself was a buxom girl with very generous hips. “A good meal and a pleasant companion can stir any man’s appetite,” I told her. She dimpled a smile at me, seeming to take that as flirtation. Boldly, she sat down at the table while I ate, and told me I was very wise to have stopped there for the night, for there had been rumors of highwaymen of late. It seemed plain to me that she had gone far beyond her master’s orders, and after I watched her clear up my dishes, I offered her a small silver piece with my thanks for her kindness. She smilingly brought me two blankets and swept the area in front of the hearth before she made up my bed for me.

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  I was startled into full wakefulness about an hour after I had drowsed off when I felt someone lift the corner of my blanket and slide in beside me. I am shamed to say that I thought first of my purse with my traveling money in it, and I gripped it with my hand beneath my shirt. She paid no mind to that but nudged up against me, sweet as a kitten seeking warmth. I was quickly aware that she wore only a very thin nightdress.

  “What is it?” I demanded of her, rather stupidly.

  She giggled softly. “Why, sir, I don’t know. Let me feel it and see if I can tell you!” And with no more than that, she slipped her hand down between us, and when she found that she had already roused me, gripped me firmly.

  I was no more prudish than any young man of my years. If I had been chaste before, it had been more from lack of opportunity than any inclination to virtue. I’ll admit that I gave a passing thought to disease, for the academy had lectured us more than once on the danger of coupling with cheap street whores. But I very swiftly and easily persuaded myself that this girl in such an outlying farmstead had probably not known many men and thus had little chance of disease.

  There followed a night I have never forgotten and seldom regretted. I was fumbling at first, but then that “other self” seemed to awaken inside me, and I discovered that he was not only experienced but skillful at bed games. I knew when to tease with a tickling touch, and when my mouth should be hard and demanding. She shivered under me, and the small moans that escaped her were music to me. I did experience some awkwardness, for although the rounded contours of her body seemed like familiar territory to me, I was not accustomed to dealing with the bulk of my own belly. Ruefully, I had to admit to myself that my weight gain was more than a trifling matter, but I refused to let it become an obstacle for us. Toward dawn, we parted with many kisses. I fell into the sleep of exhaustion, and morning came much too early for me.

  If I had been able to think of any excuse, I would have fabricated a reason to spend another night. As it was, the same kitchen maid offered me a huge breakfast and a very fond farewell. I did not wish to embarrass her by treating her as if she were an ordinary whore, but I did slip some money under my plate where she would find it when she cleared away the dishes. I bade the farmer and his wife farewell, and thanked then earnestly for their kind hospitality. The farmer repeated the kitchen maid’s warning about highwaymen. I promised him I’d be wary and saddled up Sirlofty and went on my way with an entirely different opinion of myself than I’d had the day before. As I made the “hold fast” sign over my cinch buckle, I suddenly felt myself an adventurous traveler experiencing life on my own for the first time. It was exhilarating, and a welcome change from the self-consciousness I’d felt on the jankship.

  The day passed quickly. I paid small attention to the road or scenery, but instead pondered every moment of the night before. I confess that I derived as much pleasure from imagining telling Rory and the fellows about my dallying with the farm maid as I did from recalling it. In early afternoon, I reached the town that my father had listed as the next stop on my itinerary. Despite the hours of daylight left, I decided I would overnight there, not only because I’d had two warnings of highwaymen but also because I’d had no sleep the night before. I found a likely inn and bought myself a meal, then retired to my small room and slept until early evening. I occupied myself for a time with updating my journal, but when that was completed, I still felt restless. I longed for an adventure such as I’d had the night before.

  I went downstairs, hoping for some company, music, and lively conversation. Instead I found only a few fellows swilling cheap ale and a grumpy innkeeper who obviously wished his customers would either spend more money or take themselves elsewhere. I was half hoping that some girl of easy virtue would be wiping the tables, as there always was in poor Caleb’s lurid papers, but there was not a female anywhere in sight. When I went out for a stroll about the little town, I found the streets deserted. I told myself it was probably just as well, and returned to my inn. After three beers, I went back to my bed, and fell asleep.

  My next few days of traveling passed without incident. My father had very accurately judged the distance Sirlofty could cover in a day. One night I took lodging at a hostelry with several obvious whores ensconced in the taproom. I plucked up my courage to approach the youngest, a slight woman with a halo of yellow curls around her face. She was wearing a pink gown trimmed with plumes all around its low collar. Thinking to be clever, I opened my conversation by asking her if the feathers tickled.

  She looked me up and down, and then said bluntly, “Two silver bits. Your room. ”

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  I was taken aback. In all the stories I’d heard from Trist or read in Caleb’s magazines, whores were flirtatious and flattering. I had expected at least some conversation. “Right now?” I asked stupidly, and she immediately stood up.

  There was little I could do then but lead the way up to my room. She demanded my silver in advance, tucking it down the front of her dress. I was unbuttoning my trousers when she took me firmly by the upper arms and backed me toward the bed, pushing me onto my back. I was not averse to this, even when she said, “Don’t think I plan on being on the bottom side of you. A heavy bloke like you could break a girl’s ribs!”

  With that, she bundled her skirts up around her hips to reveal her nakedness and straddled me as if I were a horse and very quickly finished me. Afterward, she lifted herself from my body, and shook her skirts out as she stood by the bed. I sat up on the bed with my trousers around my ankles. She walked to the door.

  “Where are you going?” I asked in confusion.

  She gave me a puzzled look. “Back to work. Unless you’ve another two silvers to spend?”

  I hesitated, and she took it as a “no. ” Sneering slightly, she said, “I thought not. Fat men are usually tightfisted with their money. ” Without another word, she let herself out. I stared after her in shock, numbed and insulted by her words. As I fell back onto my bed, I suddenly realized I’d just learned the difference between a very friendly kitchen maid and a real whore. Remorse and trepidation closed in on me, and I decided I could use a good washing. Before I fell asleep that night, I resolved to stay away from common prostitutes. Sternly I reminded myself that I was as good as engaged, and had a duty to keep my body free of disease for Carsina’s sake. Nonetheless, I was glad to have finally gained some experience in that essential area.

  The farther east I traveled each day, the less settled the land became. On the last leg of my journey, I entered the true Midlands, and followed the King’s Road as it somewhat paralleled the river. The quality of the new high road varied greatly from stretch to stretch. There were supposed to be way stations at regular intervals, to offer clean water, a resting place, and food to the ki
ng’s messengers. Some of these were small hamlets, but most were meager places of doubtful shelter with little to offer an ordinary traveler. The worst was little more than a hut swayed to one side with a roof that threatened to collapse at any moment. I learned to be sure my water bags were full and that I had provisions for a noon meal before I departed from my lodging each morning.

  Once I passed a long coffle of prisoners and guards headed east. Rather than being flogged or losing a hand for their crimes, these men would become forced labor pushing the King’s Road ever closer to the Barrier Mountains. After a term of work, they’d be given land and an opportunity to begin life anew. Thus, in one stroke, the king offered the felons a second chance, advanced his road building, and peopled the new settlements of the east. Nonetheless, the shackled men I passed did not look as if they were anticipating a new life, while the wives and children riding behind the coffle in mule-drawn wagons looked even more dismal. Dust coated their faces and clothing, and several babies were wailing as Sirlofty and I cantered past them. I will never forget one small boy who sat near the tail of the wagon, his little head jogging miserably with every jolt of the wheels. I thought to myself at the sight of his dull eyes, “That child is near death. ” Then I shuddered, wondered how I could even imagine I knew such a thing, and rode past them.

  My cavalla cadet uniform, I am sorry to say, suffered from constant wear. The buttons strained on my chest and the seams at the shoulders and thighs threatened to give way. Finally I bundled it up as best I could and packed it away in my crowded panniers. After that, I wore my ordinary clothes, which were actually much looser and more comfortable for such a journey. I had to admit that I’d put on flesh, and more than I thought I had. I was hungry as I rode, for such exercise consumes a man, and yet I was grateful for the short rations I was on. Surely I’d be my lean and fit self again by the time I reached home.



  T he deeper I went into the Midlands, the more familiar the land became to me. I knew the prairies and plateaus, the green smell of the river in the morning, and the cry of the sage hens. I knew the name of every plant and bird. Even the dust tasted familiar in my mouth. Sirlofty seemed to sense that we were nearing home, for he went more eagerly.

  One midmorning, I reined in Sirlofty and considered an unexpected choice. A crudely lettered sign on a raw plank leaned against a pile of stacked stone by the side of the road. “SPINDLE DANCE” was spelled out on the coarse slab. The roughly drawn characters were the work of a hand that copied shapes rather than wrote letters. A rough cart track led away from the well-traveled river road. It crested a slight rise; its hidden destination was beyond that horizon.

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  I debated with myself. It was a diversion from my father’s carefully planned itinerary, and I did not know how long a detour it might prove. Yet I recalled a promise from my father to show me someday the monuments of the Plainspeople. The Dancing Spindle was one of them. I suddenly felt it was owed to me. I set the rein against Sirlofty’s neck and we turned aside from the road.

  The trail was not badly rutted, but enough traffic had passed this way that it was easy to follow. When I reached the top of the ridge, I found myself looking down into a pleasant little vale. Trees at the bottom indicated a watercourse. The cart track sidled down to the trees and then vanished into them.

  Smelling water, Sirlofty quickened his pace and I allowed him his head. When we reached the brook, I allowed him to water freely, and knelt to quench my own thirst. Refreshed, I remounted and rode on. The cart track followed the brook for a short way and then crossed it. I resolutely pushed aside worry over how much time I was wasting. An inexplicable excitement was building in me; I felt compelled to follow the trail.

  We followed the track as it climbed up out of the valley, over a rocky ridge and onto a rather barren plateau. A short distance away, the plateau gave way abruptly to a substantial canyon, as if some angry god had riven the earth here with an immense ax. The trail plunged down sharply to the distant floor. I reined in Sirlofty and sat looking down at a strange and marvelous sight.

  The cracked earth of the canyon walls displayed seams of colored stone, sparkling white and deep orange and red, and even a dusky blue. A roofless city, the walls worn to knee-high ridges and tumbled rubble, floored the canyon. I wondered what war or long-ago disaster had brought the city down. Dominating the canyon and dwarfing the city at its base was the Dancing Spindle of the Plainsmen. No tale could have prepared me for the sight. The immense pillar leaned at a sharp, impossible angle. I shivered at the sight.

  The Spindle was named for the woman’s spinning tool, and in truth it resembled a rounded rod with tapered ends, but of such a size that it beggared comparison. It had been chiseled out of red stone striated with bands of white. One end towered high above the canyon floor while the other was set in a deep depression in the earth, as if it drilled a bed for itself in the stony ground. The spiraling white stripes on the pillar and a heat shimmer rising between me and it created a convincing illusion that the Spindle was truly spinning

  The monument cast a long, black shadow over the ground at its base. The lone building that had survived whatever had slain the rest of the city was a tower edged with winding steps that spiraled up to almost reach the lower side of the tilted spindle’s topmost tip. For the life of me, I could not see why the Spindle had not toppled ages ago. I sat on my horse grinning and enjoying the deception of my eyes. At any moment I expected the spinning Spindle to waver in its gyration and fall to the earth, spent.

  But it did not. As I started down the steep wagon track that led to the canyon floor, I was surprised at how well the illusion held. I was so intent in staring at it that I almost didn’t notice the ramshackle hut built in the spindle’s shadow. It hunched on the edge of the depression that cradled the tip of the spindle. The surrounding ruins were of stone and clay, but the dilapidated cottage was more recently built of slabs of rough wood, gone silver with weathering. It looked abandoned. I was startled when a man emerged from the open door, wiping his mouth on a napkin as if my arrival had interrupted his meal.

  As I rode closer, he turned and tossed the cloth to a Plainswoman who had followed him out to stare at me. She caught it deftly, and at a sign from her master, the servant returned to the hut’s dubious shelter. But the man came toward me, waving a large hand in an overly friendly way. When I was still a good way off, he bellowed at me, “So you’ve come to see the Spindle?”

  It seemed a ridiculous question. Why else would anyone have followed the track here? I didn’t respond, for I did not feel like shouting a reply to him. Instead, I rode steadily forward. He was not deterred.

  “It’s a wonder of primitive design. For only one hector, sir, I will show it to you and tell you its amazing history! From far and wide, from near and far, hundreds have come to behold its wonder. And today you shall join the ranks of those who can say, ‘I myself have seen the Dancing Spindle and climbed the steps of the Spindle’s Tower. ’”

  He sounded like a barker outside a carnival tent. Sirlofty regarded him with suspicion. When I pulled in my horse, the man stood grinning up at me. His clothes, though clean, were shabby. His loose trousers were patched at the knees, and scuffed sandals were on his large dusty feet. He wore his shirt outside his trousers, belted with a brightly woven sash. His features and language were Gernian, but his garments, stance, and jewelry were those of a Plainsman. A half-breed, then. I felt both pity and disgust for him, but by far the largest measure of what I felt was annoyance. The sheer size and unlikeliness of the Spindle moved me to awe. It was majestic and unique, and I could not deny the soaring of spirit that it woke in me. I wanted to contemplate it in peace without his jabbering to distract me.

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  I thought the man a fool when he reached for Sirlofty’s headstall to hold my horse while I dismounted. Didn’t he recognize
a cavalla steed when he saw one? Sirlofty, long schooled against such a tactic, reared and wheeled in one smooth motion. As he came down, he plunged half a dozen steps forward to be clear of the “enemy. ” I pulled him in quickly before he could launch a savage kick at the man. Dismounting, I dropped his reins and he stood in obedient stillness. I looked back at the half-breed, expecting him to be shaken by the experience.

  Instead, he was grinning obsequiously. He shrugged his shoulders and lifted his hands in an exaggerated gesture of astonishment. “Ah, such a mount, such a proud creature! I am full of envy at your fortune in possessing him. ”

  “Thank you,” I replied stiffly. The man made me uneasy, and I wished to be away from him. His Gernian features contrasted with his Plainsman mannerisms. His choice of words and vocabulary were those of an educated man, the guttural notes of a Plains accent almost completely suppressed, and yet he stood before me in his worn sandals, his clothes little better than rags, while his Plains wife peered out at both of us from the shadowed doorway of their hovel. The contrast made me uncomfortable. He drew closer to me, and launched into a rehearsed monologue.

  “No doubt you have heard of the fabled Dancing Spindle, the most enigmatic of the five great monuments of the Midlands! And at last you have come to behold for yourself this marvel of ancient stonework. How, you must wonder, did the forerunners of the Plainspeople, with their simple tools, create such a wonder? How does it balance and never fall? How does it create an illusion of motion when seen from a distance? And what, I am sure you ask yourself, did such an amazing creation signify to those who wrought it?

  “Well, you are not alone in asking these questions, sir! Learned scholars and philosophers and engineers have all, in their turns, ruminated upon these mysteries. From as far as Skay and Burry they have come, and I who share the heritage of both the Plains and Gernia have been pleased to assist them, just as I will gladly enlighten you, for the modest sum of one hector!”

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